Orlando Zen Center is an affiliate of the Kwan Um School of Zen which is an international organization with more than a hundred centers and groups founded by Zen Master Seung Sahn. Zen Master Seung Sahn was the first Korean Zen Master to teach in the west. The purpose of the school is provide access to the Zen practice.
Seung Sahn was born in 1927 in Korea under Japanese occupation. In 1944, he joined an underground resistance movement in response to the occupation but was captured by the Japanese leading to him spending time in prison. After his release, he studied Western philosophy at Dong Guk University but the political situation in South Korea grew more and more chaotic. One day, a monk friend lent him a book on Mahayana Buddhism called the Diamond Sutra. The book inspired him to ordain as a monk so he left school and recieved the pratimoksa precepts in 1948.10 days after his ordination he began a 100 day retreat on Won Gak Mountain.On the mountain he only ate pine needles that were dried and beaten into powder. For 24 hours a day he would chant the Great Dharani of Original Mind Energy. Several times a day he took ice-cold baths.
After his rigorous retreat he met a Zen Master named Ko Bong who would become his teacher. After an encounter in which Ko Bong asked him a Koan, Ko Bong taught him to keep his “don’t know” mind as it was the true Zen practice. Thus, in the fall, Sueng Sahn began a hundred day meditation session at the Su Dok Sa monastery to learn Zen language and Dharma combat. At the end of the session, two masters had given him inga, the seal of validation for a Zen student’s awakening. Afterwards, Sueng Sahn met with Ko Bong, and after a series of koans, attained inga from him as well. On January 25, 1949, Seung Sahn became the only person to attain inga from Ko Bong. After the ceremony, Sueng Sahn would become a Zen Master at the age of 22.
In 1957, Seung Sahn took over for Ko Bong as abbot of Hwagaesa and would go on to found Buddhist temples in Hong Kong and Japan. During his stay in Japan, Sueng Sahn became acquainted with Koan tradition of the Rinzai school of Zen.
Afterwards, Sueng Sahn traveled to the United States in 1972 where he met his first western students in Providence, Rhode Island. At the time, his teachings were different from the teachings of Japanese Zen masters who would teach Americans. Instead of focusing on silent sitting meditations, he focused more on koans. Overtime, from the urges from some of his students, he came to focus more on sitting meditation. From 1974 to 1983, Seung Sahn founded more Zen centers internationally until they came together as the Kwan Um School of Zen. This would provide cohesion and administrative support to each center relating to the root word “Kwan Um” in the name as it means “perceive world sound” to hear the suffering sounds of the universe and offer help.
Currently, the international Kwan Um School of Zen has over a hundred centers and groups including the Orlando Zen Center. The School also has over 40 authorized Zen masters and Dharma masters who teach in over 12 languages. The guiding teacher for Orlando Zen Center, Jok Un (Ken Kessel), recieved inga from Seung Sahn in 1996 and became a Zen Master in 2017.
The Kwan Um School of Zen affiliates itself with Buddhist traditions such as Korean Buddhism, the Rinzai school of Zen, and Pure Land Buddhism. Although the Kwan Um Zen School originates from the Jogye Order of Korean Seon, the school has evolved through Seung Sahn to meet the needs of Westerns.
According to Mu Soeng, the Kwan Um School contains a combination of Pure Land Buddhism and Zen Buddhism elements with it’s chanting of the name of the Bodhisattva of compassion and prostrations. The Kwan Um School’s emphasis on togetherness of living in a common house, koans, and a paster-parishioner relationship between monks and laypersons is reminiscent of Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. A form of prostration used by the Kwan Um School is bowing. The use of sitting meditation or zazen as well as sesshin-like retreats is also reminscent of Rinzai Zen Buddhism.
The founding Teacher of the Kwan Um School of Zen was Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn. After founding temples in Japan and Hong Kong, he came to the United States and established the Providence Zen Center. This Center would become the first center in the Kwan Um School of Zen Buddhism. Seung Sahn gave dharma transmission to Zen Masters and inga teaching authority to elder students. Now, The Kwan Um School of Zen has 44 teachers around the world.
Zen Master Jok Um (Ken Kessel) began studying with Seung Sahn in 1975 and received dharma transmission in 2017. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and psychotherapist. He has worked with children and families in foster care, substance abuse, outpatient and inpatient mental health and therapeutic preschoool settings, as well as in private practice. He is the guiding teacher for the Orlando Zen Center as well as the New Haven Zen Center, Gateless Gate Zen Center and Cypress Tree Zen Group. He also teaches at the Chogye International Zen Center of New York in addition to other Zen Centers and affiliates.
Jok Um looks at the different aspects of Buddhism such as being, suffering, self, and compassion. He questions what pain is, what suffering is, and how we react to it. Sometimes we push it outside to make things safe inside but that doesn’t make it necessarily safe. At the same time though it doesn’t make it unsafe. This expresses how we have dualistic thinking about safe and unsafe. The thing that holds the parts of our body together is something dependent on many other things. There are a lot of things on Earth that support and don’t support our lives and that it is safe and unsafe to live in our bodies but still we exist in them. Sometimes suffering can be looked at as an effect of desire, “I want something, but I can’t get what I want, so I’m suffering.” If we are clear about our desires then the inevitability of suffering guides our attention in a certain way that brings compassion.
Sueng Sahn’s teachings are similar to the “beginners mind” teaching in Zen Buddhism as he emphasizes the notion of clarity not through growing questions and attachment thinking but through simply clearing your mind before thinking and not becoming attached to your thoughts, to simply observe and let things come and go. In his words, he says “What is important is one moment of clear mind. Clear mind is before thinking. If you experience this mind, you have already attained enlightenment. If you experience this for a short time, even for one moment, this is enlightenment. All the rest of the time you may be thinking, but you shouldn’t worry about this thinking. It is just your karma. You must not be attached to this thinking…Clear mind is like the full moon in the sky. Sometimes clouds come and cover it, but the moon is always behind them. Clouds go away, then the moon shines brightly. So don’t worry about clear mind: it is always there. When thinking comes, behind it is clear mind. When thinking goes, there is only clear mind. Thinking comes and goes, comes and goes. You must not be attached to the coming or the going.”
Kwan Um School of Zen uses seated meditation to clear the mind through “mind sitting”. A technique for this is to use a mantra and to drop attention to anything else. If your mind starts to wander gently bring the mind back to the mantra. When your mantra is clear, your breath is even and natural, you are aware of your body and you see the floor clearly in front of you, then you have a clear mind.
Kwan Um School also practices bowing as a ways to bring our body and mind together very quickly as bowing takes away our Karma mind one defilement at a time. It is recommended to bow 108 times a day as there are 108 defilements in the mind.
The School also practices chanting together. This reinforces the notion of togetherness and promoting one unified cleared mind. Acting together means cutting off ones opinions, , conditions and situations. This brings an empty mind which brings ones true opinion, condition and situation. Seung Sahn compares this to the sea and wind saying “When the wind comes, there are many waves. When the wind dies down, the waves become smaller. When the wind stops, the water becomes a mirror, in which everything is reflected-mountains, trees, clouds. Our mind is the same. When we have many desires and many opinions, there are many big waves. But after we sit Zen and act together for some time, our opinions and desires disappear. The waves become smaller and smaller. Then our mind is like a clear mirror, and everything we see or hear or smell or taste or touch or think is the truth”.
The School also practices koans to clear the mind of thoughts. Koans are an exchange between the teacher and student in which the students’ understanding of a question should be one half that matches the teacher’s other half of understanding of the same question. The event in which they share the same understanding is called mind to mind connection. When your opinions are taken away your mind becomes clear. To answer a koan correctly you have to put down your opinion, condition and situation. Just focus on the transience of the moment and only don’t know. The four kinds of “like this” koans used are “Without like this” for maintaining a “don’t know mind”,”Become one like this” for demonstrating the primary point or moment of enlightenment/clarity, “Only like this” to demonstrate true function of primary point, and “Just like this to” maintain the notion of merely just doing the correct function.
O’Connell, Patricia; Mark Silk (2004). Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Northwest: The None Zone