Where you are now! There! Free yourself! (Hye Ji Sunim, Chicago Hanmaum Seon Center)
Bowing with my whole heart, from my head to my toes.
Melt it down, melt it down, change it into light, into light, into Bodhisattvas, into Bodhisattvas!
Now, here in this moment, this is all that needs doing.
Even if this were the last moment of my life, this is all I am working on.
From the time I was in middle school until I finished college, through all the vacations and the year I had to spend preparing to retake the college entrance tests, I was the one who determined my direction. Not one time did I ever ask anyone else what I should do. On one hand, I didn’t really feel the need, and on the other, I knew how the conversation would likely go, and I was sick to death of it.
Everything would start with, “Well, as a girl, you can (or can’t) ….” Always the same old limitations, the old customs of discrimination against women, the constraints , the oppression, which I’d hated from an early age.
By the end of my twenties, I had no idea at all about what I needed to be doing. Instead of a clear path, it seemed like I’d become even more lost. I felt like there was something I needed to be focusing on, but I was completely in the dark about what that might be. I began to wonder if going on a 100 day prayer retreat would help me find my path, and so began to look around at a number of places and practice centers.
Then one day in late October, 1985, I opened a newspaper, and an ad for a book jumped out at me. It was described as “A Story of Daehaeng Kun Sunim and Finding the Path.” I didn’t even see any of the other articles in the paper, and instead felt as if I was walking on springs. It was as if something had pulled me up out of my chair, and I headed for the bus stop near my house as if my body weighed nothing at all. Looking up, I saw two huge rainbows that seemed to be hugging the mountains on the edge of town.
After finding a copy of the book and returning home, I went straight to my room. And I cried and cried as I read. It felt like at last, someone had shown a light into a dark cave. There, in the book, was my path. I was overflowing with emotions, and cried even as I didn’t understand why I was crying so much. It took me a few days to read the book, because I kept jumping up and pacing my room, and then sitting down and reading the same page over and over. I found I kept standing up, facing towards Anyang city (where Kun Sunim was), and offering her a full bow. I hadn’t ever been a member of a temple, nor had I ever bowed to a sunim before. I guess I was just so grateful to have met my teacher, and so glad to have had a glimpse of how the world really worked. After finishing that book, I would find myself murmuring “Kun Sunim, Juingong,” when I was walking somewhere.
Of course, I went to Anyang as soon as I could, and met Kun Sunim, and cried during her Dharma talk. I had such an unquenchable thirst to listen to every one of her Dharma talks. After meeting Kun Sunim, all my old feelings turned to gratitude. My feelings about having been born during such a grim time in Korea, about having been born as a woman(and discriminated against), and all the unhappiness. I saw that there was a reason for it all. It was all stuff I had to go through in order to be able to meet Kun Sunim.
As I cried and my nose ran, my first impression of Kun Sunim was shockingly clear, “She’s a true Revolutionary!” I wanted to shout it out! The feeling that came from her was beyond just “equality between people,” more than “equality between all life.” It was equality where all beings are share the infinite potential of a Buddha. My understanding of these two points became the basis for fundamental changes in my life. I began to taste true freedom, and unimaginably deep compassion! Experiencing this equality was so far beyond everything I had thought about “equality.”
For the first time in my life, I asked someone else, “What should I do with my life?” Kun Sunim just smiled and laughed, because I already knew that I wanted to become like her. This was the very best possible life! In order to find it, I had to lose what I’d thought of as the life I should be living. To find this path, I had to lose track of my old path. And in order to continue along this path, I had decided to become her student.
I knew that by becoming this sort of a person, I could do more to help my parents than anything else, so I didn’t even feel any guilt as I left home to become a sunim. One day, I said goodbye after breakfast, and then as I left it was like moving out of a vague, unremembered dream to one that was incredibly clear and specific.
A while after I entered the temple and became a “haengja” (a bit like a postulant, most people spend six months to a year or so before being ordained as a Buddhist nun or monk) I had a dream where I saw a rope stretched out above a vast ocean, and I could see there there was someone walking on it as easily as if they were walking on flat ground. I really wanted to follow whoever that was, so I stepped up onto the rope. But I sure couldn’t walk comfortably on it. My body was swaying back and forth, and my arms were flailing in the air. Then, my hand found an unseen, higher rope to hold onto. Stepping carefully, and holding on to the second rope, I was just barely able to get across that ocean.
The person ahead of me had already started up a steep set of stone stairs that seemed to go up and up. So I blindly followed them up the stairs. Finally, at the top, there was a small pavilion. After I rested there for a bit, the person started down the stairs on the other side, so I too started down.
The stairs ended at a shore line that stretched out in the distance. The person I was following continued walking along the shore line. They didn’t say a word, and I followed without saying a word. After a long time, I heard the sounds of a large bell coming from somewhere. “Bong…, bong…, bong….”
Then, the person I was following turned to me and told me to go back the way I’d come, by myself. I was a bit stunned and not sure where to go, because I had only been focused on them. But I turned back, and with one stumbling step after another, started back. By following the shore, I eventually came back to the stairs, went up them, rested for a bit in the pavilion, and then went down the other side.
I finally came back down to the ocean that I’d crossed on the rope. As I came down the last stairs, I inexplicably found myself on a boat with other people. The boat was sailing, and from the upper deck, off to the left side I could see beautiful twin rainbows shining in the sky. Off to the right sight of the boat, I could see a shore with huge, rounded boulders at its edge, and hear the sounds of the waves breaking upon the boulders. As I stood there silently watching the waves and rocks, every time a wave hit a boulder, it left behind an image of a Buddha. The waves were carving the stones into Buddhas! It was such a sight!
(Part 2 of Hye Ji Sunim’s story will be posted later.)