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Master Naong lived at a time of much upheaval at the end of the Goryeo Dynasty. Together with Taego Bou, he is regarded as a great Master who helped lay the foundation for the Buddhism in the Joseon era. His dharma name is Hyegeun, his ordination name is Naong, and he also went by the name Gangwolheon, following the name of the room where he stayed for many years. He had the title of “Bojejonja” when he served as a royal monk and was given the posthumous title Seongak.
When the master was twenty, facing the death of one of his companions, he asked his elders where people went when they died, but no one could give him an answer. With a very sad heart, he went to Mt. Gongdeoksan where he was ordained under Master Yoyeon. Following this, he went on pilgrimage to every well-known temple in the nation, practicing diligently until in 1344 (the fifth year of King Chunghye’s reign) he had a great awakening at Mt. Cheonbosan’s Hoeam-sa in Yangju.
The 14th century Goryeo of Naong’s time was at the height of crisis both politically, owing to the interference of the Yuan in their domestic affairs as well as the dynastic shift on the continent seeing the Yuan being taken over by the Ming, and socially, due to the frequent incursions of Red Turbans and Japanese pirates that were bringing excessive disorder. Moreover, with the rising tide of the Song Confucianism faction bringing an intensification of the militant criticism of Buddhism, favorable conditions for the existence of Buddhism began to narrow. Exerting themselves to overcome this crisis, numerous masters sought out the direct transmission of the Linji chan of Yuan.
At the age of 27, in 1347, Master Naong went to study in the State of Yuan, staying at Fayuan-si in Yanjing. There, he studied under the Indian Master Zhikong for two years. Master Zhikong, known as the 108th dharma-descendants of Mahakasyapa, was a master of high regard and revered as one of the “108th Great Patriarch of India." Following his study with Zhikong, Naong went to Jingci Temple where he was instructed in the dharma by the 18th Patriarch of the Linji School, Pingshan Chulin, and received his flywhisk, signifying the approval of his enlightenment. In May 1351, he also received the approval of dharma transmission from Master Jigong along with his robes, a flywhisk, and letter written in Sanskrit. In this way, Master Naong had the rare occasion to inherit the trust and confidence of two masters.
In 1355, on the authority of Yuan Emperor Shundi, he resided at Guangji Temple as a missionary, and also received golden brocade robes and a flywhisk made of ivory from the Crown Prince.
Upon his return to Goryeo in 1358, he stayed at many temples, including Sangdu-am Hermitage at Mt. Odaesan, and in 1361, following the order of King Gongmin, he did propagation work at temples such as Singwang-sa, Cheongpyeong-sa, and Hoeam-sa. At this time he supervised the Grand Assembly of Seon Study.
The monk’s examinations, which were regarded as prerequisites for conferral of the dharma precepts, had suffered from the stagnation brought on by various squabbles after the reign of King Gojong. However, during the reign of King Gongmin, under the supervision of Naong, the tradition of "examinations for the practice and study of Seon" was once again re-established. This holds a particularly important meaning, because the reimplementation of the monk’s exam, which was suspended after the expulsion of Shin Don, greatly helped in reinvigorating the atmosphere of Buddhism and in stimulating the spirit of the sangha.
In 1371, he became a royal monk and served as abbot of Suseon-sa (later Songgwang-sa). Later he became abbot of Hoeam-sa, and through his temple renovation efforts he greatly promoted the teachings of the dharma, receiving ceaseless visits from people in the capital and the neighboring areas.
In 1376, while Naong was in the process of moving to Youngwon-sa in Milseong (present day Miryang) on the king’s authority, he passed away at Silleuk-sa in Yeoju on May 15 at the age of 56, after 37 years in the sangha. Among his 2000 plus disciples were Hwanam Honsu (1320-1392) and Muhak Jacho (1327-1425), the latter being known for his great contributions to the foundation of the Joseon dynasty.
Master Naong’s extant literary output includes a volume work titled Sayings of Master Naong and another one volume text, Odes of Monk Naong, and beyond that, a number of texts self-published at his temples.
In 1363, Sayings of Master Naong, a collection of 61 literary gems, in the form of representative Seon sermons, commentaries on koans, letters, and Seon instructions, was compiled by Naong’s disciple Gangnyeon and proofread and published by Honsu.
3. Intellectual Distinction
Master Naong’s intellectual distinction is his consciousness of admonition to his age, based on the foundation of thought labeled, "one mind, three treasures" ilsim sambo. In Buddhism, the Buddha, his teachings, and the community that follows those teachings are known as the three treasures, and Naong’s teaching puts faith and devotion to these three treasures at the very center of Buddhist practice. However, these three jewels weren’t to be found someplace outside, they were said to be found in the minds of all sentient beings, and that we were to revere the three treasures in our own minds.
Moreover, he said that each being must have a clear faith in their own being, and that awakening will only ripen when, based on this confidence, one does not become attached to anything else. Based on this idea of “one mind, three treasures,” Master Naong wanted to enlighten the whole world. As everyone is possessed of the ability to become a Buddha, he focused on the fact that we must diligently give all our efforts to become aware that we maintain this capability. This was precisely his spirit of admonishment to society.
Master Naong strove to make known far and wide that it wasn’t power or profit in the mundane world, nor was it the pursuit of worldly fame that stood as our most urgent task, rather, in this present life it was the cultivation of mind that was our dire purpose. Since he claimed that anyone who practiced diligently could become a Buddha, he sincerely appealed to society, asking why they weren’t practicing.
With this spirit of warning as his basis of Seon thought, he taught various ways to examine one’s level of study through the Assembly of Examination Seon. Moreover, through the restoration work of Hoeam-sa, he served the masses, exemplifying the concrete works he was doing to create happiness and fortune.
It is also important to note that Naong’s way was not to employ difficult dogma, but rather he pulled at heartstrings, appealing to people’s sensitivity using popular language through poems and songs in order to save all beings. This aspect of the Master’s spreading the strong feeling of enlightenment to the masses earned him great respect extending into the Joseon dynasty, and it was said that he must have been a reincarnation of Shakyamuni Buddha.
All you who seek fame and love profit / your greed never satisfied, in vain your head has turned greyFame and profit are gates full of fire / from time immemorial, how many thousands have perished in their flames?
From “Gyeongse,” Sayings of Master Naong
Relying entirely on mindfulness of the Buddha, striving assiduously / abandon your lust and fancies and enter into Nirvana
From “Sijeyeombul-in,” Sayings of Master Naong
Especially in his practice, Master Naong never made distinctions between the men or women among the sangha, leading everyone on the path such that they could study the dharma. Therefore, he made a checklist of ten stages to examine oneself along the path, the “10 steps of Practice." By adopting a diverse practice regimen, emphasizing not only Ganhwa Seon but also the practice of Buddha recitation, he displayed an intellectual tolerance that was not localized within the characteristics of only one sect.
While Seon is a self-powered practice aimed towards becoming a Buddha though the awakening to one’s own mind, Pure Land is an “other power” practice based on the power of Original Vow of Amita Buddha that helps those who wish to be reborn in the Pure Land.
Based on the teaching of “one mind, three treasures” and the idea that the “mind only is the Pure Land,” he allowed for the “other-powered” practices of “contemplating the Buddha’s image” and “chanting the Buddha’s name” in order to present a diversity of practice methods applicable to the various levels of spiritual capability.
In this way, just as the essence of different metals are reborn in the melting process forged in a blast furnace, through the advocacy of a diversity of practices to work in accord with the diverse needs of the people, Master Naong embraced the masses with a light of hope during the political and social strife that marked the latter days of the Goryeo Dynasty.