Over the years we’ve translated a number of interviews for the bi-monthly magazine, Hanmaum Journal. They’re usually interviews with sunims, discussing their lives, challenges, and spiritual practice. There are a number of these, so I’ll try to make them a regular feature.
Practicing Diligently — Chong Muk Sunim’s Story
For over twenty years, Chong Muk Sunim has been living and practicing at the Hanmaum Seon Center in Tucuman Argentina. Tucuman is located in north-west Argentina, in the shadow of the Andes Mountains. It’s located in the country’s smallest province, but it’s the heart of Argentina’s traditional culture. Although the area has a population of 1,300,000 people, only about fifty are ethnic Koreans. Thus the majority of members at the Seon Center are native Argentinians.
The Book He Couldn’t Let Go Of
From the time I was young, there was something that concerned me. On a hill outside the small village I grew up in was a cemetery. When I started middle school, I had to walk past it every day, and when I did, I often had a strange, uncomfortable feeling. Looking around there, I couldn’t help thinking of all people put underneath the dirt. Once that happened, everything about their life just vanished, and all this left me feeling that our lives are so insubstantial, and almost pointless. I couldn’t help wondering what the point of getting married and having kids would be, if they too would just end up going through the same thing and feeling the same way about life. Thoughts like this would suddenly hit me out of nowhere.
Because I had a tendency to think like this, I was always interested in the spiritual. I would find a book or group I was interested in, and follow that for a while. That’s how I became interested in Buddhism: I read a book by Seong Chol Sunim, and wanted to know more. It was during that phase that I saw an announcement for a Dharma talk by Daehaeng Kun Sunim. That was in 1988 or so, at the newly established Gwangju Hanmaum Seon Center. So I wandered over there, and met the sunims in charge, and had quite a pleasant time talking with them. Being around them and the lay members felt incredibly natural and peaceful.
The Center had a collection of Kun Sunim’s Dharma talks, and as soon as I saw those, I was completely captivated by them. I’d never felt like that before in my life. Once I started reading a few pages, I just couldn’t put the book away. I was too filled with joy, but it took me about six months to actually finish the book. Others had read it a bunch of times, but to me, the contents were so deep and profound that I kept rereading the same sentence over and over.
It happened that a friend of mine had heart problems. One day her husband called me and said that something had happened. When I got there and saw her, she looked almost dead. There was nothing anyone else could do for her, so I taught her about her foundation, Juingong, and encouraged her to firmly rely upon that.
She felt like she was about to die, and was even scared to fall asleep. For a week she barely slept, and just kept reminding herself, “Hey, Juingong! You’re the one who has to take care of this!” after about a week, a thought arose within her, that “this won’t get any worse” and she begin to relax. It was a tough situation for her, but she had a strong feeling of “just take even this and eat it up.” So she did her best to completely entrust the situation and move forward.
I’d had a hard time seeing her in that state, but I found my courage and went and saw her. She still looked like she hadn’t improved much. I went back to see her three more times, and each time I talked with her about taking whatever arose and just eating it up. It took that much work before she seemed to improve. That experience really deepened my faith in Juingong, and afterwards I was able to overcome difficulties fairly easily.
The Path Everyone Has to Travel
A lot of the members of the Gwangju Center’s youth group from that time went on to become sunims, and I too had thoughts of becoming a sunim. Anyway, everyone has to work on their own evolution, and it just seemed to me that, having met a true teacher, this was the best way forward for me. I just felt so strongly that this is where everyone is going to have to eventually end up. So I made up my mind to become a sunim. I was so excited to even think about the possibility of studying with such a respected teacher. So in December of 1993, I spoke to the head of the GwangJu Center about it, and went to our temple for monks, the Gwangmyeong Seon Center.
I’d been there for about two weeks, when the call came to go up to Anyang and see Daehaeng Kun Sunim. Up until then, I hadn’t been formally accepted as a postulant, a haeng-ja, and so my hair hadn’t been cut. We went to see Kun Sunim, and she cut my hair. She cut three pieces of hair (the rest was cut off later), and as she did, she said, “Like hair, ignorance always tries to grow back, so you have to be diligent about cutting it off.” Kneeling in front of her, I was overwhelmed with emotion. All I could think was that I would always return to and rely upon my Juingong, my foundation. This was my eternal teacher, and for as many lifetimes as it took, I would work on brightening this inherent light and awakening.
With that, I formally began the life of a haeng-ja. We would wake up long before the morning ceremony (which starts at 4am), clean and set up the altar, do the morning “wake up round” with the wooden moktak, attend morning ceremony, and then afterwards begin preparing breakfast. And that was the beginning of the day. I would try to focus on what Kun Sunim had said and apply it, “everything in your life is being done by Juingong.” I mostly kept this in mind, but there were naturally conflicts and differences of opinion, so there were times that I had to work hard at keeping this in mind.
Living as a haeng-ja is sometimes called the practice is dying, because completely letting go of what’s confronting us is similar. Still, I’d get caught up in something, and only then later realize, “I got deceived again.” I’d feel frustrated with myself, but I also recognized that this was part of the process of growing. So I’d try to take each thing that arose and try to entrust it to my foundation and let it melt down there. There are still times I forget, but I keep working at it.When I do, I try to remember to view it non-dually, and return it to my foundation.
I was ordained in August of 1994, and then in April of 1995 I was sent to our center in Tucuman, Argentina. The Tucuman center was founded in 1991, by one layperson who sponsored it and asked Daehaeng Kun Sunim to establish a branch there. When asked where they should build it, Kun Sunim replied, “If you look behind your house, you’ll see a small hill. Go over that, and there’ll be a small river. Build the center on the far side of that river, below the mountain.” The layperson was quite surprised and uncertain what to do, because in the twenty years she’d lived there, she had never heard of a river in the area. But Kun Sunim reassured her, “It shows up when the rains comes. Build on the other side of that.”
The lay member looked into it, and it turned out that there was indeed a river there, which didn’t show up on the maps. It was called the River of Death, and was a dry river bed most of the time. It was the site of one of the worst massacres of the Spanish invasion. There they killed a huge number of native Americans who had lived across the river, below that mountain.
I thought a lot about Kun Sunim during my first few years there. I wished I could have practiced next to Kun Sunim for at least ten years or so before I had to go overseas. When I first arrived, there were only three Korean families that came to the Center, and about twenty local people. I couldn’t speak any Spanish, and there was no end to the frustrations that caused. But I still tried to take and use that as part of my practice. I really had no choice but to keep taking that and try to entrust it to my foundation.
Because the language problem needed to be solved, I enrolled in an adult elementary school, and studied there for about two years. It turns out that there are a lot of adults in the area who didn’t have much chance for an education, so this school taught adults up through the sixth grade level. I was just there to learn Spanish, so with some skipping around, I was able to study up through the fifth grade level.
There are a lot of native Americans living in the Tucuman area, and they tend to be quite gentle, but perhaps because of the influence of shamanism, they are also quite focused on looking for something outside themselves. Perhaps it’s the influence of the Catholic Church? I don’t know. But one result is that like to touch the Buddha statue when they come in or leave. We ask them not to, but so many people have rubbed it that they’ve worn the gold plating off in some areas!
Although this is a traditionally Catholic area, because people haven’t been able to find what they need, they’re open to other spiritual traditions. Because they can truly find something here, I think the future of Buddhism in Argentina is bright.
In 1997 or 1998 I called Kun Sunim in Korea, and while talking with her, I asked her about how I could explain spiritual practice to the people her. She told me to use the example of a tree, where every single leaf and branch depended upon the tree’s root. Like this, if people depended upon their own internal root, and entrusted everything to it, having faith in it, then through this root of theirs, they would be connected with everything and able to communicate with it all. There are a lot of people who are searching for inner peace, and when they come to the Center, this is what I teach them.
Spreading the Dharma
There are no few difficulties in spreading Daehaeng Kun Sunim’s teachings in Argentina. First off, there aren’t many Koreans in Argentina to reach out to, which leaves mainly native Spanish speakers. The Buenos Aires Hanmaum Seon Center has been working hard to translate texts into Spanish, along with making subtitles for Kun Sunim’s video Dharma talks, but it’s slow work and we always need more. Videos are particularly nice because then people can see Kun Sunim and hear the energy in her voice. It would also be wonderful if we had more published collections of Kun Sunim’s Dharma talks, so that anyone visiting a bookstore could find them.
It’s hard to underestimate the importance of having more sunims and people who are interested in helping foreigners. Although it’s hard to suddenly increase the number of sunims who have some ability with Spanish, in the long term, that’s something that can be increased with education. Foreign language education, along with a familiarity of the local culture are going to be essential to increasing interest among native speakers.
There are more things than I’d like to admit where I’ve had a hard time letting go of, where “dying” to them happened slower than I would have liked. I try to remember that all things are being done by our foundation, Juingong, but sometimes when something happens, it’s “I” that arises and responds. Then I find myself trying to think my way out of the problem instead of letting go. I understand that this “I” doesn’t exist, at least in theory, but in practice, it’s still there when I look at how I respond.
To work on this, sometimes I compare what I’m facing to being on the edge of a cliff. “If I’m already dead, then jumping off shouldn’t be any problem!” And then try to let go as if I was jumping off. At first this was difficult. Who likes to let go, to “die” to what we cling to? But once I experienced this kind of letting go, it becomes easier. If I can really let go like this, then things that were so heavy and worrisome suddenly become as light as a feather.
This was all just my internal dialogue, and done through this fundamental mind, but it was as desperate as if I was on a real cliff. It can be that hard to let go of things. But what Kun Sunim says about “dying” is really true, and something that people have to work on and find their way through. It would be wonderful if it all happened just like snapping your fingers, but there are lots of times when I regret having lost my way.
Ultimately, there’s nothing to handle or let go of, but in terms of practice, you have to be the equivalent of a college graduate to reach the point where you can say “There’s nothing to let go of.” With effort and practice, we can realize that inherently there’s nothing to have faith in and nothing to let go of, “Ah, it’s just all being done by Juingong. Everything is empty and flowing.” But we have to get to the point where we can let go by reflex, where we can entrust without needing to even think about it, and do this with everything. Then our perspective will really change!
Like students passing through elementary school, going to middle school, and then high school, we have to take each thing and do the best we can with it, in that time and place. Then we can grow. If someone just tosses around words like “Everything is empty,” without the deep practice that underlies them, then it’s like an elementary school student imitating a college student. They won’t be able to act on the implications of that, nor will they have made any progress on dissolving ancient habits of thought and behavior.
Even now, after all these years, I still think that there is nothing more important than spiritual cultivation and growth. From ancient times, people who had awakened to this inherent nature have been more numerous than hairs on a cow, yet those people who continued on and truly applied this and awoke to its full potential seem to have been fewer than the horns on that same cow.
Once you awaken, that isn’t the end. Even though you’ve awakened, if you don’t keep working at dissolving these ancient habits, your path will become more and more hazy. Awakening is just the beginning. We have to keep letting go without cease or end. We have to keep letting go again and again. Even if we’ve already let go of something, we need to keep letting go if it arises again. This is what practice is to me.
Repaying my teachers kindness
It’s been over twenty years since I’ve come to Argentina. Even though Daehaeng Kun Sunim’s body was far away, being able to study under such a teacher has been my happiness. Really, where could you find anyone like her? Even though she left her body several years ago, I still feel like she’s always with me and guiding me forward, as one.
Years ago, when I heard Kun Sunim was going to the US, I took a plane and flew to Chicago just to see her again. Seeing her at the center there, I started crying. It suddenly hit me so hard that Kun Sunim was always with me, that we were always as one.
Whenever I saw her, she’d gently tell me, “Practice diligently.” And I’m always trying to fulfill that. She really showed us the way, and utterly guided us, even though I’m not able to follow through on everything. I feel bad about this sometimes, but I also think that if I’m doing the very best I can with whatever is arising, then maybe that will be good enough to pay her back for her love and guidance. I’m going to keep trusting this foundation and turning over everything to it. That’s all there is! Thank you.