Me and Master Seung Sahn

Me and Master Seung Sahn January 15, 2024

me in 2012.

I’m about to do a series of writings about Compass of Zen and I thought I’d take a moment to share about my experience and to also share about who Seung Sahn was. For the record, I am not an expert. Many people have more experience and more useful things to say than me.

I first heard of Zen Master Seung Sahn when a Monk approached me to tell me about the Five Mountain Zen Order. His name was Wanji Sunim. Sunim is the title for ordained Buddhist teachers in the Korean Zen tradition. He would go on to take a different Buddhist name, but he was Wanji when I was his student.

He was trying to establish his own sitting group here and he invited me. I had never heard of Seung Sahn and didn’t know anything about the Korean Zen tradition but I was interested in learning more. I had a fascination with the Zen tradition and there wasn’t a Zen temple in Kansas City. There still isn’t. I practiced with Wanji for around three years. I ordained and took vows with my teacher and with his teacher Venerable Wonji Dharma. Most of my training was studying the works of Seung Sahn and working a few kong-ans. I never met him. He passed away in 2004. But Wonji had been one of his students, so I have a connection to him through the Five Mountain Zen Order. I was given the Buddhist name Boepyol, which means “Dharma Zeal” in Korean.

with Wanji Sunim and some other students. 2011.

And after a while I stopped participating. The main reason is my son was a baby and I was reluctant to go to a group with open ended practice every Friday night at that time (open ended means sometimes it was one hour and sometimes three. Unpredictable and not how most Buddhist groups operate.) It wasn’t because of a disagreement with my teacher, although we did have a disagreement or two. I felt at the time that it was made clear to me that if I couldn’t participate 100%, I shouldn’t participate. I think I’m a little wrong on just how clear that was though. I don’t think of myself as ‘ordained’ now. But I didn’t get kicked out or something and I didn’t renounce Buddhism. So maybe I’m still ordained.

Wonji Dharma

I practice and teach at the Rime Buddhist Center now. But that training is still with me in some ways. For a while I tried to find another Zen teacher but I couldn’t re-create what I walked away from, honestly. But I did try for a while. I have regrets.

But, as they say, you can’t go home again. Wonji Dharma passed away in 2021 and there is some argument among his students regarding who he passed leadership on to. It’s a sad thing that happens sometimes. It’s easy for things to get in the way when it’s time to pass authority on. I don’t know exactly when my former teacher Wanji stopped having his local sitting group, but he doesn’t have one now.

Here’s the biography of Zen Master Seung Sahn as it appears on the Five Mountain Zen Order website:

Seung Sahn

Zen Master Seung Sahn was born in Korea in 1927 during the Japanese occupation, which he resisted during his youth. After World War II, disillusioned with politics and academic studies as a way to attain truth, he went to the mountains with the goal of finding his true self. At that time he did an arduous 100-day chanting retreat, during which he attained enlightenment. Afterwards his attainment was recognized by several Korean Masters, and he received Inga from Zen Master Kobong, an enigmatic Zen Master who refused to teach monks. Kobong Sunim told him, “Your Dharma mission is the whole world.” In subsequent years, Daejongsanim (Seung Sahn’s title) worked to reorganize Korean Buddhism, then he left Korea for Japan, where he spent seven years, founding temples and teaching Zen.

Daejongsanim arrived in the United States in 1972 with the idea of seeing whether it was possible to teach Zen to Westerners. He had little money and no English. After spending a short time with the Korean community in Los Angeles, he went to Providence, Rhode Island where he took a job in a Laundromat, carrying laundry and repairing the machines. He met a professor of Buddhism from Brown University who introduced Daejongsanim to some of his students. They would come by Daejongsanim’s small, slum apartment; Daejongsanim would cook for them, teach them meditation, and answer their questions about Zen practice and life. With his new students’ help, Daejongsanim subsequently founded the Providence Zen Center, a large, residential Zen Center that has become the head temple to The Kwan Um School of Zen and more than five dozen Zen Centers around the world, including Dharma Zen Center in Los Angeles.

Daejongsanim had given Dharma Transmission to several of his Western students and Inga to some fourteen others. Daejongsanim authored a number of books, notably the Zen classic, Dropping Ashes on the Buddha (Grove Press) and, recently, a collection of Zen, Christian and Taoist kong’ans, The Whole World Is a Single Flower (Tuttle) and The Compass of Zen (Shambhala). Daejongsanim had always encouraged people of all faiths to realize their true nature together.  For many years he has lead Zen retreats at the Abbey of Gethsemani and taught at several Ecumenical gatherings.

He passed away in 2004.


So, as we study Seung Sahn’s text “Compass of Zen” this is the tradition we are working in. It’s all connected.

About Daniel Scharpenburg
Daniel Scharpenburg (Gegan Kelsang Dakpa) is a Buddhist Meditation Teacher. Daniel completed Meditation Instructor Training under Lama Chuck Stanford at the Rime Buddhist Center in 2011. He volunteers at the Rime Buddhist Center as a Class Facilitator and Meditation Lead. He was given the title “Gegan” or teacher and he has taken Bodhisattva Vows. Daniel also ordained as a Zen Priest in the Five Mountain Zen Order with Ven. Wonji Dharma in the Korean Zen Tradition. You can read more about the author here.

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