Truly! An interview with Chong Gu Sunim, Part 1

[Hi everyone! I hope you’ve all been well! In case you didn’t already know, this coming Sunday, May 1, will be the 10th anniversary of Daehaeng Kun Sunim’s passing, and Sunday, May 8 will be the Buddha’s Birthday. In the meanwhile, here’s an interview with Chong Gu Sunim that will be appearing in May’s issue of Hanmaum Journal.]

Chong Gu Sunim has been a sunim for over 27 years, and for many of those years, he has worked as a member of the Hanmaum Seon Center Publications Department. Their job is to publish the complete Dharma talks of Daehaeng Kun Sunim. To date they have published 18 volumes of talks, in a series titled “Heogong ui Geodneun Gil” (Stepping Into Emptiness). The Publications Department starts with audio recordings, and then sorts the talks by the type of occasion or location of the talk, transcribes them, checks the transcription multiple times, and then lightly edits them for spelling and grammar. (Sometimes Daehaeng Kun Sunim used older Korean pronunciations or grammar that isn’t commonly understood by modern people.) The Korean version of this interview appeared in May/June 2018 issue Hanmaum Journal(#99). This is part one of two.

Hanmaum Journal: Given all the years you’ve been working with the Hanmaum Seon Center Publications Department, it seems like you’ve probably read more Dharma talks by Daehaeng Kun Sunim than anyone else.

Chong Gu  Sunim: I’ve certainly read a lot of Dharma talks, but I actually don’t pick up information that well from texts. I learn much better from hearing something. So even though I’ve been reading Dharma talks for a couple of decades, there’s a lot that, when I read it, it doesn’t really speak to me. The main thing, though, is that I take reading Kun Sunim’s Dharma talks as part of my practice. I’m sure you all know what that’s like. We’re reading Dharma talks as part of our own self-education, not to brag about having read a certain number of books. You yourself have to be taking the hints in the talks, and then making the effort to apply them to your practice. Then, when you see the need, you take what you’ve learned and apply to the circumstances and people around you.

HJ: What is the relationship between publishing Dharma talks and practicing?

Chong Gu Sunim: Reading Daehaeng Kun Sunim’s Dharma talks is experiencing something alive. I’ll read one part and think, “I have to live like this!” and then immediately entrust that wish inwardly. Or I’ll read another part, and realize that she’s showing me a new way to let go of something, that is to say, to see things in a new way that makes it easier for me to let go of them. This is an ongoing experience for me, though I’m sure it’s the same for everyone.

Everybody’s practice and life is different, but it comes down to the same thing – you take whatever emotions, thoughts, and experiences arise, and return them back to your foundation. If you truly want to discover your fundamental mind, you have to take everything, bit by bit as it arises, and return it inwardly. And then pay attention to what happens, see what happens, feel what happens, and adjust and go forward.

HJ: Some people are very dedicated to the collected Dharma talks, reciting them or copying them out. What are your thoughts on this and about how we should study Daehaeng Kun Sunim’s Dharma talks?

Chong Gu Sunim: Kun Sunim always used to say, do it while having faith that it is your fundamental, true self that is doing the work, then truly, the energy of your fundamental mind will flow into that task. The reason we are reading Dharma talks and practicing isn’t to find the truth within the Dharma talk, it’s to find the living Dharma talk that exists within every single thing. That’s what Kun Sunim really wanted to teach us.

Kun Sunim saw one sunim diligently reading a volume of the collected talks, and told her, “If you keep reading those with such a sincere mind, then the wild, unenlightened lives within your body will all be reborn as new lives with a higher level.” I think this is true for everyone.

HJ: With reading all those Dharma talks, it seems like it would be quite easy to get caught up in abstract, intellectual details.

Chong Gu Sunim: Those Dharma talks are practical guides to how we need to live our lives, how we can become aware of the true nature of reality, and how we can realize the realm of the Buddhas. Shakyamuni Buddha and Daehaeng Kun Sunim both realized and transcended what is called nirvana while living in the midst of this ordinary world that’s often called a sea of suffering. Their Dharma talks tell us how we can do this for ourselves. The era the Buddha lived in is exactly the same as the era we’re living in.

The method they taught was entrusting and observing. We have to live while entrusting whatever comes up to our foundation, and then going forward as we pay attention to what’s happening. Both the Buddha and Kun Sunim taught us how we can truly become one with everything, how we can live nondually. They showed us this with their lives, and pointed us towards it with their words. They showed us how each of us can experience all of this for ourselves. While living our own life and taking care of all the ordinary things of daily life, we can fully realize that every single part of our lives is also in the realm of Buddhas and is directed through this fundamental mind.

To this end, Kun Sunim was always saying that if we want to move beyond the level we’re at, we have to save the unenlightened beings that make up our body. We can have all kinds of deep experiences, and learn many important things, but if we don’t raise the spiritual level of the lives that make up our body, then even though we are all inherently Buddha, the karmic states of consciousness that are the source of those lives, which are all wrapped around “I,” will keep us from being able to live in tune with that potential.

We have to work at entrusting and becoming one with whatever comes up, and then, through that process, if we can truly dissolve those karmic states of consciousness, we can truly discover who we are and become much more expansive. However, if we just stop after one or two experiences, then it’s likely those karmic states of consciousness will remain mostly unchanged, that is to say, they haven’t been saved, and we’ll remain as we are, without any particular growth.  

Kun Sunim often said something similar, that although she was able to help people through mind, they had to dissolve the underlying karmic states of consciousness that first caused the problem. Otherwise, her help would only be a temporary solution.

HJ: In the process of spiritual practice, there’s often a lot of enthusiasm and important experiences at the beginning, but as time goes by, there are also times with it’s not as interesting. But then later, different aspects of what you realized will pop into mind when they are most needed. I imagine it’s the same with reading Dharma talks?

Chong Gu Sunim:  Yes, that’s exactly my experience when I first read Principles of One Mind (Hanmaum Yojeon). I was so amazed by what Kun Sunim was saying that sometimes it was too much for me, and I’d have to close the book. Then I’d peek at it again, and close it again! The volumes of Kun Sunim’s Dharma talks were exactly the same. “Wow! I never imagined that could be possible.” “We have to live like that, and make that kind of a world possible!” I’d have such a strong resolution, and then entrust that inwardly. Diligently reading Kun Sunim’s Dharma talks is a form of becoming one with your foundation! Her talks are like a GPS that guides us to realms of deep truths. It’s a process where the energy of your deep searching combines with the energy of her desire to show us a better way forward.

Truly, those Dharma talks are nutrients that help us grow our foundation. They’re like spiritual medicine. You consume them, and then digest them according to your own spiritual level and ability, and they lead you towards your foundation and your true self, Juingong. That’s the essence of true Dharma talks.

True Dharma talks show you how to cause your own sprout to break through the soil, and then how to raise it, and then to create the conditions for fruit to form. In so doing, you can feel the true worth of life, and you can share that feeling with others so that they feel it too.

Kun Sunim described this as traveling the path that has no fixed path where we awaken to the reality of nonduality, and can nondually save both ourselves and others. This is what we really need to be able to do, but we have such deep habits of “me” and “I,” that we don’t even see how these subtle perspectives of “I” infiltrate everything we do. The thing is, our fundamental mind, Juingong, leads and takes care of things to the extent that we have faith that it is doing things. If we have 30% faith, it takes care of 30%. This is an example of course, and it may not be that simple, but it gets the idea across. So what we have to do as spiritual practitioners is work at seeing that it is our true nature, our fundamental mind that’s doing everything.

Daehaeng Kun Sunim taught Buddhism as practiced through daily life. She really emphasized this a lot in her earlier talks. Practicing all night in temples is somewhat common in other temples, with people having sitting meditation, chanting, or reciting the sutras, but Kun Sunim wouldn’t allow people here to practice like that.

Even when she finished giving a Dharma talk, she would shoo people out and tell them to go home, saying that they shouldn’t be spending all of their time at the temple. If they had a family, they needed to be there as well. The thing about spiritual practice as Kun Sunim taught it, is that it’s not about following some detailed form or sequence of steps. Those tend to be other people’s fixed ideas.

True spiritual practice has to be done inwardly, with you working with your own unique habits and background. You entrust that and try to have faith in your foundation – this is where true transformative experiences come from. This is you developing yourself from where you are. If, instead, you are following someone else’s path, following their own framework, then you won’t be able to truly move beyond that.

This is probably why Kun Sunim said, “You have to be truly sincere. You have to truly go inwardly.” Then the doors will open. The doors of your fundamental mind. But if you are caught up in trying to follow spiritual “trends,” such as bowing 10,000 times, or meditating all night, or whatever else is popular at the time, then you’ve already taken a step back from your fundamental mind. Be deeply sincere with entrusting, and go forward seeing everything as being done by your fundamental mind.

In the next issue, Chong Gu Sunim talks more about his experiences with spiritual practice and Daehaeng Kun Sunim.

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