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Buddhadharma : Fall 2009
89 fall 2 00 9 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly In the days before the internet and local dharma-supply shops, Buddha statues were hard to come by in the United States. This meant that in 1974, Master Seung Sahn’s emerging American sangha had to make do with the paint-it- yourself Buddha that they’d managed to acquire. It also meant they had to agree on what color to paint it. One sangha member wanted to paint the Buddha deep brown and another wanted to paint it light green. Unable to agree, they went to Seung Sahn and they each explained why their color of choice was the best. Seung Sahn lis- tened patiently and then he took the two paints and he mixed them together. “Paint it that color,” he said. That color was slime green, recalls Mark Houghton, who is now a guiding teacher of the Cambridge Zen Center, a branch of the Kwan Um School of Zen founded by Master Seung Sahn. Slime green didn’t make for a pretty Buddha sitting on the altar, but it did remind stu- dents to let go of attachment, to let go of likes and dislikes. “There were countless things he did like that that accentuated the simplicity and clarity of the teach- ing,” adds Houghton. Seung Sahn’s personal life, particu- larly his life before he became the first Korean Zen master to live and teach in the West, wasn’t something that he talked much about. Though he was warm and inviting, says Houghton, “he remained a teacher, not a friend.” Even Houghton and other close students only learned about Seung Sahn’s early life through his biographies. Seung Sahn was born to a Christian family in 1927 in northern Korea. In 1944, he joined the underground inde- pendence movement to help liberate his country from Japanese rule, but he was caught and narrowly escaped execution. After his release from prison, Seung Sahn began to study Western philos- ophy at university. But he later decided that he couldn’t help his country by studying, and instead shaved his head and went into the mountains, vow- ing not to come down until he had found the truth he was seeking. In 1948 Seung Sahn became a Bud- dhist monk. After his ordination, he began a hundred-day retreat that involved eating only pine needles, taking ice-cold baths, and chanting for twenty hours daily. According to his biogra- phies, he experienced terrifying visions as well as visions of bodhisattvas, and his skin turned green from the pine needles. On the hundredth day, he said he felt his body disappear, and when he returned to it, he understood that every- thing was his true self. At the age of twenty-two, Seung Sahn received dharma transmission from Zen Master Ko Bong, thereby becoming the seventy-eighth patriarch in this line of succession. In 1957, he became the abbot of Seoul’s Hwa Gae Sah temple. In the course of his duties, he heard of a Japanese temple in Seoul that had the bones of five hundred Japanese corpses. Lay Koreans wanted to throw the bones out, but when Seung Sahn heard this, he told the temple officials, “Whether those bones were once Korean or Japanese, dead people’s bones are all the same.” He brought the bones to Hwa Gae Sah and chanted for the spirits. Later, some Japanese people came to claim the bones of their ancestors and, out of appreciation for his care, they invited Seung Sahn to go to Japan. Some Koreans say, We lost a great master to Japan and America because of some dead bones. In 1972, Seung Sahn arrived in the United States and established his first American Zen center in a dodgy area of Providence, Rhode Island. The only furniture in the small apartment-turned- zendo was a table and a few chairs, but there was also an old pot in which Seung KWAN UM SCHOOL OF ZEN (Above) Providence Zen Center in Cumberland, Rhode Island, the head temple of the Kwan Um School (Top right) Zen Master Soeng Hyang (Barbara Rhodes) (Left) Master Seung Sahn Profi l e Inthe days before the internet and green didn’t make for a pretty Buddha KWAN UM SCHOOL OF ZEN (Above) Providence Zen Center in Cumberland, Rhode Island, the head temple of the Kwan Um School (Top right) Zen Master Soeng Hyang (Barbara Rhodes) (Left) Master Seung Sahn After his release from prison, Seung Sahn began to study Western philos- ophy at university. But he later decided that he couldn’t help his country by studying, and instead shaved his head and went into the mountains, vow- ing not to come down until he had found the truth he was seeking. By andrea Miller Photos:(left)PhilliPZuckerman,(toPandright)arunaskulikauskas