Zen Master Seung Sahn (1927 – 2004) was born in 1927 in Sun Cheun, Pyung An Do province, North Korea. During his teenage years, the Japanese military occupied Korea, freedom, both political and cultural, was brutally oppressed. Bearing a great love for his country, he joined the underground Korean independence movement in 1944. Within several months however, he was arrested. He escaped from a death sentence with the help of his school principal. Later, with some money from his parents he went to Manchuria to join the Korean underground independence movement there, but was sent back to Korea to finish his studies. In 1945, the Japanese military force surrendered. Subsequently, Korea was divided into North and South Korea. From that time, Zen Master Seung Sahn lost contact with his parents. Upon graduation from high school, he was admitted to Dong Guk University in Seoul where he studied Western philosophy. The political situation in South Korea was growing increasingly chaotic. One day, Zen Master Seung Sahn decided that he wouldn’t be able to help people through his political activities or his academic studies and instead, shaved his head and went into the mountains, vowing never to return until he had attained the absolute truth. In 1947, a friend gave him a copy of the Diamond Sutra. This was his first encounter with Buddhism. “All appearance is delusion. If you view all appearance as non-appearance, then that view is your true nature.” While Zen Master was reading the scripture, his mind became clear.
In October 1947, he was ordained as a monk and soon began a rigorous 100-day solo retreat at Won Gak Mountain (the Mountain of Perfect Enlightenment). He ate only pine needles which had been dried and ground into powder. He chanted the Great Dharani 20 hours a day and took ice cold baths several times a day. Despite its intensity, Zen Master Seung Sahn persisted in his hard practice. On the final day of the retreat, as he was chanting and hitting the moktak, suddenly, his body disappeared into infinite space, and from far away he could hear the sound of the moktak and his own voice. He remained in this state for some time. When he returned to his body, he understood that the rocks, the river, everything he could see, everything he could hear, everything was his true self. All things are exactly as they are. The truth is just like this. When he woke up the next morning, he saw a man walking up the mountain, some crows flying out from a tree and wrote the following poem:
Soon after coming down from the mountain, he met Zen Master Ko Bong, who was renown throughout Korea both for his Zen moral vision and his severity towards monks. Zen Master Seung Sahn was shown the direction for his practice and given the dharma name Haeng Won Sunim. He went to Su Dok Sa to practice and learned the traditional Korean Zen dharma combat. Several Zen Masters approved his enlightenment. On January 25, 1949, Zen Master Seung Sahn passed the final test given by Zen Master Ko Bong and received Dharma transmission to become the 78th Patriarch of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. He was only 22 years old at that time, the youngest Korean Zen Master. He was also Zen Master Ko Bong’s only Dharma heir. After the transmission ceremony, Zen Master Ko Bong said to him, “For the next three years you must keep silent. You are a free man. We will meet again in five hundred years.”
In the following years, Zen Master Seung Sahn continued to practice. He also contributed significantly to the rebuilding of the Jogye Order, which had been weakened by the Japanese occupation and the Korean War. In 1957, he became the abbot of Hwa Gye Sa, temple in Seoul. In 1961, he established the Korean Buddhist Newspaper and became its first president, and was appointed as the Chief of General Affairs division of the Jogye Order’s Administrative Office. He also founded the United Buddhism Association, a community for lay people, which he encouraged to participate in the revival of Korean Buddhism.
In 1966, Zen Master Seung Sahn accepted an invitation to teach Buddhism to the local Korean community in Japan, which began his overseas teaching. He soon established a Korean temple in Tokyo and one in Hong Kong. In 1972, he went to the United States alone, becoming the first Korean Zen Master to teach and live in the West. At that time, his mastery of English was minimal. He found a job in a launderette and rented a small apartment in Providence, Rhode Island. Using translation and body language, he taught his first group of American students. These students soon moved into the Zen Master’s apartment and the Providence Zen Center was thereby established. In the following years, Zen Master Seung Sahn began traveling to other American cities to teach Zen Buddhism. Many Westerners were attracted to his direct and enthusiastic style of Zen teachings. More and more students practiced together under his guidance and Zen centers were established in different American cities. In 1978, Zen Master Seung Sahn first visited and taught in Europe, including Poland, which was still under Communist regime. In 1982, he founded the International Kwan Um School of Zen, which now has over 100 Zen centers around the globe, including North and South America, Eastern and Western Europe, Asia, Africa, and the former Soviet Union.
In the 1990’s, Zen Master Seung Sahn traveled many times to South East Asia and China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. On these trips, he both propagated the dharma and met many great masters in those regions. In 1999, he began the construction of the Kye Ryong Sahn International Zen Center Mu Sang Sa on Kye Ryong mountain in Korea. In 2000, the official Eye Opening Ceremony for the Mu Sang Sa Zen Hall and dormitory was conducted. Subsequently, over one hundred international Zen students came to Mu Sang Sa to participate in the summer and winter 90-day kyol che (retreat). In 2004, the construction of the Mu Sang Sa Buddha Hall was completed. This marked the realization of Zen Master Seung Sahn’s great vow to build a permanent international Zen center in Korea, as well as intimately connect his overseas students to Korean Zen — the root of his dharma.
Zen Master Seung Sahn walked his words to propagate the dharma, teaching that if people from different religious traditions could practice together and achieve enlightenment then this would be of great benefit to this world.
Beginning in the late 1980’s, Zen Master Seung Sahn invited Buddhist and other religious leaders to participate in discussions about how to promote world peace. In 1987, he hosted the first “Whole World is a Single Flower” assembly at the Providence Zen Center, invited Buddhist and various religious practitioners to participate, exchange ideas, encourage practice, and transmit the peace message, “The Whole World is a Single Flower, Ten Thousand People are One”. Since then, the “Whole World Is a Single Flower” assembly is held in different places every three years. Zen Master Seung Sahn’s contribution to propagating the dharma and world peace was widely recognized.
In 1985, the International Cultural Federation of Korea awarded him the “World Peace Award”. In 1996, the Man Hae Organization in Korea awarded him the “World Propagation Award”, while the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism presented him with the “Propagation of Dharma Overseas for 30-Year Award”. In June 2004, in appreciation of his lifetime teaching, the Jogye Order presented him with the title, “Great Master”. This is the highest honor that the order confers.
Zen Master Seung Sahn dedicated his whole life in propagating the dharma and showing people all over the world the correct way to liberate themselves from sufferings. Although his body became weak, he was never hindered by his illness and instead he used it to teach people the essence of Buddhism: Do not attach to anything, just do it. On November 30 2004, Zen Master Seung Sahn passed away peacefully at Hwa Gye Sa in Seoul, Korea. He was seventy-seven.
The day before entering Nirvana, he left his final words: