Coming in March 2016: Korean Sŏn


Sŏn is the Korean pronunciation of the Sanskrit, Dhyāna. Sŏn is also comparable with samādhi although it takes on a different connotation from our usual rendering. Tsung-mi expounds that it is a comprehensive equation for both samādhi and prajña. Sŏn’s primary task is the recollection of the original Mind Source, one’s own Buddha-nature. One’s awakening in this endeavor is akin to prajña, while the cultivation of this Mind-ground is samādhi. Chinul, whose teachings are the spotlight this series, asserts that samādhi and prajña are constitutive of the threefold training of śīla, samādhi and prajña just outlined.

Chinul was born in 1158  in the Tongju district to the west of the Koryŏ capital of Kaesŏng. His lay-surname was Chong, and he was born into a family of the gentry class. His father, Chŏng Kwangu, was an administrator in the royal academy. From birth, the boy was of weak constitution and plagued by serious illnesses. After continued attempts to cure him through conventional medical therapy, his father in desperation decided to entreat the Buddha. He vowed that if his son was cured, he would have him ordained into the Buddhist order. Soon afterward, the illnesses are supposed to have vanished and, keeping his vow, Kwangu’s child had his head shaved at the age of seven and received the precepts at the age of fifteen. He was given the Buddhist name Chinul; later, he referred to himself as Moguja (The Oxherder). (The Korean Approach to Zen, the Collected Works of Chinul. Robert E. Buswell Jr, pg. 20)

From these humble origins, Chinul produced writings that were to influence the future development of Korean Sŏn, influences that still prevail today. He was a true reformer of his age as he revitalized a tradition that was in dire straits. There were three auspicious awakenings in his life, (all will be highlighted in subsequent posts) each one building upon the other and producing a syncretic corpus of works that emphasized the necessary linkage between both scripture and praxis; as he stated, “What the World Honored One said with his mouth are the teachings. What the patriarchs transmitted with their minds is Sŏn. The mouth of the Buddha and the minds of the patriarchs can certainly not be contradictory.” What I especially admire in Chinul is his True Spirit of authentic reform; the following concludes this introduction and hopefully will whet the appetite of the reader who likewise can appreciate Chinul’s keen formation of a spiritual society whose mission is to follow the higher-path to self-realization and thus liberation from the confines of the mundane:

One day I made a pact with more than ten fellow meditators which said: “After the close of this convocation we will renounce fame and profit and remain in seclusion in the mountain forests. We will form a community designed to foster constant training in samādhi and prajña. Through worship of the Buddha, recitation of sūtras, and even through common work, we will each discharge the duties to which we are assigned and nourish the self-nature in all situations. We vow to pass our whole lives free of entanglements and to follow the higher pursuits of accomplished and true men. Would this not be wonderful?” All those present who heard these words agreed with what was said, and vowed, “On another day we will consummate this agreement, live in seclusion in the forest, arid be bound together as a community which should be named for samādhi and prajña.” (ibid, pg. 21)

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One Response to Coming in March 2016: Korean Sŏn

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