Seung Sahn

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Fast Facts
Other Names and Nicknames: 
birthname: Dok-In Lee
Zen, Buddhism, Kwan Um School of Zen
Main Countries of Activity: 
South Korea, USA
Date of Birth: 
Place of Birth: 
Seun Choen, North Korea
In His/Her Body ("alive"): 
Date Left His/Her Body: 
November 30, 2004
Ancestor Gurus: 
Descendant Gurus: 
Other Related Gurus: 
Ko Bong Soen Sa Nim, Keum Bong, Keum Oh, Dharma heir: Dae Gak, student: Myong Gong Sunim


Seung Sahn Haeng Won Dae Soen-sa was a Korean Jogye Seon master and founder of the international Kwan Um School of Zen — the largest school of Zen present in the Western world. He was the seventy-eighth teacher in his lineage. As one of the first Korean Zen masters to settle in the United States, he opened many temples and practice groups across the globe.

He was born Dok-In Lee in Seun Choen, Korea (now North Korea) in 1927 to Presbyterian parents. In 1944 he joined an underground resistance movement in response to the ongoing Japanese occupation of Korea. He was captured by Japanese police shortly after, avoided a death sentence, and spent time in prison.

Upon release, he studied Western philosophy at Dongguk University in South Korea. One day, a monk friend of him lent him a copy of the Diamond Sutra. While reading the text, he became inspired to ordain as a monk and left school, receiving the Vinaya precepts in 1948.

He then performed a one hundred day solitary retreat in the mountains of Korea, living on a diet of pine needles and rain water. It is said he attained enlightenment on this retreat. While seeking out a teacher who could confirm his enlightenment he found Ko Bong Soen Sa Nim, who told him to keep a not-knowing mind.

In the fall of 1948 Seung Sahn learned Dharma combat while sitting a one-hundred day sesshin at Su Dok Sa, where he was known to stir up mischief, nearly being expelled from the monastery. After the sesshin was concluded he received inka from two masters, Keum Bong and Keum Oh. He then went to see Ko Bong, who confirmed Seung Sahn's enlightenment on January 25, 1949 (giving Seung Sahn Dharma transmission). Seung Sahn is the only person Ko Bong gave Dharma transmission to. He spent the next three years in observed silence.

Drafted into the South Korean army in 1953, he served as an army chaplain and then as captain for almost five years, taking over for Ko Bong as abbot of Hwa Gae Sah in Seoul, South Korea in 1957.

In the next decade he would go on to found temples in Hong Kong and Japan. While in Japan he was acquainted with the Kong-An tradition of the Rinzai sect, likely undergoing Kong-An study with a Rinzai master.

Coming to the United States in 1972, he settled in Providence, Rhode Island and worked at a laundromat as a repairman, spending much of his off time improving his English. Shorlty after arriving, he found his first students at nearby Brown University, most of whom came by way of a recommendation from a professor there. Among these first students was Jacob Perl, who helped to found the Providence Zen Center with the others.

In 1974 he began founding more Zen centers in the United States beginning with Dharma Zen Center in Los Angeles, a place where laypeople and the ordained could practice and live together. That following year he went on to found the Chogye International Zen Center of New York City, and then in 1977 Empty Gate Zen Center. Meanwhile, in 1979, the Providence Zen Center moved from its location in Providence to its current place in Cumberland, RI.

The Kwan Um School of Zen was founded in 1983 and, unlike more traditional practice in Korea—Seung Sahn, it allowed the laity in the lineage to wear the robe of a Buddhist monk. Celibacy was not required, and the rituals of the school were unique.

In 1986, along with a former student and Dharma heir Dae Gak, he founded a retreat center and temple in Clay City, Kentucky called Furnace Mountain. The center functions independent of the Kwan Um organization today.

Over his tenure as Guiding Teacher, Seung Sahn appointed many Dharma heirs. He created the title Ji Do Poep Sa Nim (JDPSN) for those not ready for full Dharma transmission but capable of teaching at a higher capacity.

In 1977 Seung Sahn was hospitalized for having irregular heartbeats, and it was then discovered that he had advanced diabetes. He had been in and out of hospitals for heart complications for years preceding his death, and in 1987 began spending much less time at his residence in the Providence Zen Center.

Starting in 1990, and under invitation from Mikhail Gorbachev, Seung Sahn began making trips to the USSR to teach. His student, Myong Gong Sunim, later opened a practice center in Russia (Novgorod Center of Zen Meditation).

Throughout the 90s he also made trips to Israel, which led to the 1999 opening of the Tel Aviv Zen Center.

His remaining years were spent in particularly poor health, first having a pacemaker put in his chest in 2000, followed by kidney failure in 2002.

In June 2004 he was given the honorific title Dae Soen sa Nim by the Jogye order in commemoration of his accomplishments. The title is the utmost of titles the order can grant (Dae Soen sa Nim translates as "Great honored Zen master").

He was known for his charismatic style and direct presentation of Zen, which was well tailored for the Western audience. He was known by students for his many correspondences with them through letters and his utilization of Dharma combat, and expressions such as "only don't know" or "only go straight" in teachings.

He died in November 30, 2004 at Hwa Gae Sah in Seoul, South Korea (the first temple in which he served as abbot), at the age of 77.


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Books & Media

Recommended Books: 
Cover image

Only Don't Know: Selected Teaching Letters of Zen Master Seung Sahn

by Seung Sahn


Here is the inimitable Zen Master Seung Sahn up close and personal—in selections from the correspondence that was one of his primary modes of teaching. Seung Sahn received hundreds of letters per month, each of which he answered personally, and some of the best of which are included here. His frank and funny style, familiar to readers of Dropping Ashes on the Buddha, is seen here in a most intimate form. The beloved Zen master not only answers questions on Zen teaching and practice, but applies an enlightened approach to problems with work, relationships, suffering, and the teacher-student relationship.