Mirror of Zen Blog

Traditional Korean Chanting: Songgwang Sah Temple

This is the daily Evening Chanting at Songgwang Sah temple, where I did six 90-day ango retreats. It was one of my favorite temples to practice at. This is the temple of Master Jinul (보조지눌; Hanja: 普照知訥, 1158–1210), the National Teacher during the Koryo Dynasty who was one of the foremost shapers of the Korean Buddhist tradition we know today. In all, Songgwang Sah produced 16 National Teachers, so it is revered in Korea as the “Sangha Jewel Temple” — a temple which upholds the highest standards in the educational formation of monks. I practiced there off and on from 2002 to 2016.

When I first arrived at Songgwang Sah to practice, there was not a very good feeling among the senior monks there about my Teacher. Songgwang Sah’s own special role in Korean Buddhism had been the establishment of an international Zen center in the 1970s — the first in Korea. The Patriarch Ku Sahn Sunim was justly respected for having been able to make a practicing home where Westerners could live an ordain and practice, together with Korean monks. He was very old-school, though, and as the Patriarch of such an ancient lineage as that at Songgwang Sah, he did not undertake many liberalizations of Korean Buddhism’s hard-conservative outlook to benefit the newly-arrived practitioners from the West. They were trained more or less the same way that Korean monastics trained, despite the obvious differences in cultural and social shaping that led to vastly different mental frameworks and value systems. He made a massive contribution to the development of Korean Buddhism, and was truly a great monk.

Yet, my Teacher was much much more risky and innovative. He allowed lay folks to wear the robes of monks and nuns and teach as Dharma Teachers. He permitted lay people to sit retreats with monastics. He did not describe the work of enlightenment as some extremely hard work requiring effort in a temple holding a single kong-an, but emphasized the liberation of attaining “don’t-know mind” right here, in this moment. He wasn’t so especially emphatic about the matter of the precepts.

When I arrived at Songgwang Sah, I would often be “schooled” by senior monks there. They were teaching me, but it was not hard to feel the undercurrent of correcting my Teacher. There was definitely a strong perception — and I could understand it, from their point of view — that Dae Soen Sa Nim had somehow not taught us Westerners the “true” Korean Zen (or, as they insist on calling it today, Soen”). My Teacher had taken too many liberties with the tradition and the form. I had to sit through many a tea-drinking session where the subject started in one area, maybe a question from some young monk to the senior, with the discussion being wheeled around fairly quickly to a snappy correction of my Teacher’s teaching. (One monk, a master by the name of Hwa Ahn Kunsunim, even yelled at me for my Teacher’s mistaken approach to Zen, while I knelt there on his floor for a good hour or so, having just climbed up the mountain from the main temple to his hermitage in knee-deep snow with no trail on a rest-day to give traditional Lunar New Year’s Day bows to him. He was just unrelenting, almost seething. Even the Korean monks who had accompanied me on the trip were apologizing to me as we left his room to head back down the mountain again. “Sunim, that was not good. But don’t worry — he is too old and set in his ways. It is his style.”)

When I left Songgwang Sah, and left Korea for good, following the 2015/16 Winter Kyol Che, they were roundly praising Dae Soen Sa Nim. Every monk I interacted with praised his efforts, and his innovations, which most of them agreed were way ahead of his times. Some expressed great regret at having only “found out” about him after he died (in 2004), such that they missed their chance to practice with him directly. Of course, the opinion was not universal — it could never be so, about anything. But I did notice a massive sea change in the time that I practiced there.

A last look out over Songgwang Sah, on the last day of my last Kyol Che in a Korean temple — the end of the 2015/16 Winter Kyol Che (“dong ango”)
The Caucasian is No. 12.

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