A monk during the last years of the Joseon Dynasty, his ordination name was Gyejong and his dharma name was Hangmyeong. His secular surname was Baek and he is better known as Baek Hangmyeong, famous especially for his Buddhist poetic verse and the important position he holds within the realm of Modern Korean literature.
Master Hangmyeong was born in Yeonggwang, Jeollanam-do Province, in 1867. In 1886, at the age of 19, after the death of his parents he felt the transience of life and went on the road to see the country. One day at Guamsa Monastery in Sunchang, he had an intense and inspiring religious awakening; this was brought on by the dharma sermon he came upon, given by the lecturer at that time, Master Seoldu, and also his seeing the appearance of the monks in the meditation hall. He was thus soon ordained in January 1887, at Bulgapsa Monastery in Yeonggwang.
In 1890, after completing his requisite studies at Guamsa, he set out to see the great mountain monasteries of Korea and for some 10 years, he sought out every one of the famed Seon masters of the day. While devoted to his doctrinal studies, one day he came to the realization that given that the ultimate aim of Buddhism was the liberation from the cycle of birth and death, this liberation would be impossible if he only studied the sutras alone. So in 1902, at the age of 35, he entered into serious Seon meditation practice. After devoting himself to this practice for ten-plus years, he composed the following “Song of Enlightenment” in 1912 at the age of 45:
The past life, who was I?
The next life, who will I be?
If I know that this thing now is me
In return, how can I search for myself in what is not me?
In the spring of 1914, at the age of 47, keenly aware that the revitalization of Joseon Buddhism depended on establishing rules for the Seon monastic community and its institutions, Master Hangmyeong visited China and Japan to examine their traditions. There he met with famous monks, engaging in Seon dialogue. His Seon dialogue with Shaku Sōen, the high minister of Japan’s Rinzai Sect, who had engaged in dialogue with the likes of French existentialist philosopher Henri Bergson, is particularly famous. Master Sōen praised him, calling him the “ancient Buddha of Joseon.”
He returned to Joseon in 1915, becoming the abbot of Naesosa Monastery and Wolmyoungam Hermitage in Byeonsan. Then in 1922, he attended the first founding session of the “Friends of Seon Cooperative Society” (Seonu gongjehoe), taking upon himself one of its leadership roles. This group was formed with the aim of developing the economic independence necessary to overcome the difficult economic circumstances facing the maintenance of temple training centers at this time. In 1923, at the age of 56, he became the abbot of Naejangsa Monastery to restore it from its dilapidated state. There he founded a new meditation hall (Seonwon), led a number of Seon practitioners, and also reclaimed fields and rice paddies to establish the temple’s self-sufficiency. In 1925, he served as the leader of the “10,000 days Seon Meditation Community,” and in 1927 he became the Head Master of the Gakhwangsa Central Seonwon, which is now Jogyesa, where he roused the Seon spirit.
Having poured his energy into the revitalization of Naejangsa, on March 27, 1929, Master Hangmyeong called to his dharma heir, Maegok and told him: “Today is the day I’m going to go to my original place.” After drawing six pictures of Bodhidharma, he instructed his disciple Ugok to recite the verses of the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment and then with a smile he silently passed into nirvana at the age of 63.
Master Hangmyeong expressed the state of mind of his awakening through 10 volumes of Seon poetry written in Classical Chinese. His Baegyangsanga (Song of Mt. Baegyangsan) speaks of the state of enlightenment using the terms of nature, giving shape to its perfectly free depth and pre-eminence from his own experience. He also expressed his perspective on the Seon revitalization movement through gasa, a style of narrative poetry developed in the early Joseon Dynasty, and it is through these 300 some verses that he came to renown. However, it is most regrettable that the compilation of his collected works, the Baengnong Yugo, (Posthumous Works of Farmer Baek)was lost just before it was printed. Today, only six of his works remain extant, including his Chamseongok (Song of Seon Meditation) and Haetalgok (Song of Liberation from Life and Death), published in the monthly magazine, Bulgyo.
Master Hangmyeong’s doctrinal distinction can be seen in his writing as well as the life he led in the meditation hall. Through his Seon poetry and Buddhist odes he did not merely glorify nature, but also expressed the transience of life. Particularly in his Chamseongok, he skillfully presents the Buddhist philosophy of impermanence. In this song, he speaks of the finite nature of each of our lives, depicting how every one of us lacks the means to escape the ravages of “birth, old age, sickness and death.” Namely, it is not simply warriors and patriots who die, but also Laozi and Jesus as well. As it was only the Buddha who laid forth the theory of “neither ceasing, nor arising,” he inspired us to fully undertake the effort of resisting our delusory slumber and instead fully awaken to reality. Because it is within Seon that the truest essence of Buddhism resides, the Patriarch Bodhidharma ventured more than 10,000 li to the west in order to transmit the Indian dhyana practice to China, where he clarified the truth of the Buddha’s teachings through the Patriarchal Seon represented in the saying, “no establishment of words or letters.” Thus, he emphasized that if we want to awaken to this principle, we must come to understand that the only way that we can become Buddhas is if we put aside the sutras and instead awaken through the direct pointing to our own minds.
In addition, in order to bring about the economic self-sufficiency of temples, Master Hangmyeong inspired monks to take up agricultural labor, advocating the theory of “seonnong ilchi,” the idea that Seon practice and agricultural work should be combined. This distinction in his theory of seonnong ilchi is made directly evident in his establishment of the “Regulations of the Naejang Seonwon.” With the conviction to reclaim the Seon Buddhism of the Joseon period, he established this Seonwon at Mt. Naejangsan and gave all his energy to practice Seon meditation while simultaneously reclaiming barren wastelands in the mountainous regions around the monastery. This is why he called himself by his own nickname of Baengnong, “Farmer Baek.” Thus, he also taught his disciples a practice of “half Seon, half farming,” setting the perfect schedule as one that used the morning for scholarly studies, the afternoon for farming, and the evening for seated meditation. Utilizing the spirit of Baizhang Huaihai’s dictum that “a day with no work is a day with no food,” he expounded the unique praxis of his ideas of “self-meditation, self cultivation” (Jaseon Jasu) and “self-subsistence by self-effort” (Jaryeok Jasik) This was due to his judgment that the traditional practice of seeking alms and benefactors in order to maintain the economic support of monasteries had created the laziness and dependent predisposition of the Buddhist community.