- Sŏn Master T'oeong Sŏngch'ŏl's (1912-1993) Legacy:One Century after his Birth and (almost) Two Decades after his Death
On the Eve of the 25th Anniversary of South Korea's Democracy
This year (2012), Korean Buddhism celebrates the hundredth anniversary of the birth of T'oeong Sŏngch'ŏl 退翁性徹. Next year, it will celebrate the twentieth anniversary of his demise.1 As the meditation master of Haein-sa 海印寺 from 1967 until 1993, and the Sixth and Seventh Supreme Patriarch of Chogyejong 曹溪宗 between 1981 and 1993,2 Sŏngch'ŏl is one of the, if not the, most representative figures of modern Korean Buddhism. Furthermore, having been a great reformer of the Buddhist tradition, he is reckoned to be one of the twelve most prominent personalities of the Republic of Korea (hereafter Korea) during the fifty years that followed its foundation in 1948. But Sŏngch'ŏl's place in Korean Buddhist history is not without controversy, particularly his utter rejection of the then well-established "Sudden Awakening/Gradual Practice Doctrine (tono chŏmsuron 頓悟漸修論)" advocated by Master Pojo Chinul 普照 知訥 (1158-1210). The effort to replace it with his own "Sudden Awakening/Sudden Cultivation Doctrine (tono tonsuron 頓悟頓修論)" of ultimate awakening (kugyŏnggak 究竟覺) to the middle path (chungdo 中道) or "seeing of one's nature (kyŏnsŏng 見性)", through the practice of kanhwasŏn 看話禪3, has given rise to the ongoing Korean Sudden/Gradual Debate (han'guk tonjŏm nonjaeng 韓國頓漸論爭). Sŏngch'ŏl proclaimed that through the practice of kanhwasŏn anybody could suddenly achieve an uncaused and non-cognitive experience of pure consciousness, which could definitely transform anyone into a Buddha. As he did so, Sŏngch'ŏl not only placed his teaching under the absolute authority of the Sixth Patriarch Huineng 六祖慧能, but he also seems to have identified with him (Sŏ 2009, 209-27). With such a doctrine, which powerfully evokes the rhetorics of immediacy and experience described by Faure and Sharf respectively (Faure 1991; Sharf 2000), the sudden/gradual debate has reached an unprecedented degree of exacerbation in Buddhist history (Chŏng 2012, 84). Indeed, Sŏngch'ŏl's teaching has so alienated the majority of Korean Buddhist scholars that it is still difficult to find balanced accounts of its significance.
On the eve of the twenty-fifth anniversary of South Korea's democracy, these facts induce us to critically reflect upon the impact of Sŏngch'ŏl's legacy on contemporary Korean Buddhism and society. This reflection will be based on the review of two representatives Korean works directly related to Sŏngch'ŏl [End Page 174] and/or the Korean Sudden/Gradual Debate: T'oeong Sŏngch'ŏl ŭi kkaedarŭm kwa suhaeng 退翁性徹의 깨달음과 修行 (2006) and Chaengjŏm ŭro salp'yŏ ponŭn kanhwasŏn 爭點으로 살펴보는 看話禪 (2011). Let us review them each in turn.
T'oeong Sŏngch'ŏl ŭi kkaedarŭm kwa suhaeng
T'oeong Sŏngch'ŏl ŭi kkaedarŭm kwa suhaeng is a compilation edited in 2006 by Cho Sŏngt'aek of the philosophy department of ŭi University.4 It comprises ten chapters divided into two parts of equal length: Sŏngch'ŏl ŭi pulgyogwan kwa tono tonsuron 성철의 불교관과 돈오돈수론 ("Sŏngch'ŏl's view of Buddhism and Sudden Awakening/Sudden Cultivation Doctrine") and SSŏngch'ŏl ŭi hy ŏnsil insik kwa pulgyo silch'ŏn 성철의 현실인식관 불교실천 ("Sŏngch'ŏl's understanding of reality and the practice of Buddhism"). It is because of this twofold division, into Sŏngch'ŏl's Buddhist theory and its practical consequences (understood in a broad sense), that the book deserves special attention. To be sure, although a significant amount of literature has been published on the Korean Sudden/Gradual Debate (Kang 1992; Park 1983, 1992, 2009 etc.), the bulk of it tends to treat the dispute as a doctrinal matter chiefly...