Continuing the last week’s theme of interviews, lol, here’s an interview with me that was published in the last issue of Hanmaum Journal. Thurday’s interview will be with Hye Yon Sunim, founder of the Tongyeong branch, whose pictures we saw last week.
Hanmaum Journal: How did you first encounter Kun Sunim’s teachings?
I happened to be reading my university newspaper, when I spotted an announcement for a Dharma talk by a Korean “Zen” master. Reading the short description of the talk, something felt good about it, so I decided to go. It was a summer Ohio day, which meant it was hot and humid. Really humid! So I dressed in the usual attire of American Buddhist groups on a summer day: a dark t-shirt and dark shorts. And of course I was wearing sandals and no socks (laughs).
When I arrived, the Seon Center was full of Korean men wearing their best suits with polished leather shoes, and the women wearing colorful hanbok, with their hair professionally done up! It would have been hard to feel more underdressed! I had no idea how formal Koreans treated a visiting Seon master. That was the other thing: I was expecting somebody fierce and tough looking, but instead saw a warm, friendly, older nun sitting on the back porch, looking completely relaxed.
The Dharma talk, too, seemed very relaxed. It flowed without any of the intense posturing I was used to with Japanese Dharma talks, and I wondered if the speaker was really a Zen master. “Entrust everything,” “Don’t be deceived by the karmic recordings of states of consciousness that we all carry around,” seemed to be the main points, though there was some awkwardness with the translation, on top of which I’d never even imagined anything like the last part, so I really didn’t understand much of what she was saying.
Then, in the middle of the talk, Daehaeng Kun Sunim said, “You have to search within!” Ah! That meant something. That really struck home, and allowed me to see mistakes I’d been making with my practice.
The weird thing was, when I looked at that video two years later, I couldn’t find that part. At first I thought it must have been left out in the editing process, but I watched the video again, and couldn’t find any signs of cuts or edits. Yet I clearly heard her say that.
I thought about what she said all week, and looked forward to seeing Kun Sunim again the next Saturday, but when I arrived at the center, I discovered that she had left for the Chicago center on the previous Wednesday.
Something had touched me though, and I continued to go the Seon Center even though I depended upon someone to translate for me. It happened that the lady who lived across the hall from me was Korean and a Buddhist, so I gave her rides to the center. One day I commented that it must be nice knowing Korean, because then she could understand everything that Daehaeng Kun Sunim was saying in her videos. She got a little shy and said, “Well, actually, even though I know Korean, I don’t really understand most of what she’s talking about!” We both laughed, and little by little, I came to understand that these teachings of deeper things aren’t understood through words. Or at least, not words alone.
You have to have an interest or experiences, and then the words can connect. The words connect with what you already have, and then show you new ways of understanding that, and new ways of how to put that into practice. And to keep going forward, growing and experiencing, you have to work at applying what you’ve gleaned from the teachings. We have to be putting it into practice, and looking for new ways to do so. If we keep trying to do the same thing over and over, we won’t grow.
We have to try to let go more thoroughly. We have to try to break through that next layer of fixed ideas that we don’t see. That layer is so close that we can’t see it. Daehaeng Kun Sunim’s teaching of “Die and die again!” is so helpful with this. “Dying” is such a good way of describing what it takes to get past these fixed ideas, to break them up. We have to utterly let go of everything: What I know, what I don’t know, what I’m feeling, every single thing. The ordinary, daily stuff doesn’t matter much – it’s the really subtle, old ways of viewing things that are hard to see and hard to let go of.
Hanmaum Journal: How did you understand Kun Sunim’s teachings?
Both through translators, and later as I began to learn Korean. Sometimes, it felt like I was understanding Kun Sunim through this connection we share with all beings, but I suspect that’s limited by my own ability to understand her. I’m really grateful to all the sunims who translated for me during those early years.
It’s kind of a shame, because now I feel like I could understand her so much better, and yet can’t ask her questions like we could then. Though, to be honest, it wasn’t easy for us to see her even then. I suspect that even sunims only got to see her if their situation was urgent, and then it seemed to just happen. Though of course, there was no “just” about it. Kun Sunim knew when someone needed to see her and made it happen. I was fortunate though, in that I sometimes got to go with her on her early morning walk along with a few other sunims.
Hanmaum Journal: Is there a memory of those that really sticks out?
Let’s see…, most of the time we never tried to actually ask Kun Sunim something. If it was the day after a Dharma talk, she was usually tired, but would start speaking if we asked her something. That said, sometimes, she knew exactly what we were thinking and would start talking about it anyway!
I don’t remember what led up to it, but one day she was talking about disasters in the world. It was a bit disturbing to be honest. I think someone asked her why things like that happened, and she was very quiet for a bit. The silence actually felt heavy, to where everyone was a bit uncomfortable. Then, in a quiet voice she said it was like a factory. If the product that the factory was making is defective, they’ll throw away an entire production run. Like the old potters, if the pots had flaws after the firing process, they’d break them on the scrap pile.
I’ve thought about that this year, with all we’ve gone through with covid. I certainly don’t know the truth of it, but sometimes, I wonder if there is some energy, some knot created by how people have been using their minds, that has to be resolved, and it’s being doing through covid, instead of something like a world war. So of all the possible ways that could happen, covid might be the least painful way. I suppose it’s better than a huge war.
It seems like something that can only be truly solved by enough people raising their spiritual level. Especially when I see how some people in the US are reacting to requirements for masks or vaccinations. Because the other problem we have in this world is global warming, right? If we’re going to do anything about that, then we really have to raise our spiritual level as much as possible.
This past summer, there was a stray cat that sometimes wandered through our yard. When she first came through, she had five kittens. Later, she only had three. And the last time I saw her, there was only one skinny kitten with her. My heart broke so much seeing that. Even though I put out food, it didn’t seem to help much.
Watching her sit there, I thought about her situation a lot. What could she (or any of us) do to improve her situation? She was a cat. The only way out of that cycle was to entrust everything to her foundation. To take what she was confronting and feeling, and combine that with the energy of our one mind. Then it will become something that functions at a deeper level than habits and instinct. And, as her capacity changed, she’d have a chance for a different role. If she didn’t entrust her circumstances to her foundation, they would just repeat that situation again and again.
We have to entrust what we’re facing to our foundation. Then it can dissolve. Then we can have the capacity for a different role. If we’ve already been trying to live according to the principles of higher levels of existence, then it’s much more likely that we will have a chance for a role like that.
It’s like what a Master Sergeant explained to me about promotions in the Korean army: they look at people who are already trying to learn the skills of the next higher rank. If they have a choice between someone who is happy just repeating the job of a corporal, versus a corporal who’s learning what it takes to be a sergeant, and trying to practice those skills, then they give the promotion to the soldier who’s already trying to apply those skills. Of course, in spiritual practice, there’s no one else who gives anything to us, but perhaps it’s like we clear the snow in front of ourselves, and create room for us to move. I don’t know how to express it.
I wish everyone could have met Daehaeng Kun Sunim and spent time with her. I suppose you had to have practiced on your own to be able to notice it, but there was a great energy around her. It was warm and all embracing. Like everything was included, and was okay. It’s like everything about her was moving in harmony with the whole, and when I was next to her, I was pulled along with that.
There was also a tiny sense of fear, in that I didn’t want to disappoint this great potential I felt from her. Because it wasn’t her potential, really, it was me seeing my own potential, I think. It was seeing how wonderful and all-inclusive each one of us can become. It was seeing what it truly means to be a human being.