“Find the Buddha Within!”
Master Seongcheol of Baengnyeonam Hermitage
And the Practice of 3,000 Prostrations
Gwaneumjeon Hall at Baengnyeonam Hermitage, filled with Buddhists offering 3,000 prostrations.
It is truly gratifying to offer a prostration to each Buddha who has come from each of the 3,000 realms.
At last here I am at Haeinsa Temple’s Baengnyeonam Hermitage. Entering the abode where Master Seongcheol once resided, I feel I am in the embrace of the Dharma because it is ultimately the Dharma that Master Seongcheol depended on. Seongcheol, Korea’s preeminent Daejongsa (Great Master), performed rigorous Buddhist practice beyond the imagination of the ordinary.
On a rainy night at Gwaneumjeon Hall, many Buddhists were offering 3,000 prostrations, dripping with sweat, each one with their own prayer in their heart. I walked back and forth between Gwaneumjeon Hall and the hermitage’s courtyard. Two different sounds reached my ears, and I found an unlikely harmony between them: the raindrops splatting against Buddha Face Rock (Bulmyeon-seok) and the chanting of the Buddhists. Although the Dharma existed before the Buddha, it came to us through the Buddha. The Korean Buddhist canon (“Tripitaka Koreana”), now enshrined in Janggyeonggak Hall, has crystalized the Dharma and the aspiration of the Goryeo people to preserve it. Perhaps Master Seongcheol demanded that visitors wanting to see him must first perform 3,000 prostrations in order to awaken this Dharma.
Why do They Practice 3,000 Prostrations?
Master Seongcheol, who once resided at Baengnyeonam Hermitage, used to say to people requesting to see him, “Pay 3,000 won worth of prostrations.” In other words, he was saying he would meet them on the condition that they offer 3,000 prostrations first.
“Master, I request to see you.”
“Offer 3,000 prostrations first and then come see me.”
“As they say ‘Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form.’ I might as well have already offered 3,000 prostrations.”
“Come in if you can be full without eating.”
Some Buddhists thought of this response as an empty threat from an ardent practitioner that could be interpreted as a rejection. Some even left thinking “I don’t have to see him. Not a big deal.” However, some offered 3,000 prostrations and had their long-cherished desire to see him come true. Still others left the temple without seeing him even after offering 3,000 prostrations saying “I have found the answer within myself.”
Baengnyeonam Hermitage, a Branch of Haeinsa Temple
Born in Sancheong in Gyeongnam Province in 1912, Master Seongcheol graduated from Jinju Middle School. In 1936 he took his monastic vow at Haeinsa under the tutelage of Ven. Dongsan. It was the establishment of the Bongamsa Practice Community in 1947 that Seongcheol, who had until then only focused on practice, became a central figure in the Korean Buddhist community. The essential spirit of this community was “to live according to the Buddhadharma.”
However, the state of Korean Buddhism then was deteriorating, and even this simple principle was not kept. The “revolt” of young monks served as the driving force to revive Korean Buddhism, and Seongcheol was the pivotal figure in this movement. Seongcheol never displayed any hint of ego whatsoever. Severing all ties to worldly matters, he was engrossed only in seeking the Way, including eight years of never lying down to sleep and 10 years of undaunted meditation practice without sleeping.
The hand belongs to Haeinsa’s “Postulant No. 3.”
With so many postulants, Haeinsa gives them each a number. After successful completion of his postulancy, he will transmit the meaning of this Dharma Jewel Temple to the world.
A monk prostrating before the Buddha appears carefree and peaceful to this photographer.
A peaceful monastic smile that fills any onlooker’s heart with light. While pressing the shutter, a feeling of nirvana washes over me. All worries melt away and only bliss remains.
Seongcheol began to reside at Baengnyeonam Hermitage in 1967 upon the invitation of Ven. Ja-un. When Haeinsa became a chongnim (comprehensive training monastery) in the summer of that year, Seongcheol became its bangjang (spiritual patriarch), equivalent to the leader of the whole temple.
Chongnim is a training monastery that is equipped with a seonwon (Seon practice center), gangwon (lecture hall that teaches scriptures), and yurwon (Vinaya education center). Of the Jogye Order’s five chongnim, Haeinsa was the first, and Seongcheol was inducted as its first spiritual patriarch. This fact indicates the importance of Haeinsa and Seongcheol in the lineage of Korean Buddhism.
Though Seongcheol demanded rigorous practice of monks meditating in the Seon center, out of respect he allowed them to treat the center as their own. Twice a year, during the three-month summer and winter retreats, he had practitioners do one week of un-interrupted meditation practice without sleep, which is still a proud tradition of Haeinsa Temple to this day.
Nestled deep in the mountains, Baengnyeonam Hermitage seems to have left the secular world far behind. However, the hermitage attracted attention in 1981 when Seongcheol was enthroned as the 6th Supreme Patriarch of the Jogye Order. With a thundering cry, “Mountains are mountains, and rivers are rivers,” he remained secluded in Baengnyeonam even after becoming the Supreme Patriarch and persevered in his pursuit of the Way.
His simple and uncomplicated Dharma talks and sincere Seon practice gave comfort to modern Koreans who struggled through an age of uncertainty. Despite his being the Supreme Patriarch of the Jogye Order, he patched his tattered robes himself and even reused a toothpick without throwing it away. When President Park Chung-hee, who then wielded absolute power, visited Haeinsa Temple in 1978, Ven. Seongcheol did not come down from the hermitage to see him. Even during South Korea’s Fifth Republic (1981-1987), he turned down all invitations to visit the Blue House saying that a man of religion walks a different way from a man of politics. Regarding possessions and power like bits of straw, he walked a single path as a follower of the Way. Indeed he was the guiding star for all monastics.
Baengnyeonam, which previously had no visitors for days, was suddenly flooded by Buddhists coming to see him, and that was how the mandatory offering of 3,000 prostrations came about. Buddhists began to realize that the 3,000 prostrations were not simply “prostration money” but a practice to find the “Buddha within,” which Seongcheol emphasized his whole life.
Baengnyeonam Hermitage, a Branch of Haeinsa Temple
Ven. Wontaek, the superintendent of Baengnyeonam Hermitage who had served Master Seongcheol the longest, informed me there was a back way that Ven. Seongcheol frequently used on his walks back and forth to Haeinsa Temple. I walked it with Ven. Wontaek and his disciple Ven. Iryang. Looking down at Haeinsa from the trail, Janggyeonggak Hall came clearly into view.
Janggyeonggak enshrines the printing woodblocks of the Goryeo Daejanggyeong (National Treasure No. 32; aka. Tripitaka Koreana), which were carved during the reign of Goryeo’s King Gojong. When the First Goryeo Daejanggyeong (aka. Chojo Daejanggyeong) was set ablaze during the Mongol invasion in 1232, Choe U, then head of the military government, organized the re-inscription of the whole Buddhist canon that embodied in each carved letter the sincere aspirations of the Goryeo people to defeat the Mongol invasion. As the Tripitaka Koreana consists of over 80,000 woodblocks and records 84,000 Buddhist teachings (corresponding to 84,000 afflictions), it is commonly called the “Palman Daejanggyeong (80,000 Tripitaka).”
At Gosimwon Hall, upon finishing 3,000 prostrations, Buddhists offer three prostrations to Master Seongcheol. It is a Dharma hall that enshrines a seated image of Master Seongcheol holding his Dharma staff (“Seon stick”). His “death poem” that hangs on a pillar in Gosimwon may be too difficult for the general public to understand but holds enough power to erase the delusions of those Buddhists who finish 3,000 prostrations.
Having deceived deranged men and women all my life,
My sins fill all of space and outweigh Mount Sumeru.
Falling into hell alive, my grief divides into ten thousand pieces.
Spouting forth red, a round wheel hangs on the blue mountain.
People who have offered 3,000 prostration through the night assemble at Gwaneumjeon Hall to offer the morning Buddhist ceremony. Light shines out from the open doors.
My eyes fix on a woman exiting the One Pillar Gate.
From the back she appears in perfect harmony with Haeinsa Temple.
Buddhists casually leaving Gosimwon sometimes find themselves feeling stifled upon reading “My sins fill all of space.” If Master Seongcheol had committed such great sins, the sins of us sentient beings must be beyond measure, even after millions of eons in the cycle of transmigration. I feel ashamed and still more ashamed. If one feels that way and wants to spur their faith, they have come to Baengnyeonam at an opportune moment. That is why Baengnyeonam is a sacred site that will always remain a special place in the hearts of all Buddhists.
Jang In-seok | Columnist
Photos by Lee Jong-seung | Photo Journalist at Dong-A Ilbo