Hwansan Sunim meshes meditation, modernity

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Hwansan Sunim meshes meditation, modernity


Hwansan Sunim at Yonghwa Temple in Incheon, where he lives. By Kwon Hyeok-jae

Jung Sun-young, a 26-year-old office worker, goes to a broadcast studio in Seocho, southern Seoul, at least once a month for the filming of “Hwansan Sunim: Seon Meditation for the Modern World.”

The graduate of Korea University said she keeps coming back because the teachings of Harvard-educated Hwansan Sunim (monk) helped her balance schoolwork and social activities. She is not a Buddhist and does not see herself converting.

“There were times I was depressed because I didn’t know how to deal with my life and how to mingle with others,” Jung says. “Then the sunim gave me practical advice that I can actually apply right to my situation.

“I’m not religious, but I keep coming to hear him talk.”

Although the studio at the Buddhist TV Network (BTN) in Seoul seats only 30 or so, the teachings reach a far larger audience. The program episodes on YouTube are regularly seen by people in Korea and elsewhere who are looking for practical advice to make their lives more manageable. An American couple was in the studio audience last week, and the husband hugged the sunim after the show.

The Korean-American sunim barely knew Korean culture or the language until he moved here after college. Nonetheless, he has become an internationally known proponent of the teachings of Korean Buddhism and helps people all over the world experience meditation, known as Seon.

“Meditating is a way of responding to stimuli,” Hwansan Sunim told the Korea JoongAng Daily last week.

"It is a way of handling and regulating the stimuli to find your balance and your way through them. That’s what it means to use meditation to live.”

The 49-year-old sunim dedicated 25 years to practicing meditation and restricting contact with the outside world. He believes meditating can be a calming influence that allows practitioners to make better decisions.

Curiosity: meditation’s messenger

A few years after he graduated from Harvard University, Hwansan Sunim was ordained as a monk at Yonghwa Temple in Incheon in 1990.

He is known for his pragmatism, favoring the incorporation of meditation into a daily routine. Seon’s unique simultaneousness of meditation is his message.

Hwansan Sunim’s programs feature themes such as “When we fight with the ones we love,” “Coping with addictive behavior” and “What to do when your heart aches.”

Q. What was it like to talk in front of the public for the first time in 25 years?

A. In terms of becoming publicly visible, it was something that I had been taught to refuse and shun. So, initially, it didn’t come naturally to me. But I wanted these teachings to be available to the general modern public, to benefit ordinary people.

How do you feel about being called a Harvard-educated sunim?

I get it, it’s a human interest story. But I don’t want to make it too much about me, about where I come from, where I went to school and those things. I understand I have an unusual background, and, of course, people always want to know who the messenger is, not just the message. I understand the reality of the situation. But ultimately it’s the message that is important. So I do feel a certain amount of caution in doing this and a certain amount of pressure to do it well. I feel responsible.

After you were ordained, you went back to the United States to get a master’s degree in psychology. Why go back there to study the subject?

At the time, I was experiencing conflicts between what I had learned in my education in the United States and what I was being taught at the temple. There were two completely different traditions of knowledge and two completely different ways of looking at the world. Modern education would imply that religion is unconfirmed, unscientific and a subjective way of thinking, and the religious would say the world is materialistic, unspiritual and shallow. So the cultures were a little bit hostile to each other, although they are equally parts of my personality.

I felt I needed a way to harmonize these two. I didn’t think that in order to be religious or spiritual, you had to reject all scientific achievement in the past, or that in order to be scientific, you must reject all possibilities of spiritual awakening. To me, that doesn’t make sense. Since it is the human mind that produces both traditions, I felt as though I needed to do something.


Left: Hwansan Sunim, right, walks with his teacher Songdam, a master who inspired him to be ordained as a sunim. Right: Hwansan Sunim talks with college friend Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank, early this year at Incheon International Airport. Provided by Yonghwa Temple

What made you study religion?

I questioned why we were born, what is a human being, are weflesh and blood or is there some dimension of our existence beyond that, what happens after we die and what we are capable of. I asked those questions when I was very young. They seem to me “the” issues.

You could have become a scholar who studies different theories to find your answers. Why did you decide to be ordained?

I wasn’t looking for philosophical answers. I wanted to experience the truth of things, the reality of things. Having theoretical and philosophical answers didn’t help me because it was just putting a name on it. You actually want to taste life, experience life. I don’t think it’s just me. What I think people want is self-transformation, actuation to become finally what they are meant to be. That I don’t think you could do through books.

As you meditate, have you resolved your questions?

Those questions I have boiled down to one, “What is it within me that generates thoughts?” Modern science says it’s the brain. But then the brain is a composite structure, made of smaller things like nerve cells. When you look at nerve cells, you break those down to organic molecules’ atoms, and it goes on endlessly.

And yet, we are aware there is consciousness. What is it within us that is aware? That is the one question we don’t know. If we know what we are, then we would know why we are born, what we are supposed to do, what we can do, what we can become and what may happen to us. So it is the one question I realized that is the object of my meditation.

Meeting Seon master Songdam

When he was 22, Hwansan Sunim came to Korea in 1987 after finishing college to meet Seon master Songdam, who was known for having kept 10 years of silence.

After Hwansan met the master, he began to think that he wanted to learn what the master knew. Although he went back to the United States to live, he said he had to come back to Korea and become a sunim.

What was it like to meet him for the first time?

I’m often asked this question, and it’s so hard to describe. I felt very strongly that he was enlightened and that he had become a different kind of human being through his spiritual practice. I became a sunim in order to learn from him. I wanted to become his disciple.

What changed when you went back to the United States after you met with the master?

I realized it was actually true that human beings are capable of enlightenment, which is something I have read in spiritual books. I returned to the U.S. and tried to live my life the way it was before, but it just wasn’t the same.

When you know that there is another higher thing, suddenly the things you used to like aren’t as good. I could live comfortably if I wanted to, but it felt very meaningless and empty.

What was the major lesson the master focused on?

He always taught us to study meditation every moment you live. He said, “If you meditate in a quiet place, you can’t meditate anymore when it gets noisy. If you learn how to meditate in a complicated, noisy place, then you can meditate anywhere.”

How much have you learned from the 87-year-old master as his secretary and disciple for the past 12 years?

I’m still pursuing the same goal [to be enlightened]. The thing is that enlightenment is not considered as the final destination point. It’s the beginning of your real life.

How is the Korean way of meditation different from meditation practiced by Buddhists in other countries?

I can only talk from the point of the view of meditation because I’m not a Buddhist scholar. So to put it into one word, it’s movable. It’s portable. If you have a form of meditative practices that require peace, time and a separate space for, then that meditative practice cannot be directly applied to the things you are suffering from in your life, because you have to get out of your life to practice.

The Korean form is unique in that you can bring it into any situation. The more distressed you are, the more turmoil there is, the more need there is to apply it directly in the moment. You can do it on the bus, you can do it in the bathroom and you can do it in the middle of an argument.

Why did Korean meditation develop in such a way?

There is a tendency within Korea to compact everything into one. And Koreans have always been busy. So whether farming or running the country, it makes sense that Koreans go out and develop a form of meditation that is highly flexible.

Are teaching materials related to Seon meditation available?

There is not much. Basic texts have been translated, but even so, compared to Tibetan Buddhism or Japanese Buddhism in terms of generating the texts and resources for the general public and not professional scholars, Korean Buddhism is still very much in an early stage of exposure. This may be the first time this form of meditation has been presented at this level of detail.

Learning while teaching

In addition to his televised teachings, he meets with students at Seoul National University and Korea University once a week. He also plans to make more regular commitments to stay close to the public through smaller group seminars and books.

What did you learn from meeting with college students?

They ask me questions about their concerns, about the world and life. They wonder about the cost of having to compete so hard just to live and what kind of people they will become. They ask, “How far do I have to go?” and “Do I really have to hurt other people just so I can make a decent living and live a dignified life?”

Why are they concerned?

People think of a salary, a promotion and a title when they think of success or accomplishment. Instead, we should measure success based on commitment. Success can be measured by whether you live fully or are fully occupied. Then, we don’t need to get a sense of success from someone else, we don’t need to hear the sound of applause. The crucial alternative here is to create happiness without possessions and positions. You can’t tell people to stop wanting things. What you can do is to provide another way of reducing suffering and increasing happiness that isn’t so destructive.

How do you choose your message?

I choose topics that come up in my conversations. People ask me questions. If enough people are asking me the same question and if it is a widespread concern, that’s my topic. Every single topic I’ve used on the program is something I picked up in these kinds of interactions. I did an entire program for prisoners in the United States after I was contacted by an American man who teaches meditation to prisoners. When he played my program, the response was huge, apparently, and using his words, he said teachings are like the food for starving men. So I dedicated a program to them.

You are good friends with Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank. What do you talk about?

He has a remarkable vision on humanity’s future and potential. Since he was a young man, he took it upon himself to address the problem of world poverty. His vision was far-reaching enough and he said to me, even if we eradicate poverty and war, cure all diseases and remove all inequality, so long as we don’t change, we will create those problems again. His interest in meditation is that we need to find a way to elevate human consciousness so we will not act so self-destructively. And he believes meditation is a part of the solution, not the entire solution. I agree with him on that point. That is also my hope for meditation. We are not all going to pursue enlightenment, but we can be smart enough to use meditation to eradicate our most destructive tendencies. That, I think, is definitely doable. That’s where our conversation takes place.

*The next recording of Hwansan Sunim’s teachings for BTN is 7 p.m. May 9 at the BTN studio in Seocho, southern Seoul. For more information, call (010) 5299-3670 or email cyuhwa@naver.com.

BY LEE SUN-MIN [summerlee@joongang.co.kr]

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