Letting Go and Taking a Step Forward – An interview with Chong Bo Sunim (Part 2 of 3)

An Interview with the head of the Mungyeong Hanmaum Seon Center, Chong Bo Sunim. This interview was originally published in Korean, in the March-April edition of Hanmaum Journal. This is part 2 of 3.

I actually enjoyed my time as a haeng-ja, a postulant. It was a different sort of way of living, but I was at ease and felt free. It really was one of the happiest times of my life. I could actually feel this non-dual inner light guiding me and showing the way.

For example, one day the sunims were all working together pulling weeds, when I heard something begging me, “Please don’t pull me. Please, let me live.” I looked down where I was kneeling, and saw a strange plant of a type I hadn’t seen before. That really made me think. I’d been just pulling up the weeds without really thinking about it, and could have so easily pulled that one too if I hadn’t been paying attention inwardly. It really made me think that I needed to be more careful, and even just walking, putting one foot down after another, I needed to be more careful and aware. 

Nonetheless, I was still young and all too often got caught up in judging other people. I was seeing only what was visible to me, and generating ideas of right and wrong. My haughtiness and tendency to judge others repeatedly harmed my fellow sunims.

Not too long after I received my basic, ten-precept ordination, I was assigned one of the more important jobs at the Gwangmyeong Seon Center: managing the assignment, sales, and care of the memorial pagodas at the center. Why did I get this job? Because I knew how to use a computer! (Laughs.) It was a tough job, that I had to complete throw myself into because I was the one who dealt with the people interested in getting a plot, ordering the pagoda, scheduling the internment and Cheondo services to help the dead move on.

Eventually, I was asked to come to the Anyang Hanmaum Seon Center to work with the publications department and help prepare the Dharma talks of Kun Sunim that were published weekly in the Hyundae Bulgyo newspaper. When I moved up to Anyang, I visited Kun Sunim and gave her an offering of all the money I’d saved up, with the wish that everyone I met should find their own path a little clearer and brighter. She smiled at this, and seemed pleased as she said, “I should be the one giving you money, instead of you giving it to me.” [It was his generosity and willingness to offer up what he had on behalf of others that made Kun Sunim happy – translator]

I ended up spending twenty years at Anyang as a member of the publications department, until I was asked to take over as head of the Mungyeong Hanmaum Seon Center. One of the best duties I had in Anyang was driving Daehaeng Kun Sunim and the abbess at that time, Hyewon Sunim. Those were times truly filled with the fragrance of the Dharma. But I realized early on that I still had to work hard to realize for myself what Kun Sunim had taught. Even though it was a wonderful atmosphere, without applying myself, I’d be just like chopsticks that handle food every day, but never taste it themselves. Once I finally realized this, I tried to always be diligent about returning everything back to this one hole, this one place that is our fundamental mind.

People have asked me what the best thing was about living at the Anyang center, and without a doubt, it was driving Kun Sunim up to the nearby mountain and being able to go with her every day on her morning walk. [The immediate area around the Anyang Hanmaum Center has a lot of traffic and store parking that has entrances “cut” into the sidewalks, so it’s not ideal for taking a walk. But just a few kilometers behind the center is a series of mountains, with quiet roads not open to most cars. It was on a quiet stretch of this road, with the forested mountain on one side and the valley on the other, that Daehaeng Kun Sunim would usually take a morning walk.]

I learned so much from her on those walks, as she would occasionally chat with us. I really can’t express how grateful I am. For example, one day a sunim asked her about a place she’d mentioned, where she said that their technology was much more developed that that which was currently on the Earth. She replied, “It doesn’t matter how much technology a society has, or how far they’ve advanced science if they aren’t able to take care of issues related to our fundamental mind. Why? Even though our current world appears to have advanced so much, birth, illness, aging, and death are exactly the same as they were 2,500 years ago. If you can’t truly take care of all the things arising from those, then none of that technology can really help.”

Another time, Kun Sunim was going for a walk in a nearby arboretum, and chatting with the other sunims. As she did so, I couldn’t help looking at nearby stream that had turned into a real torrent after the rain. It was violently churning whitewater, but as I looked at it, I thought to myself, “Nonetheless, it’s still flowing towards the sea, and will become one with the sea before too long. I, too, want to become one with this sea of the Dharma.”

As I stood there thinking this, Kun Sunim came over toward me. As I bowed to her, she glanced at the stream and suddenly said, “The path is long and rough. Are you really sure you want to take it?” Without hesitation I replied, “Absolutely!”

One time, the monks all came to Anyang to greet Kun Sunim. She spoke of the story where the Chinese monk Daeshan went to visit the monk Longtan, and spoke on and on of all the theories he had. As it became evening and night began to fall, Longtan light a candle and handed it to Daeshan. Just as Daeshan took it, Longtan suddenly blew it out. Kun Sunim then asked us, “What happened to the flame?”

I surprised myself and suddenly blurted out, loudly, “That flame never went out!”

All Kun Sunim said was, “Oh, really?”

I was so embarrassed that I had suddenly spoken out, without even any attempt to first return my thoughts inwardly. I realized that I still wasn’t diligently letting go of “I,” and that strong opinions and ideas were still thrashing around within me and occasionally bursting out.

Another interesting experience with Kun Sunim happened one time when I was driving her back from a walk in the nearby mountains. At that time, some of the people who lived behind the Seon Center were using the renovations of one of the buildings to demand more financial compensation [Claiming they were being harmed by the stress from the (modest) noise and extra traffic – translator] and had gathered in front of the Gujeong Pagoda in the main courtyard.

I saw them, and suggested to Kun Sunim that we avoid them by using the underground parking in the main building instead. Kun Sunim’s eyes narrowed a bit and she seemed to looking straight at my soul. Finally she spoke. “You still don’t really know me, do you?” I swear I could feel those words with every part of my body.

So, of course, I took our regular route and pulled up next to all those people who’d been waiting for her, in order to complain and present her with their demands. But when she stepped out of the car, they were all quiet. No one dared harass her, and she returned to her residence. I had to laugh; I’d been worried about her, but had really underestimated her. Although I don’t have any regrets from my time at the Anyang headquarters, I do feel that missed some things because the level of my spiritual functioning wasn’t higher.

Even though I had such shortcomings, Kun Sunim always gave me a warm smile, and she always seemed to help clear away some of the harmful karma I’d piled up within me. I can never forget all of the unseen help she gave me, guiding me and helping to escape from the cycle of endless karma and accompanying rebirths.

In the next issue, Chong Bo Sunim talks about being put in charge of the Mungyeong Hanmaum Seon Center, his experiences there, and what he’s learned there.

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