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Son Buddhism - Korean Zen
The Korean word for Ch’an or Zen is Son.
Buddhism is highly significant in Korea. The latest figures (1991) show 26 Buddhist sects and 9,231 temples with more than 11 million followers in Korea.
The largest Son sect today in Korea is the Chogye Order which includes about 90% of Korean Buddhists.
The name ’Chogye’ is significant in that it was named after the mountain in south China where the great Sixth Patriarch, Hui-neng, had his temple. Koreans say that their tradition is derived directly from Hui-neng.
Buddhism arrived in Korea in the 4th century CE. It spread widely and became the state religion when the three kingdoms that made up the country were united in 688 CE.
Son was introduced there in approximately the 7th century CE by a Korean monk named Pomnang, said to have studied under the fourth Chinese patriarch, but little is known of him or of these early times.
During the 9th century CE, Son Buddhism became the dominant form of Buddhism in Korea as a result of a steady stream of Korean masters going to China to study Ch’an Buddhism and returning to Korea to teach.
The 13th century monk Chinul
One of the most outstanding figures in the history of Son was a man by the name of Chinul.
As a young monk he passed examinations necessary to bring him into the monastic hierarchy, but rejected such a lifestyle and instead retreated to the mountains. He devoted himself to study and contemplation, deeply penetrating the Buddhist texts.
In 1190, at the age of 32, Chinul formed a community called the Concentration and Wisdom Community which remained together in retreat for 7 years. Gradually, other monks joined him attracted by the seriousness of the group.
The community grew and moved to a place (later renamed Mount Chogye) in about 1200 CE, enlarging a small hermitage into a monastery complex. This temple, Songgwang Sa, exists to this day as an active and thriving Son community.
Son remained significant in Korea until 1392 CE, when a revolt replaced the pro-Buddhist government with one that favoured Confucianism and regarded Buddhism as an un-Korean influence.
Buddhists were still allowed to practise, but official oppression drove them from the centres of power into remote mountain monasteries, changing Buddhism in Korea from a people’s religion into a largely monastic practice.
This also changed the nature of Buddhism, and the Son tradition moved away from textual study to focusing on meditation practice with the aim of reaching the same state that the Buddha had reached.
The essence of Son
The following hints at the Buddha’s truth to which they aspired:
"Heaven and earth cannot cover its body, mountains and rivers cannot hide its light. Nothing of it accumulates on the outside or the inside. Even the 80,000 texts cannot contain or make a record of it. No scholar can describe it, the intellectuals cannot know it, the literati and writers cannot recognise it. Even to talk about it is a mistake, to think about it is an error."
Nevertheless, Son Buddhists see a basic unity between truth as described in Buddhist doctrine and truth as experienced through meditation. In other words, they find the true meaning of the texts through personal experience.
Son Buddhism focuses on the enlightenment of a sudden awakening, but even if a person achieves the realisation that they are innately Buddha, that doesn’t mean they cease to practise. On the contrary, the sentiment is "sudden enlightenment followed by gradual practise" -- the practice of enlightenment, or of being Awakened.