Wisdom, Compassion, and Zen Social Ethics: The Case of Chinul, Songch'ol, and Minjung Buddhism in Korea

By Park, Jin Y. | Journal of Buddhist Ethics, Annual 2006 | Go to article overview

Wisdom, Compassion, and Zen Social Ethics: The Case of Chinul, Songch'ol, and Minjung Buddhism in Korea


Park, Jin Y., Journal of Buddhist Ethics


Abstract

This essay examines the possibility of Zen social ethics by contemplating the relationship between wisdom and compassion in two Korean Zen masters, Pojo Chinul and T'oe'ong Songch'ol. Unlike the common assumption that wisdom and compassion naturally facilitate each other in Zen practice, I contend that in both Chinul and Songch'ol, they are in a relationship of tension rather than harmony and that such a tension provides a ground for Zen social ethics. In this context the Minjung Buddhist movement in contemporary Korea is discussed as an example of Zen social activism that makes visible the social dimension of Zen philosophy and practice.

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Recent Buddhist scholarship in the West has raised a question regarding how to understand Zen teachings in the larger milieu of the life-world beyond monastic experiences. In other words, is ethics possible in Zen Buddhism and, if so, what kind of ethics does Zen offer? This further raises the question of whether Zen Buddhism can contribute to social activism. To answer these questions, in this essay, I will examine the relationship between wisdom and compassion in the context of how an individual's path to realizing the teachings of Zen Buddhism influences the person's relationships with others, that is, his or her practice of compassion.

A common assumption is that wisdom and compassion are like two wings of Zen practice, and, thus, the attainment of the one "naturally" facilitates the other. This essay questions that very assumption and claims that wisdom and compassion are, in fact, in a state of tension, and even create a theoretical gap in two major Zen teachers in Korean Buddhism. This essay further contends that addressing the nature of this tension and, thus, finding its position both in Zen discourse and in its practice could be one of the first steps to understanding the status of Zen Buddhism in the ethical discourse. I will discuss the issue by examining the Zen teaching of Pojo Chinul ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 1158-1210) and comparing it with the Buddhist thoughts of T'oe'ong Songch'ol ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 1912-1993). After discussions on Chinul and Songch'ol, I will examine Minjung Buddhism ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Buddhism for the Masses) in contemporary Korea as a possible example of Zen social activism.

1. The Mind: Doctrinal Ground for the Identity of Wisdom and Compassion in Pojo Chinul

Chinul's Buddhist thought developed around the idea of the mind. At the very beginning of his early work, Encouragement to Practice: The Compact of the Samadhi and Prajna Community (Kwonsu chonghye kyolsa mun [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 1190), Chinul states (1):

   When one is deluded about the mind and gives rise to endless
   defilements, such a person is a sentient being. When one is
   awakened to the mind and gives rise to endless marvelous functions,
   such a person is the Buddha. Delusion and awakening are two
   different states but both are caused by the mind. If one tries to
   find the Buddha away from this mind, one will never find one.

In another of his essays, Secrets on Cultivating the Mind (Susimkyol [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 1203-1205), Chinul also teaches (HPC 4.708b):

   If one wants to avoid transmigration, the best way is to search for
   the Buddha. Though I said "search for the Buddha," this mind is the
   Buddha. The mind cannot be found in a distant place but is inside
   this body.

Also in Straight Talk on the True Mind (Chinsim chiksol, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], around 1205), Chinul advises that the role of patriarchs is "to help sentient beings look at their original nature by themselves" (HPC 4.715a).

By identifying the Buddha with the mind and one's original nature, Chinul joins many other Zen masters to whom the identity between the Buddha and sentient beings in their original state marks the basic promise of the school. …

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