Untangling instead of cutting off – Chong Hyu Sunim’s Story

Here is the next interview in the ongoing plan to post the English articles that have appeared in Hanmaum Journal.

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Chong Hyu Sunim

Becoming a Sunim Was The Best Decision I Ever Made – An Interview with Chong Hyu Sunim

Chong Hyu Sunim has helped with the memorial pagodas at the Gwangmyeong Seon Center for many years now, and if you visit and see people working among the pagodas, he’ll often be one of them. This interview was first published in Hanmaum Journal, in issue #101, August-September 2018.

Karmic Affinity with Kun Sunim

I was born in a small village near an old Silla Dynasty temple, which often became the playground for me and the neighborhood kids. Sometimes, in my dreams, I would be living there and practicing with the sunims. When I think about it, it may not be an accident that I was born in the neighboring village. More than once I’ve wondered if I lived there in a past life.

Eventually, my family moved to Seoul, and then about ten years afterwards we moved to Suwon. One day as I was riding the subway up to Seoul for school, as we passed through Gwanak Station, I saw a temple with a bright, golden pagoda on the roof, and thought to myself that I should go visit some time. Then one day, my sister-in-law took me to the temple she attended, and it was that same temple! It was the Anyang Hanmaum Seon Center. I was so surprised. It was the last day of 1991, December 31.

When we got to the Seon Center, we were able to go meet Kun Sunim. The people who were waiting to speak with her filled the room. If the person in front of Kun Sunim had a sad question and was crying, then Kun Sunim was crying too. If they had a happy question or said something funny, she was laughing with them. It was really interesting to see and kind of surprising. It felt like she was completely in tune with the person she was speaking with. Kun Sunim was kind of short, but the feeling she left me with was so huge!

That was how I started coming to the Seon Center. Not long after, at the third Sunday Dharma talk in April (1992), the audio recording of Kun Sunim’s translation of The Thousand Hands Sutra (chanted by Bo Won Sunim) was unveiled. They played it at about 9am for those people who’d come to get seats for the Dharma talk, and I almost immediately started crying. I cried throughout the Dharma talk, and had no idea why! I was embarrassed to be crying like that, but I couldn’t stop. It was years before I fully understood why I had cried so much.

Daehaeng Kun Sunim’s Korean translation of the Thousand Hands Sutra, chanted by Bo Won Sunim. There’s an English translation of this text in the older posts, under the Sutra’s title.

Around the time I was 24 or 25, I began to occasionally tell my mother that in my next life I was going to become a sunim. It was what I wanted to do in this life, I guess, but if I said I was going to do it in my next life, then my mother couldn’t really object!

However, around the time I was 29, I’d seen Kun Sunim that day, and felt strongly that I wanted to become a sunim. I told my mother, and after a moment’s thought, she just said, “okay”! I still think that becoming a monk is the best decision I’ve ever made.

The Karmic Affinity We Make

            About ten years ago, an anti-aircraft missile base was established nearby (the Gwangmyeong Seon Center). Some of the soldiers would attend the Dharma talks and services here, and among them would be one- or two-star generals. One of the things I learned from talking with soldiers is that their career paths can be unpredictable. A person may be advancing upwards getting promotion after promotion, and then suddenly just stop, and never get a promotion again.

            Well, near that base there’d been an ugly battle during the Korean war, with a lot of people killed in the fighting. I suggested to the two-star general that it would be a good idea if they held a cheondo ceremony to help those who’d died move forward on their own path. He immediately agreed, and arranged for the ceremony and for our sunims to hold it.

            It took place in June, and we’d had continuous rain for weeks. However, when we came to a part in the ceremony that required everyone to go outside, the sun came out and the rain disappeared. That part of the ceremony lasted for about ten minutes, and after it was finished and we’d gone back inside, the rain started again! It definitely made you stop and think!

            About six months later, that general received his third star, and was made a general of the Army. A bit later he received his fourth star, and was made deputy commander of UN forces in Korea. Later I came to find out that he’d also been central to the efforts to find and recover the remains of soldiers missing in the Korean War. I suspect that his promotions and his rapid rise didn’t just happen!

            I did ceremonies and gave Dharma talks at army bases for around eight years. Usually there’d be between 70 and 100 soldiers attending the talk, and a lot of them found Kun Sunim’s teachings to be helpful in dealing with the stuff of their daily life. As you can imagine, there’s always some soldiers who look like they’re sleeping, but there are also others who are paying close attention, with bright eyes taking in everything.

            Meeting together like that is also forming the seeds of karmic affinity. One of the soldiers was having a lot of trouble with army life, and it looked like he was going to get kicked out for mental instability. After talking with him, I told him to often entrust the thought that “Juingong! I’ll always remember that you are my foundation!” He did this, and was able to complete his military service and receive an honorable discharge.

            We also have several “Temple Stay” style sessions for students at our center down here, and at one of those, I met a first year college student who was circling the Dharma hall with tears in his eyes. I had a chance to talk with him, and he said he was circling the Dharma hall out of gratitude for having learned about this practice and being able to apply it to his life. Karmic affinity, these kinds of karmic connections, are so precious! That said, ultimately, we have to go beyond even karmic affinity.

Taking Care of the Pagodas

I’ve been helping manage the memorial pagodas at the Gwangmyeong Seon Center for the last seven or eight years now. One of the things about this job, is that you need to do it with your whole heart. You have to be completely sincere with anything you do. Kun Sunim also said this to us. You have to think of everyone else’s ancestors as if they were your own.

It’s so spread out that we can’t use hand tools to cut the grass, and the mower weighs about 300 kilos, so it’s not easy to move around the spaces between the pagodas or the inclines. You also have to be careful about any rocks or metal that might be deep in the grass.

Sometimes people think that everything is finished and taken care off once they’ve set up a pagoda and have a cheondo ceremony, but that’s not always the case. One fellow was a professor at a big university, and had arranged for a pagoda for his ancestors. (Translator: There are no remains stored in these, just paper tablets with the names of the deceased. After cremation, the remains are spread on a large river in the area, where they can flow down to the sea.)  But even afterwards he continued to suffer from debilitating headaches, where he felt as if his skull was being slowly ripped apart. Well, as part of setting up the pagoda, he was having his family graves exhumed and the bones cremated. When they dug up his father’s grave, they found a tree root had grown through it, and into his father’s skull. After cremating the bones, his headaches completely vanished.

(Translator: Ideally, the remains of family members are cremated because cremation makes it much easier for people to move on. Throughout our lives we tend to think of this body as “me,” and because this habit is so ingrained, for many people it continues after death as well. But when the body too is gone, they tend to have an easier time letting go of this clinging.)

I also had a family pagoda set up about fifteen years ago. After the ceremony for this, I had a dream in which my ancestors were flowing out of the mountains, and happily exclaiming, “We’re going to Hanyang!” (Hanyang was the old name for Seoul, and for someone from deep in the countryside, it represented a bit of a mythical place where the king lived, where everyone was rich, and life was good.) They really seemed happy about it!

So, as part of this, about four years ago, I set about excavating my great-great grandmother’s grave. I had to climb for about five hours up a mountain before I finally got to the site. It was a really nice location for a grave, and when I began to dig, the soil was a golden color. When I finally got down to the coffin, I found that it hadn’t rotted a bit, even though she was buried 150 years ago. When I opened it, her bones were a beautiful golden color, and laid out perfectly in the shape of a person (Translator: this often isn’t the case. Many times the bones have shifted around.)

However, the right side of the coffin had collapsed a bit, and was pressing down on her right shoulder. I had to laugh when I saw that, because among my family, there have been a lot of people who’ve had problems with their right shoulders and arms.

As I’ve worked at helping people locate and exhume old graves, one of the things I’ve seen time and again, is that families become more harmonious afterwards.

            Although Kun Sunim encouraged people setting up memorial pagodas to exhume graves and shift the focus to the pagoda, a lot of families can’t do this, because it takes agreement from everyone in the extended family. Especially when people are still centered around the idea that the body is “me,” they have a hard time letting go of attachments to graves. That’s one reason why this practice of relying upon our fundamental mind is so precious: We learn to live in tune with this flowing, ever changing world. This is something I’m always working at.

Don’t Cut, Untangle!

One of the things I’ve noticed as I’ve had a chance to meet so many people at the Seon Center is that everyone agrees on the importance of spiritual practice, but I have to say that actually using our minds wisely isn’t so easy. It takes a lot of work to make our thoughts gentle and wise, versus just using our minds roughly or severely, as often seems our natural inclination.

Memorial pagodas and Buddha at the Gwang-myeong Seon Center

Kun Sunim once said that if we create a world of rough and violent thoughts, we’ll end up becoming an angry spirit. Essentially, if we use our mind like a demon, we’ll become a demon. People need to be aware of what results from the thoughts they give rise to, and so use their minds wisely. With a single thought, we create karmic affinity and send forth this unseen energy of mind that surrounds us.

The people with the closest, strongest karmic affinity with us are usually our family. They’re family, but it’s because of our tangled up karmic affinity. What’s tangled up should be untangled. Just in your one family, just among the few of you, how many complicated and awkward things have happened? How many new karmic tangles have been made? All of that should be untangled.

My mother used to say something similar. She always told us to live as if we were untangling a ball of yarn. She’d emphasize “untangle it, don’t chop it up.” This is something  everyone can work at. We need to work at it until handling things this way becomes automatic.

You could say that, in reality, “spiritual practice” is “deep sincerity.” The sunims here often told me that, and said to do everything with the utmost sincerity until it becomes such a deep habit that I could never forget it. In doing everything with the utmost sincerity, we’ll become aware of who we really are. Then when I laugh, others join in and laugh with me.

One of the things Daehaeng Kun Sunim emphasized over and over was to always take whatever we encounter and experience, and entrust that as something we’ve caused. She told us to see that as something that’s our fault, or that we are at least responsible for. Her basis for this is the fact that by existing in this world, we are experiencing the things here. If we hadn’t created all of the karmic affinity that led to our birth, we also wouldn’t have encountered any of the rest. So every experience we have is something that we’ve had a role in creating.

I always emphasize this when speaking with young people. “If you entrust everything as something you’ve helped create, you’ll be successful in life.” You really will. Members of our youth group have brought this up later, saying that after they got married it helped them a lot. “Things were really rough, but we were able to overcome them.” “I took it as my homework, and was able to work my way through those difficulties.”

Live while entrusting every single thing!

            After I decided to become a sunim, I had a strange dream. I found myself trying to walk forward, but all around me was a sea of garbage as high as my chest. With all my strength, I was barely able to take one step at a time.

            About a year later, I had a similar dream, but this time the garbage was only as high as my knees. It was still hard to move forward, but certainly easier than before. I had one more of these dreams after I finally became a sunim. This time, there was only a thick layer of dust on the road, and I had no trouble moving forward. That was the last of those dreams. Dreams are not just dreams, I suspect!

            Though, not too long ago, I had another dream that really made me realize what a special place the temple is. I was looking at the temple, and there was an unseen net of energy that completely filled the temple all the way to the main gate, the Ilju-mun. It was the net of the Dharma, and I realized that we have to build this net in everything in our lives. We have to bring this net of energy to everything we do, otherwise we’ll be swept away by hardships and suffering. I had such a fresh appreciation for being able to live and practice within the temple, and felt so grateful and filled with bliss. It really woke me up to just how much we have to work at entrusting every single thing in our lives.

            In this practice of returning everything to our foundation, there must be a quiet persistence, where we just keep at it day in and day out. One time when I was meeting Kun Sunim, she said to me that it’s important we keep working tenaciously at applying what we know and then experiencing it in action. I’ve never really left the grounds of the Seon Center, nor do I feel the need. I just keep going inwardly, experiencing, and as I do so, deep, deep faith keeps arising.

            About four years after I’d become a sunim, I was sitting in meditation after the morning ceremony, when I remembered something Kun Sunim had said, “You sometimes need to forcefully raise the thought, ‘Juingong! Prove that you exist!’” So I thought to myself, “Juingong, prove yourself!” And in that instant, my right hand shot up into the air. On the one hand, I was really surprised! But on the other, my faith became that much deeper.

Ultimately, it’s experiencing. Experiencing!

            Last year, when the summer retreat season began, I started going up to the Mountain Spirit Shrine after the morning ceremony and chanting Kun Sunim’s translation of the Diamond Sutra. I ended up doing this for the next 150 days. (Translator: The shrine is a bit quiet and isolated, so it’s great for meditation or chanting by yourself.) While Kun Sunim’s version of the Diamond Sutra is my favorite, I’ve always felt something special for the Diamond Sutra. The more I chanted it, the more I loved it. As the words moved across my lips, the meaning of those words that I’d chanted so many times would suddenly become clear to me. This happened over and over, “Ah! So that’s what it means!”

            What the Buddha taught us, and its underlying truth is so incredible. Even a single word contains all the truth of the world. This practice! It’s not only sunims who can practice relying upon and discovering their foundation. While there are Dharma talks that Kun Sunim gave to just sunims, in terms of content, they’re no different from her talks to lay people. She talks about the same exact things. Experiencing! Applying and experiencing!

            You have to eat your own meals, don’t you? This is the foundation on which you can stand up straight. You have to actually have faith in your own Juingong, your foundation, and know that “This came from you, so you’re the one that can take care of this. Here you go!” When people do this, they really become more confident, and stand up straighter. We have to really put our hearts into practicing, and experience this for ourselves.

            If you’re sincere about letting go and entrusting, then to the extent you keep working at it, it’s as if there is a spring flowing from within us, guiding us forward, and never drying up. You asked about the necessary attitude for practicing, didn’t you? Well, it’s knowing that your foundation — your one mind — is your source, and that inherently all beings share the same life, the same mind, the same body, work together as one, and freely give and receive whatever is needed. There’s plenty of times when, even though we’re practicing, we find ourselves completely blocked or overwhelmed, but if we just silently go forward, pushing forward one step at a time while entrusting everything, then all Buddhas will be there together with us.

            Daehaeng Kun Sunim always told us to teach people to have faith and to go forward letting go and observing. That way, they can experience this fundamental Buddha nature in practice. These days when life is so busy, we should at least find a few moments in the mornings and evenings to focus on entrusting whatever’s coming up, and then observing. Instead of making more and more karmic affinity with all sorts of things, we need to be spending some time unraveling what we already have. Go forward unraveling and unraveling!

1 thought on “Untangling instead of cutting off – Chong Hyu Sunim’s Story”

  1. Years ago ChongHyu sunim said one word that made a big difference. We were talking about practice and there was one word he didn’t know in English and i didn’t understand in Korean, but he would repeat something about mind, and I really wanted to know what exactly he meant, I asked him to write it on paper, I went home and looked it up in a big dictionary, and then suddenly the meaning came alive. He said “etch it in your mind”. That was many years ago, but I remember it to this day. I am grateful to him for his sincere heart

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