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The True Nature of Zen

Professional photographer Simon Hathaway had been living in South Korea for two and half years when he decided to mix his western modern mind with the eastern tradition of Zen, resulting in the art of lifestyle maintenance and finding one’s true self. Simon provides a brief introduction of the ancient practice

The word Zen has, in recent years, made its way to the west where it can now be found in our everyday language, but do we know what Zen really is?

When I thought about it, I realised that I knew very little about Zen.  I recalled a book called “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, (which I’ve never actually read) and famous so-called Zen sayings that I had heard such as “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” Other than this, I knew very little.

In fact, it was by sheer accident that I first stumbled into a Zen centre here in Seoul, South Korea.  I had been planning to do some photography in a specific street when I took a wrong turn. At that time, I did not know the huge impact that this ‘wrong turn’ would have upon my life.

After taking a couple of photographs inside the ultra modern and minimalist temple, I was about to leave but was approached by a lady with a kind smile. She told me that a class was held there each week in English and she suggested that I would be able to experience something new if I were to come along.  I was soon to discover that this was rather an understatement.

I started to attend the weekly classes and to learn something about the tradition of Korean Zen (or Seon as it is known here in Korea). After a few weeks, I was lucky enough to meet the Zen Master Subul and to go on a seven-day retreat with him to a one thousand-year-old temple in the Korean mountains. Thanks to him, this week changed the way I see the world today.

In the West, we often mistakenly believe that it necessarily takes years of practice sitting on a cushion in order to get to have an experience of awakening to the nature of our true selves.  Master Subul has shown that such an awakening can be achieved in just a few days if we have determination and a guide; such awakening is also known as sudden enlightenment.  Since all people have Buddha nature, the path to enlightenment is open to everyone without exception. However, to be able to walk this path, you must have a good teacher – Meeting the right teacher is half the battle.

So what happens during this retreat, and how, without the direct guidance of a Zen master, can you benefit from the practice of Zen?  During the retreat, you are presented with a Hwadu, which is an ultimate question. The essence of this question is to find out what your true nature is.  In daily life, we can generate similar awareness by continually trying to find out what it is that is controlling our bodies. What make you see this right now? While the answer may at first seem obvious, there is an answer which is beyond words if you are able to find it. The practice is to keep looking for what it is that is controlling your body at all times: When you are sitting, lying down, walking, eating and even when you are going to the toilet. Just keep looking for this thing and notice how your awareness changes.

Without studying the nature of the mind it is difficult to live a satisfying and fulfilling life. Although the teachings of Buddha have already permeated throughout the world in a diverse manner, many people still have not found answers to the most essential problems of life. Teaching through Korean Zen can change this by allowing people to directly experience their true nature. Through such guidance, contemporary society can open its eyes wider to seek real freedom and happiness.  In this way it can contribute to a better world.  So may you too, be enlightened!

Find out more: angukzen.org/English/Introductions.html

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