Practicing even harder after my teacher’s passing – Hye Hong Sunim interview, part 2

I only just realized that I never posted the rest of the interview with Hye Hong Sunim. So, this week, I’ll post the second and third parts here. Sunim is currently head of the Washington DC branch, and speaks decent English. If you are in the area, stop by! (Well, call first, lol.)

Hye Hong Sunim

It was like that as well on Lunar New Year’s Day and Korean Thanksgiving. People would be packed into the Dharma Hall for the early morning ceremony, as if it was a Sunday Dharma talk day. Usually few people attend the 4am morning ceremonies. However, people came in the early morning those days because they knew they’d be too busy with family events to come later in the day.

The individual lanterns carried during the Buddha’s Birthday parade were the same. They were all made by laymen who came early in the morning, students would work on them after school, and at night until 11pm, still more people would be working on the lanterns. There were so many times like this that I was moved by the diligence and sincerity of the laypeople. I guess that things like this had been going on at the other branches as well, but somehow they hadn’t really struck home. But with time, it was as if the scales had fallen from my eyes, and I finally saw how wonderful the laypeople were.

Looking back, I get a sense of how enthusiastic I was, and perhaps a bit too bright eyed! But after becoming a sunim, the habits and karmic states of consciousness that I had before were still with me, and if I hadn’t dissolved them before, I could still get caught up in them. It was as if I was inside a barrel, being rolled around by someone else.

One day, I had a clear vision of myself, and how I was being manipulated by those karmic states of consciousness. Seeing that, I thought, “I didn’t become a sunim just to spend my life being caught up in these things!” I was inspired to become a sunim by the depth and profoundness of Kun Sunim’s teachings, but now, looking at myself, there seemed to be such a huge difference between those teachings and what was going on inside me.

Kwan Um Bodhisattva at the Jeju Hanmaum Seon Center

It was really hard to both see what was possible, but yet still be caught up in those karmic states of consciousness. Even though I’d become a sunim, all those things within me continued to function as they had before, without change.

That said, getting older gave me a sense of urgency, and it was clear that it was no good continuing to be tricked like that. Kun Sunim had said that it was possible to set everything down in an instant, so that’s what I tried to do. I let go of everything and tried to start anew.

There were all of the fixed ideas and viewpoints from before I became a sunim, of course, but there were also quite a few that I’d learned after becoming a sunim. So I worked at ceaselessly maintaining awareness and letting go of everything that arose. Even when problems arose, I’d see them and know, “Ah. All of this comes from the thoughts and actions of people, so I too have the ability to handle this and dissolve all of it.” Again and again, I’d let go of what would arise from within and without. One of the effects of this was that I really began to see sunims and laypeople with fresh eyes, and felt so grateful to all of them.

Dharma Talks for Foreigners

Currently (as of 2014) our English Dharma talk members at the Jeju Center are mostly teachers from the Fulbright program. The original members have returned to their home countries, but new members have come. Many of them were at the Temple Stay program that was held last summer at the Gwangmyeong Hanmaum Seon Center. One of the members is from India, and came to Jeju to teach yoga, and the other is an elementary school teacher who heard about the group.

When we first gathered, it was because they had come to the temple on their own. This time, I was the one reaching out to them and other English teachers. Because I’d already met with them and given Dharma talks in English, I now had a bit of confidence to do that. They had seemed to enjoy their time at the Seon center, so it seemed likely that others would as well.

I’d met many of the new teachers coming to Jeju Island during the summer temple stay program at the Gwangmyeong Hanmaum Seon Center, and they had expressed an interest in coming to the Jeju Hanmaum Seon Center, but it can be a little hard to put yourself forward when you’re in a foreign country and everything seems a bit strange. So I reached out to them and invited them to the Seon center.

They weren’t Buddhists or people with a lot of understanding of spiritual practice, so it didn’t make sense to start with trying to dive into Kun Sunim’s Dharma talks. Instead, I focused on activities around Jeju Island, such as going to an exhibition of folded paper flowers made by a sunim, making temple food, going to look at the lanterns that were being made for Buddha’s Birthday, as well as trying to make lanterns ourselves. In the process, we could talk a bit about Buddhism and what Kun Sunim said about spiritual practice. Approaching things this way also worked out nicely, because my English wasn’t good enough to give long talks.

          They were always interesting to meet! Koreans tend to know about sunims and act a bit formally in front of sunims, but the English teachers didn’t have any fixed ideas about such things, so they were much more relaxed and casual.

          To help overcome the limitations of my English, I give them each a copy of one of Kun Sunim’s books in English, and asked them to email me any questions they had a week before we met. That way I could work my way through them, and have time to figure out how to say what I wanted to in English. Then, I would type up the question and answer, and pass around copies when we gathered, so that we could all discuss the issue.

          I stuck with the basics, teaching them about their foundation, Juingong, and the practice of entrusting it with everything that arises. I also emphasized that Juingong was like a power station that was connected to everything else. The energy was there, we just had to try and use it.

          One time, I had everyone write down all of the negative and self-critical thoughts they were having. They were all writing down a lot, but I could also sense some tension, in that they were clearly nervous that I would ask them to read out what they’d written. I gave a laugh, and said, “Now let’s burn all that up!” Everyone gave a sigh of relief! As we went outside to a spot I had prepared, I said, “As these burn up, say ‘goodbye’ to them!” As those sheets of paper burned, it seemed like a weight had gone from everyone’s shoulders.

          I was trying different things like this to try to give them a feeling for entrusting and spiritual practice. In this case, I was hoping this experience could help towards seeing our foundation as a blast furnace that burns up and melts down everything we put into it. With things like this, I was trying to compensate for my weak English skills to convey a sense of what I wanted to teach them. In fact, they all seemed to grasp the key points right away.

          One thing that impressed was that although they all came from different countries and different religions, they seemed to be extremely open minded towards other cultures and religions. Even though they’d been raised in Protestant or Catholic environments, they didn’t seem to have the least rejection of Buddhism. It appeared that if an idea or practice was helpful to them, they weren’t concerned about where it came from. On Buddha’s birthday, when they saw the sunims and laypeople making offerings, they looked around for the offering envelopes, and made offerings of their own accord.

          They reminded me again that everything comes down to this fundamental mind we all have, and that it seems to recognize itself in others, regardless of differences of culture and appearance.

In the next segment, Hye Hong Sunim talks about Kun Sunim’s teachings, spiritual practice, and reaching out to others.

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