Venerable Seungsahn was born in Suncheon, Pyeongannam-do, North Korea in 1927. He graduated from Pyeongan Industrial High School in 1945, and entered Dongguk University in 1946. He left for Magoksa Temple to become a monk in 1947 as he had become disillusioned with life. At that time, the political situation consisted of a confrontation between the ideological views of the left and right wings – between the same ethnic people after liberation from Japanese rule.
One day, he met Master Gobong(1889-1961) who was a disciple of Master Mangong. During the dialogue, he was unable to respond to the master’s questions. Master Gobong told him “If you don’t know, then go out and raise your doubt about it. This is the way to practice Seon.”
After this encounter he went into an intensive retreat at Sudeoksa Temple. During the free seasons, in between the practice sessions, he was particularly fortunate to be able to meet many of the famous masters of his day. He had a second chance to meet Master Gobong, while he was doing another retreat at Mitasa Temple. At that meeting, Venerable Seungsahn said; “As I killed all Buddhas of the three realms last night, I came back after cleaning up all of the corpses.” Seon Master Gobong said, “You are very naughty, how can I believe your saying?” Then Master Gobong began to ask Seungsahn the 1,700 gongan -- Seon questions -- and he was able to answer all of them without hesitation. So Master Gobong told to him, “As your flowers burst into bloom, I will be a butterfly for you.” And he gave his sanction or dharma transmission to Seungsahn. Therefore, Master Seungsahn, at the age of 22 in 1949, inherited the Korean Seon lineage from masters Gyeongheo, Mangong, and Gobong who had restored the Korean Seon tradition.
After finishing eleven retreats at Sudeoksa Temple, he joined the new purification movement to reestablish the Korean Buddhist tradition which was weak after Liberation and the Korean War. From then on, he worked at reestablishing the tradition once again and improving the Jogye Order which had lost its identity during the colonization period. Due to this, he was appointed the president of the Buddhist Newspaper (1960), and worked as a director of the General Affairs Department (1961) and director of Financial Affairs (1962) in the headquarters of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism.
As the Jogye Order became stabilized in 1962, Seungsahn was free to turn to other activities. He opened the Korean temple, Hongbeobwon, in Japan and this heralded the start of his spreading Buddhism outside Korea. Later on, he proceeded to set up Korean Seon centers in America, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, Russia, Africa and South East Asia from 1972. Master Gobong had told Seungsahn, when he gave his sanction, “You will spread the teachings all over the world.” Following his teacher’s saying, he opened over 120 Seon centers in 32 countries over a period of 35 years, resulting in more than 50,000 people becoming Buddhists. For his great efforts in propagation, he was given the world peace prize by WUM in 1985.
In 1987, he held the first Seon international conference with the title given by Seon Master Mangong, “The Whole World is a Single Flower” at Sudeoksa Temple. This meeting was aimed at unifying all people of different races and from different regions of the world under the Buddha’s teachings. The second and the third conferences were held at the same temple in 1992 and 1993 respectively. In 1992, he opened the International Seon Center in Hwagyesa Temple for training his foreign disciples and for the globalization of Korean Buddhism.
Throughout his life, he taught Korean Seon to domestic and foreign monks enthusiastically while he was head monk of Hwagyesa Temple. On November 30th 2004, he called his disciples together at Yeomhwasil room. All of them recognized his approaching death, and then they asked him. “When you die, what should we do?” He said, “Don’t worry, don’t worry. The great light is immeasurable; mountains are blue and waters flow.” With this song, he died at the age of 77 in 2004.
After his death, many people as well as many condolences came from all over the world. Mr. John Kerry who was the American presidential candidate in 2004 gave a condolence speech and expressed his regrets. He said his son was also very touched by the late Seon master’s teaching. Master Seungsahn’s foreign disciples are Venerable Musim, the head monk of Musangsa Temple, in Mt. Gyeryongsan; Venerable Murang, the head monk of Taeansa Temple; Venerable Hyon Gak, the head monk of the International Seon Center in Hwagyesa temple and the author of Man Haeng: From Harvard to Hwa Gye Sah and Venerable Cheongan from Hungary, as well as many more. All of them were ordained under him and chose the path of a Buddhist practitioner instead of living an ordinary life.
The trace of globalization of Korean Seon by Master Seungsahn remains clearly evident in his more than 20 written works, both in English and in Korean. The Whole World is a Single Flower -- 365 Gongans for Everyday Life involves the gongans of Seon; The Compass of Zen explains in simple and easy language a way of understanding Buddhism; Dropping Ashes on the Buddha is a collection of his short dharma talks. These were all written for his foreign disciples in English and translated into Korean as well. Though these books were written for his foreign disciples, they have greatly influenced laypeople who want to know Korean Buddhism and Seon better. The book, Only Doing It involving his biography and his disciples’ writings, was compiled by his foreign disciples from all over the world; Only Don’t Know is a collection of letters about Seon practice and the lives and difficulties of the practitioners; The Moon Illuminated on the Thousand Rivers, and Seon poems Bone of Space are all well known as well.Especially The Whole World is a Single Flower which was published in celebration of his thirty years of propagating Buddhism describes his work in spreading Buddhism at a glance. involves the gongans of Seon; explains in simple and easy language a way of understanding Buddhism; is a collection of his short dharma talks. These were all written for his foreign disciples in English and translated into Korean as well. Though these books were written for his foreign disciples, they have greatly influenced laypeople who want to know Korean Buddhism and Seon better. The book, involving his biography and his disciples’ writings, was compiled by his foreign disciples from all over the world; is a collection of letters about Seon practice and the lives and difficulties of the practitioners; and Seon poems are all well known as well.Especiallywhich was published in celebration of his thirty years of propagating Buddhism describes his work in spreading Buddhism at a glance.
3. Characteristics of His Thoughts
Master Seungsahn used to give everyone Seon sayings whenever he met them. Examples include: “only don’t know,” “mountains are blue and water flows,” “what news is this,” – all like hwadu. He taught that the realm of impermanence is “mountains are rivers and rivers are mountains”; that the realm of emptiness mentioned in the Heart Sutra is “mountains are empty and rivers are empty”; and that the realm of reality is “mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers.” And he often said, “Through all of these realms, the realm of ‘mountains are blue and rivers flow’ is the realm of embracing the state of how the world of truth is to be taken and adjusted to the reality of righteous living.”
He used to frequently say “Only don’t know” to his visitors. Another one of his teachings was quoted from the Diamond Sutra: “Everything with form is an illusion. If you see things without form then you see the Tathagata.” He said “As everything which has its own name and form is illusion and untruth, don’t attach to it!”
His teaching did not just follow the hwadu of previous masters but adjusted to modern society. This is one of the most characteristic aspects of his teachings. He taught this world is “only don’t know,” and so following the path of the Buddha for finding our True Nature is the only way to find the True Nature of Buddhahood.