Trying to Benefit the Whole – Interview with Hye Dong Sunim

Hye Dong Sunim is the head of the Buenos Aires branch of Hanmaum Seon Center. She’s been there for thirty years, and has guided the members through all the turmoil of those years. This interview appears in the Jan/Feb issue of Hanmaum Journal, #121.

Something my teacher, Daehaeng Kun Sunim, said has always stuck with me: “Before worrying about other things, focus on the steps in front of you. Don’t try to look for the peak, just do your best to focus on what’s in front of you and take the next step. As long as your path is correct then sooner or later you’ll reach the peak.” This seems like the attitude of a true spiritual practitioner, regardless of their religion.

I was actually a Catholic, originally. I had started going to the local church when I was a child and continued as an adult. But around October of 1986, I was hiking in the Odae mountains with some friends. One of their fathers had a close friend who lived nearby, and so we stopped in to say hello. As we talked over snacks, he mentioned that there was a Buddhist nun who used to practice in the area, but now lived in Anyang. He said that she was very impressive, and emphasizes the importance of humility. He thought I might learn a lot from her, and suggested I stop visit her if I had the chance. Well, she was Daehaeng Kun Sunim.

I would have felt a bit awkward just showing up at her temple, but he gave me the name of a friend of his there, the late Bak Jae Won (he was a central member of the Anyang Hanmaum Seon Center, and was a wonderful advisor and trouble shooter.)

Mr. Bak wasn’t really someone who would talk a lot, but he always seemed like a kind uncle and mentor to me. He taught me about letting go and relying on my foundation, helped me to not get lost in theories, and to understand the practical implications of Kun Sunim’s teachings. I feel so grateful to him. It was he that introduced me to books on Buddhist teachings, as well as to Kun Sunim’s Dharma talks on tape, and her books, “Nothing” and “The Path.” He opened my eyes to Buddhism, and I felt a sense of everything Catholicism had been trying to say.

When I was a Catholic, one of the things I’d struggled with was the idea of my prayers reaching God. What I wanted was a prayer that would make me one with God. Another thing I struggled with was that in the Bible it said, “Those who are poor in spirit will be rich in Heaven.” This verse always made me wonder, because when I was a child, my parents were fairly poor, but our home was always rich in spirit. How could being poor in spirit lead to any kind of blessings?

I also had a hard time with Kun Sunim’s teaching to believe in myself, that is, my true self. It was fairly easy to raise up the idea of a powerful God somewhere else and pray to him, but having faith in my definitely flawed, not-particularly-smart self was much harder.

Nonetheless, I became absorbed in Kun Sunim’s teachings, and came to the Seon Center every day. One day I was in Mr. Bak’s office, studying on my own, and even though it wasn’t time for me to go home, I had a strong urge to go outside. It was as if something was pulling on me. I went outside, and saw Kun Sunim leaving the building across the courtyard.

At the Buenos Aires Hanmaum Seon Center

In all the time I’d been there, I hadn’t actually seen Kun Sunim in person. There she was, but I was scared to go up and introduce myself. I berated myself, “Am I really this stupid? Here is an easy chance to meet Kun Sunim, am I not going to take it?”

Right about then, Kun Sunim looked at me, and asked, “Did you want to see me?” I went over and said that I did.

She replied, “There are a lot of good practitioners here. You’ve already met several of them, so keep working and practicing diligently with them.”

Right about then, the car she’d been waiting for arrived, and after getting in, she said to me, “If you firmly make up your mind to do something, how can ‘It can’t be done,’ stand up in the face of that!” Then with a laugh and a wave of her hand, she was off.

After meeting Kun Sunim, every time I had a thought like “How can someone like me…,” I worked hard at letting go of it and returning it inwardly. “If I make up my mind to do something, where is ‘can’t be done’?!” This became a huge, open highway for me as I worked at letting go and returning all of the things that confronted me.

I realized that viewing things like this and entrusting them was also having faith in myself, and that having this faith in myself was the fastest path forward, as well as the most accurate and direct path. This kind of faith in myself felt so profound, and I had no doubt whatsoever that it would allow me to move forward and grow. At that time, a famous verse that everyone learned in school popped into my mind:

Even the highest mountains still exist beneath the sky.

There’s no reason why people can’t go up and up until the top,

yet they just stare at them, saying “they’re so high,” and don’t even try.

I suddenly felt that all the thoughts of “I’m not good enough,” “I have too much bad karma,” “I don’t know anything,” were an Everest of sorts. If I just kept fighting through them, then eventually I’d reach the top!

If we just keep letting this “I” die and die again, letting go and letting go, then we’ll reach the point where we become one with everything. For me it feels like a bird circling higher and higher into the sky, and seeing more and more of everything spread out before it – the more I let go of “me” and “I,” the more I become one with everything.

This verse that Kun Sunim gifted me with, “What can stand in the face of, ‘I will get it done!’” has become such a support for me in my life and practice. It’s like a walking stick I always have with me, that supports me in the face of anything that arises. I just embrace those words and push through whatever is in front of me.

I also finally understood what the Bible verse had meant about being poor in spirit. The heart of Daehaeng Kun Sunim’s teaching is that by utterly entrusting everything to our foundation, Juingong, and going forward while paying attention, we can become one with everything. So when the Bible said that those who are poor in spirit will be rich in Heaven, it meant those who were empty of egotism, selfishness, and greed. I was so happy when I realized that it meant that because they were free of “I” and “me,” there was nothing that wasn’t themselves, and they could perceive the whole.

I began to immerse myself in relying upon my fundamental mind, Juingong, and after about two months, it became clear to me that I wanted to become a sunim. So at the end of December, 1986, I entered the temple as a postulant.

As such, I was taken to greet Daehaeng Kun Sunim, whereupon she asked me, “If a hundred people were suddenly dying, what would you do?” All I really knew for sure was that if I utterly let go of “me,” then this fundamental mind would take care of things. All the necessary ability and capacity was there. At that time, hearing her question, the thought arose, “If I just utterly let go of ‘me,’ then all those people will become one, and then things will work out.”

I didn’t have the courage to actually say that out loud, but in the months that followed, that’s how I approached everything that confronted me. That’s how I practiced during my postulancy, after I was ordained, when I was sent to the Jeju center, the Chicago center, and finally when I was appointed as the head of the Buenos Aires center. That’s how I practice even now. I just go forward doing my best as I try to entrust everything to Juingong.

One thing I’m absolutely certain about is that Kun Sunim knows me better than anyone else does. One time she even said, “There’s not a minute or even a second that I am not watching over you all.” Even when I’m being blamed or criticized for something I didn’t do, she knows the truth of what I did. And likewise, if I do something wrong, she knows what I did.

Further, if I was worried or concerned about something, she knew what I was thinking about, and would, unprompted, say something about that issue. For example, when I was assigned to the Jeju center, I had just become a sunim, but I didn’t know how to do the longer ceremonies, and didn’t have any particular education about Buddhism.

So I was worried about what I would say if someone asked me something about the Buddha’s teachings. I kept entrusting this concern inwardly, and suddenly one day, from inside I knew that I should just speak frankly, “I don’t know anything. I know eating, sleeping, and going to the toilet, but that’s it.”

Then, when I happened to see Daehaeng Kun Sunim, she looked at me and laughed, and said, out of the blue, “If someone should ask you about Buddhism, ‘I don’t know anything,’ and ‘All I do know are eating, sleeping, and using the toilet,’ are good enough answers. Although “you” don’t know a lot, your fundamental mind already knows everything.”

I always felt like I had a teacher who loved me even more than I myself did. And in order to repay that, even a little bit, I’m doing my best to not miss any point she made, and to put what she said into practice. I also think about how she approached the different projects that came up at the center. There are always many things happening, and many proposed projects, but I’ll undertake something only if benefits everyone, the whole. If it doesn’t then I won’t touch it.

In the next issue, Hye Dong Sunim talks further about her experiences with Daehaeng Kun Sunim, running the Buenos Aires branch, and the challenges of the corona virus.

Video Dharma talk by Daehaeng Kun Sunim – Helping yourself and others

We have a new video Dharma talk up! Kun Sunim talks a bit about giving, the principles of how things come and go, and the ability we have within us to find whatever we truly need, as well as help those around us. It seems straight forward, but there are a lot of subtle implications and nuances, so it’s worthwhile to ponder the contents from time to time.

Drying out wet firewood

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope the new year finds you well, and growing deeper and deeper in your spiritual practice!

The quote below is from the video Dharma talk today (It was shown at Anyang, as well as on YouTube.) And this is a section that jumped out at me. The questioner was commenting that it felt like he’d barely made any progress even after coming to the temple for 15 years. Here is part of Daehaeng Kun Sunim’s answer.

January 7, 1996

You mentioned feeling like you haven’t made any progress after even years of practicing, right? Like you’re still just licking the outside of a watermelon?

Think about firewood. If the wood is dry, with just a bit of flame, it will catch fire. But when the wood is wet, it won’t burn even though you use the same amount of kindling, will it? Your kindling and tinder just burn up, leaving the wood untouched. If you want it to burn, you have to use a lot more kindling to get it to catch fire. Well, spiritual practice is what dries out the wood. Then if it meets a flame, it will ignite with just a spark. If you haven’t done that much work, the wood is probably still wet and hard to ignite. To dry out that wood, you have to dissolve the habit of looking for others to save you. Dissolve those old habits by believing in your own foundation unconditionally! Then your fire will burn hot and bright!

그러니까 아직까지…, 불을 지피는데 말입니다. 젖은 나무로 불을 지피느냐 마른 나무로 불을 지피느냐에 따라서 쏘시개가 덜 들어가고 더 들어가고 하죠. 그러니까 마른 나무와 젖은 나무에 똑같이 불쏘시개를 한다면 젖은 나무는 안 타요. 그죠? 마른 나무는 불쏘시개를 조금만 해도 타 버리는데 젖은 나무는 불쏘시개를 똑같이 갖다 놓고 하더라도 그 불쏘시개만 홀랑 타 버리고는 안 타죠. 그거와 같은 겁니다. 우리가 수행이 어느 정도 돼 있어야 나무가 말라서 잘 타는 것과 같고, 수행이 돼 있지 않다면 아주 젖은 나무와 같아서 안 타죠. 그러니까 아직도 껍데기에, 즉 말하자면 타의에서 구하는 습성이 많이 있으니까 그것을 녹이려면 아예 진짜로 무조건 믿고 그렇게 해 보세요. 그러면 훨훨 탈 테니까요. 꼭 그렇게 하실 수 있겠죠?

Awakening the profound ability within us

The profound ability within me is awakened not by words,
but by the determined effort to become one with everything I encounter.

자신의 묘법은 글귀 아닌 대월력이니

My favorite part of “The Thousand Hands Sutra” is the middle section, known as “The Great Compassion Dharani,” although in the middle of the text, it has a different name. A standard reading would be something like “The Dharani of Marvelous Words.” Okay, but nothing too exciting. But, Daehaeng Kun Sunim added a half sentence translation of this in Korean. When we first translated this, we expressed it as, “The profound ability with me is awakened not by words but by the determination to save all beings,” the last part being from the Korean word “Great saving ability.” Kun Sunim accepted that translation, but it always bugged me a bit, itching in the back of my mind.

[Warning: Geeky translation thoughts. Feel free to skip! Lol.] Part of the problem with this expression was it’s circular nature (if done wrong) “The ability with me is awakened by some other ability.” No. That would be saying that some other ability is responsible for awakening my own ability? Just ‘no’ to that translation. So what is this “Great saving ability”, or as we said, determination to save all beings?

Aside from just wanting to, what it takes is actually becoming one with them! You have to become one with them, combining them with the energy of your fundamental mind, in order for that energy to respond to their needs. And in order to save any one or thing, and guide them in a positive direction, it’s the same: we have to become one them. We have to combine with them through this fundamental mind we all share, then that energy can connect with them, and with us.

When we “Let go and entrust,” we’re taking our hands off the situation, and turning it over to our foundation. We do this while responding as best we can, and as the situation seems to require, but we give our foundation a chance to work on it.

The profound ability within me is awakened not by words,
but by the determined effort to become one with everything I encounter.

The next paragraph describes the results of this effort.

I and my true self, together as one.
At this stage freely coming and going without a trace,
able to apply great unshakable wisdom,
using it without the least hindrance, as vast as an ocean.
Truly understand what this means.

이 소리는 나와 내가 같이
이 경지에 오고 감이 없이 부동지의 큰 지혜를 굴리어
걸림 없이 굴리어 큰 바다와 같으니 진정 그 뜻을 알라.

There’s so much to explore in those two lines, and so much about nonduality and the energy of our connection with everything. In many ways, I think this two line verse sums up the essence of spiritual practice, or at least how we can grow and reach new dimensions. Try it for yourself and see what you think!

Just take your next step

It’s hard to emphasize just how important the following topic is. It really is the key to everything. Overcoming your fears, finding your path forward, and dealing with situations where a decent outcome seems impossible. (A couple of sentences have been lightly summarized.)

When children first begin to walk, they go forward recklessly, don’t they? There are no worries about falling, they just slap their foot down and giggle happily as they try it again and then again.

On the other hand, adults get so worried about the outcomes, that taking the next step becomes a struggle. This is why I’m always saying that the thoughts we give rise to are so critical. Those thoughts manifest in the world around us, according to how we’ve given rise to and sustained them. And according to them, we’re ruined or we flourish. So how we give rise to thoughts and handle those already arisen is so critical.

Regardless of how the situation appears to you, regardless of what you think is possible, this fundamental mind we have can freely function in any way possible. When you give rise to a thought, this nondual, fundamental mind begins to function accordingly, and that functioning comes out into the world, and naturally moves towards the most suitable outcome.

At the level of our fundamental mind, “big” and “small” are not two. You need to keep entrusting everything, good and bad, so that you can freely use your mind from this place of oneness.

어린애를 낳아 놓으면, 처음 걸음마를 배울 때 발자국을 떼어 놓기 위해서 천방지축 걸어가죠. 그럴 때 그 어린애가 ‘내가 가다가 넘어지면 어쩌나, 내가 낭떠러지에 떨어지면 어쩌나?’ 하지는 않겠죠. 아무 생각 없이, 오직 내가 발걸음을 떼어 놓는다는 기쁨에만 그냥 뗄 뿐이죠. 그런 반면에 우리 인간 자체는 살아가면서 항상 ‘낭떠러지에 떨어지면 어쩌나, 잘못돼서 넘어지면 어쩌나, 구덩이에 빠지면 어쩌나, 잘못되면 식구가 다 죽을 텐데….’ 하는 생각 때문에 한 발짝도 떼어 놓지 못하는 경향이 많다고 봅니다.

그러나 그렇게 돼서는 안 되죠. 마음이 우선입니다. 마음이 우선적이기 때문에 내 마음으로 인해서 바깥으로 작용이 나오고, 작용이 나오면 바로 어떠한 경계가 완전히 나타나죠. 망하든지 흥하든지 말입니다. 그렇기 때문에 그 마음 씀씀이가 얼마나 중요한지 모릅니다. 항상 이런 말도 하죠. ‘더하고 덜함도 없는 그 가운데서 바로 자유스럽게 쓰는 그 마음씨가 있기 때문에 행동이 나오고, 행동이 나오기 때문에 현실에 적합한 모든 것이 다 이루어진다.’ 하고요. 그래서 ‘크고 작은 것이 둘이 아니다. 둘 아닌 가운데에 내 마음이 스스로 자재할 수 있는 능력을 가져야만이 할 수 있다.’는 얘기죠.

It doesn’t end like this

I’ve been thinking about what next to post here, having run through nearly all of the best parts of the ceremonies, and I decided to put up bits last week’s online Dharma talk. This was a video of a Dharma talk Daehaeng Kun Sunim gave on December 5, 1993. This part below was from the very end of the talk.

(Daehaeng Kun Sunim chuckling) Don’t think that our time together (for the Dharma talk) has just come to an end. We are always connected to each other, functioning as a vast, incredible whole. Don’t forget this!

허허허…. 이렇게 마쳤다고 생각하지 마시고요, 항상 찰나찰나 우리는 같이 이어져서 연결되고 돌아가고 있고, 아주 광대무변하게 돌아가고 있다는 사실을 아셔야 합니다.

Temple building as spiritual practice – an interview with Hye Yeon Sunim

Opening the new gate to the Tongyeong Seon Center! There are more photos at the end of this article.

An interview with Hye Yeon Sunim of the Hanmaum Seon Center at Tongyeong, South Korea

I chose this interview because it’s a good example of what Daehaeng Kun Sunim called “Running while practicing, and practicing while running.” Here, the “running” is taking care of the things that come up in your life, not jogging (lol.)

Sometimes, when speaking of spiritual practice, it takes on tones (perhaps unconsciously) of sitting quietly in the mountains or going on retreats. While these things aren’t in themselves a problem, and can give us a chance to see attachments we were unaware of, there can be an implication of “my Buddha nature exists over there, when I do that.”

When Daehaeng Kun Sunim first started trying to reach out to people in the early 1960s, Korea was desperately poor. Everyone had to work hard just to eat that day, and in the midst of that, she met many people with the attitude of “I can’t practice and awaken. I have to take care of my family.” “I’m already married, it’s too late for me.” “I’m too old and weak.” “I’m just a woman.” “I’m an unenlightened being, what can I do?”

And yet in all these people, she saw the same Buddha-nature shining forth. So to see people with this great light within them, saying they didn’t have it or couldn’t do anything to live in accord with it was a bit jaw-dropping. So she focused her teaching on getting people to rely upon the light that was already within them, and to work on entrusting this with whatever came up in their life, while they went and did their best to handle the situation, working and sweating to do the best job possible with what they had.

In this way the could become aware of this light for themselves, apply it’s energy to the things in their lives, and as they did this, they would also learn how to go further and deeper on their own.

* * * * * *

The Tongyeong center is quite beautiful, set in a strange, wonderful bowl on top of a mountain. It’s one of the most amazing sites I’ve seen in Korea, but the construction process was long and difficult. The Center made the first purchases of land 14 years ago, and started construction 5 years ago, after Daehaeng Kun Sunim had passed away. Hye Yeon Sunim is the founder of the temple, and has guided the construction from the very beginning. This interview appeared in the 2018 January-February issue of Hanmaum Journal (#97).

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Hye Yeon Sunim (center)

Hanmaum Journal: What was your motivation in deciding to build a traditional style temple?

Hye Yeon Sunim:  Well, the laymembers and the sunims always had the idea that a larger, more traditional temple would be nice. However the real impetus came the fact that the center was located in a Korean-style office/shopping building. Kun Sunim’s teachings are wonderful and beyond anything else in the world, but few people were coming to the temple, because it didn’t look like a temple. (These style of buildings are quite common in Korean cities, and will have everything from restaurants, cell phone stores, photo studios, and cram schools to day care centers. It’s common to find hair salons, beauty schools, piano schools, paduck(go) clubs, and even churches and temples, all in the same building. — translator)

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That always felt like a shame, but building a traditional temple building isn’t easy. Then, someone mentioned finding a section of land for sale that they said was quite nice. I went and visited, and it was perfect! Although it was a wonderful location, I was intimidated at the same time. It would have been an almost unimaginable undertaking to find the money for the land and construction, and then to undertake both.

While I was up in Anyang, and visiting Kun Sunim, I told her about the situation. Someone brought in a snack of a type of fried potato pancake made with mushrooms called jeon, and she kept offering me some. I couldn’t refuse, but to tell you the truth, I’ve always hated mushrooms. But here was Kun Sunim personally offering me food, so I ate the mushroom pancakes.

Later, I realized that she was teaching me to take whatever arose, and fully chew and eat it unconditionally. I resolved to move forward with the construction.

Continue reading “Temple building as spiritual practice – an interview with Hye Yeon Sunim”

Following the Fragrance of One Mind – An Interview with Chong Go Sunim

Continuing the last week’s theme of interviews, lol, here’s an interview with me that was published in the last issue of Hanmaum Journal. Thurday’s interview will be with Hye Yon Sunim, founder of the Tongyeong branch, whose pictures we saw last week.

Hanmaum Journal: How did you first encounter Kun Sunim’s teachings?

I happened to be reading my university newspaper, when I spotted an announcement for a Dharma talk by a Korean “Zen” master. Reading the short description of the talk, something felt good about it, so I decided to go. It was a summer Ohio day, which meant it was hot and humid. Really humid! So I dressed  in the usual attire of American Buddhist groups on a summer day: a dark t-shirt and dark shorts. And of course I was wearing sandals and no socks (laughs).

When I arrived, the Seon Center was full of Korean men wearing their best suits with polished leather shoes, and the women wearing colorful hanbok, with their hair professionally done up! It would have been hard to feel more underdressed! I had no idea how formal Koreans treated a visiting Seon master. That was the other thing: I was expecting somebody fierce and tough looking, but instead saw a warm, friendly, older nun sitting on the back porch, looking completely relaxed.

The Dharma talk, too, seemed very relaxed. It flowed without any of the intense posturing I was used to with Japanese Dharma talks, and I wondered if the speaker was really a Zen master. “Entrust everything,” “Don’t be deceived by the karmic recordings of states of consciousness that we all carry around,” seemed to be the main points, though there was some awkwardness with the translation, on top of which I’d never even imagined anything like the last part, so I really didn’t understand much of what she was saying.

Then, in the middle of the talk, Daehaeng Kun Sunim said, “You have to search within!” Ah! That meant something. That really struck home, and allowed me to see mistakes I’d been making with my practice.

The weird thing was, when I looked at that video two years later, I couldn’t find that part. At first I thought it must have been left out in the editing process, but I watched the video again, and couldn’t find any signs of cuts or edits. Yet I clearly heard her say that.

I thought about what she said all week, and looked forward to seeing Kun Sunim again the next Saturday, but when I arrived at the center, I discovered that she had left for the Chicago center on the previous Wednesday.

Something had touched me though, and I continued to go the Seon Center even though I depended upon someone to translate for me. It happened that the lady who lived across the hall from me was Korean and a Buddhist, so I gave her rides to the center. One day I commented that it must be nice knowing Korean, because then she could understand everything that Daehaeng Kun Sunim was saying in her videos. She got a little shy and said, “Well, actually, even though I know Korean, I don’t really understand most of what she’s talking about!” We both laughed, and little by little, I came to understand that these teachings of deeper things aren’t understood through words. Or at least, not words alone.

You have to have an interest or experiences, and then the words can connect. The words connect with what you already have, and then show you new ways of understanding that, and new ways of how to put that into practice. And to keep going forward, growing and experiencing, you have to work at applying what you’ve gleaned from the teachings. We have to be putting it into practice, and looking for new ways to do so. If we keep trying to do the same thing over and over, we won’t grow.

We have to try to let go more thoroughly. We have to try to break through that next layer of fixed ideas that we don’t see. That layer is so close that we can’t see it. Daehaeng Kun Sunim’s teaching of “Die and die again!” is so helpful with this. “Dying” is such a good way of describing what it takes to get past these fixed ideas, to break them up. We have to utterly let go of everything: What I know, what I don’t know, what I’m feeling, every single thing. The ordinary, daily stuff doesn’t matter much – it’s the really subtle, old ways of viewing things that are hard to see and hard to let go of.

Hanmaum Journal: How did you understand Kun Sunim’s teachings?

          Both through translators, and later as I began to learn Korean. Sometimes, it felt like I was understanding Kun Sunim through this connection we share with all beings, but I suspect that’s limited by my own ability to understand her. I’m really grateful to all the sunims who translated for me during those early years.

          It’s kind of a shame, because now I feel like I could understand her so much better, and yet can’t ask her questions like we could then. Though, to be honest, it wasn’t easy for us to see her even then. I suspect that even sunims only got to see her if their situation was urgent, and then it seemed to just happen. Though of course, there was no “just” about it. Kun Sunim knew when someone needed to see her and made it happen. I was fortunate though, in that I sometimes got to go with her on her early morning walk along with a few other sunims.

Hanmaum Journal: Is there a memory of those that really sticks out?

Let’s see…, most of the time we never tried to actually ask Kun Sunim something. If it was the day after a Dharma talk, she was usually tired, but would start speaking if we asked her something. That said, sometimes, she knew exactly what we were thinking and would start talking about it anyway!

I don’t remember what led up to it, but one day she was talking about disasters in the world. It was a bit disturbing to be honest. I think someone asked her why things like that happened, and she was very quiet for a bit. The silence actually felt heavy, to where everyone was a bit uncomfortable. Then, in a quiet voice she said it was like a factory. If the product that the factory was making is defective, they’ll throw away an entire production run. Like the old potters, if the pots had flaws after the firing process, they’d break them on the scrap pile.

I’ve thought about that this year, with all we’ve gone through with covid. I certainly don’t know the truth of it, but sometimes, I wonder if there is some energy, some knot created by how people have been using their minds, that has to be resolved, and it’s being doing through covid, instead of something like a world war. So of all the possible ways that could happen, covid might be the least painful way. I suppose it’s better than a huge war.

It seems like something that can only be truly solved by enough people raising their spiritual level. Especially when I see how some people in the US are reacting to requirements for masks or vaccinations. Because the other problem we have in this world is global warming, right? If we’re going to do anything about that, then we really have to raise our spiritual level as much as possible.

This past summer, there was a stray cat that sometimes wandered through our yard. When she first came through, she had five kittens. Later, she only had three. And the last time I saw her, there was only one skinny kitten with her. My heart broke so much seeing that. Even though I put out food, it didn’t seem to help much.

Watching her sit there, I thought about her situation a lot. What could she (or any of us) do to improve her situation? She was a cat. The only way out of that cycle was to entrust everything to her foundation. To take what she was confronting and feeling, and combine that with the energy of our one mind. Then it will become something that functions at a deeper level than habits and instinct. And, as her capacity changed, she’d have a chance for a different role. If she didn’t entrust her circumstances to her foundation, they would just repeat that situation again and again.

We have to entrust what we’re facing to our foundation. Then it can dissolve. Then we can have the capacity for a different role. If we’ve already been trying to live according to the principles of higher levels of existence, then it’s much more likely that we will have a chance for a role like that.

It’s like what a Master Sergeant explained to me about promotions in the Korean army: they look at people who are already trying to learn the skills of the next higher rank. If they have a choice between someone who is happy just repeating the job of a corporal, versus a corporal who’s learning what it takes to be a sergeant, and trying to practice those skills, then they give the promotion to the soldier who’s already trying to apply those skills. Of course, in spiritual practice, there’s no one else who gives anything to us, but perhaps it’s like we clear the snow in front of ourselves, and create room for us to move. I don’t know how to express it.

I wish everyone could have met Daehaeng Kun Sunim and spent time with her. I suppose you had to have practiced on your own to be able to notice it, but there was a great energy around her. It was warm and all embracing. Like everything was included, and was okay. It’s like everything about her was moving in harmony with the whole, and when I was next to her, I was pulled along with that.

There was also a tiny sense of fear, in that I didn’t want to disappoint this great potential I felt from her. Because it wasn’t her potential, really, it was me seeing my own potential, I think. It was seeing how wonderful and all-inclusive each one of us can become. It was seeing what it truly means to be a human being.

Hye Hong Sunim – Interview, part 3

Practicing Even More Diligently Than When My Teacher Was Here – Part Three

An interview with Hye Hong Sunim of the Washington DC Hanmaum Seon Center. This is part 3 of 3. This interview first appeared in Hanmaum Journal, in issue #78, November/December 2014.

Sharing Kun Sunim’s Teachings with the World

Daehaeng Kun Sunim once said, “My teachings have to go abroad before they can find a home in Korea,” but I’ve tended to think a lot about the “going abroad” half of things. There are a lot of different ways of making her teachings available to people outside of Korea, but I’d guess that books and mass media would probably be the most effective. Along those lines, she said to come up with something that could be used as a college textbook.

The Hanmaum International Culture Institute has been working to publish translations of her books abroad, but I wonder if we could do things like the temple stay program we’ve had with English teachers from the Fulbright program. Many of them return to their countries without having much interest in Kun Sunim’s teachings, but there are some who stay in touch and ask for advice about how to apply these teachings to the things going on in their lives.

This is just a small example of this, but one person who was going to Harvard was curious if their library had any of Kun Sunim’s books, and when she realized that they didn’t, she started looking into how she could donate books to their library. People at other universities have done the same thing.

If we want to help spread Kun Sunim’s teachings in Korea by also spreading them overseas, then it would seem like working with foreigners already in Korea would be a perfect opportunity. Small beginning lead to big things. The temple stay program at the Gwangmyeong Seon Center for the Fulbright teachers happened because of two Fulbright teachers who happened to wander in to our Jeju center. Just that one little connection had a huge impact.

It turned out that when the Fulbright teachers first come to Korea, they receive six weeks of training in teaching methods and Korean culture, and at that time, they were doing it at a university just a short drive from our Gwangmyeong Seon Center. When we offered to do a temple stay program for them, around 50 of the 70 students were interested in participating.

So we developed a 2 day program with sessions about the basics of life in a temple, history, meditation, the daily ceremonies, meals, and other arts and crafts related activities. The reaction was quite positive, with people interested in a winter program as well. We’ve had it every summer since, but there’s always a bit of uncertainty because the Fulbright program itself is always changing. That said, it’s always been a wonderful experience for even the sunims, and I hope we can do more things like this.

One of the things I remember Daehaeng Kun Sunim emphasizing when I became a sunim was that she wanted us to learn to drive, use computers, and speak English, because as she said, those were all skills a person needed to fully function in the modern world. At the time, her words didn’t really sink in, and I soon forgot about them. Then I started to meet the Fulbright teachers and had to speak with them in English. Now, I’m studying English much more diligently than I ever did when I was in school! (Laughs.) That said, I think it’s more important than ever that we as sunims work to spread Kun Sunim’s teachings in the greater world.

Take Your Inner Light as Your Guide

          To be honest, I was reluctant to give this interview, because I feel like I have so many shortcomings. But then the thought suddenly arose, “But it’s not about putting ‘Me’ forward, is it?” Every truth and principle is rolled up in that: There is no fixed, unchanging thing or aspect. It’s all flowing and changing.

Even though I’m speaking here today, in another instant, I’m someone else. The person people are reading about is already gone. Whatever we see, whatever we hear, everything we think about others – if we can just let go of that as soon as possible, then misunderstandings disappear, bad feeling disappear, conflicts that might grow into hatreds disappear, enemies disappear, and we can instead live brightly and freely.

This is true for those within our families, as well as those we don’t even meet in person. If we can use our minds like this, then all our connections with other people become better, and the world itself becomes brighter.

When I think about Daehaeng Kun Sunim, I often find myself crying. Despite this, I probably miss Kun Sunim less than the sunims at Anyang who got to see her every day. I think that’s because I always had a sense of connection to her, even though I was far away. And that sense of connection hasn’t changed. But, when I read her teachings and think about them, I’m struck by how profound they are, and that I always have such a teacher within me, and then the tears start.

What Kun Sunim said about having to take our inner light as our guide really stuck with me, and Kun Sunim’s Dharma talks show me how to better do that. So I find myself reading them more than I did when she was physically here. I spend more time pondering them and reflecting on what she taught about how to understand myself, the world, and how to fully live as a human being.

I hope that no one will think that spiritual practice has become harder now that Kun Sunim isn’t here. The past and the present are exactly the same. Nothing has changed. There’s no difference in spiritual practice. Things only seem different because in the past, Kun Sunim was spreading a big net, gathering people and holding large events. Now all of those people have settled down. They know what they need to do, and are quietly getting on with it. Because things are more quiet, they seem different, but nothing fundamental has changed.

It all comes down to you doing the practice. To you working at relying upon your foundation and entrusting with what’s confronting you. Perhaps there’s a sense that we have to work harder than when Kun Sunim was sitting next to us, but even then, everything came down to us doing the practice. I hope you will all work hard and taste the experiences that arise from your efforts. Thank you.

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.