A brief history of Daehaeng Kun Sunim’s translations of key Buddhist sutras and ceremonies

We just finished reciting the Thousand Hands Sutra, and starting tomorrow (Korea time), I’ll begin posting Daehaeng Kun Sunim’s translation of the Heart Sutra. Several years ago, I wrote a paper that had a section about the history and motivations behind her translations of these sutras and the daily ceremonies from their traditional, classical Chinese characters (hanmun) into vernacular Korean (Hangul). It occurred to me that some of you may be curious about this as well, so I’ll post that section here. It was an academic paper, so that’s why the tone may seem a little dry.
with palms together,
Chong Go

  1.  Seon Master Daehaeng’s Translation of Buddhist Ceremonies
  1. Time-line

By 1977, Seon Master Daehaeng had started work on translating the Heart Sutra and the Thousand Hands Sutra, which form the core of daily ceremonies used at the temple she founded, Hanmaum Seon Center, as well as in Buddhist temples across Korea.

Starting with the hanmun text, and using the understanding born of her own spiritual practice and awakening, Seon Master Daehaeng would write out the meaning of the verses using vernacular Hangeul. She would sometimes have an assistant work ahead of her, looking up and writing down all the related meanings of select Sino-Korean characters. (This can be a time consuming task, which is probably why she delegated it.) When she was finished, she would give that section of the daily ceremonies to key laypeople and sunims to look over. If there were any questions, they would go over the text again until it expressed the meaning Seon Master Daehaeng had intended. After several repetitions of this, the text was given to the sunims at the center and made available to lay members in a copied format.

Because photocopiers weren’t easily available, copies were made using mimeograph stencils. The text was handwritten onto the stencil using a pen, and then the stencil was hand inked over a flat piece of paper, producing a copy of the text. In this way, each section of the daily ceremonies was made available as it was finished.

Interestingly, members of Hanmaum Seon Center who were present at the time report that no one even questioned the need for Hangeul translations of the daily ceremonies. Everyone seemed to take it for granted that they were both needed and welcome.

As her new translations became available, some quickly became used in the daily ceremonies instead of the traditional versions. However, as will be explored below, she didn’t translate all of the ceremonies, and instead continued to use the original hanmun versions for some parts of the ceremonies. It appears the need for balance between the modern and the traditional was largely behind this.

A formal, complete collection of the daily ceremonies with Seon Master Daehaeng’s Hangeul translations was published in late 1987, titled Shinhaeng Yojeon(“Essentials of Faith and Practice”).[1]

In addition to the Heart Sutra and the Thousand Hands Sutra, this collection also included Hangeul translations of most of the other elements of the daily ceremonies, such as the morning bell chant, the evening ceremonies, and other texts used during funerals and memorial ceremonies, such as Beobseong gye(法性偈, “Song of Dharma-nature”), and Musang-gye(無相戒, “The Truth of Formlessness”).

In 1990, a cassette recording was produced, featuring the Thousand Hands Sutra, the Heart Sutra, and other central elements of the daily ceremonies. At the time, this recording was sold in most of the Buddhist stores in Korea. The chanting was done by Bowon Sunim.

          In later years, Seon Master Daehaeng also finished a translation of the Diamond Sutra(金剛經), and completed a substantial portion of the Flower Ornament Sutra (華嚴經) before passing away in 2012.

          Shinhaeng Yojeon raises an important question for future research, because according to people who were present then, not all of the Hangeul translations it includes are by Seon Master Daehaeng. While all of the contents were reviewed and approved by her, the process and sources for some of the Hangeul texts is unclear.

          Some, such as the Heart Sutra and Thousand Hands Sutra are unquestionably her work. Others, such as the Seven Homages(七頂禮) and the Morning Bell Chant(朝禮鍾頌), have such depth of meaning and expression that it seems unlikely anyone else could have produced them. Still others, such as Song of Dharma-nature(法性偈), and The Truth of Formlessness(無相戒) closely follow the traditional hanmun versions, without any of the expressions unique to Seon Master Daehaeng’s works. It seems that if she made any changes, it was just an occasional  word or two.

          This ambiguity is likely due to the passage of time, as well as the fact that people knew that Seon Master Daehaeng had approved of all the contents. 

  • Reasons for undertaking translations of daily ceremonies

On the surface, the need for people to actually understand what they are chanting is obvious. This is keenly felt among the Buddhist monks and nuns of present-day Korea, for they can see that chants in what are essentially a foreign language do little to inspire or motivate people, particularly young people.

If the chants were magical formulas, the invocation of which would summon outside powers to do one’s bidding, then understanding them would be irrelevant. However, they are not such things. Instead they are deep teachings, emphasizing the interconnected nature of all existence, and offering us guidance for spiritual practice and our daily lives.

By chanting them, we memorize and input those contents deep into our subconscious. Many, many people have reported that relevant verses from the chants have popped into their awareness when they have been confronted by suffering or difficult situations, in so doing, showing them a way forward.

Some people may appreciate the traditional chants for the sense of familiarity and nostalgia they bring, returning them to times when they heard the same ceremonies as they sat next to their parents or grandparents. However, this sense of tradition can provide little sustenance to younger people.

The extent of this problem can be seen in many, if not most, temples in Korea during the daily services. Even on weekends, the vast majority of attendees are older, gray-haired women. Young people and middle-aged men are almost never seen at many temples.

The temples Seon Master Daehaeng founded have, perhaps not coincidentally, one of the most vibrant youth and young adult groups of any temples in Korea. Nearly every year, they win the Jogye Order’s top prizes for their activities, as well as the creative activities and art they make for the Buddha’s Birthday. Obviously this can’t be attributed solely to translations of the ceremonies, but those can’t hurt, and indicate a willingness to reach out to people and involve them at more than a rote level of participation.

Yet a vital temple wasn’t foremost in Seon Master Daehaeng’s motivations for translating the daily ceremonies. When asked in the late 1980s why she had gone through the effort of translating them, her reply was rather chilling:

 If the planet continues as it has been, it won’t last for much longer. Thus it’s urgent that the deep meaning of these ceremonies be known to the whole world. This is why I wrote out the meanings of these sutras. If people across the world can encounter the truth contained within these, it will lead to an increase in their spiritual depth and lead them to become people who can save the world.[2]

          A more mundane point she made was that, simply put, languages change over time. An expression that works well with one generation may not have anything like it’s original nuance in a hundred years. To say nothing of a thousand.

          One example is a term used for an essential element of hwadu, or koan, practice: Great Doubt(大疑). One of three essential qualities needed for awakening(the others being Great Faith and Great Determination), the practitioner is supposed to have “great doubt” about their hwadu. And it is this translation, as Great Doubt, that is used in the West.

The problem with this term is that in this age “doubt” implies a strong sense of skepticism or even cynicism. But a careful examination of the original context reveals that the intent is closer to “questioning” or “a desire to understand.” Yet if one were to approach practice from a perspective of heavy skepticism, it’s hard to imagine how faith could arise or how one could persist in their practice. In this age, it seems that Great Questioning is perhaps a better expression for conveying the original intent.

When asked about her translation of the Heart Sutra, which varies in places from traditional versions, Seon Master Daehaeng said:

A few days ago, a visiting Buddhist monk said to me, “The Heart Sutra, just as it is, has an incredibly profound power to it. Why did you translate it into modern Korean?” What he meant was that the Buddha’s teachings, as written down so long ago, should be chanted without any modifications.

However, I gave him the example of what we used to call an “A-frame porter.” These were the guys who used an A-frame pack to carry and deliver stuff. When someone needed help moving something they would send for a porter, but nowadays people use a truck or a moving service.

If you were to go around calling for a “porter,” nobody would respond, would they? Because they’re not “porters,” they’re “movers” or “moving companies.”[3]

Even a few decades can be long enough for words to change meaning. The earliest known copies of the Heart Sutra date from the 7th century C.E., so how much more could its intended nuances have changed? How then can we correct for this?

As Seon Master Daehaeng explains, the only true way to correct these changes is to awaken and understand for ourselves what these sutras ceremonies are pointing towards.

  • Seon Master Daehaeng’s view of the sutras and the skills necessary to translate them

          In general, Seon Master Daehaeng felt that awakening, or at least a deep practice was essential to being able to translate the sutras. One had to be able to see the whole, to look beyond just the visible words, and perceive the unseen meaning they were expressing. It was only in this way that one could truly express the same meaning in a new language.

It’s Seon practitioners who should translate the sutras. If scholar-type practitioners translate them, the meanings will be quite different. Perhaps more than half the meaning will be different. Further, to scholars, texts often seem as if they were written such that they don’t flow smoothly. [So they are tempted to cause the text to flow in ways consistent with their understanding.] But the truth is naturally in good order. Whether or not the translator has combined the spiritual realms and the material realms into one will make all the difference.[4]

          If one had attained this level, then, understanding the intent, it was possible to change the text around in order to convey the meaning to people living in an utterly different culture, a thousand years or more after the texts were first composed.

It is very strange to me, for when I look at the Flower Ornament Sutra, it contains such deep meanings, but it’s expressed in a way that if other people look at it, the sentences often seem like nothing special or just words randomly scattered around. However, inside the words, there are such immeasurably vast and hidden meanings. In order to accurately convey these in words, I often have to add some extra words.[5]

          Seon Master Daehaeng also made a strong point that intent and meaning of both the sutras and the daily ceremonies was to teach us about that which is inherent and complete within us. Yet, if one’s perspective is still drawn towards outer things, then it becomes easy to miss the deep nuances of these texts and chants.

Thus, the Buddha’s teachings shouldn’t be changed into texts that pray to outer powers. The chant Song of Dharma Nature has such wonderful meaning. It truly does. So too does the Morning Bell Chant, but to someone who [doesn’t realize we are all connected] it can look like prayers to Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. If that’s all someone sees, it’s better to leave it untranslated and use the original Sino-Korean version.[6]

          This statement would undoubtedly be seen by some as quite radical, but it is in line with the basic Seon idea of uncovering what is inherently within us. Interestingly, it is also brings to mind the exhortation made by the Buddha several times in his teachings, as well as in the final days of his life, “Be a lamp unto yourself, be your own refuge, with no one else as your refuge, with the Dharma as your lamp and refuge.”[7]

          As will be seen, this focus on what is already within us, versus something coming from outside of us, or relying upon someone outside us, characterizes Seon Master Daehaeng’s translations of the daily ceremonies. It also gave rise to a somewhat different interpretation of the hanmun that makes up the Heart Sutra.

[1]        Shinhaeng Yojeon, (1987), (Essentials of Faith and Practice,) Hanmaum Seon Center, Anyang, South Korea.

[2]            No, Manho, June 19, 2015, personal communication

[3]          Daehaeng, Seon Master, (2001).  Jinsilhan mideumeseoui hansaenggag(The Sincere Belief in ‘One Thought’). Walking on Emptiness: First Sunday Dharma Talks, Vol. 1, 94.

[4]            Dharma talk to assembled sunims, October 17, 1994.

[5]          Dharma talk to assembled sunims, October 17, 1994.

[6]            Daehaeng, Seon Master, (1999). Mujongui tteus(The Meaning of ‘Without Characteristics’). Walking on Emptiness: Regular Dharma Talks, Vol. 2, 254.

[7]          Digha Nikaya, 16, 2.26 

1 thought on “A brief history of Daehaeng Kun Sunim’s translations of key Buddhist sutras and ceremonies”

  1. Knowing this, why then the translations to English were not made sooner, why the temples in the West were not set up earlier… Even now there is no intention to attract more people, I don’t even have a temple to go to, although there is one within a walking distance. Makes me upset, or rather sad as it seems nobody really cares much. The more people learn of this practice that KunSunim taught, the better, we should help each other and not push them away, there are very few who are willing to make effort fully, it is important to keep together, work together.

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