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Regarded as “Korea's Linji,” Master Seo-ong devoted his life's work to advocating the “True Person” (chamsaram) religious movement.
Master Seo-ong was born into the house of a Confucian scholar as an only son on October 10, 1912, in Nonsan, Chungcheongnam-do Province. At the age of 6, he lost his father, and then ten years later, in 1928, while attending Yangjeong, one of Seoul's most prestigious high schools, he received word of his mother's passing. With her death, he keenly felt life's impermanence and from this point forward he harbored a great sense of doubt about life. During the Japanese colonial occupation, worried about the days to come facing his pitiable homeland, he happened to read Gandhi's autobiography and developed a deep connection with Buddhism. During that time, he heard a sermon given by the head of Buddhist propagation, the Venerable Daeeun, and gradually he came to the decision that he would be ordained. In 1932, he graduated from Yangjeong High School and entered the Central Buddhist College (the present day Dongguk University). Even after his entrance into college, he remained at some remove from his peers, and his desire to become a monk did not diminish. Thus, that year he was introduced by Master Daeeun to Master Manam at Baekyangsa Monastery under whose direction he was ordained.
At the age of 23, in 1935, Master Seo-ong, after graduating from the Central Buddhist College, worked at Baekyangsa as a lecturer in English. Then, in 1937, he spent two years as a student of Master Hanam at Cheongnyang Meditation Hall (Seonwon) in Mt. Odaesan, absorbed in the study of Seon meditation. There he met a student who was studying in Kyoto, Japan, at Rinzai University (present day Hanazono University) and his urge to study abroad intensified. Finally, in 1939 at the age of 28, he enrolled at Rinzai University and spent his days studying and his nights practicing Zen meditation at the Rinzai sect's Myoushin-ji Temple. In addition, he also developed an intimate friendship with Professor Hisamatsu Shinichi, one of the world's leading authorities on Zen philosophy. In 1941, he graduated from Rinzai University and in his doctoral thesis True Self, he pointed out the errors in the Zen theory of the Japanese Buddhist scholars Nishita Kitaro and Tanabe Hajime. As a result, his work became part of the curriculum at Rinzai University and he received unstinting praise from the Japanese intelligentsia.
Following his graduation from Rinzai University, Master Seo-ong participated in a three-year meditation retreat at Myoushin-ji and then in 1944 he returned to Korea and began serious Seon meditation practice. He entered into meditation together with the esteemed Master Hyanggok, and in particular, while training in Anjeongsa Monastery in Tongyeong together with Master Seongcheol, his study saw immense progress. Following this, for the next twenty years he gave his undivided attention to his practice, training at many Meditation Halls across the country.
In 1962, at the age of 50, he became the first Seon Master of the newly opened University Meditation Hall at Dongguk University. Then, in 1964, after becoming the first Master of the Mumungwan (a meditation hall where one only engages in Seon practice and is not allowed to leave the temple) at Cheonchuksa, he served as head Seon master at the meditation halls of various other temples, including Donghwasa, Baekyangsa and Bongamsa. In 1974, at the age of 63, he served as the 5th Supreme Patriarch of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism and that same year he received and honorary doctorate degree from the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka. In 1978, even after retiring from his position as Patriarch, he served as Master of various meditation halls. In 1996, he restored the Gobul Chongnim(Monastic Compound) headquartered at Baekyangsa that had gone defunct during the Japanese colonial period, assuming the position of head Seon master and continuously instructing numerous disciples.
In 1998 and 2000, under the leadership of Master Seo-ong, the 1st and 2nd Open Seon Assembly were held at Baekyangsa of the Gobul Chongnim, dedicated to reaffirming Korea's Patriarchal Seon tradition. An “Open Seon Assembly” (muchaseonhoe) is a meeting where all people from all walks of life, whether monks or common people, men or women, old or young, noble or base, are equally allowed access to hear dharma sermons and engage in dialogue with the Masters. In doing this, Master Seo-ong had revived a practice that had been interrupted for over one hundred years.
On December 12, 2003, Master Seo-ong, who had expanded his Imje Seon inspired “True Person” movement throughout the nation, gathered the abbot and monks of Baekyangsa and said “I have to go now.” Assuming the same jwatal immang (dying while is a seated meditation pose) position as his Master Manam, he then passed into nirvana.
Master Seo-ong's literary output includes the Imjerok Yeonui (Commentary on the Records of Linji)(1974), Jeoldae Hyeonjaeui Chamsaram (The True Person of the Absolute Present) (1988), Seo-ong Seonsa Beopeojip vol. I and II (The Dharma Talks of Seon Master Seo-ong) (1998), and others. In particular, after the publishing of the Imjerok Yeonui, Linji Seon thought became the basis of the Korean Seon school, set upon the foundation of the Patriarchal Seon tradition.
Whenever Master Seo-ong's name is spoken, it is always accompanied by a mention of the “True Person.” While he studied abroad in Japan, Master Seo-ong studied the Linji Lu, a text by Linji Yixuan, the founder of the Chinese Linji Chan sect. His mind was captivated in the phrase, muwi jinin (An Authentic Person of No Status) and he took this phrase on as his lifelong hwadu. What is meant by muwi jinin is that such dichotomies as sacred and profane, delusion and awakening, noble and base, and time and space are all transcended by the true self, with which nothing remains unconnected.
Master Seo-ong saw this “true self” as a state of non-discrimination and it was this concept that served as the focus of the muwi jinin idea of Linji. It is the awakening to the origin of this “true person” that is itself the “True Person.” With no thing newly awakened to, this is the original being of a genuine human. Master Seo-ong also saw that the “true person” originally is without distinctions between life and death, man and woman, young and old, good and evil, sentient beings and Buddhas, the universe, time and space. The “True Person” movement advocated by the Master was his way of taking a step beyond the thinking of muwi jinin.
“The seat of a 'true person' refers to a stage in which time, space, and even the unconscious is transcended. However, it is not something that lies outside of precisely this space of the dialogue that we now share. The shortcut that leads to this 'true person' is exactly Patriarchal Seon.”
The master went on to define the essence of Patriarchal Seon: “this is the search for the true likeness of the perfectly free human being, permeating the conscious and unconscious, permeating the totality as a perfect interfusion without obstruction.”
Within Master Seo-ong's practice methods of as well, Seon meditation was placed at the pinnacle, and he emphasized that Seon was always a “practice aimed at the awakening to our true countenance of intrinsic compassion.” His emphasis on Seon was owing to his belief that it was only be becoming “true people” that we could overcome the accumulated ills of the modern age and that it was through Seon meditation that this genuine life could be made possible.
Master Seo-ong located the ills of modern society within the breakdown of human character and discipline brought on by the development of scientific civilization. He explained that the other side of the material convenience and abundance created by the western scientific civilization based on the philosophy of greed and desire is the subjugation and destruction of humanity and nature that this culture also brings forth. The final outcome of this, according to Master Seo-ong, is that humans are reduced eventually to slaves and both the social order and the environment are brought to destruction.
“Buddhism treats humanity as dignified life that transcends time and space. Human existence must search for that supremely vivacious place where we can find our fundamental identity. This is the culmination of the 'true person,' the condition of ilda wonyung, “the perfect interpenetration of one and all,” that combines the unlimited universe into one. It is only in awakening to the fact that humanity and the natural world are not two, that one can save both humanity and the world as well.”
Noting that though all people are “true persons” they must actualize this reality, he published a pamphlet in 1996 titled, “The Door to the True Person Association.” Together with an explanation of what a “true person” was, the end of this pamphlet included a pledge that crystallized Master Seo-ong's spirit.
“Let's put the life of compassion into practice. Let's create a history of the human race living peacefully and equally. Let's establish a world that loves beauty, acting righteously, knowing sincerely and without any attachments how to respect and help one another.”