National Teacher Taego Bou was the great Seon (Chan in China; Zen in Japan) master who succeeded the Seon lineage of the Linji School from China and who played an important role in the establishment of Ganhwaseon in Goryeo. At first his ordination name was Boheo but it was later changed to Bou; Taego was his Buddhist nickname; and the name given to him after his death was Wonjeung.
National teacher Bou was born at Yanggeun in 1301 C.E. (the 27th year of the King Chungnyeol’s reign). He became a monk at the age of 12 (the fifth year of King Chungseon) at Hoeamsa Temple under Seon Master, Gwangji; at the age of 18, he began to practice Seon in the Gajisan Mountain monastery. At that time, he was given the gongan: “Ten thousands things return to the one; where does the one return to?” At the age of 26, as he had passed the Huayanxuan(Avatamsaka: Flower Garland exam), he decided to study the sutra; he showed the attitude of a true practitioner by practicing meditation and by becoming acquainted with the doctrines as well.
Yet, Bou came to realize the limit of sutra studies and so returned to the intense practice of Seon. While practicing Seon for seven days especially diligently, he experienced awakening at Gamnosa Temple in 1333 C.E (the second year of King Chungsuk’s second reign). After that, one day when he was studying the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment, he came to read the passage, “If everything is gone, nothing moves.” From this passage he had another enlightenment experience and so the next year, he began to investigate the “Mu” gongan ( “Mu”: literally meaning something like “none” or “non-existent”). He returned to his hometown, Yanggeun, and continued his efforts. After studying 1,700 gongans he resolved the doubts that had been plaguing him for 20 years by reading the passage of “Amdu milgyecheo,” and attained enlightenment.
After enlightenment, he went to Yuan China in 1346 C.E. (the 2nd year of King Chungmok) at the age of 46 and there he met the great master of the Linji school, Shiyu Qinggong at Cheonhoam(Tianhu in Chinese), and received his approval. After that he taught Buddhism at the request of the Yuan king, and then returned to Goryeo in 1348 C.E., becoming a teacher of the royal family in 1356 C.E. (the 5th year of King Gongmin). Master Taego Bou set up the Ministry of Union, a special office dedicated to the unification of the Nine Mountain Schools of Korean Seon at Gwangmyeongsa Temple. In this way he contributed to the settling of problems which had arisen in the different schools of the Buddhist communities. In 1382 C.E. (the 8th year of King U), he died and entered into final Nirvana at the age of 81; he had been a monk for 69 years. He had more than one thousand disciples, among whom were famous masters such as Hwanam Honsu, Mogam Chanyeong, Myoeom Joi.
There are two volumes of Bou’s writings: The Record of the Master Taego’s Sayings, which is composed of “sangdang” (the patriarch’s dharma talks), “sijung” (admonitions), other dharma talks, songs, chanting, verses or “chanbal,” and an appendix. These writings clearly explain Bou’s thoughts on Seon as well as other matters.
3. Characteristics of His Thought
In The Record of the Master Taego’s Sayings, the master writes that he considered Ganhwaseon, especially, Mu gongan to be important practices.
“The word ‘Mu’ means neither ‘non-existence’ of ‘existing or not existing,’ nor ‘nothingness.’ If this is so, then what is it? In this questioning state, the practitioner doesn’t think of anything at all, not even the thought of not thinking! When a person does not think and does not even have consciousness of thinking, then a state of great calm and emptiness is reached. Do not think to much.” (The Record of the Master Taego’s Sayings)
Here, the question “What is it?” increases the level of doubt and leads to Master Zhaozhou’s “Mu kongan” (“No letter” gongan). As can be seen, Master Bou’s method of Ganhwaseon developed the process further than its initiator Dahui, the founder of Kanhuachan, and other Seon masters.
The main thrust of Master Bou’s thought was aimed at unifying other tendencies into a harmony based on Seon. First of all, he deepened the unification process of the Seon and Doctrinal schools. He thought that the understanding of the sutras is not in opposition to the practice of Seon, nor is it equal; doctrine (Gyo) is an expedient means for attaining states the lowest and middle states of consciousness which are a proto-state for gaining the subtle state. “Japhwa samaega (Verses of Samadhi on Various Flowers)” is poetry which helps to clarify the master’s views on Seon and doctrine; these poems are found in The Record of the Great Master Taego’s Writings. “Japhwa” (various flowers), here means the Avatamsaka Sutra (Flower Garland Sutra); “Japhwa samae” is “Haein-samae” (“The Ocean Seal Concentration” a meditative state). Here is a short quotation from Bou’s verses:
“On the day the dharma talk was delivered at the center of the Bodhimanda (the bodhi site),
During the ocean seal contemplation, sayings were said without saying.
Who heard them, and who transmitted them?
These are the tongues of Manjusi (the Bodhisattva of Wisdom) and Samantabhadra(the Bodhisattva of Action).
What paths were followed and heard by these Bodhisattvas?
Being in the deep concentration ocean (Samadhi hae), hidden Virochana samadhi!”
This verse implies that even in the world of the Avatamsaka Sutra it has to be admitted that the flower garlands are not in the sutra, but in the world of writing and speaking, or beyond, which is a world of release and emancipation, a world of enlightenment. Though Master Bou studied the sutras, his realization of the limits of that study made him return to Seon practice. This shows that even though he did not oppose the doctrines, his final choice was Seon.
In addition to consolidating Seon and Doctrinal schools, he also brought Pure Land and other philosophies to an agreement with Seon theory as well. For instance, he taught that recollecting Amitabha Buddha is not for rebirth in the Western Paradise by the power of the mantra, but for reminding us of the nature of Amitabha’s characteristics. When the name of Amitabha Buddha is chanted for a whole day, the mind and the chanting become one. Our True Nature, then, can be found through this practice. This chanting or the recollecting of the Buddha is not the same as that of Pure Land Buddhism, but it is similar to the investigation of the gongan. This shows that different practices are fused in Seon practice rather than being considered to be in opposition to each other.
Since the Buddhist community had become confused and corrupted at the time of Master Bou, he established the Ministry of Union which aimed at the unification of the Nine Mountain schools. He, then, set up a new Buddhist tradition by introducing Chiksu baekjang cheonggyu (The Rules and Method of Management of a Seon Monastery) and Chimun gyeonghun (Admonitions and Teaching for Monks).
As has been already stated, Master Bou established the new system of Ganhwaseon, and unified the Seon and doctrinal approaches to Buddhism based on Seon. In addition, he taught that chanting is like the investigation practice of Seon. Due to these measures, the Buddhist community settled down and the current Buddhist practice tradition came to be Ganhwaseon as had been taught by the patriarchs of the Seon tradition. Even though he was a great master, he did not live a life away from the world in a hermitage, he made constant efforts to spread Buddhism and to help all human beings. He really showed all the true traits of a national teacher.