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[Intro to Ganhwa Seon] 08. What is Patriarchal Seon?

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Writer Jogye Date07 Jul 2016 Read2,061 Comment0

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Chapter 2. What Is Ganhwa Seon?

2. What is Patriarchal Seon?

Traditions and Features of Patriarchal Seon of Korea

Korea is well known as a country that has kept the traditions and culture of Patriarchal Seon practice intact. At a Seon meditation hall of a tranquil mountain temple, the sound of cough, someone’s presence or even breath is not heard at all. Seon practitioners assume full lotus posture and fully concentrate on hwadu Samadhi. Neatly arranged rubber shoes in front of a door only imply that there are practitioners inside.

Approximately two thousand Buddhist monks and nuns of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism hold summer and winter retreats, each for 3 months, at around one hundred different Seon monasteries. Retreats (安居) refer to intensive Seon practice where practitioners devote themselves solely to meditation and refrain from going outside of the monastery. Some engage in silence practice, while others even choose to lock themselves up in a small room for the so-called “no-door retreat (無門關)”.

When retreats are completed, Seon practitioners travel about freely with no destination in mind. They assess where they stand in terms of spiritual practice while going here and there and faced with various circumstances or visiting clear-eyed teachers. These days, there are a number of urban Seon halls for lay people nationwide. A considerable number of lay practitioners manage to make time for Seon practice out of their housekeeping and work despite their busy schedules. Some also engage in retreats while observing their own rules, even though they cannot do so in mountain monasteries. One could imagine lay people in the full lotus position investigate hwadu for enlightenment during summer and winter holiday seasons. As such, traditions of Patriarchal Seon practice are found everyday lives of both Buddhist monks and nuns and lay practitioners even today.

 

How was Patriarchal Seon Established?

Seon () has been developed along with ethnic culture and contemporary contexts of countries such as India, China, Korea and Japan throughout the long history. Importantly, traditions of Patriarchal Seon were established in the course of incorporating characteristics of Chinese practitioners into original features maintained ever since Bodhidharma (菩提達摩) introduced Seon to China.

The origin of Patriarchal Seon traces back to Bodhidharma, the 28th Patriarch of Buddhism since the Gautama Buddha. With the Second Patriarch of Seon, Dazu Huike (大祖慧可 487-593), the Third Patriarch Jianzhi Sengcan (鑑智僧璨 ?-606), the Fourth Patriarch Dayi Daoxin (道信 580-651), the Fifth Patriarch Daman Hongren (弘忍 594-674) and the Sixth Patriarch Huineng (慧能 638-713), Patriarchal Seon flourished, leading to five schools and seven sects (五家七宗). Seon Master Huangbo Xiyun (檗希運 ?-850) wrote in The Wanling record (宛陵錄), “the Patriarch came from the west and transmitted only one thing, Buddha mind, directly pointing out that your mind is inherently Buddha.” The Patriarch here refers to Bodhidharma, making the critical phrase of “what’s the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West? (如何是祖師西來意)” widespread. This, along with “What’s the Buddha? (如何是佛)”, has become one of the epitomized Seon encounter dialogues (禪問答) that ask the quintessential point (禪旨 meaning of Seon) of Patriarchal Seon.

However, it was the Sixth Patriarch Huineng (慧能 638-713) who substantially established Patriarchal Seon. Following the Sixth Patriarch, eminent Seon Masters such as Mazu Daoyi (馬祖道一 709-788), Baizhang Huaihai (百丈懷海 749-814), Zhaozhou Congshen (趙州從 778-897), Huangbo Xiyun (黃檗希運 ?-850) and Linji Yixuan (臨齊義玄 ?-867) made Seon fully blossom throughout the Chinese continent. Being patient like cows while seeing through reality with tiger-like sharp eyes, they resolutely and unwaveringly highlighted that we all should see Buddha in our mind right here and right now. 

Seon Master Hongzhi Zhengjue (宏智正覺 1091-1157) in the mid-12th century was a leading exponent of silent illumination (默照禪), which was criticized by Seon Master Dahui Zonggao (大慧宗杲 1089-1163) who systemized and widely spread Ganhwa Seon. This led to the new era of two pillars of Patriarchal Seon, namely Ganhwa Seon and silent illumination. Ganhwa Seon has been considered to succeed spirits and core values of Patriarchal Seon the most. Korea is one of the countries that have kept traditions of Ganhwa Seon intact.

 

Features of Patriarchal Seon

Patriarchal Seon is one type of meditation practice where Patriarchs (祖師) passed down essentials of Sakyamuni Buddha’s enlightenment in a unique way. Patriarchs refer to clear-eyed teachers with strong practice capabilities who awaken to Buddha nature, which has been transmitted since Sakyamuni Buddha, and therefore can successfully guide practitioners to enlightenment. It is natural that extraordinary respect and trust are placed upon these Patriarchs as they attained Buddha-like supreme enlightenment. 

Therefore, patriarchs are no different from the Buddha and records of their teachings are regarded as sacred as sutras, records of the Buddha’s teachings. It is also because of this reason that Patriarchal Buddha (祖佛) is widely used along with Buddha Patriarch (佛祖). Then what would be distinctive features of Patriarchal Seon except for the above-mentioned unique position of it?  

In Patriarchal Seon, all beings are originally Buddha and already complete as they are (本來成佛). As we are Buddha in the first place, we see completed features of ourselves here and now. Therefore, it is not transforming from the place of sentient beings to that of Buddha, but just seeing and confirming the truth that we are all Buddha where we stand. The following phrases succinctly illustrate what genuinely makes Patriarchal Seon:  

A special transmission outside the teaching (敎外別傳);

No reliance on written words (不立文字);

Pointing directly to mind (直指人心);

See your true nature and become Buddha (見性成佛)

Another characteristic of Patriarchal Seon includes “immediate enlightenment right after words (言下便悟)”, or achieving enlightenment upon listening to certain words or seeing certain acts.

A case in point is the Second Patriarch Dazu Huike’s immediate enlightenment as soon as he heard Bodhidharma say “bring me your mind, and I will pacify it”, which enabled Seon Master Huike to shake off anxiety and awaken to his Buddhahood, transcend life and death and make his mind calm and peaceful (安心立命). In a similar vein, a phrase of the Diamond Sutra brought sudden enlightenment to the Sixth Patriarch Huineng. As such, most Patriarchs attained enlightenment in this way. No hesitation or thoughts are allowed here. Practitioners are supposed to enter the realm of enlightenment upon a single word right here and right now. It is like a lightening that penetrates the core of awakening in the blink of an eye. Even though it took some time for a few Seon Masters who could not awaken to truth in this way to investigate hwadu of clear-eyed teachers, however, all they needed for ultimate enlightenment was just a decisive moment. The moment of awakening is faster than light. It is immediate but complete.

In addition, Seon encounter dialogues (禪問答), or questions and answers on Dharma between Seon Masters and disciples, shouts () and blows () are other examples that reveal our true nature in Patriarchal Seon.

Shouts and blows. Shouts cut off disciples’ sense of judgment and discrimination or demonstrate the true nature beyond description of words through sudden and powerful voice. Some might have heard Seon Masters’ shout at the end of their Dharma talks. That is a shout. Blows refer to the act of hitting disciples with Dharma stick to metaphorically show breakthroughs or our original nature. Shouts and blows are also part of Seon dialogues in their own way.    

In Patriarchal Seon, one of the essential processes is a seal of approval (印可) through which practitioners get what they have achieved examined by clear-eyed Seon Masters through Dharma question and answer sessions in order to see whether they are truly enlightened or not. Another feature of Patriarchal Seon is that it is incorporated into our daily lives. As Seon Master Mazu Daoyi emphasized, “the ordinary mind is the Way (平常心是道), from eating food and washing face to cutting firewood”, Patriarchal Seon can be practiced regardless of what we do - whether we go somewhere, stand up, sit down, lie down, speak, remain silent, move or stand still. As such, one of the most beneficial characteristics of Ganhwa Seon is that we can continuously develop our spiritual practice by investigating hwadu whenever it is and wherever we are in our everyday lives.

 *  Please note that this writing is an excerpt from the book, "Introduction to Ganhwa Seon" published by the Bureau of Dharma Propagation and it is contained in the summer 2016 edition of the Lotus Lantern magazine under Buddhist Culture Section on page 16~22.   


 

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