My name is Hwansan Sunim and I am the disciple and personal attendant of Son Master Songdam, the most venerated Buddhist master in Korea. A couple of years ago Son Master Songdam asked me to share the teachings of traditional Korean Son Buddhism with a modern, international audience.
He said to me, "If the Buddha were to appear today, I think he would go to the United States or Europe to begin spreading the Dharma. I believe modern people are ready to learn and practice these teachings."
So let's start from the beginning: What is Son meditation? What is its purpose and what benefits does it provide?
The word "son" (also often spelled "seon" and pronounced like the English word "sun") is derived from the Sanskrit word, dhyana, a technical Buddhist term which means "meditation." Dhyana refers to certain specialized physical and mental practices where the mind becomes completely absorbed in the object of meditation without being disturbed by internal or external stimuli.
Roughly two thousand five hundred years ago the spiritual master known as the Buddha, literally "The Enlightened One," appeared in India and founded what we now call Buddhism. About five or six hundred years later Indian Buddhism began to enter China and interact with Chinese culture to produce distinctly Chinese forms of Buddhism. One of these was Chan Buddhism ("chan" being the Chinese pronunciation of dhyana) which emphasized the use of meditation to gain enlightenment. When Chinese Buddhism, in turn, was transmitted into Korea, "Chan" was pronounced as "Son." Finally, when Chinese and Korean Buddhism made their way into Japan, the Japanese pronounced "Chan" and "Son" as "Zen." So, in a nutshell, Korean Son Buddhism and Japanese Zen Buddhism are the Korean and Japanese interpretations of and variations on the Chinese Chan Buddhist tradition.
That tells us where Son meditation is from and where it stands among the various forms of Buddhism, but again what is it exactly and why do it at all?
Son meditation is defined within the tradition as "the path by which I am enlightened to myself."
According to Son Buddhist teaching, we don't really know what or who we are. Let me say that again.
We do not know ourselves.
We may say that we're human beings, but what does it really mean to be human?
Are we just flesh and blood? Or is there something more to us?
Did anything of us exist before the birth of our physical bodies? Will anything of us remain after our bodies die?
How much are we capable of? Are we able to know the secrets of the universe?
What is the true nature of our relationship to one another? What responsibility do we hold in this world?
What are we meant to do in this life? What are we meant to become?
These are some of the most fundamental questions in life and yet so very few of us have any idea what the answers are. The Son Buddhist claim is that questions such as these, the ones that address the very nature of our existence, can only be answered through spiritual awakening.
Spiritual awakening means direct experience of the truth.
If we try an indirect way, if we try to use our thinking brains to resolve these issues, if we try theorizing and philosophizing and speculating, we're like people, blind from birth, trying to draw a map of the country we live in. In spite of the fact that we're actually right there, still we're trying to describe something that we've never seen. Something that we can never see in our current physical condition. It doesn't matter how smart you are, if you're blind, you just can't see.
So rather than provide yet another philosophical theory or religious doctrine, Son Buddhism aims to train us--literally physically train us through meditation--to open our minds and see for ourselves what we really are. And see the world for what it is.
This is about life. To be able to really see it. Feel it. Taste it. Take part in it.
To not be so lost in our endless thoughts, memories, conjectures, fantasies, hopes and fears, but to experience real life, Reality. Ultimately know it -- in our bodies, minds, hearts, and souls.
Is this not what we all long for? Don't we want to break out of the movie theater in our heads and explore what Life can be?
So often these days Buddhist meditation is presented as a kind of psychotherapy. We're told it relieves stress and provides all sorts of health benefits. That it can enhance our cognitive, emotional, and physical functioning. These claims are quite accurate and are backed now by clear scientific data. But the Son masters of history tell us that when we use meditation just to improve our functioning -- just so we can get back to doing the same-old, same-old -- we're cheating ourselves.
There is an infinite universe of truth and possibility within ourselves, within our consciousness, within our bodies, that is calling to us. There is an as-yet-unborn Mind within us kicking and struggling to awaken, that folks like my teacher have traditionally called the Buddha.
Why close off all of our own potential, why accept limitations without testing them, why reject our own immense lawful heritage, and settle for a few small pay-offs?
Why not, instead, choose to believe in our own possibility--believe that a human being is more than just a pile of molecules -- and make enlightenment the goal of our meditation?
We'll get all of the benefits of meditation anyway. And it doesn't mean we all have to go off to a monastery, shave our heads and become monastics.
This is the beauty and power of the Son meditative tradition that Son Master Songdam wishes to share with the world: we can all gain enlightenment, become fully actualized, right where we are.
We don't need to believe in anything but ourselves.
So I invite you to learn Son meditation and enter for yourselves the path by which I am enlightened to myself.