Ordination - Practice - Enlightenment - Spreading the dharma


There is a way to become a Great Buddha.

The Seon Master Jinje Sunim was born in 1934, on the 12th day of the first lunar month in the village of KumSongRi in Namhae country of KyungNam province. When he was conceived his mother had an auspicious dream that she caught the sun in her skirt. He was one of 3 sons and 4 daughters. On his 19th birthday he decided to leave the secular life and enter into the mountains, becoming a monk. There was a small temple, HaeKwanAm (海觀庵), a few kilometers from his home where the Master Seogu(石友) resided. Master Seogu was respected by both practitioners and the laity and would later become the 1st Head Priest of the newly reformed Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. Master Seogu called out to the young Jinje:

“The worldly life is OK, but there is a better one here.”

“How is it better?” the young Jinje asked.

“There is a way in which an ordinary man can become a great Buddha,” Master Seogu replied, “do you want to give it a try?”

Young jinje was impressed with the pure and simple way the monks lived, decided to become one. He got permission from his parents and then began his duties as an apprentice: taking care of his teacher, cooking, gathering firewood, and keeping the vegetable garden.

I choose “Mu”

Six or seven months passed quickly and at the end of the summer meditation retreat 4 or 5 meditation monks came to pay their respects to Master Seogu. The Master asked,

“There was a time, during the Han Dynasty, that people were selected for government positions depending on how they inserted a character in the phrase ‘日出東方大笑’ which means, ‘The sun rises in the east smiling.’ One scholar put in the character ‘I’ so that the phrase read, ‘The sun rises in the east smiling and I smile’ and was appointed Prime Minister. How would you respond?”

None of the monks responded so the young Jinje replied,

“I choose ‘mu(無),’ meaning ‘no’ or ‘nothing’ so the phrase will read ‘The sun rises in the east with no smile' because the sun rises and lights up the world without any thoughts of pride.”

Master Seogu laughed with satisfaction, “This apprentice will become a great Master of the Dharma.”

“Before you were born, what is your True Self?”

Soon after the Master Seogu was requested to be the residing master at Haeinsa monastery and so his apprentice followed. In the winter of that year the young Jinje received his novice precepts, becoming a monk, and began to study the scriptures.

On New Year's Eve all of the monks gathered in the main hall and for entertainment each one was required to tell a story. At that time the Abbot of the temple Ja-un sunim and the Dharma Master Un-heo sunim were the elders at the gathering. When it was time for the young Jinje to tell a story he spoke of an incident that happened in the Tang Dynasty,

“There once was a wise layman and one day a monk visited his house. After the monk was served lunch the layman asked, “So, is there something else I can do for you?”

The monk replied, “I came here to receive offerings.”

At this the layman made a deal with the monk, “If you can answer my question I will make an offering, but if you cannot you must leave.” The layman then wrote the character “shim”(心) and asked, “Do you know this character?”

“Of course,” said the monk, “that is the character for heart, or mind.”

The man then called his wife and asked her the same thing. “Of course”, she said, “that is the character for heart, or mind.”

The layman said to his wife, “You too can be a mendicant.” and then as he kicked the monk out of the house he shouted, “You do not deserve to receive offerings!”

After telling this story the young Jinje sunim asked the assembly if they could have responded to this wise layperson. No one answered so Jinje sunim said, “Nobody can say a thing.” The abbot of the temple, Ja-un sunim then joked and said, “We will need to make Jinje sunim the master of this Temple.

That next year Master Seogu was requested to lead the newly reformed Jogye Order, they moved to Donghwasa temple near Daegu. This time the young man was determined to begin meditation practice and he joined a few of the other monks for a weeklong retreat without sleep at a deserted hermitage.

When he returned, Master Seogu was angry at him disappearing,

“You don’t listen to your master and you just do what you want!” But at the same time he was happy with his disciple’s earnest desire to practice so he gave him the Hwadu: “What is your original face before your parents were born?” His student took this hwadu and left the temple for the life of a wandering meditation monk, he was 23 years old.

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Burning for Enlightenment

Now being an ordained monk the young Jinje sunim(honorific title for Buddhist monks and nuns) set out for a small deserted hermitage in Taebaek mountain with the intention of enlightenment. He immersed himself in his Hwadu, just eating mountain patatos, but the abbot of the temple below him worried and continued to ask him to come down and stay in the temple. After two months of this distraction he decided to leave Taebaek mountain and went to study with some monks at Torisa temple.

He started the winter retreat determined to break through his hwadu, getting up to meditate after all of the other monks had fallen asleep. After two months he was struck by an experience which he believed to be enlightenment. He stopped his practice, becoming complacent and believing himself to have been enlightened, and waited for the end of the retreat to see his master.

First meeting with Seon Master Hyanggok

At the end of the retreat however, he found out that his Master Seogu had passed away, so after the cremation ceremony at Donghwasa monastery he went in search of masters to confirm what he believed to be Great Enlightenment.

First he went to SeongCheonAm temple to meet the Master Song Cheol sunim. At that time however, Master Seong Cheol sunim was in the middle of a practice that consisted of not meeting anyone for 10 years. The master just cried out to Jinje sunim, “I don’t know, I don’t know!”

Next Jinje sunim traveled south to meet the famous Master Hyanggok sunim, a Dharma friend of Song Cheol sunim. Immediately upon meeting Jinje sunim, the master Hyanggok hurled a question at him,

“If you cna answer I will hit you thirty times, if you don’t I will still hit you thirty times! What will you do?”

Jinje sunim was at a loss for words, the Master asked again,

“After Nan-ch'ünan killed the cat Joju put his shoe on his head and left the room. What do you think of this?”

Jinje sunim was still speechless, despite all of his confidence in his mistaken belief of enlightenment he could not avoid being reprimanded. However, without having faith in a teacher it is not easy to put aside mistaken beliefs of seeing one’s self nature, so he went out traveling the country meeting all the different masters.

But there was a problem, some of the masters rebuked him as did Master Hyanggok, but others seemed to confirm his experience as enlightenment. If all the masters had reproached him it would have been easy to put away his false belief, but because there still were a few who did not. He wasted the next two years believing himself to be great man of the way.

When he was 25 he entered into a difficult winter retreat at Sangwonsa temple at Odaesan mountain. It was especially cold that winter, and with only a heavy blanket to sleep in a room that wood freeze any tea left over, the community lived and meditated. One sunny day he was sitting outside enjoying the warmth and reflecting on his life, “Is everything in the world clear, like it was for the great masters of the past? If somebody asks me a question am I confident that I can respond clearly and quickly?” The answer was, without a doubt, “no”.

“I have been mistaking a thief to be my son, a rock to be a nugget of gold. In the end who is it hurting?” he reproached himself and decided to put aside all of his mistakes and start over again, but this time under the instruction of a “bright eyed” Seon master.

And among all of the Seon masters he had met so far the young Jinje sunim was impressed by Master Hyanggok’s precision and clarity in teaching; his ability to use “the knife the other masters did not use” in separating white from black. So at the end of the retreat he departed for Master Hyanggok's temple.

I will give my life for it

“I have come here to study under you, master,” said Jinje sunim as he prostrated himself before Master Hyanggok.

“The Great Way is boundless and sublime, how are you going to solve it?” the master asked.

“I will give my life for it,” the young monk replied and so Master Hyanggok gave him a new hwadu:

“Hsiang-yen: Up a Tree” (香嚴上樹話):

A man was hanging by his teeth from a tree branch high upon a precipice. His hands were tied and his feet dangling. Somebody walked by and asked him why Bodhidharma came to China. If he answers he will fall, if he does not he will have failed in his duty. If you were in this situation, what would you do?

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Breaking open, “Hsiang-yen: Up a Tree”

Jinje sunim devoted his life to this hwadu, after 2 years of practice one morning he tripped on a rock whiel walking up the stairs. While he began to get up the hwadu suddenly broke open. He wrote this enlightenment gatha:

How many people know about the truth in this staff?

The Buddhas of the past, present, and future don’t know it

This staff suddenly turns into a dragon of gold

And performs all sorts of wonders.

When Master Hyanggok heard this he immediately asked,

“If you were this dragon and you met a garuda (a legendary bird which eats dragons) what would you do then?”

“I would bow and take three steps back,” Jinje sunim replied.

Master Hyanggok praised his student, “You’re right. Very good!”

After this Jinje sunim could answer without hesitation, everything except for the kong-an ‘Sun faced Buddha, Moon faced Buddha(日面佛月面佛)’.

This was the hwadu made famous by the renown Master Xuedou(雪竇) who struggled with this hwadu for nearly 20 years despite clearly seeing through every other kong-an.

One day a monk came to pay his respects to the Great Master Mazu. He asked, “How did you sleep last night?” Mazu replied, “Sun faced Buddha, Moon faced Buddha (Sun faced Buddha lived for 1800 years, Moon faced Buddha lived for 1 day)”.

Breaking open ‘Sun faced Buddha, Moon faced Buddha’

Once again for 5 years Jinje sunim put forth all of his efforts towards this hwadu until finally one winter, when everything was white and covered with snow, he walked up to a cistern with snow piled up on its edges. When he looked down he saw, not snow, but only clear, still water. This hwadu suddenly broke open, the question had been resolved. He was able to discern the countless teachings of the ancient masters and wrote this gatha:

With one strike from this staff

The head of Vairocana topples over

One thunderous shout,

And all of these conflicts vanish

In this one room hermitage

I stretch out my legs

The fresh wind over the ocean feels new everyday

Though it will blow for thousands of years.

Confirmation and Transmission

It was during the last Dharma lecture of the summer retreat in 1967 when Jinje sunim asked Master Hyanggok, “I’m not asking about what the Buddhas and Patriarchs know, but tell me what they don’t know.”

“Nine times nine is eighty one,” the Master replied.

“All of the Buddhas and Patriarchs know that.”

“Six times six is thirty six.”

Jinje sunim bowed and without a word left the hall. The Master came down from his seat and returned to his room. The next day Jinje sunim put on his robes and asked the Master again,

“I’m not asking about the eye of the Buddha or the Eye of Wisdom, please tell me what the Eye of the enlightened monk is.”

“The duties of a Bhikkuni are those done by women,” the Master responded.

“Today I have truly seen you for the first time, Master.”

“From where are you seeing me?” the Master asked.

“Kwan(關)!” Jinje sunim shouted (this character has many different meanings, “gate” or “the wooden bolt that locks the gate”).

Master Hyanggok was delighted, “You are right! You are right!”

At this time the Master made Jinje sunim his Dharma successor and the 79th Patriarch of the lineage passed on through Master Huineng and Master Linji of China, one of the few intact lineages in the world. He wrote this transmission gatha:

Entrusting this Dharma to my successor, Jinje Beopwon:

The great, living Dharma of the Buddhas and Patriarchs,

Can be neither transmitted nor received.

As I am transmitting this living Dharma,

To gather or to spread, it is up to you.

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Spreading the dharma

Expending all of his efforts

In 1971, Master Jinje moved to Haeundae and established HaeunJeongsa, a Seon Temple near downtown Busan in order to spread the teachings of Buddha and Seon meditation. For the past 40 years he has expended all of his efforts teaching both monks and the laity to live with the Seon spirit in daily life. More than anything esle he is looking for a disciple that can inherit his lineage.

In 1994, he was requested to be the Josil, or residing Master of Donghwasa Monastery, guiding the meditation hall as well as providing instruction and checking the practice of all who come and visit. The Korean Jogye Order is unique in its emphasis on meditation. Besides the thousands of temples in Korea there are more than one hundred meditation halls where the two thousand or so meditation monks are expected to reside at least 3 months for the summer and winter retreats. Since 1994 the Master has had his Dharma lectures distributed to each of these meditation halls at the beginning of each retreat.

In 1996 he was appointed to be the Guiding Master of the Jogye Order "Fundamental Seon Course" responsible for the training of all meditation monks.

With the plans of hosting an International Open Seon Conference, Master Jinje traveled to China to visit nine of the most respected masters to determine who had the most complete and clear enlightenment.

In 2002, for the first time in Korea, Master Jinje opened the International Open Seon Conference and invited great Seon masters from China and Japan to HaeunJeongsa temple in Busan, exposing the unique aspects of Korean Ganhwa Seon to the world.

Early in 2011, Professor Paul Knitter, a theologian at Union Theological Seminary in New York, visited Master Jinje to learn about Ganhwa Seon, further exposing it to the world. In September of 2011 Master Jinje traveled to the U.S. and gave a Dharma teaching on "Ganhwa Seon and World Peace" at Riverside Church in New York to mark the 10th year of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

He attended at the 2012 National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. in early February and spoke in front of international leaders, Senators, Congressman and distinguished guests at the International Luncheon. In October of 2012 Master Jinje was invited by religious leaders and gave a Dharma talk on "World Peace and Ecological Crisis: A Buddhist Wisdom," at the Church Center for the United Nations.

Shakyamuni Buddha, the great teacher of all mankind, passed the teachings of Seon in India. From there it traveled east to China and then Korea. The time has come for these teachings to become well known in the west.

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