Dennis Wholey interviews Hyon Gak Sunim

Venerable Hyon Gak Sunim (玄覺 指導法師) was born Paul Muenzen in 1964 to a family of devout Catholics in New Jersey, U.S.A. His mother is a PhD in biochemistry, and his father was an executive at a prominent American computer company, and later founded his own company. He has eight brothers and sisters. He was the Head Teacher of the Zen hall (禪院長) at 500 year-old Hwa Gye Sah Temple (華溪寺) in the Sam Gak Sahn Mountain (三角山) range, outside Seoul, South Korea. In August 2001, he received inka (印可), certifying his enlightenment, by Zen Master Seung Sahn (崇山大禪 師), the 78th Patriarch (祖師) in a lineage stretching back to Shakyamuni Buddha.

Educated in philosophy and literature at Yale University (Class of 1987) and comparative religions at Harvard Divinity School (’92), Ven. Hyon Gak Sumin was ordained in 1992 in the temple of the Sixth Patriarch, Nam Hwa Sah Temple (南華寺) on Chogye Mountain (曺溪山), in Guangzhou (廣州), People’s Republic of China: he was the first Westerner to be ordained in China since the Communist Revolution. (The name he received from Zen Master Seung Sahn: “Hyon Gak” means“endlessly profound enlightenment.”). He received Bikkhu precepts (比丘戒) at the Diamond Altar (金剛戒檀) of Tong Do Sah Temple (通度寺) in Korea, one of the most sacred sites in the nation, and has been doing training in various remote mountain places, including 3 intensive 100-day solo retreats (單獨 百日 勇猛精進) and some 15 group 3-month intensive meditation retreats (安居).

He has compiled and edited several of Zen Master Seung Sahn’s books, including “The Whole World is a Single Flower” (Tuttle 1992) (世界一花), “The Compass of Zen” (禪의 羅 針盤) (Shambhala Publication 1997), “Only Don’t Know” (Shambhala, revised 1999), and “Wanting Enlightenment is a Big Mistake” (Shambhala 2006). He also translated the 500 year-old classic of So Sahn Dae Sa (西山大師): “The Mirror of Zen” (禪家龜鑑)(Shambhala 2007), into English for the first time.

Ven. Hyon Gak Sunim is also the author of the Korean bestseller, From Harvard to Hwa Gye Sah Temple, which has been one of the best-selling books in the Republic of Korea for the last five years. To date, it has sold over 1,000,000 copies, and translations are planned for Chinese and Japanese. It is a very personal, at times very humorous tale of his life in America, his fundamental questions about the nature of human existence haunting him from childhood through years of Catholic school education, through schooling in philosophy and literature at Yale and Harvard, to his becoming a monk under one of the leading Zen teachers of our time. The book is widely credited with leading a revival in interest in Korean Buddhism. He donated all of the royalties from this bestseller to his teacher, Great Zen Master Seung Sahn, to help build Mu Sang Sah Temple in Kye Ryeong Sahn Mountain (鷄龍山無上寺). Ven. Hyon Gak Sunim is also the editor or translator of several best-selling translations into Korean of Zen Master Seung Sahn’s English-language books.

As the Head Teacher of the Seoul International Zen Center at Hwa Gye Sah Temple ( 華溪寺 國際禪院 禪院長), he was Zen Master Seung Sahn’s official representative at the Head Temple. He led three-month intensive retreats (安居) twice annually, and ass much in demand as a public speaker throughout Korea, Asia, and many parts of the West. The former Buddhist Chaplain at Harvard University, Ven. Hyon Gak Sumin has given public talks at Harvard University, Yale University, Oxford University, Columbia University, New York University, Brown University, Universite de Paris, University of
London, among many others, in addition to colleges, divinity schools, and countless temples throughout Korea.
Recently he has attempted to return to the mountains to deepen his enlightenment experience in solitude.

Venerable Hyon Gak Sunim beautifully explained about Buddhism, Zen and Mediation in general. Buddhism is so vast and it cannot be summarized or explained. It has to be experienced personally. If you watched the first clip, he is cross referencing Buddhism and Christianity. I am not eligible to comment much about Christianity so if any Christians happened to came across my blog, please read it with an open mind.

Quoting a few sentences from Ven. Hyon Gak Sunim:

1) Jesus said if you wanted to enter the kingdom of heaven, become as a child again

2) You have eyes but you dun see. You have ears but you dun hear. So all of our lives we seeing with our eyes, we are hearing with our ears,we are smelling with our nose but we are not part of that experience.

3) The mind is its own place and in itself can make a hell of heaven or heaven of hell (John Milton, Paradise Lost, 1966)

4) You shall know the truth and truth shall set you free.

Dennis Wholey started the interview by asking Venerable what is an American doing in Korea and being a monk. Ven. replied instantaneously to be seated there and talking to him. To me, this is a very simple and yet a deep example of what is zen all about. Zen to me is still quite a complex concept to me and I can’t comment on it much. Venerable keep talking about the Truth in the video. What is the Truth? In Buddhist context, we all know that the Dharma is the Truth. Through our own defilements and ignorance, the Truth can be placed in front of us and yet we can never fully understand it. Meditation goes hand in hand to deepen our insight and concentration and it will allow us to understand the Dharma deeper and deeper each time.


2 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Yeow Tang said,

    I see you have great revelation.

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