A boy was at school reading a The Eighteen Histories in Brief. The first sentence said, “In the ancient past, there lived a Heavenly King.” Reading this passage, the boy was suddenly filled with doubt and posed a question to his teacher. “They say that the Heavenly King lived at the dawn of time, but if that’s true, who was there before him?” The teacher, surprised at hearing such a bold question from this boy who could not be more than eight years old, replied, “Well, yes, I guess then before the Heavenly King there was the King named Pangu…” Pangu was said to be the creator of the world, existing in the ancient past before even the arising of the cosmos. However, this failed to resolve the young boy’s doubt. “Well then… who would have been there before Pangu?” The master had nothing more to reply. From that point forward, the young boy studied Confucianism for some ten years and though he exerted much energy in the search to resolve his doubt, he could never come to any solution. The young boy grew up swiftly and when he turned 21, he left home, went to Mt. Geumgangsan and became a monk. This is the man we now know as Master Hanam.
The Master was born in 1876 in Hwacheon, Gangwon-do Province. After ordaining, he was reading the Susimgyeol when he came across the following passage:
If we wanted to find the path of the Buddha while adhering to the thought that the Buddha existed outside of our mind and the dharma existed outside of our self-nature, even if we were to undergo the most diligent ascetic practices and read every single one of the 80,000 woodblocks of the Tripitaka, this would be like wanting to cook rice by boiling sand. Rather than helping, it would simply make our toil that much worse.
Reading this, he had an awakening and began a practice of maintaining strict silence. With his fellow monks, he then went on a nation-wide pilgrimage to meet with sages of high virtue and to ascend on the path to wisdom. At that same time, Master Gyeongheo was teaching Seon practitioners at Sudoam Hermitage at Cheongamsa, and knowing this, Hanam traveled in this direction. Meeting with Master Gyeongheo, Master Hanam followed his instructions and devoted himself to Seon meditation practice. One day, he heard Master Gyeongheo issue the following passage from a four-line verse of the Diamond Sutra, “On the whole, everything with a form is illusory. If you see every form as if it weren’t form, you will immediately see the Tathagata.”
It was owing to this passage that the twenty-three year old Hanam was finally able to overcome his vexing doubts about the reality of his own self and the origin of the universe that had filled his heart since the days of his youth.
Following this, in order to preserve this awakening, he exerted himself in purification practices. At the age of 29, he led his fellow meditators as the lead master in the Naewon Seonwon Center at Tongdosa in Yangsan. That he took the position of “lead master” is quite remarkable, considering this is usually reserved for the highest achieving elder monk. That a young man of 29 could take such a role is a testament to the respect he held among his peers, owing to the power of his practice. However, after five years, he gave up the title to begin practice on his own. This meant that rather than depending on recognition from others, he placed more importance on “self confidence.” It was during this period that one day, while engaged in his purification practice at Uduam Hermitage in Pyeonganbuk-do Province, he was sitting in the kitchen stoking the fire when he suddenly experienced a complete awakening.
In 1925, at the age of 49, while serving in the role of lead meditation master at Bongeunsa in Seoul, he left behind the words, “I’d rather be a crane hiding his tracks for one thousand years than be a fine speaking parrot for a hundred years” and set out for Mt. Odaesan. A parrot is a bird that can only repeat or imitate the words of others. He was not the type of monk who preaches the dharma by simply memorizing the words of the old masters. He was a genuine truth-seeker who sought his own words ardently flowing from his own heart, showing us the true spirit and world of Seon.
Until his passing into nirvana, Master Hanam spent the next twenty-six years giving his undivided attention to the instruction of his disciples as well as his own training, never leaving the temple gate even one single time. In 1951, while undergoing a fifteen day fast, he sat in meditation and passed into nirvana at the age of 75 after spending 54 years in the sangha. He left behind many disciples, among whom the Venerables Bomun, Nanam, and Tanheo stand out.
Though the poetry and letters of Master Hanam were compiled in the Ilballok, the only manuscript was lost to a fire at Sangwonsa in 1947. Accordingly, the Society of Hanam Disciples gathered the numerous works of Hanam scattered here and there and compiled them into the Hanam ilballok, published in 1995.
3. Intellectual Distinction
Master Hanam did not adhere solely to Seon, but emphasized Seongyo gyeomsu, a combination of both Seon and doctrinal practice (Gyo). His translation and publishing of the Commentaries of Five Masters on the Diamond Sutra and the Bojobeobeo along with his request of his disciple Venerable Tanheo to translate Sinhwaeomgyeong hamnon into Korean script is indicative of this fact.
In fact, though Seon advocates getting rid of language and the scriptures, this should be taken to mean that the shell of the words and scriptures should be cast off, not the kernel of truth therein. Following this idea, even when Master Hanam was leading his disciples in the Seonwon hall, during breaks from meditation he would also expound on such scriptures as the Diamond Sutra and the Flower Garland Sutra.
In addition, Master Hanam practiced the “After Enlightenment Tame the Ox” practice. “After Enlightenment Tame the Ox” is a metaphor in which the pure and original nature that is within all sentient beings is described as the Ox and the practice of continued cultivation after enlightenment is referred to as “taming the Ox.” From early on in the Seon tradition, the work of cultivating the mind has been called “searching for the Ox.” As the mind is awakened through cultivation, the “ox has been found,” but just like when one has an awakening, there are possibilities for continued awakenings, cultivating doesn’t end after enlightenment and thus it is said, “After Enlightenment Tame the Ox.” There are those who assert that in this, Master Hanam stands an inheritor of Bojo Jinul, who emphasized the “sudden enlightenment, gradual cultivation” method.
Though Master Hanam was extremely diligent in his regular ascetic practices, it is said that he avoided formality and authority. He always accepted many disciples and eschewing formalities, would enjoy sharing tea and a friendly chat with them. However, when he would encounter some problem, it’s said that he would devote himself entirely, to an almost frightening degree, in order to break through the obstacle. This aspect also emerged in his dharma sermons, where he frequently emphasized the essential role of determination:
“Determination means having a decisive mind. Facing something that must be done, it is the mind that does so with utmost certainty, or to put it another way, it is the mind of bravery, of integrity, of steadfastness. One who has established a mind like this faces things both big and small with the same determination to finish them completely. Without one’s full determination, mastering even the simplest of skills is difficult. Accordingly, how much harder it must be for someone who renounced the world to search for the truth, if they lack determination. Not even speaking of the search for ultimate truth, the pursuit of success and distinction in the smallest affairs requires a firm decision to reach one’s goals.
However, within the mundane world, we are so occupied with the five desires and passions that we are vulnerable to temptations even when we make no special effort to seek out pleasure. As a consequence, it becomes difficult to escape indulgence in these passions, and eventually we come to actively desire them. As such, how can we even dare to wish to make grand achievements, becoming a Buddha or a Patriarch? Lacking firm determination, even the tiniest accomplishment is difficult.
Determination is not a one-time event, it must occur continuously, with each and every thought. We ultimately succeed only when we’ve reached the firm state where we no longer turn back on our decisions. Even when it can be said that we’ve succeeded, it would be wrong to forsake our original determination.”