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The Master Cheongheo Hyujeong’s ordination name was Cheongheo, his postumous name, Seosan, and his dharma name, Hyujeong.
The master was born in Anju, Pyeongan-do Province. Called Unhak at a child, he lost his parents at an early age, then followed a friend of his father to Seoul where he entered Joseon’s highest educational institution, the Seonggyungwan. At 14, though Unhak’s brilliance set him apart from others, he was despondent facing the reality of being unable to easily secure a government position, having failed his official exams and lacking any foundation within an established household. With these feelings of frustration towards his reality, Unhak and some friends decided to go on an excursion to a place where they could find the sagacious wisdom of great monks, Mt. Jirisan. In the process, he came upon someone who led his way to a new life, Master Sungin, in a tiny hermitage near Sinheungsa Monastery.
Master Sungin, who recommended the cultivation of the Buddha dharma, was questioned by Unhak, "How does the mind arise? To what in the mind does one enlighten to?" Master Sungin spoke. “The mind is not an object that can be expressed through words. Having neither appearance, color, size, nor weight, the mind belongs to a world that is impossible to access through our processes of recognition and therefore it demands that each of us experience it on our own, such that we can be able to recognize it. He then spoke of the Buddhist scriptures, stating that “If you carefully read and think deeply, bit by bit you can enter into the gate of the mind.”
A genius well acquainted to the principle texts of Confucianism, Unhak quickly flew through the Tripitaka, the Buddhist Canon. In here he didn’t find the ethical values of filial piety, ritual, five relationships, benevolence, and virtue as represented in the Confucian classics; in the Tripitaka, he found concepts like mind, nothingness, the world of truth, facts, the law of cause and effect, impermanence, without attributes, without self, and the like, complicated philosophies and systems of thought. Unhak’s mind was shaken, as if he had taken a blow to the head from a small metal rod. “In the midst of eternity, humanity exists within the instant of each moment. Within this boundless universe, humanity is nothing more than a single speck of dust. And here I swagger as if I know it all, acting impudently." The friends who had accompanied Unhak on this journey returned to Seoul but Unhak remained, taking on Sungin as his teacher, beginning his life as a supplicant, and vigorously studying the scriptures. He learned seon from Master Buyong, who had become enlightened solely through the practice of Seon meditation without engaging in formal doctrinal study. Though Unhak had obtained liberation of wisdom (jihye haetal) through his sagely understanding of the meaning of ’mind,’ ’no attributes,’ and ’emptiness,’ he had still not attained liberation of the mind (sim haetal). Therefore, he remained bound and attached to matter and appearances, unable to act freely, with his mind frustrated. The more he exerted himself trying to escape his attachments to these empty names and false appearances, the more entangled he became. It was in this state that one night he suddenly heard the cries of a cuckoo and from his meditative state (samadhi), he awakened to a world of sublime truths, totally indescribable through words or text, a beautiful Buddha world that appeared to the eye as if a mountainside of blooming spring flowers. Unhak thus finally shaved his head, and with his ordination, was born again.
At the age of 32, Master Hyujeong placed the top of his class on the examination of the monastic curriculum, and he ascended to the highest position in the Buddhist order, the master arbiter of both the order of Seon and doctrinal study (Gyo). However, thinking it wasn’t a monk’s part to take administrative office within the sangha, he resigned his post, returning to Mt. Geumgangsan where he gave his undivided attention to his practice and guiding the younger monks, while at the same time producing important writings revealing his Seon thought.
In 1592 (the 25th year of Seonjo’s reign), when Master Hyujeong was 72 years old and living on Mt. Myohyangsan, Joseon, the Land of Morning Calm, was invaded by the Japanese in the year of Imjin. He recalled the reality where Buddhism had faced only heaps of scorn and contempt owing to the violent policy of Buddhist suppression promulgated by the Confucian scholars of the Joseon court. Nevertheless, Hyujeong felt that though the nation had renounced Buddhism, Buddhism could never reject the nation, as the nation was where countless sentient beings needed saving through great compassion. Thus, he ultimately took to the battlefield. Even at his advanced age of 72, on his own accord he took command of a monk militia, and together with troops from the Ming Dynasty, he recaptured Pyeongyang and fought to the bitter end, until the war met its completion with the consummation of a peace treaty with Japan.
After leading his troops to military victory, Hyujeong bequeathed all of his military authority to his disciples and then headed back to the mountains where he devoted himself entirely to the cultivation of his practice. In January, 1604, with snow piled high around Wonjeogam Hermitage, Hyujeong concluded his sermon on the hwadu that had filled his entire life, the ’mind’ hwadu, brought out his portrait, wrote the following lines as a final transmission to his disciples, and then assumed the lotus position, entering into nirvana. His worldly age was 84, and his age in the sangha (beomnap), 67.
80 years ago, that thing was me80 years later, and now aren’t I that thing!
Hyujeong left behind over 1000 disciples and among them, there are at least seventy outstanding figures. Among these, four disciples in particular, Samyeong Yujeong (1544~1610), Pyeonyang Eongi (1581~1644), Soyo Taeneung (1562~1649), and Jeonggwan Ilseon (1533~1608), stand out as the most representative, as they were the leaders of the four main groups within the community of Hyujeong’s disciples.
Master Hyujeong’s written output includes a four volume, two book set of his collected works, Cheongheodangjip (collected works of Ven. Cheongheo), as well as the Seongyogyeol (Essence of Seon and Gyo), Simbeop yocho (Summary of the Mind Dharma), Seongyoseok (Interpretations of Seon and Gyo), Unsudan [a book of Buddhist rituals], Samga gwigam (Reflections on the Three Religions, i.e. Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism), Seolseon ui (Manners of Lecturing on Seon Meditiation) and the Jesandan Uimun, among others.
Hyujeong used the ’mind’ as the object of his lifelong hwadu. The topic of Hyujeong’s many books, including the Samga gwigam, Seongyoseok, Seongyogyeol, and others, is ’mind.’
In the Samga gwigam, he represented “mind” in terms of it being “a single thing” (ilmul). His view was that mind alone was the mother of the universe, that it was the foundation of humanity, heaven and earth. He noted how it was within the mind that the division of good and evil, along with all ideologies and assertions began, and that it was in that mind that the Buddha and all sentient beings began as well.
Starting from the main premise that “Seon is the Buddha’s mind, Gyo (doctrinal study) is the Buddha’s word,” Hyujeong advanced the idea that with Seonas principal and Gyo as subordinate, one could proceed to enlightenment, and thus he placed Seon superior to Gyo. Seon is the arrival at the wordless truth, accomplished through silence, without a word. Gyo is the arrival to the wordless world, accomplished through edification in the scriptures. Therefore, he noted that Gyo is a method that, following the teachings of the Buddha, examines every dharma, and teaches the principles of emptiness. Seon is entering directly into this principle of emptiness and experiencing it, and Patriarchal Seon, in particular, cuts into the space where meaning takes place, forming the principle of emptiness in the mind’s foundation.
In terms of practice, Master Hyujeong especially advocated Ganhwaseon. Ganhwaseon is one of the methods used in the Seon practice of investigating hwadu. A hwadu is a highly original and powerfully emblematic word problem created by the awakened Patriarchs to guide their disciples on the path to awakening, namely, a hwadu is “a mass of doubt.” Investigation here means thinking about the hwadu while practing Seon mediation. Accordingly, he said that if one investigates their hwadu with the sincerity that a thirsty person thinks about water, the mind would be awakened. However, stressing that Seon meditation practiced in a foolish mind would bring no benefit and only aggravate more foolishness, he argued that cultivation without an awakened mind was not true cultivation. Here he was inheriting Master Bojo Jinul’s dictum of seono husu (first, awakening, then cultivation), particularly the idea of dono jeomsu, “sudden awakening followed by gradual practice,” in speaking of the cultivation that is founded upon awakening.
Moreover, he warned that no matter how diligently one practices Seon, without precepts,only evil wisdom could be created, and though monks and nuns may focus on the practice of Seon meditation in order to achieve enlightenment, it was critical for them to work together in maintaining our mind’s fundamental precepts, those that help each of us guard against the temptations of one’s environment, as well as those that help us collectively purify our thoughts, words and deeds.
He also addressed yeombul, the practice of changing the Buddha’s name, and said that chanting was a practice that made it easier for your mind not to forget, but be mindful of the Pure Land of Amita Buddha. He defined yeombul as using the synchronization of mouth and mind, through the sincere and focused practice of calling out the Buddha’s name while keeping mindfulness on the Pure Land, clearly and without any confusion. He said that although foolish people engage in yeombul to be reborn in the Pure Land, to learned people it would do nothing but cleanse their own minds.
In these ways, Hyujeong displays the distinct mark of his thought. It begins with a sense of doubt about the mind, and then uses that mind to harmonize various methods of ascetic practice.