Leap as Far as You Can! -Hye Ji Sunim

Hye Ji Sunim, head of the Chicago Hanmaum Seon Center

Some sad news here, Hye Ji Sunim of our Chicago center left her body today. She’d had cancer for a number of years, and was determined not to let it bother her. You can see in what she said that her focus was on how we can evolve, and helping others to evolve and grow to the best of their ability. Thank you, Sunim.
with palms together,
Chong Go

* This interview was given in Korean, and published in the January/February 2012 issue of Hanmaum Journal.

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!


In my dream, I could only see the back of the person I followed across the ocean and up the mountain, but it was clearly Kun Sunim. Her back pointed out the direction for my life. Thinking of that dream, if I hadn’t seen even that vague glimpse of Kun Sunim, I don’t think I could have seen or been able to find the path I needed. When I faltered, when I stumbled, there was Kun Sunim moving ahead of me. This somehow let me see myself as I was, which in turn made it possible for me to center myself and stand up again. Following after my teacher like this, single-mindedly, has formed the basis for everything I attained in my spiritual practice. Without her vast and deep teachings, would I still be breathing? Without her compassionate hand up, would I have been able to stand on my own now?

What has to change isn’t other people. It’s my own thoughts. It isn’t the world I have to change, it’s my own inner existence that needs to change. This is the awareness that can start a great revolution! I’d always thought of myself as a basically good person, and before I met Kun Sunim, I think it was that pride that had sustained me. However, as I followed behind Kun Sunim, walking in the path she was setting, I began to see aspects of myself that I didn’t want to admit. I started seeing the things about myself that I had denied. I began to realize that beneath my sense of superiority and confidence, there was a sense of inferiority, and beneath that was arrogance and pettiness, stinginess and argumentativeness, seeing others as separate from myself, and getting caught up in very strong opinions of right and wrong. It was like a huge, multi-colored piece of embroidery that covered everything.

As my faith began to deepen, it became clearer that what I saw in my teacher, was also my true essence. Understanding this, I began to face all the awkward, ignorant consciousnesses within me, without embarrassment. In fact, I was born for the sake of meeting them. All the waves and storms arising from within me, as well as the waves that seemed to come from outside, weren’t different. I began to get the message that I was supposed to help transform all of those consciousness, to help them become Bodhisattvas. All of this was an opportunity. Nonetheless, I often alternated from seeing them and maintaining a critical distance, to being deceived and caught up in them, to seeing them clearly again. Time after time this happened. My anger or suffering due to an illness wasn’t the problem. The problem was that I got completely caught up in those and didn’t return them back to my foundation. To consistently see what is truly going on and return it to this essence is no easy thing!

When Kun Sunim first came to the Chicago branch, I asked her if I could leave, and return after my practice had deepened. She replied, “Sure. Pack your things, lock the building, and come back with me.” This startled me, and got me to thinking; “If I leave, then all the people here won’t have a place to practice and gather together,” and so I decided to stay where I was. Of course, now I realize that Kun Sunim wasn’t really so casual about closing the center. She was just trying to get me to think a little deeper.

Anyway, a few years later, on a visit to Korea, I went along on her early morning walk and asked her again, “Sunim, would it be okay if I came back to Korea to live?”

“Chicago too is a good place to practice. Right here, at the place you are now, free yourself! Wherever you happen to be!”

Ah! Right! The whole point of being anywhere is to practice. Not guiding others or being a “teacher.” Now. Here. The whole reason I’m living in this world is to free myself from “I.” I have a teacher within me who transcends time and space; how could I practice if I’m getting caught up in ideas of this place or that place?

I feel so grateful, and apologetic as well, to all the practitioners at the Chicago center. As I grow up, I will repay their many kindnesses. This is how I can begin to repay the unfathomable help I have received from Kun Sunim, as she guided me and helped me up.

I sometimes wonder if our new building and land weren’t arranged by her in order to help us grow. I can almost hear her saying to us, “Here’s a giant springboard; use it to leap as high and as far as you can!”

2 thoughts on “Leap as Far as You Can! -Hye Ji Sunim”

  1. Omg, I am so sad about it, I was thinking about her recently for some reason, wanted to call her, but because we don’t even know each other I didn’t think I could just call. Now I regret that I didn’t call. I wish her to be enlightened or go to pure land. May her journey be filled with light. I hope sunims will do a ceremony for her to help her on her way

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