History of Buddhism
- The Buddhas
- The Historical Buddha
- The Pali Canon
- The First Turning of the Dharma Wheel: Theravada
- The Second Turning of the Dharma Wheel: Mahayana
- The Third Turning of the Dharma Wheel: Vajrayana
- A History of Son and Korean Buddhism
- Schism between Married and Celibate Clergy in Son Buddhism
- Modern Korean Buddhism
- Theravada Buddhist Meditation
- Early Zen Meditation
- Comparison of Theravada and Early Zen Meditation
- Son Meditation
According to the earliest texts in the Pal canon (oldest Buddhist scriptures), there were six
Buddhas who preceded the Historical Buddha. These Buddhas are: Vipassi (Sanskrit: Vipashyin), Sikhi (Shikin),
Vessabhu (Vishvabhu), Kakusandha (Krakuchchanda), Konagamana (the Sanskrit is the same), and Kassapa
(Kashyapa). In addition to these, there are references to thirteen additional Buddhas, the most prominent
of these is Dipamkara, who is said to have been a personal teacher to the Historical Buddha. These
legendary Buddhas are described in texts such as the Buddhavamsa in the
Khuddaka-nikaya. In the Pali canon, which is particularly valued by Theravada Buddhists,
the Buddha is generally depicted as an earthly being who teaches living beings in a very humanistic way.
Traditionally, Theravada Buddhism asserts that there is only one Buddha in every age.
In many schools of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, there are innumerable Buddhas. Similarly, many
forms of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism teach that all beings are already enlightened, possessing Buddha
nature, and they simply need to awaken to this true nature.
Although the various schools of Buddhism differ in precisely how they define concepts such as what it
means to be a Buddha, Buddha nature, and enlightenment, the Pali/Sanskrit word Buddha literally means
“awakened one.” So it is often said that to be a Buddha is to awaken to the true nature of reality.
The various schools of Buddhism also agree that a Buddha is one who has been liberated from the cyclical
states of suffering that the vast majority of beings are trapped in, such as greed, hatred, and delusion.
Similarly, a Buddha or enlightened being is freed from craving, desire, attachments and the suffering
caused by a selfish ego. Generally, all the schools of Buddhism would agree that being enlightened, or
recognizing one’s own inherent Buddha nature, is the highest goal of the Buddhist path
All three Turnings of the Dharma Wheel (Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana; the word dharma itself
refers to the teachings of Buddhism) emphasize the teachings of the Historical Buddha, the Buddha of
our current age. And all three also agree in the Buddha to Come, the Buddha that will follow the
Historical Buddha, is Maitreya.
The history of Buddhism begins with the person referred to as the Historical Buddha. He first name was
Siddhartha (the Sanskrit version of his name is better known to most westerners, the Pali being Siddhatta)
and his family name was Gautama. He is known by many names including Shakyamuni Buddha, and Gautama
Buddha. Scholars believe he was born in either 563 or 560 B.C.E. and died in either 483 or 480 B.C.E.,
living 80 years. The dates for his life are in part based on The Edicts of Asoka
(see Recommended Readings). The Historical Buddha was the son of a prince of the Shakyas, whose kingdom
in Kapilavastu in the foothills of the Himalayas was located in modern day Nepal.
When Siddhartha was born, his father Suddhodana was told his son would either be a great king or a
great religious leader. Wanting his son to follow in his footsteps, Suddhodana carefully sheltered
his son so that he would live a life of wealth and great ease and desire to become a king and not a
spiritual teacher. At the age of 16 he married Yashodhara and, as his father planned, was preparing
to follow his father’s path and become a worldly ruler.
But Siddhartha could not be satisfied with mere worldly pleasures and materialism, and so one night
he left the palace walls and entered out into the city. It was here that he first encountered human
suffering and misery. He encountered a man who was withered with age, a man who was crippled by
sickness, and a man who had died. By his father’s designs, Siddhartha had always led a wealthy and
sheltered life. Consequently Siddhartha was devastated when he encountered the suffering inherent
in human existence. As he returned to the palace in despair, he saw in the distance a monk meditating.
And this final introduced to him the possibility that suffering could be overcome.
He returned to the palace still in despair, awakened to how much suffering permeated human existence.
Soon after, his son Rahula was born. (Scholars debate the exact translation of Rahula. Many now assert
it means “moon” or “one who resembles the moon.” For an explication of this translation, E. Johnston
mentions it in his introduction to the Buddhacarita, volume 2). With the birth of his son, his
inspiration to aid all sentient beings crystallized. And so, at age 29, as many spiritual teachers did
in his era, he “went forth,” renouncing the comforts of worldly life to find the path of liberation
For six years he studied with the most revered religious teachers of his time, and became known for
his great feats of ascetic practice. Though a master of asceticism, he had still not reached
enlightenment. Siddhartha realized that ascetic practice alone would not bring him enlightenment,
and he then followed the “Middle Way” between extremes of worldliness and asceticism. He traveled to
Bodhgaya where he sat under the Bodhi tree and resolved to stay in meditation until he either reached
enlightenment, thereby finding a path where all beings could be liberated from their suffering, or
In Buddhist mythology it is said he sat in meditation for 49 days in the desert, undisturbed by
Mara who tempted him three times. He discovered spiritual truths such as the Four Noble Truths,
the Eightfold Path, the law of causality expressed in the twelve steps of Dependent Origination,
and the nature of true existence. Thus, at age 35, he emerged enlightened, and he spent the rest of
his life traveling and teaching. Interestingly, in some texts, his wife is depicted as doing the same
spiritual practices as Siddhartha, and that she too reached enlightenment.
The Historical Buddha established the sangha (monastic community of monks and nuns) and laid out
guidelines for their spiritual practice. Some of his other primary spiritual innovations were the
doctrine of no-self (anatta in Pali, anatman in Sanskrit), rejecting the caste
system, and declaring that women as well as men could reach enlightenment. According to the tradition,
the Pali canon was written down immediately after the Historical Buddha died.
The Pali canon is a rewarding but very dense and vast collection of ancient texts
(see Recommended Readings for translations of the Pali canon
in English). Pali is an ancient dialect derived from Sanskrit, and in which the oldest texts of Buddhism
are composed. Opinions regarding the origin of this dialect vary. Many scholars believe Pali is the
variation of the Magadha dialect that the Historical Buddha actually spoke. All schools of Buddhism
follow the Pali canon to varying degrees. It comprises the primary scripture for the various lineages of
Theravada Buddhism. It is also referred to as the Tipitaka (Pali, literally “Three Baskets”)
or the Tripitaka (Sanskrit). The Pali canon is divided into three main parts:
the Vinaya-pitaka (literally the “Basket of Discipline”) the Sutta-pitaka
(literally the “Basket of Writings”) and the Abhidhamma-pitaka (literally “Basket of the Special
Teaching”). The Pali canon is so long, it can easily fill several book shelves.
The Vinaya is divided into three sections and describes the original Buddhist sangha
(community) as well as the rules for monks and nuns. The second division, the Suttas are said to
be the teachings of the Historical Buddha. This section contains much of the mythology of Buddhism, as
well as ethical narratives, biographies, poems, and tales. This section is perhaps the best known and
most accessible to western audiences. The Suttas are divided into five sections: the
Digha-nikaya (literally “Long Collection” and is divided into 34 sections: describes the
last week of the Buddha’s life, the six Buddhas who existed before the Historical Buddha, the duties
of laypeople etc.), the Majjhima-nikaya (literally “Middle Collection” and is divided into
152 sections: the texts here are of medium length and said to have been recited by Shariputra), the
Samyutta-nikaya (literally “Unified Collection” and contains many short texts describing the
life of the Historical Buddha), the Anguttara-nikaya (literally “Graduated Collection” and is
divided into 11 sections: these texts echo the themes of the Abhidhamma) and the
Khuddaka-nikaya (literally “Short Collection” and is divided into 15 sections – includes the
Dhammapada, poetry, Jataka/biographical tales and some of the most famous passages
of the Pali canon). The third section, the Abhidhamma, is a vast explication of Buddhist
philosophy and psychology.
The Three Turnings of the Dharma Wheel: Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana
Theravada Buddhism is the oldest of the three main divisions of Buddhism. Theravada Buddhism,
translated from Pali, literally means “teaching of the elders of the order.” From India, it was spread
to Sri Lanka in 250 B.C.E. and is the primary form of Buddhism throughout Southeast Asia, in countries
such as Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.
Some of the primary teachings of Theravada Buddhism are the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path,
the twelve steps of Dependent Origination and the teaching of no-self. The Pali canon is the primary
collection of texts for Theravada Buddhism; the most important non-canonical texts are perhaps the
Visuddhi-magga (Pali, literally “path of purity,” written in the fifth century C.E. by
Buddhaghosha and describes Theravada meditation and the foundational doctrines in detail)and the
Milindapanha (Pali, literally “The Questions of King Milinda,” written in the beginning of
the common era, is a dialogue between the monk Nagasena and King Milinda which particularly focused
on the ideas of karma and no-self).
Mahayana Buddhism is the second great turning of the dharma wheel. Mahayana Buddhism arose in the
first century C.E. and spread throughout East Asia, first to China, and then to Korea, Japan and Vietnam.
One of the main spiritual paths in Mahayana Buddhism is that of the bodhisattva, one who seeks the
enlightenment of all sentient beings. Some of the other primary doctrines are emptiness and Buddha
nature. Mahayana Buddhists, like Theravada Buddhists, believe in teachings such as the Four Noble
Truths, the Eightfold Path, Dependent Origination and no-self.
Some of the main types of Mahayana Buddhism are Ch’an, Hua-yen, T’ien-t’ai, and the Pure Land school.
These forms of Buddhism were known in Japan as Zen, Kegon, Tendai, and the Jodo-shu or Amida Buddhism,
respectively. Ch’an Buddhism is referred to as Son in Korea (see below) and Thien in Vietnam.
Hua-yen literally means “Flower Garland School” and derives its name from the
Buddhavatamsaka-sutra. This lineage stresses the interconnection and interdependence of all
things upon each other. T’ien-t’ai literally means “School of the Celestial Platform” and its
primary scripture is the Lotus Sutra. This school views Nagarjuna as its first patriarch who argued
that all things arise conditionally and are empty of inherent existence. The T’ien-t’ai assert that all
phenomena are an expression of the absolute, of “suchness” (tathata). The Pure Land school
stresses being reborn in the pure land of the Buddha Amitabha. This ideal rebirth is achieved through
cultivating faith in the Buddha Amitabha, usually through the recitation of mantras. Pure Land Buddhism
is the largest form of Buddhism in both China and Japan, and is occasionally compared to Christianity
for its emphasis on faith and devotion.
The lineages of Mahayana Buddhism study and adhere to the Pali canon in varying degrees. As Buddhism
spread throughout East Asia, the various forms of the dharma developed their own sacred texts in
addition to the Pali canon (see Recommended Readings
for some Mahayana texts translated to English).
Mahayana, translated from Sanskrit, literally means “Great Vehicle.” Mahayana Buddhists employ this
term because they seek to emphasize following the spiritual path for the sake of saving all sentient
beings. Occasionally, Theravada Buddhism will be referred to as the “Hinayana,” which literally means
in Sanskrit “Small Vehicle.” Most westerners are not aware of the important distinction in names between
Theravada and Hinayana. As Hinayana contains a strong pejorative connotation, and all schools of Buddhism
ideally practice for altruistic reasons, I highly discourage using the term Hinayana and always employ
the term Theravada.
Vajrayana in Sanskrit literally means “Diamond Vehicle” and is more commonly referred to in the
west as Tibetan Buddhism. The Vajrayana school arose primarily in northern India around the 8th century
C.E. and spread primarily to countries in the Himalayan region, such as Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, and
western China. Vajrayana Buddhism incorporated many disparate elements including Tantric practices,
yoga, and the indigenous Bon religion of Tibet.
This school is often classified as having many “magical” practices, though actual practitioners
vary in how they understand and interpret the rituals of the Vajrayana. Their rituals are often
very complex and typically involve the recitation of mantras and elaborate visualization forms of
meditation. As they frequently emphasize the use of sacred syllables for cultivating various spiritual
characteristics, this school is also referred to as the Mantrayana.
Another dominant characteristic of Vajrayana is the use of initiations, given by an authorized
guru that empowers the students to do particular mediation practices associated with a particular
Buddha or deity. There are four main lineages of Tibetan Buddhism: the Nyingmapa
(“School of the Ancients”), Kagyupa (“Oral Transmission Lineage”), Sakyapa (named after the Sakya
“Grey Earth” Monastery), and Gelugpa (“School of the Virtuous”).
The Nyingmapa is the oldest form of Buddhism in Tibet. Padmasambhava helped to bring the teachings of
Buddhism from India to Tibet. Padmasambhava is perhaps best known in the west for the Bardo thodol,
or as it is more commonly known, The Tibetan Book of the Dead. The Nyingmapas consider
Dzogchen to be the supreme form of doctrine and practice. Dzogchen translated from
Tibetan literally means “Great Perfection.” Those who practice it often consider it to be the definitive
and most secret form of teachings given by the Historical Buddha. Padmasambhava was one of the teachers
who brought Dzogchen to Tibet; the practice teaches that the mind is inherently pure and this
purity only needs to be recognized.
The Kagyupa teachings came to Tibet from India in the 11th century by Marpa. The school places a
premium on the direct transmission of the dharma from teacher to student. Milarepa, a student of
Marpa’s, is said to have mastered all the teachings after years of ascetic practice, and is a seminal
figure in Tibetan Buddhism.
The Sakyapa school created a systematic order for the Tantric writings and also focused on
Buddhist logic. Prominent founding gurus of this lineage were regarded as manifestations of Manjushri.
It held the most political influence until the formation of the Gelugpa school.
The Gelugpa lineage was founded by Tsongkhapa in the 14th century C.E. It is the largest of the
four lineages, and with the installation of the Dalai Lamas as the heads of state in the 17th century,
has assumed political leadership of Tibet. Thus, when China invaded Tibet in 1949, the 14th Dalai
Lama emerged as the primary spokesperson for this besieged nation.
Two of the main methods of meditation taught by the Historical Buddha were sati
(“mindfulness” discussed above under Theravada Buddhism) and dhyana (Pali jhana
“absorption”). In ancient Buddhism, sati was said to produce qualities of discernment and
insight, whereas dhyana was said to produce samatha (“quiescence” or “stillness”).
Sati was unique to Buddhism, whereas dhyana was practiced in many Indian religions,
albeit understood philosophically in different ways.
As the dhyana style of meditation came to China, it was pronounced Ch’an-na or Ch’an, in
Korea Son-na or Son, and when it eventually came to Japan from Korea, it was called
Zen-na or Zen, which is how it is most commonly known in the west.
Bodhidharma (470-543 C.E. are the generally accepted dates) is the 28th patriarch in the Indian
lineage of Buddhism, with the Historical Buddha being the first teacher. Bodhidharma traveled from
India to southern China and introduced dhyana to Chinese society, hence he is also regarded as
the first Chinese patriarch of Ch’an.
A famous exchange occurred between Bodhidharma and the emperor Wu-ti, a follower of Buddhism who
helped to propagate the dharma and built several Buddhist monasteries. The emperor asked Bodhidharma
what merit he had acquired for all his activities in spreading the dharma and how they would effect his
future rebirths. Bodhidharma replied simply, “No merit.” Shocked, the emperor asked what the ultimate
meaning was of the Buddhist teachings. Bodhidharma replied succinctly, “Expanse of emptiness -
nothing sacred.” Clearly frustrated and referring to Bodhidharma, the emperor demanded to know, “Who is
that in front of us?” And Bodhidharma responded “Don’t know.”
Though Bodhidharma revealed the essence of Zen, the emperor was confused and frustrated. Consequently,
Bodhidharma concluded that although some schools of Buddhism had become popular in China, the nation
was not yet ready for the subtle and profound teachings of Zen. Thus he traveled to northern China and
settled in the Shao-lin Monastery where it is said he sat in zazen (Zen meditation) unmoved
and undisturbed for nine years. Emerging from this intense practice period, he began teaching students
and continued to share the philosophy and practice of Zen.
Zen is generally classified as a form of Mahayana Buddhism, although some practitioners of Zen
argue that Zen is so unique it constitutes its own form of Buddhism independent of all other forms.
Personally, I see Zen as a form of the Mahayana that arose in relation to, and because of, many
religious and cultural factors.
Many scholars argue that Zen formed its unique path when dhyana meditation from India encountered
the Taoism of China. A four-part definition of Zen was attributed to Bodhidharma, though many scholars
argue that it originated with the later Ch’an master Nan-ch’uan P’u-yuan:
- A special transmission outside the orthodox teaching.
- Nondependence on sacred writings.
- Direct pointing to the human heart.
- Realization of one’s own nature and becoming a Buddha.
This special transmission outside the orthodox teaching first occurred between the Historical
Buddha and Mahakashyapa on Vulture Peak. Shakyamuni Buddha was surrounded by a sea of disciples.
To convey the essence of his teaching, and without uttering a word, the Historical Buddha help up a
single flower. Of all the disciples, only Mahakashyapa fully understood Shakyamuni’s message, and
so he smiled in response to his teacher. This was the first heart-to-heart mind-to-mind transmission of
the dharma. It did not depend on words or sacred texts. And this transmission is emblematic of Zen
thought and practice as a whole.
Zen Buddhism asserts that this lineage continued unbroken from the Historical Buddha to
Bodhidharma, and then Bodhidharma continued the chain of wordless direct dharma transmission in
China and throughout East Asia. Even Zen sanghas (communities) in the west trace their
teacher’s lineages back to Shakyamuni Buddha.
This transmission is considered to be more mythology than actual historical events to most scholars
as there is no historical evidence to verify the authenticity of the earliest transmissions. For many
Zen practitioners, the actual historicity of this process is immaterial, as what truly matters is the
direct experience of enlightenment with teachers and students in the present moment.
Many different schools of Zen arose as it spread throughout East Asia. The Southern School of Zen
in China, based on the teachings of the 6th Chinese patriarch Hui-neng advocated an understanding of
enlightenment which could occur suddenly and at any time. The Northern School of Zen in China, based
on the teachings of Shen-hsiu, argued that enlightenment occurred gradually and lasted for only a
short time. The Northern School itself did not survive, but debates about the nature of enlightenment
and how it is most efficaciously achieved continue to this day.
The Southern School split into “Five Houses” and two of these lineages, the Soto and Rinzai,
reached Japan via Son which was practiced in Korea. As time passed in China, Ch’an became
increasingly connected to Pure Land Buddhism. Soto came to Japan in the 12th century, and Rinzai
reached Japan during the beginning of the 13th century. Two of the seminal figures in Japanese Zen
are Dogen Zenji (1200-1253) who introduced the Soto style in Japan and Hakuin Zenji (1689-1769) who
was a great reformer of Rinzai Zen and helped it to flourish anew after a long period of decline.
Soto generally advocates a “just sitting” (meditation) approach to reaching enlightenment, whereas
Rinzai tends to advocate the use of koans.
Buddhism in Korea dates back to the 4th century C.E. and quickly became the dominant religion of the
entire Korean peninsula. When Buddhism initially came to Korea there were four kingdoms on the
peninsula: Koguryo, Paekje, Karak and Shilla and Buddhist teachers settled in all four areas.
Songmun-sa was the first Buddhist temple in Korea. It was built in 375 in the northern Koguryo
kingdom. After the arrival of Buddhism the arts in Korea flourished with the making of huge cast
iron bells, pagodas, statues, architecture and painting.
Japan also benefited from the advancements in Korean culture. The kingdoms of Paekje and Koguryo
in particular sent many Buddha statues and artistic Buddhist instruments to Japan. Many Korean
artisans skilled in making Buddha statues, temples, religious paintings and roof tiles were also
sent to Japan.
Buddhism also helped to generate a renaissance in writing and scholarly pursuits. One of the most
revered of Korean poets and monks lived during this time. Master Wonhyo (617-686) wrote many texts on
the nature of oneness and the interrelatedness of all things in the universe. The crystallization of
his Buddhist philosophy is also one of the seminal events in the history of Korean Son.
During Wonhyo’s time, many monks would travel to China to study with Buddhist masters. Thus
Wonhyo and his friend Uisang set out together to travel to China. One night Wonhyo awoke with a
great thirst. He fumbled around in the dark and finally found a container filled with delicious water.
He drank heartily and went back to sleep contented. In the morning when he awoke, he discovered that
he had actually drunk from a skull.
At first Wonhyo was filled with revulsion. But then as he reflected further, he concluded that
everything depends on the mind. When he was thirsty, he found the water from the skull refreshing.
When he awoke in the daylight he was disgusted. However the water was still the same water. This was
his first experience of non-discriminating consciousness: that suffering is not an inherently objective
event, rather it is dependant upon our own mental state. Because of this event, he realized that he
did not have to go to China to study the dharma (teachings of Buddhism). The dharma could be learned
anywhere if the student’s mind was sufficiently open.
Uisang continued on alone to China. After ten years of studying the dharma in China he wrote a
poem for his teacher which contained the essence of the Avatamsaka-sutra (an extremely long
text explaining the nature of the universe). This poem by Uisang is considered to be one of the
greatest poems ever written in Korea.
In 668 C.E. the Shilla kingdom conquered the other kingdoms and Buddhism was solidified as the main
religion on the peninsula. This period came to be known as the United Shilla Period (668-935). The
Korean people were constantly at risk from invasion by China and Japan and Buddhism provided them with
a sense of national unity. Even in this early period of Buddhism, the main philosophy was of the
“One Mind” – the universal interrelatedness of all things as taught by Wonhyo.
Buddhism thrived throughout the Shilla Period. This era witnessed some of the finest Korean art;
numerous pagodas were built and the main temples of Korea were constructed. The famous rock statue
of the Buddha in Sokkuram grotto in Kyongju was carved in 732.
The Avatamsaka-sutra and the Lotus Sutra were the main Buddhist texts of this period.
Much of the chanting focused on Amitabha and Avalokiteshvara. Near the end of the United Shilla Period
the Ch’an lineage of Buddhism came to Korea, which in Korea was called Son. Thus meditation
and direct experience came to be emphasized over studying ancient texts. Nine different schools
emerged and they were known as the Nine Mountains of Son.
The Koryo Dynasty (935-1392) assumed power in the 10th century. Buddhism continued to function as
the state religion. Kings during this period established shrines and temples throughout the
peninsula. During this time a great emphasis came to be placed on rituals. Many monks fought a
gainst this trend, chief among them was Master Uich’on (1055-1101). Uich’on assembled 4,000 volumes
of Buddhist texts while he was practicing in China and from these the Korean Tripitaka was formed.
Uich’on stressed the importance of uniting contemplative Son practice with the textually focused
Avatamsa tradition. He called this new school Ch’ont’ae which reinvigorated Buddhist practice in Korea.
Chinul (1158-1210, also known as Pojokuksa) founded Songgwang-sa Temple on Mt. Chogye. Chinul was
the leading monk of his time. He criticized the Buddhism of his time for having excessive political
interests and like Uich’on emphasized meditation and studying the ancient texts. His Son philosophy
consisted of three main dimensions. First, he felt meditation should cultivate both
“alertness and calmness” (mindfulness and absorption). Second, he viewed Son as a rapid path to
enlightenment. And third, Son would generate a “complete and sudden faith and understanding.”
T’aego Po’u (1301-1383) was the last great Son master of the Koryo Dynasty. T’aego studied Buddhism
in China and received dharma transmission from Shih-wu Ch’ing-kung (1271-1351) of Yuan who belonged
to the Yang-ch’i line of the Lin-chi Ch’an (Korean Imje Son). He returned from China in 1346 and
united the Nine Mountains of Son in Korea. T’aego wrote three great odes to enlightenment in his life:
Overcoming Distinction and Perception, Declaration of Wholeness and
The Return to Ordinariness. He believed in the universal presence of Buddhahood in all
sentient beings as already completely present, which one simply needs to awaken to. He advocated
kanhwa Son practice, especially Chao-chou’s “No” hwadu (koan). T’aego stressed
single-minded concentration on the hwadu thereby cultivating great doubt.
The Choson dynasty (1392-1910) was closely aligned with Neo-Confucianism, and consequently Buddhism
endured centuries of persecution in Korea. By force of the government, in 1424 the various schools of
Buddhism united into two major forms of Buddhist practice: Son, intense Zen meditation, and Kyo,
doctrinal study. The total number of monks was limited by the government, and at times there were
outright bans on ordination ceremonies. Hundreds of monasteries were disestablished (the number of
temples sank to 242 during the reign of T’aejong [1401-1418]) and monks were banned from the cities.
The building of new temples was also banned. Monastic land holdings were seized by the government
and, as a result, many Buddhist monasteries were no longer economically viable.
Ironically, the Japanese occupation of Korea, which began in 1905, initially provided some relief
to Korean Buddhism. Japan had a long history of Buddhism, and its emissaries sympathized with the
plight of the persecuted Buddhist believers. For example, it was only because of lobbying by the
Japanese government that the Korean government rescinded its ban on Buddhist activities in the capital
and allowed Buddhist monastics to enter the cities for the first time in three hundred years.
But the Japanese occupation of Korea was brutal, and Japanese championing of Korean Buddhism was in
no way altruistic. Japanese Nichiren Shoshu and Jodo Shinshu lineages aggressively proselytized
throughout Korea. Various attempts were also made to force Korean Buddhism to be absorbed into the
Japanese Buddhist schools. One of the most egregious examples was an attempt in 1910 to subsume
Korean Buddhism into Japanese Soto Buddhism. This was particularly offensive to Korean Buddhists
as Soto was based on a philosophy and style of meditation that was radically different from Korean Son.
To help combat the Japanese attempt to take over Korean Son, Korean monks began to refer to their
lineage as the Imje-jong. Korean Buddhists traced their dharma ancestors to T’aego Pou, the only
surviving dharma lineage. Because T’aego had received dharma transmission from Shih-wu Ch’ing-kung
(1271-1351) of Yuan who belonged to the Yang-ch’i line of the Lin-chi Ch’an (Korean Imje Son),
they referred to their style of Zen as the Imje-jong, employing the Korean pronunciation of the
same Chinese characters. In 1929 the sangha legislature (chonghon) formally
recognized T’aego as its patriarch.
Some monks raised issue with the status of T’aego arguing that T’aego was the succeeding patriarch
of the Choge-jong (Son sangha) which had been established by Chinul. The arguments of Kim P’ogwang
sought a middle way and were adopted by the community. He observed that only the Chogye-jong had
continued in terms of dharma lineages before the Choson court put harsh restrictions on Korean
Buddhism. Kim also acknowledged that T’aego had united the Nine-Mountain Son schools and established
the contemporary Chogye teachings. Thus, Kim argued that T’aego was the founding father of modern
Korean Buddhism, while still acknowledging that T’aego was a succeeding patriarch of Chinul.
While T’aego united the Nine-Mountain Son schools in Korea, he did not originally found the
sangha in Korea.
Kim thus proposed Chogye-jong as the official name of Korean Buddhism and T’aego as the
chongjo (founding patriarch). In 1938 the order’s headquarters in Seoul, T’aego-sa, was completed.
Chogye-jong became the official name of Korean Buddhism in 1941 and continued until Korea was liberated
from Japan in 1945. Immediately after the Japanese colonial forces were forced out of Korea, the name
was changed again to Taehan Pulgyo as a way of starting a new era of Korean Buddhism.
Japanese Zen had divided into two main schools, the Soto and Rinzai, based on differing styles of
meditation and philosophy. Historically Korean Zen had no such major division, but that changed with
the advent of married clergy. Like most countries where Buddhism was practiced, Korean Buddhist monks
and nuns were required to be celibate.
When Korean Buddhist clergy encountered Japanese missionaries during the occupation, they learned
that the most powerful and prosperous of Buddhist nations allowed their clergy to marry. As the
Japanese occupation wore on, it became increasingly common for Korean Zen monks to marry. As
Korean Buddhist scholar Robert Buswell demonstrates in The Zen Monastic Experience, contrary
to common misperceptions, the idea of married clergy originated amongst Korean Buddhists and not
the Japanese Buddhist missionaries. The leading Korean Buddhist champion of married clergy was
Han Yongun (1879-1944, more commonly known as Manhae). Manhae was a monk, poet, and religious and
social reformer. Manhae also led several independence movements against the Japanese imperial forces.
In March of 1910 Manhae sent a petition to the Japanese cabinet asking them to allow monks and nuns
the option to marry. And he sent a separate petition to the monastery supervisory board in September
1910. Manhae argued that forced celibacy was no longer relevant in the modern world, and that it
blocked potential monks from becoming ordained.
Manhae argued that love between a husband and wife was a natural phenomenon and as such should not
be banned for Buddhist clergy. Manhae acknowledged that the Vinaya (the section in the Pali
canon which contains rules for the monks and nuns) required monks and nuns to be celibate. But he
countered that the ancient teaching of the Korean Zen doctrine of sasa muae – “the unimpeded
interpenetration of all phenomena” – means that nothing has a fixed essence, and that all polarities are
interrelated. Morality too is not fixed and absolute, but depends on the situation. Thus marriage
and celibacy are not ultimately different, and neither should be required for spiritual practice.
While Manhae acknowledged that marriage might make it more difficult to do monastic practice, the
benefits of having some married clergy far outweighed any potential drawbacks. Both these petitions
are appended to his section on marriage in his Choson Pulgyo yusillon (On the Reformation
of Korean Buddhism). Neither agency responded to Manhae’s letters.
Manhae repeated and expanded upon his arguments, this time directed to the monastic leaders of
Korean Buddhism in his “Essay on the Future of Buddhism and the Question of Whether Monks and Nuns
Should be Allowed to Marry.” At first Manhae’s arguments found little traction. In 1913 the abbots
of the thirty main temples passed rules designed to erect further barriers against married clergy.
But the prohibitions against marriage were becoming increasingly hard to justify and enforce in the
face of growing numbers of clergy calling for the option to marry combined with the support for
married clergy from the Japanese governor-general.
In October 1926 the head abbots repealed the prohibition against marriage. Now monks were allowed to
both marry and eat meat. In just three years eighty percent of the monasteries officially allowed
monks to have wives live in residence at their temples, and in the process, the groundwork for a
full schism was laid bare.
The disputes between married and celibate monks increased when Japan was forced to withdraw after
World War II, and increased further at the end of the Korean War in 1953.
In 1945, 7,000 monks were married and only 700 remained celibate. In 1946, married monks controlled
900 monasteries while only 100 belonged to the celibate monks. The minority celibate monks launched
what they called a “purification movement” against the married monks who had dominated Korean
Buddhism during the long colonial period.
On August 5, 1955, South Korean President Syngman Rhee made a decree calling for the resignation
of all “Japanized” monks from monastic positions. This marked a significant turning point in the power
struggle between the married and celibate clergy. In the face of continued struggle and increasing
violence between the monks, the Ministry of Education offered a compromise plan whereby the married
monks would turn over thirty major monasteries. But the married monks actually only turned over two
The celibate monks argued that they were upholding the ideals of the Vinaya while the
married monks argued that they were more socially engaged and could better understand and help the
common people. During the 1950s the battle for control of the temples was heatedly fought in the
courts. Most court cases were resolved in favor of the celibate monks, but in many cases the married
clergy refused to abandon temples that had long been their homes. Thus awkward situations became
common: celibate monks forced to live with married monks and their wives at temples. In The
Zen Monastic Experience, Buswell states:
In the face of such intransigence, bhiksus (monks) sometimes resorted to physical
force to remove the married monks from the monasteries; indeed, older bhiksus with whom I
have spoken told many stories of celibates ordaining young thugs off the streets to bring muscle to
their movement. One of the biggest problems they said this policy created was how to handle these thugs
once the battles over the control of the monasteries were won (32-33).
In March 1962, the government ordered a council between married and celibate monks and told them to
form a united governing body, or else the government itself would manage the temples. In 1962 two
separate orders were formed. The married monks established the T’aego-chong, taking their name from
T’aego Po’u (1301-1382) the revered monk who brought the Chinese Lin-chi (Rinzai Zen) lineage to Korea,
and from whom most Korean monks traced their lineage. And the celibate monks referred to themselves
as the Chogye-chong, which was the name of the main Buddhist order during the Koryo and Choson dynasties.
The T’aego monks retained the traditional red kashas as part of their formal robes while the Chogye
monks adopted the practice of wearing brown kashas. In 1961, the South Korean Supreme Court ruled in
favor of the celibate monks and awarded them control of most of the major monasteries. By 1970 The
Taego order controlled only 50 major monasteries while the Chogye order controlled 950 temples.
Again in The Zen Monastic Experience Buswell writes: “The T’aego Order continues to decline,
barely able to ordain sufficient numbers of new monks to staff even the few temples that remain in its
control. Its survival beyond he present generation is very much in doubt.”
While this may have been true in 1992 when Buswell was writing his book, the T’aego order has
undergone a major resurgence. It currently has over 7,000 ordained monks and nuns, and is almost as
large as the Chogye. The T’aego order has thousands of temples and millions of followers and is the
second largest lineage of Zen in Korea.
The Taego and Chogye orders have made strides towards making peace with each other. Most Buddhist
laypeople are not even aware of the historical differences between the Taego and Chogye orders. In my
most recent trip to South Korea I accompanied many fellow Taego monks to visit Chogye temples and we
were very cordially received by our brothers and sisters in the Chogye order. I attended several
conferences and seminars where both Taego and Chogye monks taught together.
Korea, once known as “the Hermit Kingdom” for its isolationist stance to the west is becoming
westernized rapidly, and consequently, Korea now has one of the largest Christian populations in Asia.
Though little known in the United States, South Korea is a hotbed of religious tension. I personally
know many Korean monks who hesitate to go out in public in their full monastic robes for fear that
they will be accosted by aggressive Christians. In South Korea I visited several temples which were
surrounded by barbed wire and patrolled by armed police officers because they had been vandalized so
many times by Christians. In July of 2001 I personally had to flee from Neunginseonwon (located in Seoul,
the largest Zen temple in Korea) where I was living because it was set on fire by a Christian.
Forms of vandalism by Christians against Buddhist temples, such as throwing black paint on Buddha
statues, is commonplace. But perhaps the saddest thing I personally saw in Korea was while I was having
dinner with a renowned Korean Zen teacher a few years ago. He broke down and openly wept in front of me
because of the persecution Buddhism was facing in his country at the hands of Christians. At the time,
I was not yet ordained, and for the abbot of a major temple to cry in front of a layperson, and a
westerner at that, is unheard of in Korean culture and a powerful testament to the pervasiveness of
Christian aggression in South Korea.
For their part, Buddhists have remained admirably non-violent in the face of such hostility.
Though the Korean Christians (as they call themselves) are aggressive proselytizers, I am optimistic
for the future of Zen in Korea. Zen has ancient roots in Korea, and even many of the Koreans I have met
who have converted to Christianity still retain a markedly Buddhist worldview. Buddhism is intimately
woven into the fabric of Korean culture more than even Christianity is entrenched in the west. Further,
as Buddhism continues to grow in the west, it helps to foster a resurgence of Zen in Korea. The most
recent government census revealed that 33% of the population identified themselves as Buddhist, while
22% defined themselves as Christians. Viewed in conjunction with other government gathered data,
it appears that Buddhism is actually growing while the numbers of Christians in Korea slowly declines.
The Satipatthana-sutta is the most oft-cited text in the Pali canon for describing
Theravada Buddhist meditation. This section is designed to be an overview describing Theravada
meditation. For texts which offer detailed instruction on how to meditate see Meditation in the
Readings section of this website.
The primary form of meditation in Theravada Buddhism is sati (Pali literally “mindfulness”
in Sanskrit smrti) which generates vipassana (Pali literally “discernment” or
“insight” in Sanskrit vipasyana). The mindfulness method of meditation is practiced through
four major objects: body, feelings, mind, and the objects of mind. The body is often the first object
the sati meditator attends to. Here the practitioner notices different facets of bodily
existence such as its many varied rhythms, textures and sensations, postures, and susceptibility to
decay. The second category of focus is feelings or sensations. Here the meditator notices feelings that
are pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. The third base of attention is the mind. The mind is not seen as
a distinct, discrete entity. Rather the mind is understood as a process or continuum of experience.
As a result, experiences like hatred, greed, doubt, distractedness, and lust are attended to. The fourth
object of sati is the objects of mind. Here the constituent elements of reality are focused on. These
can include, for example, the five aggregates which appear to be a distinct, autonomous self.
Regardless the focus of sati, this meditation practice itself operates by instilling and
maintaining a direct, precise, unbiased awareness of the object. Mindfulness functions by breaking down
physical and mental events into discrete but interconnected ingredients. First, the event for analysis
can be broken down in terms of the material ingredients that comprise the experience. Second, the
pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral sensations, which are produced by the occurrence, can be deconstructed.
Third, the perceptional ingredients of the experience are placed under scrutiny. Fourth, the factors
that the meditator brings to the event are dissected. Fifth, the practitioner locates his/her own
sense of discriminating awareness, ego, or consciousness and analyzes how this interacts with the event.
In the process, the meditator achieves a direct confirmation and realization of the teachings of
Buddhism. The truth of no-self is directly experienced. The event is experienced as being profoundly
complex with a wide array of components. The practitioner will also directly experience the transient
nature of all objects and events. But these realizations are not mere intellectual realizations. Rather,
these realizations are experienced and known immediately and directly. Such a process also helps us to
see directly, and thereby liberate us from the cyclical thought patterns and cravings which bind us to
suffering and destructive patterns.
This mindfulness method of meditation is very popular in the west and can be applied to all
dimensions of human existence. It is so popular that it is even taught in western Zen centers. The
Historical Buddha created this unique style of meditation and said that even when practiced by itself
it could lead to enlightenment.
This section is designed to be an overview of Zen meditation. For meditation instruction,
please see the Readings section of this website.
The Samannaphala Sutta (“The Fruits of the Life of a Samana” or “The Fruits of
the Contemplative Life”) is the most oft-cited text in the Pali canon to describe
As previously mentioned, the two main forms of meditation taught by the Historical Buddha were sati
(“mindfulness” discussed above under Theravada Buddhism) and dhyana (Pali jhana “absorption”). In
ancient Buddhism, sati was said to produce qualities of discernment and insight, whereas
dhyana was said to produce samatha (“quiescence” or “stillness”). Sati
was unique to Buddhism, whereas dhyana was practiced in many Indian religions, albeit
understood philosophically in different ways.
As the dhyana style of meditation came to China, it was pronounced Ch’an-na or
Ch’an, in Korea Son-na or Son, and when it eventually came to Japan from Korea,
it was called Zen-na or Zen, which is how it is most commonly known in the west.
The Samannaphala Sutta a dialogue in which Shakyamuni explains to King Ajatasattu the
benefits of being a Buddhist monk, contains a detailed explication of the numerous stages in
The first step is obedience to the moral rules. For the lay practitioner this entails adherence to
the Five Precepts. For the monastic this requires fidelity to the vinaya (“discipline”),
which is often interpreted as containing over 250 rules. As the practitioner becomes more spiritually
adept, obedience of the precepts becomes increasingly easy.
The second step is the guarding of the senses. Here the practitioner restrains the sources of the
six senses, which in Buddhism are the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin, and mind. By reducing the amount
of sensory stimulation and data-acquisition, the practitioner is empowered to further pursue marga
(the Buddhist path).
The third step is smrti. Buddhist dogma asserts that typical human experience is rooted
in inattention to reality. The cultivation of sati is an antidote to this inattention. Through
smrti, the practitioner seeks to cultivate a clear, non-judgmental awareness to physical and
emotional activities. This bare attention excludes cognitive functions such as interpreting and
The fourth step is contentment. Here the practitioner cultivates an attitude of satisfaction with
few possessions. A sense of freedom from ordinary material concerns ensues. The fifth step is
solitude. Here the Buddhist will seek a place that is separate from the distractions of typical human
society. The sixth step is the elimination of the Five Hindrances, which are lust, hatred, sloth,
distraction, and doubt.
As the Buddhist practitioner moves to the seventh step, he/she enters the first absorption. Here
the dhyana meditator is divorced from sense-desire, and the five factors of absorption are
cultivated. These five factors are vitarka (“the application of mind”), vicara (
“sustained mental application”), priti (“zest”), sukha (“happiness”), and
ekagratacitta (“one-pointedness of mind”). This stage signifies a key transition because the
meditator moves from the kamadhatu (dimension of desire), which is accessed through the senses,
to the rupadhatu (dimension of material form), which is accessible to the mind and the senses
if they are not controlled by sensual appetites.
Moving to the second absorption is the eighth step in the path of dhyana meditation. Here
vitarka and vicara are eliminated. Priti, sukha, and
ekagratacitta persist. The practitioner experiences both an interior serenity and a
The ninth step is entrance into the third absorption; in which priti is discarded while
sukha and ekagratacitta remain. The meditator now resides in equanimity, mindfulness,
and clear comprehension.
The fourth absorption constitutes the tenth step. Here sukha is discarded and only
ekagratacitta is retained. The practitioner is now purified in equanimity and mindfulness,
and also achieves mental liberation.
Stages eleven through fourteen are in the arupyadhatu (formless and immaterial dimension).
These are accessible only to the mind. The fifth absorption is the eleventh step. Here the meditator
transcends the notion of material form, resistance, impenetrability, and multiplicity. The practitioner
contemplates the infinity of space, and exists in the realm of the infinity of space.
The twelfth step is entrance into the sixth absorption. Here the dhyana practitioner moves
beyond the infinity of space, and contemplates the infinity of consciousness, and exists in the sphere
of the infinity of consciousness.
Entering into the seventh absorption is the thirteenth step. The meditator transcends the realm of
the infinity of consciousness, and contemplates that nothing exists, and resides in the realm where
The fourteenth step is comprised of entrance into the eighth absorption. Here the practitioner
moves beyond the realm where nothing exists and enters into the realm of neither consciousness nor
Stage fifteen again marks a key transition in the practice of dhyana. Here the practitioner
makes the transition from samatha to vipassana. Now the meditator has a new form of
knowing. Knowledge is achieved without mediation. Knowledge is not acquired through concepts, but rather
is experienced directly. The mind-body phenomenon is now clearly understood as a product of dependent
origination, as impermanent, and as a source of attachment. This knowledge produces detachment and
empowers the practitioner to overcome the common fear created by attachment to physical existence.
Stage sixteen is the ability of the practitioner to create a supernatural double of the physical and
material body. This body is not restricted by conventional laws of existence and can perform miraculous
feats, such as traveling through space or radically changing size.
The seventeenth stage consists in the attainment of the first five superknowledges. The first,
rddhi, enables the practitioner to be invisible, to become multiple, to travel through walls,
and hold celestial bodies (sun, moon, etc.) in his/her hands. The second, divyasrotra, is the
ability to hear both divine and worldly sounds. The meditator can hear the conversations of Gods,
extremely faint sounds, and noises at a great distance away. The third, paracittajnana, is
the ability to read other people’s minds. The fourth, purvanivasanusmrti, is the ability to
remember all of one’s previous lives. The fifth, divyacaksus, is the ability to see the complete
design of karma and rebirth for all sentient beings.
The eighteenth stage is the achievement of the sixth superknowledge: the knowledge of the extinction
of the residual impurities. This involves a direct understanding of suffering, how it arises and how
it is overcome. It also entails the extinction of desire, craving, and ignorance. The nineteenth s
tage, nirvana, is the attainment of liberation, or the fruition of the goal of the path.
For many western Zen practitioners, and those unfamiliar with early Zen meditation, the nineteen
stages of spiritual realization as described in the Samannaphala Sutta might seem surprising
and even shocking. These stages of meditation perhaps point to how Zen is a religion based on
faith. Similarly, they may shed some light on differences between how Zen is understood in the East and
West. At the same time, I recall Robert Gimello who asserted that many of the miraculous events described
in the early Pali texts were never meant to be taken as literal fact, but rather to inspire confidence
in following the spiritual path. Gimello further suggested that early Buddhist practitioners did not
view these texts in a literal fashion. Perhaps we can conclude that the Samannaphala Sutta
demonstrates in a mythological fashion how progress along the path of meditation generates certain
characteristics and causes other traits to fall away, and that by practicing meditation one may achieve
Clearly both systems of meditation, dhyana (Sanskrit, Pali jhana “absorption”)
and sati (Pali “mindfulness”) can contain elements of samatha (“quiescence” or
“stillness”) and vipassana (Pali “discernment” or “insight”). But the two methods place a
different amount of importance on samatha and vipassana, and in the process reveal
much about what each meditation system understands as the ultimate result of the Buddhist path.
In the dhyana (absorption) system, the quality of vipassana (insight) is cultivated
very early, in the third step. Much more emphasis is placed on achieving increasingly deep levels of
samatha (quiescence). But while great stress is placed on samatha, it is not an end in
itself. In fact, both ancient and modern Buddhist teachers warn about the dangers of the dhyanas.
Though they can be manifestations of spiritual attainment, they can also be products of attachment
and the ego and can mislead the practitioner. In the dhyana system, the qualities of both
vipassana and samatha are needed.
This represents a clear and significant break between dhyana (absorption) and sati
(mindfulness) meditation. While both systems acknowledge the need for cultivating vipassana
(insight) as Paul Griffiths observes, no dhyana teacher would claim that enlightenment is
achieved exclusively through samatha (quiescence). On the other hand, many sati
meditation teachers, such as Walpola Rahula and Nyanaponika Thera, say emphatically that samatha
is not necessary for liberation. When sati practitioners do cultivate samatha, it is
merely a preliminary exercise.
As Paul Griffiths also observes, “There are presented in the canonical and commentarial texts of
Theravada Buddhism two radically different types of meditative practice which have different
psychological effects and issue in different stereological goals.” The dhyana (absorption)
method operates upon a framework of concentration/tranquility meditation, while the sati
(mindfulness) method operates upon a framework of insight/wisdom meditation. Dhyana meditation
relies primarily on samatha (quiescence) which directly seeks to restrict sensory input.
Sati meditation, rather than restrict sensory input, seeks to analyze and break down physical
and mental phenomena. While dhyana brings a cessation of all thought processes, sati
is reliant upon discursive thought.
In Buddhism, meditation is not divorced from doctrine. Theory and practice are interrelated.
Like all religions, Buddhism has much internal debate about how enlightenment is attained. The
dichotomy between dhyana (absorption) and sati (mindfulness) meditation has profound
implications for how nirvana is understood and achieved. As Griffiths observes, the texts describing
dhyana meditation suggest nirvana is “the blissful cessation of all consciousness whatever,
the ending of all pain,” while sati meditation delineates nirvana as “a psychological state in
which discursive thought is not only possible but required, the result of a radical interiorization of
Buddhist metaphysical categories.”
Another doctrinal debate, which is reflected in the differences between dhyana (absorption)
and sati (mindfulness) is the root cause of suffering. In the Four Noble Truths, craving is
considered the primary cause of suffering. However, in Pratityasamutpada (“dependent
origination”) the first step in samsara (cyclical suffering) is ignorance. If craving and
desire are understood to be the chief cause of suffering, then ridding the mind of desire is the
most expeditious antidote. In this case dhyana meditation with its emphasis on samatha
(quiescence) would be the logical spiritual practice. On the other hand, if ignorance is viewed as the
primary cause of suffering, then the most efficacious cure is acquiring insightful knowledge. In this
instance sati meditation with its championing of vipassana (insight) would be the
skillful means to combat suffering. So different spiritual beliefs in Buddhism will directly impact
what type of meditation the practitioner employs.
Dhyana (absorption) and sati (mindfulness) meditation differentiate themselves
for the lay practitioners in other important ways. Dhyana meditation places a much greater
emphasis on asceticism and achieving ecstatic states. Sati meditation places much more emphasis
on the intellect. In general, dhyana meditation is more physically rigorous, demands longer
practice sessions, and requires more solitude and freedom from distractions. While sati too
places an emphasis on monasticism, sati teachers often assert that great results can be reached
in comparatively short periods of time. As a result, sati meditation is often perceived as
being more accessible to the layperson.
Many forms of Zen meditation have evolved since the dhyana style as described in the
Samannaphala Sutta migrated to East Asia. For example, many contemporary Japanese Soto Zen
schools practice shikantaza (Japanese literally “nothing but [shikan] precisely
[ta] sitting [za]”). In this form of meditation there are no commonly employed
techniques such as cultivating awareness of the breath or reciting a mantra. Dogen Zenji described
shikantaza as existing in a state of pure awareness devoid of thought, objects or ideas.
Son meditation takes a much different approach. Son meditation is called kanhwa Son.
Kanhwa Son literally means “Zen of the contemplation of words” (Chinese k’an-hua ch’an,
Japanese kanna Zen). This style of meditation is based on kong’an (Korean for
“public case,” kung-an in Chinese, and best known in the west by the Japanese koan).
Kong’ans arise from many sources: from Buddhist texts, dialogues between a teacher and student, and
events in the life of a great master. Kong’ans point to the true nature of reality. Often a kong’an will
contain a seeming paradox which will force the meditator to employ higher forms of experience and knowing
beyond logic, rhetoric and concepts. Kanhwa Son facilitates the student’s mind to operate as the
mind of the great masters. In this way, all kong’ans generate the same enlightened state. The
pivotal phrase within a kong’an is the hwadu (“critical phrase,” Chinese hua-t’ou,
In Son meditation, the practitioner cultivates awareness on the hwadu of the kong’an.
As the hwadu is ultimately unknowable and beyond comprehension in typical modes of thinking,
a great state of doubt naturally arises. Focusing on the hwadu moves the practitioner from what
is known to what can never be known via traditional modes of thought. A person moves far beyond their
habitual thought patterns and emotional conditioning. Concepts are transcended. By moving beyond
traditional modes of thought, the hwadu naturally allows the pure, unconditioned state of
mind to naturally manifest. Thus the meditator experiences directly what all beings and phenomena
share, moving beyond the realm of life and death, being and non-being.
While most religions and religious practices rely on faith and the cultivation of faith, kanhwa
Son and specifically the hwadu of kong’ans encourages the state of doubt, of
not-knowing. This is why Son teachers frequently say “Great doubt equals great enlightenment.” This
cultivation of doubt is not meant in the typical western way whereby doubt is experienced with fear,
grasping and aversion. In the typical western experience of doubt, doubt is filled with anxiety.
Doubt which is the manifestation of kong’ans is existence with wisdom and compassion,
serenity and equanimity amidst the doubt and not-knowing of life. Much of life can never be known.
The cultivation of great doubt is freedom for craving and aversion. It is the transcendence of suffering
and moving beyond traditional concepts to experience the universal. This the essence of the Son
teaching that all beings possess inherent Buddha nature. Beings possess this inherent Buddha nature
in the here and now, and indeed they always have and always will possess this true nature. It is
only through delusional thinking and conditioning that an individual falsely comes to see and
experience themselves as somehow unenlightened.
The modern day practice of kanhwa Son is traced back to T’aego Pou (1301-1383). T’aego
stressed the kong’an based on Chao-chou’s Mu (Chinese wu). Mu
translated to English literally means “nothing” or “no.” In this famous kong’an a student asks
Master Chao-chou (778-897) “Does a dog have Buddha-nature?” And Chao-chou responds “Mu.” The hwadu
reply of “no” contradicts the basic Son teaching of inherent, universal Buddha nature. The student
is forced to consider how and why Chao-chou replied “no.” Meditating on this hwadu brings the
student to the very source and genesis of thought: the non-dual non-dichotomous mind before traditional
discursive thought based on conceptions and analysis arises. In other words, the meaning of the words
is not important. The student experiences and understands intuitively the state of mind that generated
the master’s response. It is the how of the mind which generates the why. The student experiences the
mind of Chao-chou and thus then knows why Chao-chou responded with no. The mind of the student is the
mind of Chao-chou and all the Buddhas. The commentary of Ta-hui Tsung-kao (1089-1163) of China regarding
this kong’an is true for the practice of kanhwa Son as a whole: “This one word wu
is no other than the knife which can clear away this great doubt of life and death. . . No one else can
take hold of it for you, but you must do it yourself.”