Building a Temple as Spiritual Practice

An interview with Hye Yeon Sunim of the Hanmaum Seon Center at Tongyeong, South Korea

The Tongyeong center is quite beautiful, set in a strange, wonderful bowl on top of a mountain. It’s one of the most amazing sites I’ve seen in Korea, but the construction process was long and difficult. The Center made the first purchases of land 14 years ago, and started construction 5 years ago, after Daehaeng Kun Sunim had passed away. Hye Yeon Sunim is the founder of the temple, and has guided the construction from the very beginning. This interview appeared in the 2018 January-February issue of Hanmaum Journal (#97).

Hye Yeon Sunim (center)

Hanmaum Journal: What was your motivation in deciding to build a traditional style temple?

Hye Yeon Sunim:  Well, the laymembers and the sunims always had the idea that a larger, more traditional temple would be nice. However the real impetus came the fact that the center was located in a Korean-style office/shopping building. Kun Sunim’s teachings are wonderful and beyond anything else in the world, but few people were coming to the temple, because it didn’t look like a temple. (These style of buildings are quite common in Korean cities, and will have everything from restaurants, cell phone stores, photo studios, and cram schools to day care centers. It’s common to find hair salons, beauty schools, piano schools, paduck(go) clubs, and even churches and temples, all in the same building. — translator)

863That always felt like a shame, but building a traditional temple building isn’t easy. Then, someone mentioned finding a section of land for sale that they said was quite nice. I went and visited, and it was perfect! Although it was a wonderful location, I was intimidated at the same time. It would have been an almost unimaginable undertaking to find the money for the land and construction, and then to undertake both.

While I was up in Anyang, and visiting Kun Sunim, I told her about the situation. Someone brought in a snack of a type of fried potato pancake made with mushrooms called jeon, and she kept offering me some. I couldn’t refuse, but to tell you the truth, I’ve always hated mushrooms. But here was Kun Sunim personally offering me food, so I ate the mushroom pancakes.

Later, I realized that she was teaching me to take whatever arose, and fully chew and eat it unconditionally. I resolved to move forward with the construction.

So in 2004 we bought the first piece of land, which was about 33,000 square meters. But after we bought it and decided where the Dharma hall would go, we realized that there was a piece of someone else’s land right in front of it. So we had to buy that, and it was nearly 20,000 square meters in total size.

(HJ) It sounds like it wasn’t an easy project. How did you go forward?

All we could do was entrust everything and observe, thinking “Juingong can absolutely solve this.” If someone saw me sitting in our old Dharma hall, they probably thought I was sitting there like some calm rock, but inside, I was continuously entrusting my worries and thoughts about how to buy that land. I can see you’re surprised! But no matter what happened, the only thing left for me was to entrust and observe. All spirits and energy of the land, the mountains, the skies, the forests, and the temple grounds are all there together within one mind. You wouldn’t believe how long and hard I worked at entrusting everything about the temple construction. We went through seven more sales, buying the rest of the land around the future temple site, about another 40,000 square meters, and the difficulties and frustrations that arose are more than can be spoken of in just one sitting.

1B2A1906It was like we at the Tongyeong center were always living on the edge of a cliff. Always having to figure out how to buy the next little piece of land, and then the one after that, and then how to go forward with the construction. I’d go to sleep thinking about this, and wake up thinking about it. Sometimes I’d wake with a start, worried about something that just occurred to me, and right there, would try to keep entrusting that situation. There was no one else to take these problems to; all I could do was trust Juingong.

For example, one time Kun Sunim was due to give a public Dharma talk in Anyang the next day, but we didn’t even have bus fare to get there. But how could we, Kun Sunim’s disciples not show up for her talk?! Late that night, a laymember who’d recently moved to Daegu, came by for a visit and wanted to make an offering. Now we had enough money to go to Anyang.

Things like this happened so often, with us always desperately entrusting whatever problem came up, and a solution coming from nowhere. Another time, all of the youth members were supposed to go to Anyang for one of the programs, but the temple didn’t have any money to reserve a bus. And the bus company was requiring the money immediately. Then a laywoman came, and wanted to donate money to buy our sunims a new set of clothes, and it was exactly the amount we needed to hire the bus. So we used it for that instead. To tell you the truth, I hated living like that.


What was the hardest thing about building the new temple?

Consolidating and paying for the land was so hard, but as soon as we finished that, it turned out that we couldn’t get construction permits for that land. I should have looked into that issue before starting, but I had never worked on anything like this, and didn’t know that it could be a problem.

I felt incredibly guilty to everyone who had donated money as it began to look like we would never be allowed to build on the land. I was wondering how Kun Sunim had gotten through these kinds of problems when I started rereading her biography in The Principles of One Mind(Hanmaum Yojeon). She was talking about how she only had a few dried beans to eat for days, but then even those were gone. She didn’t have any food at all, when she realized that this was a test from her foundation, her Juingong.

As I read about how she didn’t even have a single dried bean, I couldn’t help but think that my problems weren’t so bad. For over a month, I kept reminding myself, “She had a much rougher time.”

from the “beam raising” ceremony, celebrating the midpoint of construction

Then I thought to myself, that I should give an offering of money to Kun Sunim. Then the permission would surely be granted. I went up to Anyang and greeted Kun Sunim, and in front of all the other sunims, she refused to accept the money I’d brought. I could even ask why. I just begged her, saying, “Please help me with this!” I was completely humbled.

I realized that there had been something unhealthy, arrogance maybe, mixed in with the thought that I could give her an offering, and then she would do all the work. But in refusing to touch the envelope I’d brought, she was teaching me, “Be humble and completely entrust everything.” Of course, I only realized this later!

Later, when I asked Kun Sunim about the problems with getting permission, she said, “Just be straight with them. Tell them you want permission to build a temple.” (It sounds like someone was suggesting they describe the purpose as being for a youth center or a cultural center, or some other thing. Land use permissions are sometimes done like this in Korea — translator.) I did as she said, and afterwards, it was like someone opened a sluice gate: everything flowed like water into a dry field, and in 2012 we received permission for construction.

KakaoTalk_20171201_150425681In 2013 we had the groundbreaking for the Dharma hall, and in 2014 the construction began. When they first started digging for the foundation of the Dharma hall, I was getting terrible headaches. My head hurt so bad for day after day, that I began to think maybe I should go to the hospital. I was really wondering what was wrong with me. Although we were preparing the ground for a temple and a place to bring all beings and energy together, it began to feel like the beings and energy of the site was rejecting us. Then I remembered, “The gods of the mountains, of the earth, of the skies, are all there together with our Juingong.” I very sincerely entrusted this, and then, for the first time in days, my head stopped hurting.

It’s hard to describe what happened next. It felt like all life became one, and became the owner, the one in charge, the protector, of the temple.

Still, there was so much stress and complications every single day. Every morning there would be some new problem, that I would have no idea of how to handle. Digging would find some new problem, building would cause something else, and there were always decisions that had to be made “right now.” It was so hard, I don’t know how I got through it all. Yet the buildings continued to go up.
(HJ) I’ve heard that it was particularly difficult when you first moved from the old location onto the new site.

For about a year, I was traveling to the site from our center in downtown Tongyeong, and even then, that was very trying. We were trying to run, and pay for, two different places. Something would happen there while I was over here. And when I was here, something would happen there. I finally decided to bring everything together on one site. We threw everything into putting together a small building that could be used as the (temporary) Dharma hall, a meeting place for lay people, and a residence for the sunims. In 40 days, we build a two story, 330 square meter building. Finally, we moved in on May 14, 2015. They thought it would take two days, but we worked from from 8:30 in the morning until 11pm at night, and were completely moved in a single day.

Ten days after we moved, we held celebrations for the Buddha’s Birthday. At our old 850location, we’d expect about 100 people for Buddha’s birthday celebrations. This time, we had over 300 come for the noon ceremony, and nearly 700 people for the evening lantern lighting ceremony.

It really demonstrated that we dare not ignore the visible, material aspects of things. Afterwards, for the Saturday Dharma talks for children, without any special effort at announcing them, we had 10-20 kids every time. The kids loved it. There’s lots of space, and great places to play, so they were having a lot of fun.

At our old site in the city center, parking was always a hassle, and made it hard for people to gather for Dharma talks. Here, parking was no problem at all, and with it being such a relaxing location on a mountain top, surrounded by forests, overlooking the ocean, people naturally want to come. Sometimes they just come on their own for a walk around the grounds, and leave after a bit, which is great too.

It wasn’t easy getting all of the utilities installed. Power, water, septic, telephones, all took time to get done. The water meter was in the open, so during the winter I’d wake up in the middle of the night and go out to make sure it was still covered (to prevent freezing). We still had to take our trash back down to town, so some days that meant a nighttime trip down the mountain on our really narrow road. And I hadn’t quite appreciated how wild and lonely this site can feel at night!

But when I started to feel scared, I’d strike back at this, raising the firm intention that I wasn’t going to be afraid! No matter what comes, sometimes the best way forward is just unconditionally letting go of it all and striding forward!
(HJ) Could you talk a little about the meaning of building a new temple?

Kun Sunim said, “Building a temple isn’t raising up a building. It’s remaking ourselves, it’s building a new me, so be sure to do it according to the truth that all beings freely give and receive whatever is needed, freely sharing.” The clean water of the ocean takes in every kind of rain, every dirty river, every kind of pollution without discrimination. For us, this means that we have to swallow whatever circumstance confronts us. Without discriminating or dividing, we have to fully embrace it.

Working on a new temple was the process of trying to embrace whatever was confronting me, and dissolving my fixed ideas about how things had to be. That was the only way a new me could emerge. Building a new temple was spiritual practice, and spiritual practice was building a temple.

1B2A2075I had all kinds of limitations. I kept wanting to lean on others because the work was difficult and bothersome, I’d think something wasn’t proper for sunims to do, that someone else had to do it, and so on. All kinds of things. However, running errands for the Buddha (and that’s what this was,) means leaping over all your fixed ideas.

Last summer, our well water dried up during the drought. With no water, I wished someone would just come and take care of the problem, but I was forced to think and reflect carefully on the water problem. As I did so, I found a way to take care of that problem. This whole process has helped me overcome the idea that I can’t do something, as well as the desire that someone else would come and take care of everything for me.

In resolving the water problem, I learned about maintenance issues and more about taking care of those kinds of things. I found that strength came from overcoming the things I was afraid of, the things that I didn’t know anything about. I was afraid because I didn’t know what to do about them. I didn’t know anything about construction in the beginning, and the thought of being in charge of building a new center almost left me shaking with fear.

But as I tried to do it and found my way forward, I found confidence. I had to free myself from fixed ideas such as, “I can’t do it, because I don’t know how,” “…because I don’t have any experience,” “…because I’m a sunim.” On the one hand, it might seem easy to say, “Well, you’re a sunim, so just entrust the construction to someone else, and focus on your spiritual practice.” However, spiritual practice doesn’t exist apart from all the different kinds of work that come up in our lives. We have to free ourselves from even the idea that “I’m a sunim.”

When I go visit other branches, tears fill my eyes as I see what they’ve done. When I first visited the Busan branch, and Hye Do Sunim told me about her experiences setting up the branch there, I wanted to cry so badly. She went through so much! All the branches did; Ulsan, Jinju, New York…. I feel so humble towards those who’ve gone through all this before me. Building a temple isn’t putting up a building. It’s gathering people’s intentions together, it’s bringing them all together harmoniously, and creating a warm place that money for construction will want to flow to as well….


(HJ) It sounds like you went through a lot of difficult times. What advice to you have for people now who are going through similar hardships in their lives?

How should they live? Even those difficult times are something we have to make into our practice. After we get through one hardship, there will always be something else next, won’t there? We’re always finding our way forward, we’re always traveling a new path, and so encountering new experiences. We have to take those as something to practice with and push forward. When we’ve firmly hold onto, “It’s our foundation, Juingong, that can get me through this. Even if the worlds comes to an end, Juingong can take care of me,” and have gone through trial after trial, we get a real sense of confidence. Are we finished them? No, something else will come. Some hardship, with a shape we hadn’t imagined. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the path was smooth and easy?! But if it was, we won’t grow. Whether building a temple or completing ourselves, until we are completely finished, there’s always another mountain to cross.

One of the things I noticed was that the biggest problems were always people. As soon as one difficult person was handled, someone else would come along.  After one mountain, a bigger one lies beyond it. But when you cross it, you gain experience and confidence. But until then, there will be hard times. When some problem explodes, you have to take it as something that you are supposed to practice with, right now. And go forward clinging to only Juingong. That’s the only source of truly helpful answers.

Sometimes, when I was having so many problems with other people, I thought about what Kun Sunim went through. When she used to live in the mountains, she was mistaken for a communist guerrilla, and tortured by the local police. As she was being tortured, she viewed those people as the manifestation of her Juingong, teaching her that absolutely no one was separate from her. They were all the manifestation of Juingong.

Another time, when someone did something bad to her, she raised the intention that their action shouldn’t turn into karma for them. She worked like this, not excluding or despising a single person nor coming thing, and instead being grateful that she had another opportunity to work on her practice.

Even though I was completely at my wit’s end, I couldn’t be slack or lazy about how I handled the construction. Going to morning service, facing whatever problem had arisen, and thinking, “Thank you, thank you, thank you so much.” Everything has to be brought together as one, in harmony, in order to create a center for spiritual practice. If even one person is excluded, it won’t turn out well. In the beginning of the construction, there were so many difficulties with various people that I hated to even go to the construction site.  Yet I couldn’t avoid a single part of it. And there was no time to waste getting lost in blame or resentment. The only way forward was to work at seeing everyone and everything as another part of myself. As one whole.


(HJ) Could you speak some more about Kun Sunim and building a temple?

840It was like Kun Sunim was sending us into a huge market place, or a battlefield. Why? Because she was so caring and compassionate. It wasn’t to make us suffer, it was to help us to no longer be slaves to old karmic echoes, to escape from the bondage of habits of the body and thought.

Dissolving those is no joke. It’s not easy.  When you’re being overwhelmed, all you can do is entrust and observe. You have to make entrusting those to your foundation your lifeline. Practice is working at the edge of your limitations; this is how you build strength. If you are completely letting go and entrusting, there’s no place for negative things to stick onto. Let go of worries, and they too have no place to settle. You have to let go of all these unconditionally; then you’ll see progress.  

I kind of think that Kun Sunim gave me so many hardships just because then I would have no choice *but* to practice! (Laughs.) Just going along easily, well, I don’t think that exists.

We have to use our minds kindly, compassionately. That’s where wisdom comes from, I think. When we are mindful of other’s worries and concerns, wisdom comes naturally.

I’m not bragging about my practice; this is just what happens to anyone who practices. But I’ve been through this, and can speak confidently about it. When you clearly see yourself, there’s no desire to brag. Even when we had the “roof” or halfway ceremony, in my mind, I was seeing Kun Sunim there, supervising everything. When you’re running errands like this, putting “me” forward just doesn’t feel like something you’d want to do.

I also asked myself, “How would Kun Sunim do this?” I didn’t dare treat even one thing casually. “What does Kun Sunim want done here? What should we be doing to help others put her teachings into practice?” It was this flowing, empty, unfixed essence that was doing things, not me. I was just her student, and my only job was to gather my courage and do what she taught us. I do miss her a lot.

This construction felt like it was being done by her. Even though we couldn’t see her with our eyes, it still felt like she was there with us, working on everything. It’s purpose is to help get people to realize for themselves what she was teaching. If it was to pray for good luck, then what would be the point? Why bother? All I wanted to do was set out a place for practice, and do it as best I could, so that it lacked nothing. So that Kun Sunim’s teachings could keep helping people going forward, life after life.

Before undertaking the building of a new temple, I’d thought that what I had to do was just spiritual practice. The other, worldly things were supposed to be left to others. I left the hard and difficult things to them. Now that I look at it, I was living a bit selfishly, I think. Even when things are hard and difficult, help always seems to show up. Even though something may be hard right now, help will appear. Someone will show up. In this way, I learned about other people’s difficulties, about their loneliness, about their sadness, and feel so grateful to all of the outstanding practitioners who have come before me. I feel so much respect towards all of our sunims who have been in charge of building the different branches. There’s no sense at all of, “She did a good job,” or “He did a bad one.” They are all wonderful, they all worked so hard. They are all so outstanding.

One of the older sunims said to me, “Everyone who comes, good or bad, is so wonderful, aren’t they?” They really are. I feel so grateful to them all. Even if only one person visits, I feel grateful to them. I feel like Kun Sunim gave me this job in order to help me become a true human being. A true person…. That said, I’d kind of like to not have to go through this again! (Laughs.)


(HJ)  I see that they are working on finishing the Dancheong, the five color painting for the Dharma hall. What’s the status of the Buddha statue and the carved wooden backdrop? (This backdrop takes up an entire wall, and in many temples is done as a painting. — translator)

This past April we received the Buddha statue. It was carved in China, and based on a 3D model we had printed. We put it in a temporary building where we could control the temperature and humidity, and checked on it every morning and evening. We have to let the wood get used to the Korean climate, and then this summer, when the humidity is 60-70%, we can start applying the lacquer. This process will take 18 months in total, although it’s not a quick job, I’m treating it as if I were looking after Kun Sunim.

Applying the lacquer and gold leaf will be done by our youth members. Whether someone is skilled at that or not doesn’t matter. What does matter is that they’ve been working at studying and applying Kun Sunim’s teachings. The wooden relief carving on the wall behind the Buddha statue is coming along, and looks to be finished this spring. Because it’s taking a while for the Buddha statue, we’re taking our time finishing the Dharma hall, and expect to have to official opening ceremony this October(2018).

We also have plans for a number of other projects, including a central pagoda similar to the one in Anyang, and a two story building, which would have a room dedicated to Kun Sunim, a welcome center for members, a place for students to meet, a room for the women to gather, and residences for the sunims. As well as a mediation hall, an office, and a place for the laymen to meet.


(HJ) I’ve heard that for the last two years, the laymen from the different branches have been coming as a group and helping out here.

구조물 옮기는 작업Two years ago in the fall, we had a typhoon pass through here, which blew over a lot of trees. Well, as you can see, the grounds are very large compared to the number of members here, so I asked the other branches for help. About 60 laymen came down and cleared away the dead trees, set up a temporary kitchen, planted decorative trees, and cleaned up the scrub brush in the woods. They really helped cheer things up! Then last Spring and Fall, more people from the branches came in three different teams, and helped clean the grounds, plant more trees, build a semi-permanent office and storage space, and helped with the scrub and more decorative landscaping.

The sight of so many people coming down here (to the far end of the peninsula), and working together was so moving! I still feel moved when I see pictures of that. We had to move the temporary storage building, so they just picked the whole thing up and moved it into place! There wasn’t enough time that day to fully disassemble and rebuild it, so they stripped it down, and about 40 men just picked up the skeleton and, a few meters at a time, carried it into place. It was so moving. If people work all together, there’s not much that can’t be done. I don’t have words to express how grateful I felt.

There’s always so much work to be done at the different branches, so for them to take time out from that and come down here to help us, well, I’m just so moved. Actually, let me take this time to say thank you again. Thank you, Kun Sunim, Juji Sunim, Hyesu Sunim, the Sangha, the lay members, and all the people from the overseas branches. Thank you all so much for your support and for thinking of us.


(HJ) Could you say something more in conclusion?

863My hope in building this temple is that anyone who happens to come here, even just once, even if all they do is bow in the Dharma hall, that if not in this life then in the next one, my hope is that they all plant the seeds of knowing this fundamental mind and applying it to the world around us. So whoever comes by, whether it’s just someone out for a hike, a layperson, or someone who may be homeless, I try to greet them all nondually, unconditionally, letting go of any judgements or labels, and offer them a piece of fruit and one of Kun Sunim’s books.

If they learn a bit about what Kun Sunim was teachings, their own lives will improve. I wish that everyone at least has a chance to hear Kun Sunim’s name. I’ve been so blessed to encounter the two other sunims here and the lay members, and work all together on this place for people to gather and learn.

Come visit us in Tongyeong! The weather is warm, the air pure, and the full moon is huge!

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