About Seon Master Daehaeng
Seon Master Daehaeng was born in Seoul, in 1927, and is widely regarded as one of Korea’s foremost seon(zen) masters. She awakened at a young age and spent the decades afterwards applying what she experienced.
For many years she had struggled with the question of why people suffer. Seon Master Daehaeng realized that ultimately the answer was ignorance. People were unaware of the non-dual foundation that connects all existence. Unaware of this inherent connection, people lived as if they were disconnected from everyone else. Unaware of the ever-changing nature of reality, people tried to grip and immobilize that which is ever flowing. Unaware that their foundation is endowed with all of the ability of the universe, people thought themselves weak and helpless, limited to the kindness of others or the ability of their intellect.
Thus, people suffered because their behaviors and thoughts were not in harmony with the underlying truth of our world. And because people didn’t know about this inherent foundation, with its infinite ability, they also didn’t know how to free themselves from the suffering they had made.
So Seon Master Daehaeng began teaching people to entrust, to let go of, everything that confronts them to their inherent foundation, and then to go forward while observing. By continuing to apply and experiment with what we understand, a small grain of faith can grow into a great ball of flame that burns up all attachments and habits of the body and mind. Once this cloud of habits and discriminations has lifted, our inherently bright foundation, our true nature, can shine through.
She emphasizes that every single one of us is endowed with this bright foundation. We all have latent within us the wisdom and abilities of all Buddhas. Thus, while seon masters have traditionally taught only monks and a few nuns, Seon Master Daehaeng was determined to teach spiritual practice in such a way that anyone, regardless of their occupation, gender, or family status could practice and awaken.
So in 1972 Seon Master Daehaeng established Hanmaum Seon Center as a place where everyone could come and learn about their true nature and how to live with freedom, dignity, and courage. Although she left her body in 2012, the spirit of her teachings are still there and continues on.
Teachings of Daehaeng Kun Sunim
The first thing that Daehaeng Kun Sunim teaches people is that when we were born into this world, each one of us was already endowed with everything we need, including all abilities and all understanding. We all have this fundamental nature, sometimes called Buddha-nature, inherent mind, or Juingong, but the problem is that people don’t rely upon it. Instead they search outside of themselves for something that will make them feel happy, complete, and satisfied. But ignoring the splendor of our inherent nature and looking for something separate from ourselves only makes people feel worse.
In order to realize and awaken to our inherent nature, Daehaeng Kun Sunim teaches people to “Believe in your foundation, Juingong, and entrust it with everything that confronts you. Then go forward while observing and experimenting with what you experience. All things constantly change every instant, so there is nothing to cling to. By entrusting everything to your foundation, every aspect of your daily life can become part of your practice. Don’t blame others for the things that happen in your life, know that everything is your teacher, and interpret things positively. Also know that all beings share the same mind, the same life, the same body, work together, and share all things together.”
According to the circumstances and the listeners, Daehaeng Sunim has spoken in depth about these and other aspects of spiritual practice. The following is a summary of Daehaeng Kun Sunim’s teachings related to several of these topics.
What is true self?
If you had not been born, you wouldn’t be aware of the universe nor would the phenomenal world have any meaning for you. If you weren’t here, neither Buddha nor the Buddha-dharma would exist. Therefore the most urgent thing is to truly know yourself. While inquiring, do not assume that your body is who you are.
Think about what makes you see, hear, think and act. What is it that has guided your evolution from the time you were a microbe all the way up to becoming a human being. It is your true self, your fundamental mind. Let’s take the example of a tree. Trees live by relying upon its root, even though they can’t see it. Like this, your true self isn’t something that you can show to others, but it always exists within you. Furthermore, everything in the universe is also living by relying on its true self, i.e. upon its root.
Your fundamental mind, your true self is invisibly connected to all things in the world and through it all things communicate with each other and work together as one. In this way, the whole universe is functioning together as one through fundamental mind, so this working together is called One Mind (Hanmaum).
Fundamental mind, or Juingong, is not the mind that arises and disappears. On the contrary, it is tranquil and unshakable, and has infinite ability to encompass the entire universe. It is the source of unlimited energy, which you can freely use whenever you want.
Fundamental mind is within you, is the source of your existence, and has led you over the eons. Thus, that is what you have to believe in and rely upon. Money, fame, relationships, etc. may give you some satisfaction, but it will be short-lived. Only by knowing your true nature will you be able to know true satisfaction.
It’s unfortunate that people forget all about their past lives once they’re reborn, but it is not necessary to remember your past lives in order to know your true self. Anybody, even children, can see the working of true self in the world around them. For example, even though a tree looks dead and lifeless in the winter, you know from experiences that fresh leaves will appear in the spring.
Every kind of plant lives by relying upon its root. Would you try to ignore the root that has guided your evolution all the way up to becoming a human being? Your root, true self, Juingong, is the source of energy infinitely greater than that of the sun, and is always functioning as one with the entire universe. So believe in and rely upon this boundless energy that has guided your evolution and which deeply loves you. Don’t doubt the fact that Juingong has always been with you and will always be with you. Know that you and the Buddha are fundamentally connected as one. Your mind and the Buddha’s mind are not separate.
Once a firm belief in your foundation develops, nothing can disturb you. Moreover, every kind of truth will naturally become clear to you. Therefore, if you have a firm belief in your foundation and always rely upon it, there is nothing else you have to try to practice. The sutras contain so many different teachings because there are so many different kinds of people with different levels of development. Thus, various types of skillful means were necessary. Nevertheless, all of those teachings and methods were based upon the realization that there is an inherent foundation within each one of us that connects as one and through which we all function as one.
*about Kun Sunim vs. Seon Master: both are correct, but Kun Sunim is a more frequent, natural expression. Sunim is the generic term of respect for a Buddhist nun or monk, and Kun is used to indicate great or venerable. It’s used for someone of outstanding attainment, or sometimes just out of respect for one’s age. On the other hand, Seon Master will convey more information about the person to non-Korean speakers. So it’s kind of a toss up!
*Seon vs Zen: In a sense Zen has become a generic term, but having lived in Korea for many years, it’s clear that much of what’s called Zen is actually Japanese culture, and not particularly Buddhist or a reflection of this fundamental Buddhanature we all share. I use Seon because this is the term in the language that Daehaeng Kun Sunim speaks, although publishers often prefer Zen in order to give potential readers an indication of a book’s contents.