Biography of Zen Master Seung Sahn

*See below for Bibliography

Zen Master Sueng Sahn was born Duk In Lee in 1927 in Seun Choen, northern Korea (the Korean Peninsula was divided as part of the WWII peace treaty, with the Soviet Union to sponsor the north and the U.S to sponsor the South) to Protestant Christian parents.  He grew up during a time when Korea  was under Japanese military rule and political and cultural freedoms were heavily suppressed.  His parents and sister grew up on his grandfather’s 40 acre apple farm.  His father was the president of a large construction company which built roads, railways and public buildings.  In his teens he attended an elite technical school, where only 1 out of every 25 applicants were accepted.  At this technical school the students were forced to make bombs and war weapons on their machines (and high school students were forced to work in the factories after school and during vacations).  The Japanese were destroying Korea, denuding the land of it’s resources, cutting down the trees and forcing Koreans to speak only Japanese.  There was so much suffering.  His all consuming passion was to get the Japanese out of his country.

In 1944, he joined the underground Independence movement.  His job was to find out how many young boys were sent to which factories, how many to the army, etc. and then refer that information to the underground headquarters in Manchuria.  He also made illegal short wave radios so that he and his friends could listen to the Voice of America in Hawaii.  He was caught by police and thrown in jail.  Had he been older he would have been shot immediately.  Friends and family intervened on his behalf and he was released after 4 months.  During this prison experience he first heard about Buddhism.  In 1945 he fled to South Korea and attended Dong Guk University in Seoul.  While he was there the communists occupied all of the territory north of the 38th parallel and Seung Sahn was cut off from his parents and was never to see them again.  After the end of WWII Koreans were fighting Koreans and life became even worse than it had been under Japanese rule.  In 1948, on the anniversary of the March Uprising (of Koreans against Japanese) he watched in despair while the Japanese, Communists and Anti-Communists all fought in front of the Seoul Station (the largest station in Korea).  He saw a total hopelessness of not only that situation but of the whole world.  People were fighting each other.  He felt that he had to find his own way, so he left the Dong Guk University in Seoul and headed up into the South Korean mountains. When he first went to the mountains he was not a Buddhist and had no plan except to leave the world as he knew it and try to find his own way.  After studying Confucianism and Taoism for several months with a Confucian scholar he found these philosophies did not satisfy him.  He finally discovered the Buddhist teachings, especially the Diamond Sutra, which states:  “All things that appear in this world are transient.  If you view all things that appear as never having appeared, then you will realize your true self.”   When he read these words his mind was opened.   After this,  Soen Sa Nim (honored Zen Master), went off on his first 100 day solo retreat, eating only ground pine needles mixed with a few soybeans.  He chanted the “Great Dharani of Universal energy for up to 20 hours a day.  On this retreat he digested what he previously only understood and attained his true self.

Soen Sa Nim was able to study under Zen Master Ko Bong, who was the chief disciple of Zen Master Mang Gong, and a very great Zen Master but had no dharma heirs because he  refused to teach monks saying they didn’t practice hard enough.  But Seung Sahn completed other 100 and 90 day retreats and received training in dharma combat.  On January 25, 1949, Soen Sa Nim received transmission of the Dharma and became the 78th Patriarch in this line of  succession in the Korean Choyge Order.  At that time he was given the name Seung Sahn, meaning “Man from Duk Sahn Mountain”.  He was 22 years old.  For the next 3 years Soen Sa Nim was on silence and stayed with Ko Bong Sunim.

During this time (1950) the Korean War began.  The North Korean army invaded all of South Korea and the Communists set up offices in various towns.  Both anti-communists and high government officials from South Korea were in a very dangerous situation.  Since Soen Sa Nim had been very active politically when he was at Dong Guk University and he was also originally from the north he was on the list of wanted men.  Since it was very dangerous with the communists always coming to the Su Dok Sah temple,  he went into hiding at a small temple four or five miles behind Su Dok Sah.  In order to hide his identity, he dressed as a layman, in old, shabby clothes.  After General Macarthur landed at Inchon, the communists forces were driven back to the north, and it was safe for Zen Master Seung Sahn to come out of hiding.   Soon after that he had to join the South Korean Army, as all young men, monks or not were required to do.  In his free time he continued to meditate and also taught meditation to others.  He obtained the rank of Captain and was in charge of placement of personnel.  He saw some action and was wounded though not seriously.   He served in the South Korean Army from 1952 to 1957, experiencing even more aspects of this suffering world.  After his service he cut his hair and returned to his life as a monk.

In 1957, his parent Zen Master, Ko Bong became seriously ill so Zen Master Seung Sahn was appointed the abbot of Hwa Gae Sah Temple on the outskirts of Seoul.   In the course of his duties he heard of a Japanese temple in Seoul that contained the remains of 500 dead Japanese people.  The temple had financial difficulties and had come under the control of lay people.  They were not interested in the bones and wanted to throw them out.  Zen Master Seung Sahn went to the officials and said “whether Korean or Japanese bones, dead peoples bones are all the same.  Dead bones are dead bones.”  Then he brought the bones back to Hwa Gae Sah temple and for days and days he chanted Namu Ami Ta Bul over the bones, chanting for the dead spirits.  A few years later when Korea and Japan resumed diplomatic relations and some Japanese came to claim the bones of their dead ancestors and carry them back to their homeland.  Out of great appreciation and deep respect for Soen Sa Nim’s action the Japanese invited him to go to Japan.  This opportunity became a turning point in his life.

In the 1960s Zen Master Seung Sahn got his first chance to travel, having been asked by the government of Japan to open a temple in Tokyo.  There were about 600,000 Koreans living in Japan at that time, many of them having been born in Japan.    The Communists were trying every possible way to seduce them to moving to No. Korea.  There was even one Buddhist monk in Japan telling members of his temple that No. Korea was paradise on earth, even though religion was not allowed there.  Zen Master Seung Sahn served the needs of the Japanese-Korean community previding for them with spiritual guidance and encouragement not to go to No. Korea.   He made a temple in Tokyo and stayed there for the next six years.  He also established a Temple in Hong Kong.   Some Koreans from his Chogye order have said that “We lost a great master to Japan and then America because of some dead bones.”

In 1972, he felt his work in Japan and Hong Kong was done.  He had been hearing about the United States, and the wild-spirited hippies and that became his next calling.   He had no money, didn’t speak English and didn’t know anyone in the U.S.   An old friend from Dong Guk University in Seoul, named Mr. Yu now was the president of a large company inTokyo.  He told Zen Master Seung Sahn that Japanese monks were going to America to teach meditation so why not a Korean?  One day Mr. Yu sent him a letter with an airplane ticket to the U.S.  in it.   By sheer chance,  he met a Korean man on the plane who owned a laundramat in Providence, R.I. who promised him a job repairing washing machines if he ever decided to come to the area.   He accepted this invitation and was soon able to attract a group of followers from Brown University.    After a decade of renting home in Providence, R.I. and supporting  himself by repairing washing machines he and his students purchased 50 acres and an old nursing home in Cumberland, RI and set up the Kwan Um School of Zen headquarters for his growing international network of centers and groups.  He was constantly on the move and accepted invitations to teach all over the United State and had founded centers in Cambridge, New Haven, New york, Los Angeles, Berkley and other American Cities.

By the time of his death he and his students had established more than 100 groups in more than 30 countries.  As a result of his efforts, he inspired over 1,000 disciples to practice Zen and of these a number of these received transmission as Zen Masters.  In a book entitles “Buddha and Vision, published by Cambridge University’s Religious department , he was designated along with the His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh, and Ven. Maha Ghosananda (a revered visitor and guest at the Providence Zen Center) as one of the “Four Living Buddhas of the World.”


Diana Clark (compiled and edited by)  ONLY DOING IT for Sixty years. With contributions from Students, Friends and Other Teachers Primary Point Press 8/1/1987.

Mu Soeng Sunim  Thousand Peaks; Korean Zen-Traditions and  Teachers Primary Point Press, Cumberland, R.I. 1991


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