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The Way of Korean Zen

The Way of Korean Zen

by Kusan Sunim, Martine Batchelor, Stephen Batchelor

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The power and simplicity of the Korean Zen tradition shine in this collection of teachings by a renowned modern master, translated by Martine Batchelor. Kusan Sunim provides a wealth of practical advice for students, particularly with regard to the uniquely Korean practice of hwadu, or sitting with questioning. An extensive introduction by Stephen Batchelor,


The power and simplicity of the Korean Zen tradition shine in this collection of teachings by a renowned modern master, translated by Martine Batchelor. Kusan Sunim provides a wealth of practical advice for students, particularly with regard to the uniquely Korean practice of hwadu, or sitting with questioning. An extensive introduction by Stephen Batchelor, author of Buddhism without Beliefs, provides both a biography of the author and a brief history of Korean Zen.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"I highly recommend this wonderful book which affords us a 'bird's-eye' view into the teachings of Korean Zen Master Kusan Sunim. The teachings are concise yet comprehensive. A welcome addition to the growing body of writing on Korean Zen."—Richard Shrobe (Zen Master Wu Kwang), Guiding Teacher, Chogye International Zen Center of New York

"A modern Zen classic with deep roots in the oldest traditions of Korean and Chinese Buddhism. Kusan roars like a lion."—Stanley Lombardo

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Read an Excerpt

From Chapter 7: Advice and Encouragement

When you have to walk somewhere on a dark night, it is very difficult to clearly see the path ahead of you. You do not know whether the way will consist of mountains, deep gullies, swamps, thorny forests, or rock-covered ground.

One by one you may have to encounter and traverse each of these difficult terrains. But if you do not stop and continue walking carefully throughout the night, eventually the dim light of dawn will appear in the east and gradually become brighter. As the sun rises, the path ahead will become clearer and clearer and the difficult passages will become easier to traverse. It is similar when practicing meditation.
Whatever difficulties you face at the beginning, you should learn to endure them all. Whether you are beset by wandering thoughts, overcome with drowsiness, or aggravated by pains in your legs or back, you should never allow them to distract you from the meditation. If you continuously persevere, then suddenly your firm hold on the hwadu will appear before you as a wide and boundless path. Being able to see the path distinctly, you should make the firm resolve to swiftly advance. Now, while keeping a firm hold on the hwadu, you can confidently allow the mind to be as it is. In due time your original nature will shine forth as brilliantly as the rising sun.

While contemplating the hwadu you should be as earnest as someone trying to extinguish a fire burning on his head; as a thirsty man in search of water; as an infant thinking of his mother's breast; as an old man worrying about his lineage dying out; or as a cat intent on catching a mouse.

How great is our feeling of despair when we cannot find a secure refuge and stand at a crossroads completely lost and disoriented?

If we knew that an abundant treasure house were nearby, wouldn't we cast off the suffering of inner poverty and go there? How can anyone enjoy remaining on the dangerous paths within the vast desert of Samsara? Bitter hardship and extreme misery are not innate qualities of man. So let us throw them aside immediately!

Everyone has a native homeland. Have you reached it yet?

If not, then this world will appear to you as a road which never ends. How could you ever delight in such a world? If you wish to reach your homeland, your will must be so firm that you would dare to pull out the eyebrows of a tiger; and your spirit must be so steadfast that you would risk grabbing the beard of a flying dragon. Only then will you reach it.

In the garden of Songgwang Sa there is a dead juniper tree. It was planted there about eight hundred years ago by the Korean National Master Pojo. In front of it there is an inscription which reads: "If I live, you live; If I die, you die."

This has been interpreted to mean that if Master Pojo were to return to life, then this dead juniper tree would also return to life. However, this is not what it means at all. It really means that as soon as you realize your true nature and thereby transcend birth and death, simultaneously do all things in the universe transcend birth and death. Likewise, as long as you remain in delusion, subject and object appear to be separate. But as soon as you awaken, you transcend the duality of subject and object and thereby become a liberated sage.

There are times when wandering thoughts arise and disappear incessantly, the hwadu is confused with dullness and distractedness, and the force of the defilements seems stronger than ever. At such times of difficulty, you might wonder how you will ever make any progress in your practice.

Throughout beginningless aeons we have been afflicted by such hindrances. Yet one way to overcome them is to cultivate the following three disabilities: blindness (although you have eyes, not knowing how to see), deafness (although you have ears, not knowing how to hear), dumbness (although you have a tongue, not knowing how to speak).

To be blind, deaf, and dumb in this manner means that whatever circumstances you encounter, whether good or bad, you remain just like a tree or a stone. In this way, by keeping your thoughts plain and simple, your mind will remain unhindered. Even when confronting a thousand or ten thousand different conditions, you should be as still as cold ashes or a withered tree. In this manner no obstacles will bar your way. In the midst of all circumstances try and be like cold water. In this way you will not be subjected to emotional reactions.

If, under all circumstances, you can remain uninvolved, the hwadu raised in the morning will stay with you throughout the evening until the following morning. Even though ten thousand years pass by, it will continue unbroken and unshakable. In this way you become a person who has lost his usefulness. For such a person back and front, before and after, disappear. Thus, having no thoughts of going back or moving forward, the hwadu remains clear and unmixed. At this time, even though you do not raise the hwadu, it will arise of its own accord. And even if you do not intentionally inquire, the questioning will be there.

When an ordinary person begins to practice meditation he may feel that there is something to be cultivated and something to be realized.

But should he experience a great awakening, he would then understand that there is really nothing to be cultivated and nothing to be realized. This is so because there is nothing that can affect the true nature. The accomplished sage is not endowed with more of it and the ordinary person is not endowed with less of it. The difference only lies in the fact that the sage has awakened to his true nature, whereas the ordinary person remains ignorant of it.

Look! The Buddhas and the patriarchs of the ten directions are standing on the tip of this mountain monk's staff.

They are building large monasteries and turning the great wheel of Dharma. With different voices they all proclaim that each sentient being is originally endowed with the wisdom and marks of the Tathagata. If you are endowed with the Dharma eye, say something! What is this?

Meet the Author

Kusan Sunim (1901–1983) was the resident Zen Master at Songgwang Sa, one of the largest monasteries in South Korea. He was the first Zen teacher to accept and train Western students in a Korean monastery.

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