Making Ganhwa Seon Accessible to the General Public

Master Subul Sunim, Anguk Zen Cente

Introduction
Seon meditation is a direct method that can cut right to the core and reveal the Truth immediately by bringing the light of prajn? wisdom into our mind and dispelling our inner darkness and ignorance. Seon emerged in our history to prove one more time that Buddhas teachings aim only to turn all beings away from ignorance and guide them to awakening.

In Seon, one must break through invisible mental barriers and experience absolute freedom through meditation practice. Through this, one can surpass conventional morality that distinguishes between good and bad, and attain the wisdom to know that there is neither good nor bad. 

First blossomed in India,thiswiseteachingevolvedintoMahayanaBuddhism.Different meditation methods have developed since the time of the Buddha, but it is particularly fortunate that we can still learn from the living legacy of Patriarchal Seon, Ganhwa Seon, and Mukjo Seon (silent illumination meditation), which led practitioners to experience the state of Buddhahood suddenly and directly.

1. Patriarchal Seon and Ganhwa Seon
Boddhidharma (ӹؤ), the 28th Indian Patriarch, and the 1st Chinese Chan Patriarch, is the founder of Chinese Patriarchal Seon. Patriarchal Seon took further root in China with the help of the Sixth Patriarch, Huineng, who developed the method of realizing ones original nature through a sudden awakening induced by inquiring directly into the nature of mind. The unbroken lineage of Seon owes much to Huineng, who devoted his life to spreading the Dharma of sudden enlightenment.

In Patriarchal Seon, awakened masters guide one to face straight to ones original nature. Once helped by their Dharma to reach the stage where the minds operations halt and inherent Buddhahood is revealed, one can live free of all hindrances. Having ones progress checked by an awaken master is considered essential in the course of practicing Seon.

As seen in all Seon records, masters of Patriarchal Seon taught the students by utilizing means like shouting, raising eyebrows or even hitting them with a wooden staff so that students can perceive the mind directly and attain enlightenment through mind-to-mind transmission. Exchanges of questions and answers, between masters and disciples were recorded and passed down through generations and eventually organized and standardized into 1,700 formally approved gongans.

Master Dahui Zonggao (?; 1089-1163) in the Southern Song Dynasty criticized what he believed was the degenerate and complacent attitude of silent illumination Seon (), and developed a structured and systematic approach known as Ganhwa Seon (). This method utilizes hwadu, a sense of questioning and doubt instilled by gongans. Ganhwa Seon practitioners seek to attain sudden enlightenment by thoroughly investigating a hwadu and the ball of doubt induced by one of 1,700 gongans. In other words, gongans are precedents of past great masters, while a hwadu is earnest doubt generated by the past acts of the Buddha and the Patriarchs. In Ganhwa Seon, a practitioner with the aspiration to be awakened is given a hwadu and then pushed by his teachers into the ball of doubt to attain enlightenment. Therefore, although in Patriarchal Seon, a gongan equals a hwadu, in Ganhwa Seon, hwadu is defined as the genuine doubt induced by a gongan. 

Ganhwa literally means observing a hwadu phrase. In the Ganhwa approach, hwadus should be strictly distinguished from gongans. Gongans are documented chronicles of Seon exchanges as well as Dharma teachings that took place between past masters and disciples. On the other hand, a hwadu occurs when a specific gongan takes deep root within an individuals mind as a living and breathing question. Unless personally actualized and internalized, a gongan will fail to be a living phrase and becomes just empty words. As such, Ganwha practice has two fundamental assumptions: 

First, Gongan questions should be based on Dharma tests and Seon dialogues developed in the tradition of Patriarchal Seon. Second, a hwadu should grow into a living doubt, which arises spontaneously regardless of whether one intends it to. Once it is aroused, the living doubt cannot be dispelled even if one tries. Ganhwa Seon is a superior method that liberates one from the fetters of favorable or unfavorable hindrances and reveals the original face of reality through focusing on hwadu. While relying on the guidance of a great master, Ganhwa Seon allows one to overcome all delusions and hindrances and to see ones original nature.

2. What is Ganhwa Seon Practice? 

1) The Three Essential Elements of Hwadu Practice
What are the actual steps to be taken to lead sentient beings to the sudden awakening? What are Ganhwa principles and disciplines upon which Ganhwa Seon practice is established? I have taught Ganhwa Seon to some 10,000 people over the past 20 years, and I am confident that Ganhwa Seon could be, and should be made available to lay Buddhists. At AngukZenCenter, those who wish to learn GanhwaSeon are asked to sit in for the Dharma class for beginners.

Before starting meditation practice, one should have the right motivation, since redevotion and great determination to see it through to the end. 

Beginners of Ganhwa Seon must have great faith in their Seon master and hwadu practice. Without such faith, one cannot overcome various hindrances and obscurations that are bound to arise from ones prejudice and consequently trouble practitioners in the course of meditation. Only firm, determined conviction will carry the practitioners to the end.

In the beginning of practice, one will inevitably suffer from extreme hardships, both physical and mental, so much so that one may worry that some irrevocable catastrophe awaits. One can surmount such difficulties only by relying on the guidance of an awaken master. In this sense, Ganhwa Seon is not so different from Patriarchal Seon.

Once great faith arises and one is sincerely committed to hwadu practice and has generated questioning, the practitioner will be faced with the so called silver mountain and iron wall (ߣ), a seemingly impenetrable mental wall blocking ones progress. The practitioner should remain undaunted and continue to devote oneself to break through the wall while having faith in the master. If one stays unwavering on this course, it will not take very long to break that wall. This is why Ganhwa Seon is the most effective and superior method.

The second most important element is great anger, originated from a strong resolution to break through the wall no matter what it takes. Once stopped by the silver mountain and iron wall, it seems impossible to move beyond it, and one naturally suffers from extreme anxiety and frustration. If this pent up anger can be directed toward practice, the repressed energy will erupt and rush the practitioner towards the break-through. A sudden volcanic outbreak of great anger will give the practitioner the momentum to raze the wall down to the ground. To achieve this, it requires an extremely heightened state of concentration, like a lone mounted cavalier charging into a great army.

The frustration of the practitioner in this state can be compared to that of someone trapped in a deep well, desperate only to get out. Sometimes one is driven by desperation to hate the teacher who fashioned such a contraption and pushed the practitioner into such a hell. However, the indignant mind at this moment must be diverted to sharpen ones determination to deepen ones practice and be free from the bonds of life and death.

The third essential element is great doubt. A practitioner should cultivate doubt when a gongan is given and do the utmost to break through it. One can liberate the human mind, limited as it is by the concepts of life and death, only when practicing with a live phrase. Once doubt flourishes, obscurations and distractions naturally cease. A genuinely held doubt continues without ceasing when it was properly aroused. Practitioners of Ganhwa Seon should be like a fierce dog, which never lets go once its teeth have sunk in. As it is virtually impossible for a beginner to enter a state of continuous and earnest questioning and to check ones progress on his or her own, it is vital to receive guidance from an awaken master.

Great faith, great anger, and great doubt are called the three essential elements of hwadu practice. Once all these three conditions are fulfilled, and one works on a live phrase with great faith and great anger, one can quickly realize a breakthrough. The great Chinese Chan master Gaofengyuanmiao (: 12381295) said:

If you start to practice meditation with the intention to complete it within a set time, you must maintain a constant mind and try to escape from the ten thousand worldly thoughts, from morning to night and until the next morning. If you practice like this with great effort for three to five days or even for seven days, but fail to attain enlightenment, then I must be blamed for telling a great lie today and shall naturally fall into the everlasting hell where the field has to be plowed with my own tongue.
                                                   - The Gist of Seon

2) From Patriarchal Seon toward Ganhwa Seon
In the era of Patriarchal Seon, masters taught their disciples using Seon dialogues. Disciples would not have wasted their precious chance by putting forth a futile question to a master. Their questions were often goaded by frustration and lack of actual experience. Since awakened masters are well aware that great doubt is the most crucial element, such masters train the practitioners who come forward with a question.

When practitioners throw themselves at the feet of the master and ask a critical question that is born out of desperation, an awaken master will perform jultak (?), the simultaneous pecking from inside and outside of an gg by achick and mother hen that allows the chick to emerge from the egg. The practitioner, wallowing in asea of doubt, either is awakened spontaneously by the word of a good teacher, thegreat enlightenment from aword(), or suffers from even greater doubt. In the tradition of Patriarchal Seon, a practitioner is hard pressed by a master through one-on-one teaching sessions to continue towards ones goal.

Patriarchal Seon assumes a sangha of practitioners who can devote their time and energy solely to meditation, and as a result, attain a live phrase and a continuous state of questioning. This is not so easily feasible for most people living in the 1st century, and is therefore less applicable to the modern era.

How then can we make the true taste of Seon practice available to lay people, who are always so busy? What meditation method would be palatable and digestible to them? When I started teaching Seon meditation, I personally experienced the limitations of instructing students simply to hold hwadu and sit. I then adopted the Ganhwa Seon approach, and started teaching students to focus on the sense of doubt generated by a gongan. The key is pushing them to take up a live phrase so as to raise doubt immediately. One of the biggest reasons that a practitioners taking on a hwadu does not move on to the generation of doubt is that s/he only focuses on memorizing the question instead of single-mindedly trying to resolve it. If one solely focuses on finding the answer, the live phrase and questioning will naturally rise.

In short, Ganhwa Seon originated from Patriarchal Seon, and both approaches have the same fundamental principle. Practitioners of both methods should be filled with doubt which grows until it fills their whole body. When the time is ripe, sudden enlightenment is revealed at the moment the practitioner breaks open the hwadu. However, the Ganhwa method is a more realistic option to lay practitioners, as a teacher leads them in developing a live hwadu from the very beginning and guides them step by step along the way.

3) The key to Ganhwa Seon practice: doubt arising from a live phrase

The Ganhwa Seon method currently in use at Anguk Zen Center is as follows: first, each person is told to flick a inger, and then given a question.

What is moving this finger? It is neither finger, I, nor mind. However, you cannot also say that the finger, I, or mind does not move the finger either. Then, what is causing me to move this finger?

Once the question is given, they are told only to look for an answer. Once the practitioner follows the questions and raises a wish to seek an answer, the person experiences frustration. Some unknown dissatisfaction lodges in ones chest. Why does such feeling appear? It is just like thirst worsening when the search for water produces no result. The more one longs for an answer, the more desperately one want to know. Virtuous matters spur practitioners onward to investigate a live phrase so as to keep searching for an answer and hold onto the questioning and doubt with the whole of ones being.

Dullness (; literally confusion and depression; torpor) is one of the biggest obstacles to practitioners. So we tell practitioners to keep their eyes open during the sitting meditation but lie down when feeling sleepy. However, when there is a stirring in you that prevents you from falling asleep, then sit back up and devote yourself to the hwadu. You may close your eyes for 5 minutes or so during sitting meditation, but no longer than that. Even when you feel stuck and make no progress, keep your eyes open and build up on your practice.

We also tell them to ignore and leave alone deluded thoughts and afflictions when they arise. Do not try to chase them away; do not try to study them. Allow them to be there with you, but keep focusing only on the hwadu. The sense of vivid questioning produced by the doubt following a question is the live hwadu phrase. We also emphasize that once a live phrase has been taken up, one should not let it go no matter what.

Sometimes practitioners are uncertain and ask the master to check whether the hwadu is indeed being held or not. Then I say, When you swallow a pill, does its shape stay intact? Once inside the body, it melts away. However, even the original shape is gone, it is working from inside of your body. Doubt invoked by a hwadu works in a similar manner. When the Seon master throws you a question, not knowing the answer spreads through your whole system and becomes a live doubt. Keep focusing on, investigating and interrogating the ball of doubt. Keep diving deeper inside so that it will become a single solid block. When investigating hwadu, if favorable or unfavorable conditions appear, let them be and focus even more on hwadu.

At Anguk Zen Center, hwadu practitioners are encouraged to practice as iftheir hair is on fire,or they are beingdriven by a barbed wire whip.Weal so motivate our practitioners by sayingYou are trying to penetrate asilver mountain and iron wallas if it is a matter of life and death.You can not afford to sit comfortably as if you are gently tuning and plucking a lute. You have started your practice by relyingon a master, and that means you must tackle your hwadu practice with so much determination and vigor that the lute string will be severed.

Many Buddhists are advised to practice like tuning the strings of a lute, neither too tight nor loose. If I use a spinning top as an analogy, one has to keep whipping the top until it stands still and spins at the same time. Only then, only after stillness in the middle of movement () is attained, can one sit back and watch, or gently tune the lute, so to speak. (If you take a hwadu for the first time and start as if tuning a lute, when can you achieve great awakening? Hal! (?))

The practitioners will to practice Ganhwa Seon must also be checked closely. Accordingly, specific and detailed instructions are provided whenever necessary, so that the practitioner can concentrate only on finding an answer. I would like to emphasize one more time by saying, The question is already present in the form of the gongan; why not start the search for the answer? For example, one can repeatedly regurgitate questions such as Why did he say No? or Who is dragging the corpse around? in a mistaken attempt to keep the thought going. But this is a dead phrase (ϣ) and will not develop into a genuine doubt.

4) Past the hindrances toward the sensation of doubt() and the ball of doubt (ӥ) When you are so devoted to finding an answer that a single thought stretches into ten thousand years, a mental wall keeps advancing closer. You should not try to reach an answer by using your brain but by smashing your whole being into the wall, stepping up your dedication to hwadu. The more dedicated you are, the more hindrances will appear. No matter how bad those hindrances are, the only way to overcome them is to concentrate on holding the hwadu. If you stop holding the hwadu and attempt to get rid of the difficulties first and study them, they will never disappear. Therefore, it you let obstacles come and go undisturbed and focus only on breaking through the hwadu, they will fade away on their own.

When investigating hwadu, you may experience a bright light shining in front of your eyes or you may see strange images. You may have a sudden insight about gongans. However, all these phenomena are mere conditions. Stay vigilant so as not to mistake them for enlightenment. If you already have an awakened master guiding you through hwadu practice, such conditions should not matter, but if you are practicing alone, you must seek the audience of a master and have your practice checked. When the questioning matures, a hwadu will naturally stay held, and not be put down regardless of ones intention.

When investigating hwadu, you may experience a bright light shining in front of your eyes or you may see strange images. You may have a sudden insight about gongans. However, all these phenomena are mere conditions. Stay vigilant so as not to mistake them for enlightenment. If you already have an awakened master guiding you through hwadu practice, such conditions should not matter, but if you are practicing alone, you must seek the audience of a master and have your practice checked. When the questioning matures, a hwadu will naturally stay held, and not be put down regardless of ones intention.

When hwadu doubt solidifies and arrives at the state of turning the light around and tracing back the radiance (), one becomes one with hwadu, inside and out; then, open eyes no longer see and open ears no longer hear. Some people may experience difficulty in breathing, a sensation of being choked in the throat and solar plexus by the ball of doubt despite inner clearness and calmness. However, one must keep clawing ones way through such difficulties. When the hwadu and I become one, making a single body that cannot be divided in any way () and the sensation of questioning unifies and coalesces into a ball of doubt (ӥ). Later this doubt appears totally by itself. Once one achieves the state of the ball of doubt shining independently (Լ), ones eyes will soon be open. Master Gaofengyua?nmia?o (: 12381295) said:

Doubt and doubt and doubt, until your inside and outside completely mesh into a single block. Your heart is hurting as if you are poisoned or you are trying to shallow a chunk of diamond [˧] or prickly chestnut burr [о] down the throat. If you devote everything you have in life to practice and exert yourself, awakening will come to you naturally and spontaneously. (The Gist of Seon)

3. Sudden Awakening, the Pinnacle of Mahayana Buddhism

If the state of the ball of doubt shining independently, (Լ) is achieved, the ball of doubt will soon rupture. Like lightening flashing across the clear sky, like a cicada casting off its shell, like a heavy burden unloaded off the back, like an iron hoop binding a wooden barrel ripping apart, you are light and victorious. Master Me?ngshan (ߣ: 12321298?) said:

When the masses of doubt keep squeezing in and are about to burst, suddenly everything falls into its proper place like precisely laid stones, and with a great wahoo! sound, clear eyes are open; you have come home. You now have the right speech for the right time, like an arrowhead hitting the bulls eye. All the blockings and hindrances in your heart will disappear like ice melting away; your Dharma is clear and piercing, and you will be raised to the pedestal. However, never stop at a small awakening. (The DharmaTalks of Chan Master Mengshan ߣ)

Once the great affair () takes place, your mind, clogged with desperation and frustration, suddenly becomes empty in the blink of an eye; your mind and body is lighter than a feather, everything is wide open and you are light-hearted as if a life-long burden is dropped off your back.

One can truly know this state only after one personally experiences it. You should never forget that you must have your state evaluated and confirmed by an awaken master and receive guidance on your future course of practice.

4. Conclusion: The Ganhwa Seon Approach in the modern era

One should diligently study the doctrinal aspects of Seon Buddhism and, upon this foundation, experience and break through the doubt spurred by a living hwadu phrase with the whole of ones being. Ganhwa Seon was developed in response to criticism of the silent illumination method of Mukjo Seon (), which equates sitting in meditation with Seon practice. Nevertheless, I sometimes see cases of misunderstanding the Ganhwa practice of achieving oneness between movement and stillness () as merely sitting for a long time. This is no different from the silent illumination method of Mukjo Seon (). If Koreas Ganhwa practice leans too much toward meditative concentration (; sam?dhi), one can be prevented from attaining right wisdom (). Moreover, it also goes against Koreas long venerated tradition of practicing to develop sam?dhi and wisdom simultaneously ().

It would be difficult to expect successful results if masters give Dharma talks from the perspective of Patriarchal Seon, while instructing practitioners using the Ganhwa Seon approach. Dharma talks should suggest directly applicable and practical steps to hold a live phrase and generate genuine doubt.

In order to popularize Ganhwa Seon, awaken Seon masters who can train qualified teachers to guide practitioners through the investigation of hwadu are most called for. The Jogye order should prepare a venue dedicated to studying and practicing Ganhwa Seon and produce many Ganhwa Seon scholars and practitioners.

We should bear in mind that Ganhwa Seon is the best option for the future prosperity of Korean Buddhism, a meditation method that will help overcome Korean Buddhisms superstitious aspects. There should be a structured system in place to facilitate the right Ganhwa practice, where genuine doubt can be induced based on the right understanding about hwadu practice.

The Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism is a cradle for Ganhwa Seon, as over 2,200 monks and nuns enter the summer and winter retreats (called angeo, ; to reside in peace) in 100 Seon monasteries and nunneries for three months at a time. The number of lay practitioners is increasing as well, amounting to tens of thousands.


The passion for Ganhwa Seon practice in orea is greater than ever. If we successfully facilitate a system for Ganhwa Seon practice within the JogyeOrder first, the globalization of Ganhwa Seon will naturally follow. Then, we can share with the denizens of the global village the amazing benefits of Ganhwa Seon practice more easily.