A good master is called a seonjisik (teacher/one of good knowledge). A teacher is like a boatman who ferries one across a river or a guide who leads one along strange roads. If one tries to go on an unfamiliar and strange road, one can come across unexpectedly steep or windy paths, or sheer precipices and rough waters. The road of seeking the way to enlightenment is the same. If one tries to practice, one encounters various favorable and unfavorable environs, and at such times one needs a clear-eyed master, a teacher.
Seon Master Boshan Wuyi (1574-1630) describes the meeting with a teacher in his Canchan jingyu as follows:
The teacher is like a fabulous doctor who nimbly cures severe illnesses, and is like a great donor who can give to his heart’s content. A practitioner must never have the attitude of being completely satisfied with his own study and not try to meet a teacher. If one is captured by one’s own opinions and do not try to seek a teacher, there will be a great illness in one’s Seon practice, and so one must clearly know there is no worse illness than this. (Canchan jingyu 19).
Even though born as a careful person and having encountered the Buddha-dharma, if that person has no master to guide him towards enlightenment, that practitioner, even if he has ended all the sufferings, not only can he not reach his destination, but also if he makes the slightest error, he can lose his life before he can reach his destination. Therefore, although it is the same with other practices, in the practice of Seon especially one must meet a good teacher and enter through the correct path so that one can be enlightened.
If one reads Seon recorded sayings, many processes in which the student meets with a teacher and is awakened are introduced. The meeting of the Seon master and the practitioner, as it is the point that is linked to the enlightenment, at times achieves the core stage of Seon practice.
The Sixth Patriarch Huineng tossed up the question, “Do not think of good; do not think of evil. Just then, what is your original face?” at the monk Huiming who was chasing after him. Hearing these words, Huiming was enlightened then and there and became Huineng’s disciple, and he changed his Dharma name to Daoming.
The role of a good master, an excellent teacher, is so important. Practitioners of meditation must believe in and depend on the teacher.
The generations of Seon masters have investigated the hwadu given by their masters, and when their bodies and minds had become a mass of doubt, when they met a certain opportunity, they were enlightened. Here the most important thing is said to be the master making the practitioner produce an earnest doubt. Without solving the problem one gives rise to an unendurable, burning thirst and is made to take up the hwadu. Therefore Seon Master Xiangyan was moved to tears, saying, “Master, the kindness you have given to me surpasses that from my parents.” Seon Master Linji, who venerated two masters, Huangbo and Dayu, and was enlightened by them, in this way stressed this kindness:
At a blow of Dayu’s staff I entered the realm of the Buddha. This deep kindness, even if my bones were ground up for a hundred eons and my body broken, and I bore Mt Sumeru on my head round and round, would be difficult to repay. (Zutangji).
If one cannot meet a good master
If one cannot meet a good teacher despite much effort, one must cherish the earnest thought of establishing the motivation to seek a teacher. If one does not change one’s mind about earnestly seeking a master, then at some time one will meet a good master. Monks in the past, without knowing who is a teacher and who is a person (seeking) the Way, made a vow to earnestly find a teacher, and so constantly confessed that at a certain decisive moment they were able to meet a teacher.
There also were practitioners who venerated the life of the Buddha and the Dharma of the Buddha as their master and proceeded on the path of seeking the Way. The life of the sons of the Buddha and the life of practitioners is to actualize the life of the Buddha. For that reason, practitioners had definite criteria that they had to follow in the career of the Buddha and his thought.
If it is difficult to discover a good master around one, the fall-back policy is possible by depending on masters of the past. In recent times, besides reading the recorded sayings, because now one can hear the physical voice of lectures recorded on tape, one can by oneself endlessly excite the indignation and initiation of mind through such Seon lectures.
The most important thing the practitioners have to rely on is not humans, it is the Dharma, and it is the kernels of what those words convey, and not the discriminative knowledge of cleverness, but the clear and transparent wisdom. And no matter who sees it, one must depend on the words of the universally valid and true scriptures as some criteria for understanding. When one looks at it in this way, beginning with the essential digest scripture in Seon, the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, only the various recorded sayings of the patriarchal teachers are proper.
What should be done when there is no teacher around to examine one?
When there is no proper master in the vicinity, one must seek a bright-eyed master no matter how far away. In the past, practitioners left on distant paths to find a teacher.
Korean monks also were willing to go over distant paths to find a teacher. Among Gyeongheo’s students there was a Seon Master Suwol. He practiced the Way at Cheonuen-sa Monastery on Mt Chiri (near south coast), and to find his master Gyeongheo, over a number of years he pursued his master and found him in the northernmost border region.
Again, in order to personally see Seon Master Suwol, who had a high reputation as a teacher at that time, the eminent monk of modern Korean Buddhism, Seon Master Geumo (1896-1968), was willing to travel over dangerous roads to distant Manchuria. This is because only a teacher can lead one well on the path of study. And so they went over distant roads and were willing to travel far in their search. Of course, for lay people it is the same. In order to encourage one’s mental resolution and to examine one’s study, one must have the proper guidance through the negotiation with the teacher.