What Zen Should Be

While reading the book Tracing Back the Radiance by Professor Robert Buswell, I found this interesting quote by a famous Korean monk in the Goryeo Dynasty named Uicheon (의천, 義天, 1055-1101). He lived a couple generations before Jinul did, and was the founder of the Cheontae School of Buddhism, which was the Korean branch of Chinese Tiantai Buddhism.

Anyhow, in the book, Professor Buswell translated a quote from Uicheon who lamented the decline of Seon (Zen) in Korea:

What was called Seon in the past was the approach which matured one’s meditation while relying on the teaching. What is called Seon nowadays is to talk about Seon while abandoning the teaching. To speak about Seon nowadays is to grasp the name but to forget the core; to practice Seon is to base oneself on the scriptural explanations and realize their meaning.

Uicheon’s view was somewhat biased in favor of the “scholastic” schools of Buddhism at the time, but when I read his complaint, it reminds me of the popular attitude in modern Zen toward anti-intellectualism: that a person need not study anything at all, but somehow reach awakening purely through meditation. Without the right balance of wisdom, practice and moral conduct, this is a really unbalanced approach or some kind of empty “imitation” of past Zen masters. Grasping the name, but forgetting the core.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

2 thoughts on “What Zen Should Be”

  1. I might be somewhat anti-intellectual, but my approach is to do some sutra chanting before sitting. It is not something I can grasp intellectually or just by reading the translation. The sound resonates in my (hollow!) head for a while; I hope some understanding is seeping in little by little!


    1. That doesn’t sound anti-intellectual to me at all. I think Uicheon was criticizing those who forsook sutras altogether for the sake of meditation only. The aforementioned Jinul definitely emphasized practice first, but within a framework of the Buddhist sutras to help keep one from going off the tracks. 🙂

      That’s my read of it anyway. I think the key is just balance more than anything.


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