Living in Zen: An Interview with the Venerable Chong An Sunim


Painter and freelance writer Gaby Berglund Cardenas recently spoke with Chong An Sunim, a Hungarian monk who visited Busan and whom she met twice during her meditation and Buddhist studies. According to Cardenas, who was raised Catholic, she was interested in other religions and philosophies because, “After all, in the international environment where we live, knowing about people’s different views will only help us to be more tolerant, which is the biggest gift we can teach our kids through our expat experience.”

Cardenas says that she has found many answers in Buddhism during meditation practice, which in return helps her not only to balance her career as a painter with a family, but also with life questions.

Chong An Sunim entered the dharma in 1990, became monk in 1994 and then came to Korea, where he studied at Hwagyesa under the guidance of Zen Master Seung Sahn.

In 2000, he began his teaching career in Europe, then later in Asia and the USA. Today he is the Abbot of Won Kwang Sa temple, in Hungary, which is placed within five hectares of beautiful forest land in the Pilis Mountains. The temple offers retreats and courses for Zen training that is both traditionally Korean and distinctly Western.

The following is an interview following his visit to Busan.

There are many misconceptions about the word “meditation” that stop people from taking the next step and start learning about it. Many think it is about sitting quiet, no thinking or empty mind while in reality the practice of meditation is meant to help us “be awake” and find “truth”. Could you explain what to be “awake” and “truth” means?

First we need to see what it is that wakes up and sees the truth. The Zen path teaches that human beings have the intrinsic capability to wake up and perceive the truth. We call this Buddha Nature. When we see that we are subject to suffering, we ask questions: How we could avoid it? The answer is that we cannot. We can only transcend it if we see the cause and eradicate it. This process is called waking up and seeing the truth: life and death as they are and where they come from, what we can do with them and what we cannot.

Our dualistic mind creates illusions, lots of thoughts and emotions; notions of past, present, future, good, bad, life, death, etc. These are so commonly shared by most human beings, that we almost never ask any deep question where they come from. The Buddha not only asked that, but found the cause and the way to end suffering. To experience the state of non-duality, freedom from life and death, the tortuous states of ever-changing mind and body, we must return to our original nature, which is without thinking, emotions, any other dualistic notions, therefore, free from life and death. This is the mind that does not know, does not become anything, does not have built-in good and bad.

The path of returning to our original nature or true self is the path of awakening. If we meditate correctly, we can attain this. Then our minds become clear like space, clear like a mirror. Thus it is possible to see truth, speak correctly and do appropriate action to help other beings wake up.

It is simpler than it would fit any definition or intellectual framework. The sky is only blue, the clouds come and go… The trees are green and the dogs bark at the strangers. When somebody is hungry, give them food, when somebody is thirsty, give them drink. We call this the Bodhisattva path.

Most people live with an endless preoccupation about the future and the past and an unwillingness to honor the present moment and allow it to be. Mindfulness in every moment of our lives is one of the things we wish to accomplish with meditation practice and study of Buddhism. In Europe, psychologist, therapists, professional and life coaches are using today a similar approach to help their customers. Could you explain to us how we can be mindful every day, enjoy the present moment, now, and why this is so important?

Enjoyment and happiness seem all that most of us want, and very few of us actually get. What’s wrong? First, the very concept of enjoyment and happiness need clarification, let alone the identity who enjoys it or suffers the lack of it. Mostly, we are not insincere in our efforts to become happy but ignorant and selfish—and these are the impediments that hinder us to truly experience happiness.

When the mind wanders in projections, there can only be some projected happiness, which is never satisfactory. We want to believe that it is—and our wishful thinking always deceives us. Why then do all teachers talk about returning to this moment? Because this ‘here and now’ is the time and place where we can surrender to the experience itself, thus rid ourselves from the projections of past, present and future; good and bad, right and wrong; happiness and unhappiness.

Our dualistic mind creates illusions, lots of thoughts and emotions; notions of past, present, future, good, bad, life, death, etc. These are so commonly shared by most human beings, that we almost never ask any deep question where they come from.

But what really happens the moment we surrender? The moment we give up our projections or past, present and future?

The moment we give up all these dualistic ideas and projections, we become one with the universe. This is not some religious or new-age or psychological idea. Anyone can experience it. Just put it all down, right here, right now—and the painful, stilted, exhausting projection of your ego disappears—and you see, hear, taste, smell, touch, think, feel and act clearly. Then our isolation is over, and we can genuinely connect and associate with all beings. The experience is different from before: at the level of forms, we are different—at the level of our substance we are one.

This substance has no name, no form; thoughts and concepts cannot grasp it. It does not appear or disappear, it is never born and never dies. You cannot attain it with any action or technique. You can use techniques only to get rid of your karma, all your attachments, illusion and assumed, false identities. If you realize this, the illusion of your ego disappears, and you and the universe become one.

This oneness is what we are all looking for, but our habits masquerade it as something else—and as long as we have something sensory as the expected source of our absolute bliss, it will never happen. If we dare to give up all our ideas, we fully attain this moment. Then we are free to create, keep or take away—it is up to us how we want to live our lives.

Many people often live with anger, it’s hard to acknowledge it and it’s hard not to act, to remain still and silent, try to meditate, while our emotions are screaming at us. Anger fills us with edgy energy and makes us want to do something. Pop psychology tells us to work out hard, try some form of meditation, write a letter (which won’t be delivered) to our parents or the person who caused our anger, etc. What can you tell us about anger?

In brief: see it, acknowledge it, just don’t act it out. Yes, punch a sandbag if you have to. Kyong Ho Sunim, our Patriarch whose 100-year Nirvana celebration was last Spring, used to say, “One moment of anger raises ten million vicious sins.” How do we prevent this from happening? First, we have to see that anger is just like desire, only polarity changes, and sometimes very quickly.

Why are love and death so closely connected, though we’d rather believe that love has a stronger connection to life? Death can be a quick aftermath of love’s labor lost, and a crime of heart comes with just one shift in the mind: “If I cannot love you, I’ll kill you,”or, “If you do not love me, I will kill myself.” Both sentences come from the quick shift from absolute love, extreme attachment to total destruction. The relationship may not have been at the brink of collapse, but some people envision it so strongly that they make it happen.

What can we do about anger? Just like with desire: stop and look into it. From Ganhwa Seon to Dzogchen, Vipassana and various forms of Satsang, the method boils down to the same old technique: stop the mind from running its own habit-formed circles, make it clear, and look into it: Where does this come from? Where does my anger come from? Where does my desire come from? What is this substance which gives birth to all these energies as well as want to absorb them?

If we choose the path of direct insight, we can get to the point of no appearance and no disappearance, whereby this moment becomes lucid and clear, and we have transcended all our dualistic karma. Then we are free—but watch out not to fall back to the same habits, which is easier said than done.

Most Haps readers are expats who move here for a job contract that soon becomes undetermined. Some are teachers, busy executives or their wives used to having careers back home; busy lives and very little time for themselves. The challenges of moving to a new country can bring up lots of issues of the past, worries about the future and a certain restlessness and emptiness that could make them wonder about their identities and roles in life. Also, how do we deal with the pain of friends leaving town? It’s our never ending story. What about worrying too much? How can Zen meditation help these expats?

Zen teaches you how to be a peaceful warrior: Master your own emotions and thoughts, and use them to help all beings. Worry, pain, self-pity—they are all mechanisms that support the idea of a separate self, and cannot essentially change anything. Try to worry about the earth going too close to the sun. Try to worry about the rivers flowing down to the sea, or the birds flying too high. No one in their right mind would accept these as reasons to put yourself under stress.

If the universe follows the same law with every single being, every time, every place, what use is there for worrying about anything and anyone? The warrior does not worry about the war. He fights it. So, don’t worry about life. Live it—and when it is time to die, go without regrets, hopes or fears. Effort and experience will show you how to exert yourself correctly; how, when and with whom you should ally yourself to get the desired result: the extension of a work contract or the non-relocation of a friend who may as well stay.

Try hard, but not for yourself—this is one good prescription not to fall into depression when something does not work out in the way you wanted to. If you only do something for yourself, you have failed even before the result appears. If you make an effort to help others, you win in the long run, no matter how many small battles you may have lost.

Coming and going—do not attach to them. We need to learn to say our hellos and goodbyes, and cherish our life and loved ones while we can. Gain insight into the nature of life and death, appearance and disappearance—and help others to the extent you can. Life is just a blink of an eye—before you know it, it is over. Do not lose a single moment.

Si Seon Won Temple in Haeundae offers English classes on Saturdays starting September 2012. It’s located on the 11th floor of the Songkang Building 1327-5 Jwa-2 dong, next to the Sin Gok Post Office and the McDonalds, near Paik University Hospital. Call them at 051-746-7611 or, for English service, contact Jin Shin at 010-7179-4042.



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