Master Baekpa was one of Korea’s the greatest meditation Masters who embodied the essence of Buddhist discipline as well as Hwaeom philosophy. He had a great argument in Seon tradition with the Seon Master Choui (1786-1866) in the late Joseon period.
The foundation of the Joseon Dynasty based on the Theory of Human Nature reached its limit at the beginning of the late Joseon period (18th century). The solution to the deadlock came in the form of Neo-Confucianism which was a system which continued to be monopolized by the aristocratic classes and even greatly influenced the Buddhist community, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly. Master Baekpa was the great Buddhist leader who lived at that time.
Master Baekpa was born in 1767 at Mujang-hyeon in Jeolla-do province; when he was 11 years old he left for Seoneunsa Temple to become a monk. The main teachings of Seon were transmitted to him by Venerable Seolpa Sangeon at Yeongwonam Hermitage and then he went to Guamsa Temple on Mt. Yeonggusan and succeeded the Seon lineage of Master Seolbong. After years of intense practice, he began to teach and delivered dharma talks to his students for 20 years after that. Whenever he taught, several hundred monks would gather to listen to him from all over the country.
In 1815, when he was 48 years old, he regretted the way of practice that he had followed up until then. He said, “Since becoming a monk at a young age I have studied continuously. Yet, I only counted on other’s treasures and so do not have any of my own – not even half.” So then he went up into the mountains and practiced while wandering from temple to temple. His companions were like-minded practitioners who had all made the same resolution which was that they would practice Seon until they died. So together they made “The Retreat Community of Meditation and Wisdom”; the master was 55 years old at that time. After that, he taught meditation practice at Unmunsa Temple in Chungcheong-do and became well known as a great Seon master in Jeolla-do province. In 1826 he wrote a book, Seonmun sugyeong, which explained the methods and the theories of Seon practice and it was this book which started one of the greatest philosophical arguments of that time.
He returned to Guamsa Temple in 1830 at the age of 63 and continued to deliver Seon lectures and guide his students; from the age of 73 on, he stayed at Hwaeomsa Temple, and there he died in 1852 at the age of 85.
When he passed way, the great neo-Confucian scholar, Chusa Kim Jeonghui (1786-1856 C.E.), wrote an epitaph “Hwaeom jongju Baekpa daeyulsa daegi daeyong jibi” which means “The tomb of the founder of the Hwaeom School, Great Precept Master Baekpa.” In this way Chusa praised Master Baekpa calling him a master of Seon as well as of doctrine – a great compliment.
Master Baekpa’s written works include: Jeonghye gyeolsamun (The Retreat Community of Meditation and Wisdom); Seonmun sugyeong (Hand Mirrors of Seon Practice); Yukjo daesa beopbo dangyeong yohae (Commentary on the Sixth Patriarch’s Short Platform Sutra); Taegoam gagwa seok; Sikjiseol; Ojong gangyo sagi; Seonmun yeomsong sagi, 5 volumes; Geumganggyeong palhaegyeong; Seonyogi; Jakbeop gwigam (Mirrors of Ritual)2 volumes; and Baekpajip (Essays of Baekpa).
3. Characteristics of His Thoughts
All of his writings are related to Seon as the core of his philosophy was concerned with Seon. As he was considered to be the founder of the Hwaeom Order by Chusa Kim Jeonghui, it is presumed the teachings of Hwaeom were equally important to him.
From his dharma lineage, the doctrines of Hwaeom and of Seon practice were accepted together and this then became one of the characteristics of the Seon tradition of the Joseon period. He defined Seon and the doctrine as follows:
“The doctrine consists of dead words, while Seon is alive. The nature of the mind is pure at its origin; it is illusion that is empty. As you awaken, the mind is the Buddha and so you practice with this mind: this is the ultimate Seon. And so practicing and cultivating yourself continuously, you will attain samadhi.”
Here, it is emphasized that Seon is better than mere doctrine; this view point is clearly stated in his book Seonmun sugyeong (Hand Mirrors of Seon Practice). The book explains the methods and theories in a very logical way by passing through 23 items which are categorized according to the ability of the practitioners. He opined that, though all practitioners do the same practice, the results are not the same. That is, the ability of practice depends on the individual and, keeping in mind this fact, the true Seon state of samadhi can be reached. His aim in classifying the procedure of practice and its results was to recognize the ability of the individual and so to find ways of overcoming the limitations of each one.
The book, Seonmun sugyeong, divides Seon into three different types: Patriarch Seon (Josaseon), Tathagatha Seon (Yeoraeseon), and Rational Seon (Uriseon in Korean). He wrote about meditation and divided it up into three different categories. There were Josaseon, the first phase, Yeoraeseon the second phase, and Uriseon, the third phase. Josaseon, the highest, is a state of enlightenment of true emptiness and indescribable beingness, so that the usual mind is comprehended as being nothing but the Buddha Mind. Yeoraeseon, the second level, is also a state in which everything is gathered together and so there is only concern with the One Mind. In the state of Yeoraeseon, there is the conviction of the existence of Mind Only. The third kind of Seon, Uiriseon, the lowest one, in which there is discrimination of phenomena and essence, existence and emptiness, in which reason is present, is not a state of Mind Only; Uriseon is merely spoken Seon.
He differentiated the “Five Houses” of the Seon School, after the sixth patriarch, Huineng, by the Three Seons. The reason he identified three types of Seon was to set up, once again, the right Seon tradition. In this way he created a classification for establishing the correct tradition once and for all. As the title of the book indicates, Seonmun sugyeong is a book for Seon practitioners to keep constantly with them just like a handy mirror for checking our appearance.
As soon as his book was published, there was a very strong reaction. One of the greatest masters of that time, Master Choui, argued against Master Baekpa in a book called Seonmun sabyeon maneo. He was not alone as several other recognized masters who were all influenced by new-Confucianism criticized the book severely. Seonmun sugyeong became the source of intensive philosophical debates at that time which failed to reach an outcome due to the strong opinions on all sides. Though Seonmun sugyeong began with a simple personal opinion, it is evaluated as a major motif for the developmental history of Seon. Thus the analysis of the approach to the nature of enlightenment, through the understanding of Seon, contributed to the development of Korean Buddhism.