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Hyon Gak Sunim's teachings about life and Buddhism Hyon Gak Sunim's teachings about life and Buddhism
by Joseph Gatt
2009-01-26 10:08:51
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Hyon Gak Sunim was born Paul Muenzen to a devout Roman Catholic family from New Jersey. After attending Harvard divinity school he became a Buddhist monk in Korea. His teachings are notorious for their simplicity and his sense of humor has made him famous in Korea, but also among international Buddhists.

It’s hard not to laugh when listening to Hyon Gak Sunim’s teachings or reading his books. It’s also hard not to think “life is that simple”. What I love about him is that he does not try to convert anyone, just shares his thoughts. He insists his teachings are not based on dogma or ideology. He also argues that teachings found in Buddhism have a lot in common with those found in the Bible.

I often watch his lectures on Korea’s Buddhist television network, and I don’t recall him not mentioning Jesus Christ. He even claimed in an interview that the reason he became a monk is that Jesus said one should leave everything and follow the way of Christ. He claims that as Jesus told people to seek the truth, he often wondered how there would be hungry people in Africa when he grew up in a middle class family in the US, with two homes and three cars. Despite that, oddly, despite being a monk he said on several occasions that he disliked some things about religion.

Hyon Gak’s teachings are inspired from both Buddhist Sutras and the Bible. He often quotes Jesus Christ having said “You have eyes, but you can not see. You have ears, but you can not hear”. Further he adds that the way to heaven is to become like a baby again. In other words, when you want to eat, eat. When you want to sleep, sleep. When you are driving a car, drive your car. He often follows comment with what usually goes on in people heads. Getting married, having children, getting a job, having a good husband, good friends, making enough money, and all the small problems in life. Well I can only agree with him, and laugh. Everything comes from the mind, he insists.

An interesting comment he made is when he says that all problems are within. Even pain is within. He ironically asked someone to give him his pain. If pain can not be given, or externalized, it can indeed disappear from within. Hyon Gak Sunim insists one should know himself. “Know yourself”. In an anecdote he often tells, a Monk asked a journalist “who are you”. The journalist introduced himself and the monk replied “that is just your name, but who are you?” Indeed few people can really answer that question. Of course, I know myself conceptually, where I was born, what I did throughout my life. But I guess if instead of trying to answer conceptual questions about our lives, rather than questions related to our true nature and what we really want, perhaps a lot of our personal problems would disappear.

Buddhist teachings insist that all problems are from within. Not only Buddhist teachings, I suppose. Hyon Gak Sunim gave that example that kept me wondering for quite some time. He would say that he read a story about a woman who had a car accident, got out of the car, ran to get her children out of the car, called for help, took care of her children, and then amazingly, she went to the hospital and had several fractures that prevented her from walking for months. How did she save her children if clinically she couldn’t even walk? I agree that our mind can do wonders, overcome all pain, suffering within no time.

An interesting point Hyon Gak Sunim made is that in traditional Buddhism, life is not meant to be “suffering”, but “unsatisfactory”. Indeed I read several Sutras in which life is said to be “suffering”. In unsatisfactory, he means that despite all the advances the world has made, people are not satisfied. That also kept me thinking. I thought about his comment about truth again. A middle-class child from New Jersey looking at pictures of starving children in Africa.

My favorite thing about Hyon Gak Sunim? He insists that the Buddha did not claim to have taught the truth and encouraged people to challenge his teachings. It’s a “see for yourself kind” of thing. Now I realize that my mind can make anything or everything out of myself. Of I guess meditation works to know myself better, but what I think would really work was if I focused on one thing at a time, and kept my entire concentration and focus on that thing.

It is indeed all very simple. About prayer and meditation, Hyon Gak Sunim said that in the bible, it is only mentioned that prayer should be done in a room in isolation. He encourages people to go inside an empty room and meditate, look for our true nature with our eyes open, facing a wall. Knowing our true nature would be reacting as if we were ourselves, like dogs reacting when they hear a noise.

I do agree with the fact that anyone who looks inside would find a solution to all his so-called problems. Now despite the fact that we have all these things no one had 50 years ago, cars, the internet, computers, Ipods, DVDs, we all still seem to be greedy and dissatisfied. I guess that if we all went to that empty room, faced the wall and thought about our true nature we would be much more satisfied than if someone announced that we had won the lottery. Worth a try.

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