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.

Ride the Clouds with All Buddhas!

Pagoda at the site of the hut where Daehaeng Kun Sunim practiced for many years in the 1960s, in the Chiak Mountains

This is a Dharma song written by Daehaeng Kun Sunim. It doesn’t speak much about how to practice (that’s in other songs), but instead speaks more of the beauty of freeing ourselves from the habits we’ve been dwelling in. Rather than me talking about what’s there for everyone to see, just read it through a couple of times, slowly letting it sink within you.

The one mind of all Buddhas

The one mind of all Buddhas,
shining through the dark night
the moon.
This captain,
carrying an oceanful of moonlight,
ceaselessly travels through all realms,
brightly coaxing forward, forward,
all the quietly sleeping minds.

So many different one minds,
have freed themselves
from the habits and attachments of this fleshy container,
and ride the clouds with all Buddhas,
all together,
working, sharing, helping.

The one mind of all Buddhas,
breaking through the darkness
rising like the sun.
This captain,
carrying a worldful of sunlight,
ceaselessly traveling throughout all realms,
raising and nurturing every kind of being
under the heavens
and throughout the earth.

All grow in harmony with one mind,
freeing themselves from the habits
and attachments of this body,
one with all Buddhas,
free as the wind,
sharing, helping, dancing,
together as one.

제불의 한마음

제불의 한마음은
어두운 저녘을 비쳐주는 달님처럼
한바다에 가득 찬 달빛을 싣고
끝없이 도는 선장은
고요히 잠든 마음들 속을
밝게 이끄시니 이끄시니

천차만별의 한마음들은
육신통을 벗어나
제불과 함께 구름타고
놀았노라 놀았노라

제불의 한마음은
응달진 아침을 밝혀주는 해님처럼
한누리를 가득히 햇빛을 싣고
끝없이 도는 선장은
산하 대지에 만물만생을 길러 내시니
한마음 따라 길러지는데
육신 몸을 벗어나
제불과 함께 바람따라
놀았노라 놀았노라

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).

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)


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”