SAMU SUNIM CELEBRATES 40TH YEAR
Sujata Linda Klevnick,
In August of 1967, Samu Sunim arrived in New York City and founded the Son-Zen Lotus Society in a small apartment near Broadway. In early 1968 his karma brought him to Montreal, Canada, where I first met him when I was a student at McGill University. In 1972 he moved to Toronto. Right from the beginning Sunim wished to establish a Buddhist meditation community. Sunim attracted a few students and they worked hard. Those early years were difficult ones for Sunim marked by hardship, poverty and illness. Sunim lived in a shabby basement apartment in Toronto where he did personal retreat. When a few Korean Buddhist ladies discovered him, the basement became a temple where he conducted services and taught meditation. By1976 artists, musicians, students and dropouts came for meditation instruction in an unorganized way. Sunim encouraged community living and a series of houses were rented, first on St. Clarens, then Osler and Westminster. In 1979 with the combined effort of the Korean ladies and dedicated Canadian meditation students, a decrepit rooming house was purchased in Parkdale. In 1980 the Zen Lotus Society was incorporated as a non-profit religious organization. Over several years, the crumbling Victorian house at 46 Gwynne Avenue was completely renovated by the intense efforts of a lay monastic community of men, women and children living communally under a vow of poverty. Much support was received from the faithful Korean ladies. A regular schedule of services and meditations and retreats was held year round and a full-time training program for priests and dharma teachers was established. In 1981 an offshoot temple was founded in Ann Arbor, Michigan, organized on the same lines. The Ann Arbor temple has gradually developed into a thriving community of practitioners.
In 1983, Sunim made his first trip to Mexico and planted the seeds of a meditation group. It was then that he met some dedicated Mexican students, two of whom came for sustained training in Toronto.
The 1980s were busy years for Sunim. Under Sunim’s vision, the Society began to publish Spring Wind: Buddhist Cultural Forum, a non-sectarian publication for all Buddhists regardless of persuasion. Spring Wind sought articles from distinguished Buddhist teachers, scholars and artists, as well as lay practitioners. Sunim’s emphasis on Buddhist ecumenism was ahead of its time.
Another aspect of Sunim’s conviction of the vital need for Buddhists to know each other better, was his organizing of the first North American Zen Teachers Conference. In 1986, he invited the first generation of western Zen teachers to meet for six days at the Ann Arbor temple. The conference has been held annually at different centres since then.
In 1987 Sunim organized the Conference on World Buddhism in North America, bringing together Theravada, Pure Land, Zen and Tibetan monks, nuns and teachers, both eastern and western trained, to dialogue and learn about each other over eight fully scheduled days. A two-hour documentary video recorded the event.
By 1988, the Toronto temple had outgrown its premises on Gwynne Avenue and relocated to 86 Vaughan Road, another crumbling but much larger building. In November 1989, under a leaky roof and with the temple still under renovation, Sunim organized a Day of Celebration in Honour of the Dalai Lama upon the occasion of his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. The events included an inter-religious service, a forum on non-violent social action and an evening of literary and musical celebrations. The following year, a historic weeklong Conference on Buddhism in Canada was held at the Toronto temple, another first for Sunim who is firmly convinced that Buddhism benefits when Buddhist groups communicate with each other. The Toronto community continued to grow; new members replaced those who had moved on. In an organic process of renewal, the Vaughan Road temple was renovated.
In the early 1990s, Samu Sunim became interested in establishing a temple in Chicago. In 1992, on March 3rd, Sunim’s birthday, we set out from Ann Arbor to look for a temple building in Chicago. After several visits, a large run-down building was purchased and renovations begun. The following year, the centenary Parliament of the World’s Religions was held in Chicago. Samu Sunim organized a panel discussion on New Dharma for the West. While still undergoing renovations, the Chicago temple held several successful exhibitions of Korean Buddhist art, including Kwanjo Sunim’s memorable photographs of Korean Buddhist nuns’ life. Samu Sunim’s considerable energy and wide ranging efforts attracted some dedicated and wonderful helpers and, over the years the Chicago temple has been completely transformed into a beautiful venue for a thriving Buddhist community. Unique to the Chicago temple, the members hold an annual street parade for world peace during the Buddha’s Birthday celebrations in May.
More than anything else, however, Samu Sunim is a meditation master. He firmly believes that meditation and Buddhist wisdom are the right prescription for the salvation of humanity. He teaches that meditation practice based on the threefold discipline of ethical awakening, spiritual awakening and social awakening and the pursuit of the Bodhisattva path, are a self-sufficient regimen for all beings with a view to world peace and happiness for all. To this purpose he urges people to do chanting and prostrations for purification and empowerment along with regular meditation. Sunim sometimes gets impatient with Buddhist indulgence in long retreats and individualism. He points out,” The calm and peace from five years in a mountain retreat can shatter in one day spent in the marketplace. But a mind cultivated in the market place will shine bright in short retreats in quiet and solitude.” Therefore, he recommends retreats in the midst of activities and everyday life. He reminds his students with a chuckle, “It’s easier to become a buddha, than to become a good bodhisattva.” To people who doubt the doctrine of the Wheel of Life and rebirth, Sunim would say, “Life will continue with or without you after you check out. It would be better to include yourself and enjoy voluntary rebirth as a bodhisattva. Stand with Life and support all lives! Above all, just be a good bodhisattva life after life.”
Forty years have passed since Samu Sunim came to North America. During that time, Sunim has carried out dharma work with modest resources but with enormous dedication and determination. In forty years, he has founded remarkable temple communities in Toronto, Ann Arbor, Chicago and Mexico City, Mexico. He single-handedly published a groundbreaking non-sectarian Buddhist journal and organized a series of significant pan-Buddhist conferences both in Ann Arbor, Michigan and in Toronto, Canada. The Buddhist Society for Compassionate Wisdom salutes Samu Sunim for these remarkable achievements.
On July 4th, 2007 at 1 pm, the Buddhist Society and Spring Wind Sangha members of all four temples will celebrate 40 years of Sunim’s dharma work with appreciations, recollections, photo exhibition of the Society’s history, and a musical performance. We invite you all to the Celebration in Toronto.
Sunim feels that he is still young. Let’s give him a big cheer and encourage another forty years of excitement!
ⓒ 2007 Buddhist Society for Compassionate Wisdom