Seungsahn (Hangul: 숭산행원대선사; Hanja: 崇山行願大禪師; RR: Sungsan Haeng'weon Daeseonsa, August 1, 1927 – November 30, 2004), born Duk-In Lee, was a Korean Seon master of the Jogye Order and founder of the international Kwan Um School of Zen. He was the seventy-eighth Patriarch in his lineage. As one of the early Korean Zen masters to settle in the United States, he opened many temples and practice groups across the globe. He was known for his charismatic style and direct presentation of Zen, which was well tailored for the Western audience.
Known by students for his many correspondences with them through letters, his utilization of dharma combat and expressions such as "only don't know" or "only go straight" in teachings, he was conferred the honorific title of Dae Jong Sa in June 2004 by the Jogye Order for a lifetime of achievements. Considered the highest honor to have bestowed upon one in the order, the title translates "Great Lineage Master" and was bestowed for his establishment of the World Wide Kwan Um School of Zen. He died in November that year at Hwagaesa in Seoul, South Korea, at age 77.
Seung Sahn was born in 1927 as Duk-In Lee (modern romanisation: Yi Deog'in) in Sunchon (순천), South Pyongan Province of occupied Korea (now North Korea) to Presbyterian parents. In 1944, he joined an underground resistance movement in response to the ongoing occupation of Korea by the Empire of Japan. He was captured by Japanese police shortly after, avoided a death sentence, and spent time in prison. Upon his release, he studied Western philosophy at Dongguk University. One day, a monk friend of his lent him a copy of the Diamond Sutra. While reading the text, he became inspired to ordain as a monk and left school, receiving the prātimokṣa precepts in 1948. Seung Sahn then performed a one-hundred day solitary retreat in the mountains of Korea, living on a diet of pine needles and rain water. It is said he attained enlightenment on this retreat.
While seeking out a teacher who could confirm his enlightenment, he found Kobong, who told him to keep a not-knowing mind. In the fall of 1948, Seung Sahn learned dharma combat while sitting a one-hundred day sesshin at Sudeoksa—where he was known to stir up mischief, nearly being expelled from the monastery. After the sesshin was concluded, he received dharma transmission (inka) from two masters, Keumbong and Keum'oh. He then went to see Kobong, who confirmed Seungsahn's enlightenment on January 25, 1949 and gave him dharma transmission as well. Seung Sahn is the only person Kobong gave Dharma transmission to. He spent the next three years in observed silence.
Seungsahn implemented the use of simple phraseology to convey his messages, delivered with charisma, which helped make the teachings easier to consume for Western followers. Some of his more frequently employed phrases included "only go straight" or "only don't know". He even went so far as to call his teachings "Don't Know Zen", which was reminiscent of the style of Bodhidharma. Seungsahn used correspondences between him and his students as teaching opportunities. Back-and-forth letters allowed for a kind of dharma combat through the mail and made him more available to the school's students in his absence. This was another example of his skillful implementation of unorthodox teaching methods, adapting to the norms of Western culture and thus making himself more accessible to those he taught. He was a supporter of what he often termed "together action"—encouraging students to make the lineage's centers their home and practice together.
Seungsahn also developed his own kōan study program for students of the Kwan Um School, known today as the "Twelve Gates". These twelve kōans are a mixture of ancient cases and cases which he developed. Before receiving inka to teach (in Kwan Um, inka is not synonymous with Dharma transmission), students must complete the Twelve Gates, though often they will complete hundreds more. One of the more well known cases of the Twelve Gates is "Dropping Ashes on the Buddha", the Sixth Gate, which is also the title of one of his books. In the book The Compass of Zen, this kong-an is transcribed as follows: "Somebody comes to the Zen center smoking a cigarette. He blows smoke and drops ashes on the Buddha." Seungsahn then poses the question, "If you are standing there at that time, what can you do?" Not included in this version of the kōan is the Kwan Um School of Zen's following side note on the case, "[H]ere is an important factor in this case that has apparently never been explicitly included in its print versions. Zen Master Seung Sahn has always told his students that the man with the cigarette is also very strong and that he will hit you if he doesn't approve of your response to his actions."
When Seungsahn first began teaching in the United States, there was an underemphasis in his message on the significance of zazen. Under advice from some students, however, he soon came to incorporate zazen into the curriculum more frequently. More than a few of his earliest students had practiced Zen previously under the Sōtō priest Shunryū Suzuki, laying out a convincing argument about how zazen and Zen were seen as inseparable in the Western psyche.