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Master Kusan Sunim (1908-1983)

Korean Zen Master Kusan ("Ku"-Nine; "San" - Mountains), known as Kusan Sunim, was considered the greatest living Zen Master in South Korea toward the end of his life. He passed on in December, 1983, at the age of 74, at SonggwangSa Zen monastery outside Gwangju, Korea, and was a magnet for sincere Zen students from not only around Korea, but from around the world.

He traveled, lectured, and presided over Zen retreats in North America and Europe. From the mid 1970s, a "foreign sangha" made up of both men and women from Sri Lanka, Singapore, England, Denmark, Australia, Canada, Germany, and the United States were drawn to Korea by the reputation, teachings, and powerful presence of this remarkable monk.

His book of teachings, Nine Mountains, was republished and edited by two of his European students, Stephen Batchelor and Martine Fages (now Batchelor) as The Way of Korean Zen. This book details his radical emphasis on questioning, the heart of the Koan (kong-an) practice of the Korean Zen Buddhist approach. He was constantly challenging the monks and seekers who came to him with abrupt and forthright questions, such as, "right now, tell me, what is the sky?" His book also details his biography, and how he had practiced extremely diligently for many years, and as a result of his supreme effort attained profound breakthroughs. At times, he allegedly did standing meditation so long without moving that birds came and picked at this cotton clothes to make nesting material for their nests.

He lived simply and strictly as a vegan Zen monk. He was a bright, radiant, challenging, freeing, and magnetic presence. After his passing, and the cremation of his body, many sarira, or jewel-like "relics" were found among his ashes, a type of proof of his powerful transformation of consciousness. These are on display at Songgwangsa temple.

• Source: Will Tuttle, Ph.D.

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  Master Kusan Sunim