The biography of Master Baegun is only found in “The Record of Venerable Baegun’s Sayings.” He was born in 1299 in Gobu, Jeolla-do Province. There are no records indicating when precisely he left his family to become a monk, but it is emphasized that he studied and practiced with great zeal once ordained.
In the 5th month of 1351 (the 3rd year of the King Chungjeong ) he went to Cheonhoam (Tianhu in China) Hermitage on Mt. Xiawushan in Huzhou, China, where he met the Linji Master Shiyu Qinggong and asked for his teachings. In the same year he composed a verse for Venerable Zhigong, who had come from India. Zhigong was a well-known monk who deeply influenced Venerable Naong.
In the first month of 1352 he returned to Venerable Shiyu where he meditated the whole day on his doubts and realized independently the true meaning of no-mind, no-thought. Venerable Shiyu praised Baegun’s spiritual achievement and gave his sanction. After his return to Goryeo in the 3rd month of 1352, while practicing with other monks of Seonggaksa Temple, he achieved great awakening. He recorded this event with these words:
“In the year of Gyesa (1353), on the seventeenth day of the first month, as I was seated in meditation, Great Master Yongjia’s words in the Jeungdoga (Poems on the Essence of Chan) spontaneously came to me: ‘Do not try to abandon false thoughts, do not try to grasp the True Mind. The real nature of ignorance is Buddha Nature, and the illusive empty body is the Dharma body.’ While focusing on these words, suddenly I experienced no-mind. I had no-thoughts; I was cut off from the past and from the future. When I reached this state, I suddenly saw the entire world within myself.”
In the sixth month of the following year (1354) Venerable Shiyu’s disciple Venerable Fayan brought Shiyu’s deathbed verse from China and presented it to Master Baegun.
“Buying white clouds [Baegun means “white cloud”], selling fresh wind, empty houses poor to the core of their bones. As a small thatched hut fortunately remains, before I left I gave it to the child who played soldiers with me (another meaning of Baegun).”
Venerable Shiyu asked Fayan to carry this verse to Baegun which suggests that Venerable Shiyu considered Baegun to be his true dharma heir and not Master Taego. Afterwards, Baegun lived and taught for 11 years at Anguksa Temple in Haeju, Hwanghae-do Province. He also taught at Singwangsa Temple in Haeju and Chwiamsa Temple in Yeoju. His final verse reads as follows:
“Originally I had no body, and no place to stay of my own either.
So spread my ashes in the four directions
Do not keep my remains in the ground belonging to some donor.”
Up to today, we only have “The Record of Venerable Baegun’s Sayings” and “Baegun hwasang chorok buljo jikji simche yojeol.” The former book was written by his disciples Seokchan and Daldam. It is a book which is so beautifully written that it is highly regarded. A preface to each of the two sections has been added by Yi Saek and Yi Gu.
Baegun hwasang chorok buljo jikji simche yojeol is a compilation of sayings of the Buddha and his disciples of inspiration in the study of Seon. It is an invaluable source for studying the Seon of No-Mind as taught by Master Baegun. This book is sometimes called Buljo jikji simche yojeol or Jikji simgyeong (Sutra of Pointing Directly to the Mind); it is comprised of two volumes. A copy using the newly found metal printing type was produced in 1377 at Heungdeoksa Temple in Cheongju; today one volume is in the collection of the National Library of France; it is the oldest book printed using metal printing type in the world, and in September 2001 it was designated The Memory of the World Register by UNESCO.
3. Characteristics of his Thought
The most unique aspect of Baegun’s thought is the concept of No-Mind, No-Thought. Though Baegun declared himself a descendant of the lineage of Linji Chan, he also stressed hwadu practice and the Seon of No-Mind. When he taught hwadu to his disciples he stressed “Mu” (nothingness), “Ten thousand dharmas return one,” and the hwadu “What were you before your parents were born?” One of his main teachings was that doubt produces great results. However, his most characteristic phrase was “No-Mind, No-Thought,” the teaching of which is well reflected in his poem “Musimga” (“The Song of No-Mind”):
“As the nature of things is silent originally, it does not say ‘I am blue’ or ‘I am yellow.’ People say this is good or this is bad and their mind distinguishes. If your mind is the same as clouds and water, you are free, even though you live in the world. If your mind does not name or distinguish things, nothing good or bad arises. Foolish men try to put differentiation out of their mind, yet they do not put their mind out of their mind, while wise men try to put their mind out of their mind, yet they do not put their differentiated mind out of their mind. As mind is forgotten, the differentiated mind becomes silent by itself; as the differentiated mind is silent, mind does not arise. This is the real No-Mind.”
In the days of Venerable Baegun, Seon practice using hwadu was popular. That he emphasized on “No-Mind, No-Thought” Seon practice was to bring more attention to the Seon tradition, whose attachment to hwadu Seon had become so strong that it was an obstacle. This was the result of the influence of Venerable Shiyu’s No-mind chan.
Baegun considered “No-Mind, No-Thought” as the ultimate state of Seon. “No-mind” is not a state of mind in which there is no consciousness of soil, rocks and woods (the world). He constantly admonished people not to have the wrong view of No-Mind. He taught that attachment to the letter and attachment to hwadu were illnesses to be avoided; true practice is letting go. Therefore “No-Mind, No-Thought” should be studied carefully and then energetically cultivated. If you have No-Mind, you will not always be full of delusion.