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Master Seongcheol, standing as one of the most influential Seon Masters in the history of modern Korean Buddhism, through his exhaustive Seon spirit and his easily understood dharma lectures, led the public to a deeper, broader, and popularized understanding of Seon Buddhism. His ordination name was Toeong and his dharma name Seongcheol.
Master Seongcheol was born in Sancheong-gun, Gyeongsangnam-do Province in 1912, the eldest son of an upstanding scholarly clan. His secular name was Yi Yeongju. During the early years of his life, he contemplated the fundamental questions of life, and though he read voraciously the profound philosophical and intellectual works that spanned history and cultures, he could bring no end to his anxiety. During this period, he read a book recommended by an elder monk, The Song of Enlightenment (Zhengdaoge) written by the early Tang Chan master Xianjue of Yongjia, and it brought about the opening of his mind’s eye. Following in this vein, he went to Daewonsa Monastery, and as a secular practitioner, he immersed himself in the investigation of the “MU” hwadu while practicing Seon meditation deep into the night. While moving or at rest, without exception he became absorbed within a state of "consistency of thought through movement or stillness" (dongjeong iryeo). Soon afterwards, while Master Seongcheol was practicing Seon meditation at the Toeseoldang Hall at Haeinsa Monastery, he decided to ordain, and in March 1936, at the age of 24, he was tonsured under Master Dongsan.
Following this, he served Master Yongseong and participated in retreats at various meditation halls (Seonwon) around the country, including Wonhyoam Hermitage at Beomeosa and Baengnyeonam Hermitage at Haeinsa. Then, in 1940, at the age of 28, he experienced a major awakening during the summer retreat in the Geumdang Seonwon at Donghwasa. After this awakening experience, he entered his famous eight-year long period of jangjwa burwa. Jangjwa bulwa refers to the practice of sitting for a long period of time while never lying down, specifically entering the lotus position of Seon meditation and remaining in that state with minimal interruption. Following this, in an effort to examine the state of his own awakening, he went on a wandering pilgrimage, and then in 1947 at the age of 35, with the attitude of “living like the Buddha’s dharma,” he founded an intensive practice community at Bongamsa. This community aimed at resuscitating the traditional regulations of Korean monastery system (chongnim) as well as the original spirit of the Korean Seon Buddhist lineage amidst the degradation inflicted under the Japanese colonial regime. Truly, it was through this association that the principles determining the modern shape of Korean Buddhism were established, and the monks who participated in this group would later become the representative figures of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism’s Seon spirit.
The inception of the Korean War in 1950 brought the dissolution of this association and Master Seongcheol once again began a pilgrimage participating in retreats at numerous meditation halls around the country. It was around this time, in a valley in front of Anjeong-sa Monastery in South Gyeongsangnam-do Province, that he constructed the Cheonjegul Grotto and led the believers who had come to see him in a practice of doing three-thousand prostrations. No matter who came to see him, young or old, business magnates or government officials, before he would do anything with them they first had to do three-thousand prostrations in front of the Buddha. The reason he ordered every one of his followers without exception to partake in this practice originated in the desire to get each of them to see themselves directly and to cultivate their minds to remove their own impurities. It was within the physical suffering felt in the knees and backs during the constant bending of the prostrations that this process could naturally take place. In 1955, at that age of 43, he went to Seongjeonam Hermitage at Pagyesa Monastery, where he used barbed wire to seal off the grounds of the hermitage and again entered a period of jangjwa burwa, abstaining completely from going outside for 10 years.
In 1967, he assumed the position of the first Patriarch of the Haeinsa Monastic Compound (Haein Chongnim) and he held dharma talks for the entire sangha of lay and monastic practitioners for 100 days. This was his famous “100 days Dharma Sermon.” During this period, he clarified that the truth of Buddhism was in the middle path between Seon and Gyo (doctrinal study), elucidated the traditional tenets of the Seon school with the teaching of “sudden enlightenment, sudden cultivation” (dono donsu) in addition to explaining that the truth of “neither arising, nor ceasing” (bulsaeng bulmyeol) was also proven within the constructs of atomic physics and quantum mechanics. Through this 100 days sermon, by using the Buddha’s “middle path” teaching, an idea representative of the grand achievement of the Buddha’s thinking, Master Seongcheol presented a new perspective on Buddhism to the Korean Buddhist society, no matter whether one followed the Seon or Gyo tradition.
In 1981, when he was at the age of 69, in assuming the role of the Seventh Patriarch of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism’, he raised interest in the secular world with his Buddhist phrase uttered at his inauguration, “Mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers,” and this phrase could even be heard on the lips of common folk around the nation. Even after his ascension to the position of Patriarch, he never left his abode in the mountains, and if one wanted to see him, regardless of one’s social status, one was still ordered to first do three-thousand prostrations, upon which he’d offer a dharma saying that shed light to the dim eyes of his guests.
In 1991, he was re-elected to his position, becoming the Eight Patriarch of the Jogye Order, and returned to Haeinsa where he would live a reclusive life until his passing into nirvana. There, he would encourage his practitioners to study diligently, yelling at them when they’d neglect to practice even a little bit: “Pay for your temple meal then, you thief!” Stubbornly persistent in living like this, as a mountain monk, he would finally enter into nirvana at the Toeseoldang on November 4, 1993. He was 81 years old and had spent 59 years in the sangha.
Master Seongcheol’s literary output is combined in the eleven volume compendium of his Buddhist sermons. This is comprised of the two volumes of his Baegil Beommun (100 Days Dharma Sermon), Seonmun Jeongno Pyeongseok (Commentaries on the True Path of the Seon Gate), Dono ipdoyo-munnon gangseol (Discourse on the Theory of the Essential Practice to Enter the Gate of Sudden Enlightenment), Sinsimmyeong Jeungdoga Gangseol (Discourses on the Xinxinming and the Zhengdaoge) , Yeongwonhan Jayu (Eternal Freedom), Jagi reul Baro Bopsida (Let’s Look at Ourselves Correctly), Donhwangbon Yukjo Dangyeong (The Dunhuang version of the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch), Seonmun Jeongno (The True Path of the Seon Gate), Bonji Punggwang (The Natural Beauty of the Original State) and Hanguk Bulgyoeui Beommaek (The Dharma Lineage of Korean Buddhism),which traces the intellectual origin and lineage of the “sudden enlightenment, sudden practice” theory in Korean Buddhism. In a 1976 book, he made a proposal to then Patriarch Master Seo-ong to alter the charter of the Jogye Order, with the consistent emphasis that Taego Bou should be enshrined as the founder of the order. Beyond this, he wrote a book that picked out the most necessary Seon sayings for the practice of Seon, written in vernacular Korean in the 37 volume Seollim Gogyeong Chongseo (The Ancient Mirror of the Seon Grove)
Master Seongcheol’s Seon thinking is best presented in the 100 days Dharma sermon he offered on his assumption to the position of the first Patriarch of the Haeinsa Monastic Compound (Haein Chongnim) in 1967. Through these sermons, Seongcheol organized a wide scattering of Buddhist doctrine, and in rectifying the lineage of the Jogye Order, he offered a new analysis of the core of the Seon school’s thought. These teachings can be largely summarized in three main points.
The first is the assertion that the Buddha’s theory of reincarnation was not simply an expedient means, but an established theory that we must believe in. Owing to the fact that samsara, the continuous flow of life and death in accordance with karma, is the most fundamental of Buddhist concepts, he said we must firmly believe in it.
Second is his assertion that Buddhism is a scientific religion. Using Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and his E=mc2 formula as examples, he explained the Buddhist saying of “form is emptiness, emptiness is form” in a logical manner. He noted that the idea that mass is converted to energy and energy to mass, both neither increasing nor decreasing, is a teaching of the Buddha stated explicitly as the “dharma realm,” and that the continued development of science has proven this to be a precise fact.
The third idea is the the Buddha’s teaching lies in the middle path. Like good and evil, mass and energy, flowing into oneness, every contradiction is harmonized into a singularity.
In addition, as Master Seongcheol ardently emphasized the teaching of “sudden enlightenment, sudden cultivation” (dono donsu), he criticized Master Jinul’s “sudden enlightenment, gradual cultivation” (dono jeomsu) teaching. He said that the “sudden enlightenment” of each respective teaching were actually not the same and that they stemmed from differing perspectives. To him, the enlightenment of “sudden enlightenment, gradual cultivation” was nothing but “learned knowledge,” and he labeled this as the type of awakening that could never lead to a genuine awakening. To put it another way, “sudden enlightenment, gradual cultivation” was a poor expression. If we wish to be precise, we should say “understanding and awakening, then gradual cultivation” (haeo jeomsu). It is clear then that the constant “gradual cultivation” practice meant to bring about an ultimate awakening was thus naturally something altogether different than that within the situation of “understanding and awakening” (haeo).
According to Master Seongcheol, he argued that though Master Bojo Jinul did advocate “sudden enlightenment, gradual cultivation” in his early work, his Jeoryo (Excerpts from the Dharma Collection and Special Practice Record), written immediately before his death, clearly states that the practice of “sudden enlightenment, gradual cultivation” corresponded to the teachings of the Gyo (doctrinal study) school and was not part of the Seon tradition.
Beyond this, Master Seongcheol noted also that the practice of Buddhist mass that is commonly thought of as something done for one’s own peace and profit, was something altogether different from the volunteer service done for others that is emphasized in the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism. Put simply, a “Buddhist mass” is nothing more than helping others, not just beating a wooden gong (moktak) asking to be given a long life and many blessings. Moreover, he said that a monastery is a place for teaching this “Buddhist mass,” not a place where the “Buddhist mass” is given. Therefore, he said that we needed to solve the mundane problems of our lives on our own and that “prayer” needed to be done for the sake of others, this being the “attitude of a true religious person.”