The future of Buddhism in the West

Here’s a talk by the Korean Seon Master, Hanam Sunim, given in 1935.* It’s a wonderful talk for anyone interested in growth and sprititual practice, and is also very relevant to everyone interested in seeing Buddhism flourish in the West.

Buddhism Exists in Experiencing and Applying

Hanam Sunim next to the Manjusri Statue at Woljong Temple

Thank you for coming such a long way to see me.

If you want to see Buddhism prosper, then experiencing and applying are the most important thing. There is a saying, “Cultivating mind isn’t done with the mouth.” Like this, modern people have an incredible amount of things that they’ve learned, but they don’t seem to be so good at actually applying and experiencing them.

People who practice sitting meditation should practice sitting meditation, those who study the sutras should study the sutras, those who practice chanting should practice chanting. If each one upholds their own practice very sincerely and diligently, then regardless of whether they are in the deep mountains or in the cities, regardless of whether many people are interested or just a few, there will always be people who want to learn and help. At this stage, you can truly be called a disciple of the Buddha. If, little by little, people put the things they experience and understand into practice, one person will become two people, two people will become three and so forth. Thus there’s no need to worry about whether Buddhism will prosper or not. In the not-to-distant future, I expect that there will be many people truly practicing Buddhism, and that Buddhism will flower throughout the Korean Peninsula.

I spoke about this before, but you have to make up your mind, tie your belt tightly, and put your understanding into practice. If you do this, then without any lectures or advertising, Buddhism will naturally prosper and spread. As you know, everyone has Buddha-nature, thus it all depends upon making up your mind and making an effort. Anyone can become a follower of Buddhism. There’s no reason why Buddhism shouldn’t prosper. It is just that people are so busy these days that practice isn’t easy, and they often forget about it. However, if you can just remember (about spiritual practice), then it’s possible for you to apply and experience, wherever you are, whether you’re working, standing, or sitting.

Everything is like this. I spoke about seon a little before, but seon isn’t something that is beyond understanding. Just make up your mind to do it and put (what you’ve been taught) into practice. My opinions or explanations about the meaning of seon won’t help you a bit. The essence of seon is determination and application, and in so doing, it’s something that one comes to know automatically. The essence of seon can’t be taught or explained. My only wish is that you give rise to determination and experience it for yourselves.

You asked me about people worshipping at shrines for the mountain god or the big dipper within the temple grounds, but although people are praying or bowing out of a desire to obtain something, even that is a type of faith. It seems to me that faith in those kinds of spirit shrines can naturally grow to include the Buddha. Because Buddhism can include everything, it’s not a problem. While praying at the mountain god shrine or the big dipper shrine, they may gradually develop faith in the teachings of the Buddha.

Manjusri and the 9-story pagoda at Woljong Temple

     I’ve rambled on, but the main point I can’t emphasize enough is that we must practice and apply our understanding.

* Hanam (
han-am) Sunim (1876 – 1951) was one of the leading practitioners in Korea. He was a main  disciple of Kyongho Sunim, Dharma brother of Mangong Sunim, and was elected the spiritual head of Korean Buddhism three times. (He kept resigning!) In this article, he had been asked how the Japanese government could “help” Korean Buddhism (what they meant was “control”.)  He wasn’t fooled, and yet still gave a wonderful talk. This interview was published in Japanese in 1936, and a few introductory remarks have been deleted.

13 thoughts on “The future of Buddhism in the West”

  1. “Just make up your mind to do it and put (what you’ve been taught) into practice.”

    Wow, yes, amazing, it really is that simple! Thank you so much for today’s post. A very useful and timely lesson.


  2. … exactly as Marcus says, and,

    ‘it’s possible for you to apply and experience, wherever you are, whether you’re working, standing, or sitting’

    every single moment gets a deeper sense. you needn’t endure your life, you rule it.

  3. “The most important thing is transforming our minds, for a new way of thinking, a new outlook: we should strive to develop a new inner world. ” – from Dalai Lama’s twitter.

    “Buddhism will flower throughout the Korean Peninsula”.-
    what I noticed the first thing in Korea, is the glowing red crosses, at night it looks freacky. In Toronto majority of Korean community is Christian, and I’ve noticed they have great deal of dislike and downright hatered towards Buddhism, good thing here it is against the law to spread any hateful disrespect between religions.

    I am not from the West, (this west-east thing is sometimes confusing, the Earth is round!), I just live here for two decades, so my perspective is somewhat different from so called westerners, and the way I see it, the westernised zen temples give very shallow buddhism, this western zen got distilled into something like a hobby of gardening, like one Iraqy muslim woman said, “I thought buddhism is something like yoga class”, when I said to her that Buddhism is more like Sufi tradition, she showed deep respect.
    Japanese buddhism, at least here in Toronto (which is basically a reflection of Japanese buddhism in general) is somewhat disappointing, the message of Buddha is kind of hazed and fuzzy, and often not even there.
    I think Kun Sunim’s teachings is like a bridge between Christianity and Buddhism, between Zen/Seon and Tibetan traditions, and between other religions.
    If people only practice their spritual tradition properly, having compassion at its core like an anchor to not to drift away, then any traditon/ religion will come eventually to the teaching of the Buddha, (or maybe it will take million years).
    (I am not sure if I have to appologize for my opinions, sometimes they are not likable, I am sorry just in case)

  4. Such wonderful down to earth reminders. Love the line about practice that Marcus noted and also, “Cultivating mind isn’t done with the mouth.” Thanks for this reminder to get down to it!

  5. What a wonderful and timeless talk loaded with such practical and helpful advice. I particularly like the admonitions about upholding our practice sincerely and diligently. Thanks so much for this very insightful post.

  6. This really helps me today as I struggle with “what is practice?”

    “you have to make up your mind, tie your belt tightly, and put your understanding into practice. ”


    Deep bows of gratitude!

  7. Thank you for sharing this wonderful talk. I especially loved the beginning of the last sentence, “I’ve rambled on…”

    (I’m not being snarky when I say that – I laughed loudly when I came to such an honest sentence.)

    1. Hi, Natan,
      I too, was amazed at how contempory it felt.
      As I thought about this talk later, I realized that Hanam Sunim, and Korean Buddhism, were facing problems similar to ours.

      Even in 1935 modernization was rapidly changing Korean society, and following the Japanese invasion in 1904, they’d talken control of all the social systems of the country. What this meant for Buddhism was that they wanted a docile organization, with people they could control. And monks with no family, who could live on pine needles and roots were definitely not very controlable!

      Begining in about 1920, the Japanese installed abbots of their own who drank, ate meat, and were married. The (Japanese) government basically gamed the system so that people who wanted to ordain had to do so under those people, while life at temples that upheld the traditional precepts became very hard. With 30-40 years of controling the public media and major temples, this had an effect.

      Naturally, people who were very oriented towards practice and freeing oneself from attachments were concerned about the corruption and decline of Buddhism. And I think this is part of what Hanam Sunim was addressing. And what he said also seems to apply exactly to our concerns about the weakness(? not sure if this is the right word) of Buddhism in the west.

      with palms together,
      Chong Go

  8. Hi Tanya,

    I hope you don’t think I’m sticking to your comments “like velcro” again (I love that phrase!) but, you know, glowing red crosses may look freaky to some, but to others they are a glorious representation of the amazing power of love. As a Buddhist, I like to see those crosses as just that.

    As for hatred, well it sadly exists on both sides. Were you aware that the Jogye Order is trying to ban Korean Christian footballers in the world cup from making prayer gestures after scoring a goal! How do you think Korean Christians percieve that?

    Sadly, this story could very easily go around the world’s press as an example of Buddhist hatred towards Christians.

    In the light of this, our resposibility, surely, is to stop drawing distinctions and looking for places where we disagree – and focus on all the wonderful areas in which we can all come together!

    I was delighted, for example, by the great pictures of HE Gregorios of the Eastern Orthodox church and Sung-Jin Sunim together last week visiting a temple and drinking tea!

    Likewise, regarding Japan and Korea, I am uncomfortable when too much emphasis is put on the bad things that Japan did to Korea in history. That tends to happen quite a bit. Much better, to my mind, is the forward thinking displayed by the Korea Japan Buddhist Cultural Exchange Conferences. The last one was held just last month with the slogan: “Let’s learn from each other.”

    The future of Buddhism in the west depends, as I see it, on doing what Buddhism has always done very well – encompasing all with peace, wisdom and love. And that is the job of each and every one of us.


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