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2010 Travel Diary #33: Remembering Seong Cheol Sunim

Seong Cheol
Seong Cheol

What is Buddhism all about? I confess to knowing very little. One night of temple stay, and browsing round a few exhibitions of Buddhist art, does not qualify as a proper introduction.

In Daewonsa, Neunghae Sunim took a pleasingly laid back approach to the Buddhist life. “Don’t rush things” and “Enjoy yourself” seemed to be the most frequently heard injunction as I laboured painstakingly (though with an eye on the clock) over my sutra painting. I’m sure there was some more complex guidance she was trying to offer, but it either got lost in translation or I was so keen to latch on to the good news that Buddhism was all about chilling out that I couldn’t cope with any conflicting information.

Seong Cheol\’s hermitage on Mt Kumgang

My local guide, Mr Min, also tried to give me a crash course on just about everything Sancheong had to offer. The problem is, every topic seemed like a Mastermind Specialist Subject in its own right. Korea’s ancient herbal medicine; the history of the leftist partisan struggle, 1948-1963; the history of the Kaya Confederacy; elements of Buddhist theology; ancient Korean geomantic theory and Taoist thought; the life and times of Seong Cheol; traditional Korean architectural practices and their connection with Confucian philosophy. The list of topics was never-ending, and difficult enough to communicate to a novice even in the same language, but nigh-on impossible to convey to a foreigner. My interpreter Morgan certainly earned her keep during our stay in Sancheong, and every now and then needed to take a break, when her translation duties were assumed by Kyung-sook or Yoseph.

Cremation with Sarira
Seong Cheol\’s Cremation – and the creation of 100 Sarira – depicted at his memorial in Sancheong county

We have come (Friday 7 May 2010) to visit the shrine to the memory of Seong Cheol Sunim, one of Korea’s most eminent Buddhists. Seong Cheol (also spelled Song Chol, 성철) was born in Sancheong County in 1912. When he died in 1993, he was so popular that he was named Man of the Year. But that was not the most remarkable story about his death. It is said that after his cremation, the mound of ash contained over 100 sariras – the crystal-like objects said to represent the embodiment of the spiritual knowledge of a Buddhist master, and preserved in the past in ornate golden caskets as objects of veneration.

Unfortunately, I was to find that even if I’d had time before coming to Korea to prepare properly for this particular visit, I would have been frustrated: there is very little web-based available on Seong Cheol’s life in English: a rather dry one-page biography is all that I could find, on a general Buddhist website. Not enough to give the flavour of the man to a non-specialist.

Seong Cheol memorial
Seong Cheol memorial – with a painting of the young monk getting his tonsure at Haeinsa

Throughout the two-day tour around the sights of Sancheong the one constant message that Mr Min tried to impress on me was that obsession and Buddhism did not go together. He was in despair at trying to convey the full story of the Seon master’s life, and the complexity of the Buddhist concepts that the reverent monk grappled with. So instead he told me some simple human interest stories about Master Seong Cheol which indicated his devotion to achieving personal enlightenment. But to an unsophisticated lay person such as myself, it seemed that Master Seong Cheol’s devotion to the Buddhist way, and his avoidance of the earthly life, bordered on that cardinal sin, Obsession. In a very holy way, of course.

Seong Cheol carries his mother round the mountain
Seong Cheol carries his mother round the mountain

Take his early decision to abandon his wife, six months pregnant with his daughter, to enable him to sever his ties with the past and to start following the Buddhist path. Or his reluctance to meet his teenage daughter when she wanted to connect with the father that she had never set eyes on all her life. Or his reluctance to permit his mother to visit him in his mountain hermitage in Kumgangsan: when his fellow monks remonstrated with him, he pointed out that an eminent Chinese monk had done the same and had ended up becoming an even greater sage. On this point though his fellow monks finally persuaded Seong Cheol to relent, and he duly carried his aged mother around the mountain on his back. What his mother thought about such an uncomfortable journey I was not told.

And how about this as a way of pruning your diary of unwanted meetings? Anyone who wanted to see him was told that they first had to prostrate themselves 3,000 times. The idea was that during the course of this intense Buddhist devotional exercise, they would figure out the answer to whatever problem they were going to ask Master Seong Cheol about. I’m heartily in agreement that the lessons you learn for yourself are the ones that you learn best.

But Seong Cheol’s pursuit of enlightenment, which involved sacrifice by himself and by those dear to him, and years of self-discipline, study and meditation, resulted in a life which transformed Korean Buddhism. He spent years in solitary meditation, maintaining the lotus position, first 1940-1947, and then 1955-1964. It is said that he brought the mental powers of an Einstein to some of the trickier Buddhist philosophical problems of the day – and indeed he used Einstein’s general theory of relativity and formula of mass-energy equivalence as analogies to argue that Buddhism is a scientific religion.

Seong Cheol's 100 Day Sermon
Seong Cheol\’s 100 Day Sermon

Seong Cheol’s early years of Buddhist study were at Daewonsa, in Sancheong County, but he entered fully into monastic life in Haeinsa. His famous 100-day sermon, delivered when he became Patriarch at Haeinsa in 1967, was a marathon physical and mental achievement in itself, but also forms the cornerstone of his teachings which follow a middle way between Seon and Gyo – the two branches of Korean Buddhism – while managing to provide new perspectives for both. Later in life he was appointed Patriarch of the Jogye Order for two successive terms.

The shrine to his memory in Sancheong County is built on the site of his birthplace, and has a small temple decorated with scenes from his life – including his walk round the mountain carrying his mother – and a reconstruction of his quarters in Haeinsa where he spent much of his later life. A small museum contains relics of his life, including his very threadbare, well-patched grey cloak: his frugality prevented his getting a replacement as it progressively wore out. In the centre of the site is a statue of the great man himself. When I visited, the scene was decorated with pretty lanterns in preparation for Buddha’s birthday, and a constant stream of devout visitors were paying their respects.

Seong Cheol's memorial
Seong Cheol\’s memorial

My apologies to such devout Buddhists who may be offended by my somewhat flippant treatment of one of the most prominent and most admired of modern-day Korean Buddhist monks. I am only relaying what I was told on an all-too-brief visit (supplemented by the little online research that it’s possible to do), and in the absence of readily-available English biographical information about the great man, I look forward to being sent plenty of corrections so that I can pay proper respect to his memory next time I am in Sancheong, which I hope will be soon. In the meanwhile, I shall be laying my hands on the only available English language text of his, Opening the Eye.


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2 thoughts on “2010 Travel Diary #33: Remembering Seong Cheol Sunim

  1. Colette Balmain: Really interesting Philip, especially as I will have to tackle the subject of Korean Buddhism at some point.

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