Buddha in the Market

An Interview with Korean Zen Master Samu Sunim

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Venerable Samu Sunim became an orphan in Korea at the age of 10, after which he lived as a beggar on the streets of Seoul. One day, seeing a beautiful temple at the end of an alleyway, he went to inquire how he might live in such a place. The resident monk told him that he could do so only if he became a Buddhist monk, and so he traveled to a mountain monastery, where he studied in the“Son” (Zen) tradition. 

Samu Sunim came to the United States in 1967. Since then he has established centers in Toronto, Mexico City, Ann Arbor, and Chicago. The following interview was conducted in New York last June by Tricycle Senior Editor Clark Strand.

You have been quoted as saying that it would take nothing short of a complete transformation of the Asian model of Buddhist monasticism for Buddhism to successfully establish itself in the West. What kind of transformation do you envision? We Buddhist teachers—those of us who came from Asia—are like transplanted lotuses. Many of us are refugees. Here we find ourselves in the marketplace—as dharma peddlers, you might say. I am concerned with the Zen movement becoming more easily accessible to ordinary common people.

You have said before that you feel that Zen Buddhism has been mostly an intellectual movement in America. It was largely the intellectuals who were attracted to Zen Buddhism in the beginning. Even today most Zen Buddhists are college-educated, liberal-minded—they’re mostly white baby-boomers who couldn’t make it back to their own childhood religions. We have failed to attract people from African-American communities. And we also have this attitude: if you cannot sit properly on the mat and cushion, then you cannot practice Zen meditation. That’s not very inclusive.

What accounts for these attitudes? It’s a touchy issue, because I think it has something to do with the Japanese Rinzai Zen attitude that Zen is only for the spiritually gifted. If we have any hope of establishing Zen Buddhism firmly on American soil and making it accessible to a large number of people, that has to change.

In monastic Buddhism, the main thing is to imitate Shakyamuni Buddha—to imitate the six years of ascetic practice he did after he renounced the world. That’s the whole monastic career. But I don’t think we can repeat that here, and there is no need to repeat it. I think the focus should be on Shakyamuni Buddha after he attained enlightenment. The first thing he said was, “Lo and behold, every being, without exception, without discrimination, is endowed with the Buddha-nature.” We ought to imitate what Buddha did for the last forty-five years of his life: ministry Buddhism.

So, the post-enlightenment Buddha is a better model for Buddhism? Yes. And that’s why monastic Buddhism in Asia is in such big trouble—for instance, in the case of Myanmar (Burma). A few years back, when the students took to the streets in protest of the military dictatorship, some young Burmese monks joined the students’ demonstrations; but the sangha, the elders of the Buddhist monastic hierarchy in Myanmar not only actively discouraged the young monks, they didn’t even have the courage to say anything to the military.

Perhaps that’s true, but what about the Buddhist monks who have protested all sorts of injustice and repression in Vietnam? Thich Nhat Hanh is a product of that generation of monks. Many Vietnamese monks have become politicized. So if you talk to them, you get a different feeling. They are not sleepy monks. They are very much more heightened in their awareness of social issues.

Do the conservative monastic traditions of Asia have too much interest in preserving the status quo? It’s just the old habit of looking inward. The old ideal was, first you look inside, and then reach out. But Asian monastics have been too preoccupied with looking inward, and they have failed miserably to reach out when the need was there in their own societies.

Everyone knows what has been going on in Tibet under Chinese military occupation, but so far I have not seen any Chinese Buddhist leaders come forward and condemn what the Chinese government has been doing in Tibet.

People in the West come from traditions that in many cases have a long history of social services and social action. When these students encounter teachers who speak of “engaged” Buddhism, they sometimes respond by saying things such as, “I should’ve just stayed a Catholic, because they have been doing it longer, and they do it better.” What would you say in response to that? Right now, Buddhism in the West is helping people who can come to Zen centers or Buddhist groups—people who can help themselves. We lack the organization, the funds, and the manpower to provide other kinds of aid. The Christian organizations are doing marvelous work. If there is an earthquake, they rush and help out. So far, I don’t think any of our Western Buddhist organizations are equipped to do that. But that does not necessarily mean that Buddhist groups in the West are not doing anything. Meditation training helps to reduce greed and remove anger and hatred. Thus we learn to become wise and not do stupid things. This is not less important than rushing out to help in earthquake zones. If you become a peaceful being, and if you have a compassionate heart, then your community, and your family can benefit greatly.

And yet you claim that Asian Buddhism is too stagnant, too concerned with the inner world of meditation. Well, we need to talk about a balance. Frankly, I think Asian monastics probably spend too much time sitting in meditation looking inward, and not enough time outdoors. They have to go out, as Shakyamuni did, and find out how people are living in society. But in the West, it’s the opposite problem. People spend all their time in the outer world. They’ve been successful in business, in their professional lives, but they have no relief from the stress of their lives. They need to sit down and settle the body and mind, instead of always running around feeling agitated inside.

So as an Asian teacher in America you have to go to the marketplace, because that’s where Americans are? That’s right. Buddhism in the West is out in the marketplace. And that’s what I say to people who are concerned with such things as scandals. If you place yourself in the marketplace, you have to be a little bit tainted to work with the people. And, of course, people make mistakes. People should not be afraid of making mistakes, but you have to be willing to learn from them.

Can monasticism survive in that kind of atmosphere? I think we have to talk in terms of high Buddhism and folk Buddhism. I think we need both. When I say high Buddhism, I mean monastic Buddhism; I mean monks and nuns living a protected life in a monastery so that they can devote themselves entirely to spiritual cultivation in order to ensure dharma transmission. But we need what I would call “folk” Buddhism as well—people who go out, as bodhisattvas, into the marketplace, actively involving themselves with people. Those of us who are doing high Buddhism have to understand that we are not the only ones who are capable of transmitting the dharma. We have to understand the transmission of Buddha-dharma in a wider sense.

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Dominic Gomez's picture

High and folk Buddhisms are two sides of the same coin. Same with inner and outer worlds. The middle way addressed these concerns from the start.

jjwalker7730's picture

Greetings. We have korean teaching in common. Also my thanks to my Sifu Ma who taught me since 1962. I am a 72 year old ready to put out a collection of free practices and Buddhist teachings as used at the Internal School since 1968, please share these and go to http://www.bluedragonzenacademy.com (type or paste at the top of the web page, not in a search box for now).
The emphasis of the practice is achieving singleness of mind thru the cultivation of the force (chi). This factor is raised to a level of mind and body harmony on account of the directive intention exercised during the practice. It is thru this that the Master Hand moves, that creative quality when the art is not a mere display of technical skill patiently learned under the tutorship of a good master, but an original and creative intelligence.
There is a section on practices for wounded veterans and as a former peacetime marine I want to share these.
My credentials are on this site.
Jim Walker, (Son Hae)
Dharma Master, Il Bung Chan Buddhist Order,
Martial Arts Master, Korean National Martial Arts Order
Patriarchal successor of Dr Seo, Kyung-bo

sschroll's picture

When I came back to the States after living 43 years in Buenos Aires, Argentina, my niece was very angry with me because I would not put money in the basket at Mass. Her experience of Catholicism was very different from mine. Later on, when she read about the 'dirty war' and how the high hierarchy of the Catholic Church not only ignored the brutality of the violence but supported it because they were on the power side, she apologized. Many of my friends were killed in that war just because they thought and expressed an idea.

When I got back, and I thank the Universe for this possibility, I realized how out of touch with the rest of the world Americans are. We only know our experience and think that's the way the rest of the world is or should be..........we are missing 99 % of reality ( anything to do with the 99% versus the 1%?)

I was exposed from a very early age to extreme contradictions: two countries, two dads (not official) two classes: working poor/middle high elite......small kids are extremely loyal.......so I went nuts.

But I learned an extremely valuable lesson: I am aware of how much I don't know, so when somebody expresses something that doesn't fit with what I think I know.....I try not to judge, to just listen and try to imagine what this persons experience was like, what happened to them.

What bothers me is High Buddhism and folk Buddhism......but wasn't that what I experienced in the Catholic Church in Argentina.

Is it Ok to shut down somebody because their life circumstances were different?

Are all Buddhists experiences and manifestations free from human foil?

Bowing in gratitude, Sylvia

vaughngrisham@gmail.com's picture

"It’s a touchy issue, because I think it has something to do with the Japanese Rinzai Zen attitude that Zen is only for the spiritually gifted."

That may or may not have been true before Bodhidharma, but it certainly hasn't been true since the middle of the sixth century. My little sangha is Rinzai, and we're about as down to earth as it gets. Our ages range from 20's to late 70's. We're multi-racial. None of us consider ourselves "spiritually gifted", and we have chairs in our zendo for those who cannot sit on cushions.

I agree with the general sentiment that Buddhism in America is largely a white endeavor, but to pin it on Rinzai Zen is total nonsense. First of all, the majority of Zen centers in the US are Soto. Second, what does he mean by "Japanese Rinzai Zen attitude"? If such an attitude exists among Rinzai practitioners in Japan, how in the world does that impact the demographics of American Buddhists?

Venerable Samu Sunim, right speech, please.

Alan Shusterman's picture

Like!! Are we shouting here? Then let's make it a good Zen SHOUT.

bobbykenny's picture


kentc33's picture

Can you be more specific about what you dislike?

volnoir's picture

what is it you dislike ?