Dear Precious Friend, Dharma Brother Hyon Mun Sunim

This is an actual quote from him. Master of pyrotechnics, inner/outer demolition, plumbing engineering, jewellery-maker, self-taught tailor, chemist, expert in the long-lost arts of ‘al fresco’ wall repair. He is the first human being to reveal to me — in shock and horror but also great patience — my Suburban American tendency to want to purchase a new tool or appliance that was damaged or broken, rather than his old Europe ways of taking the time to repair it himself.

He lost several fingers designing munitions to make bombs against the Communist leadership of his native Poland in the 1970s and ’80s. Spent years in one of Europe’s most infamous torture-prisons — the feared Montelupic prison system of Krakow, later perfected by the Gestapo during the Nazi occupation of Poland. When it came time to apply for his monks’ ID card in the Chogye Order — Korea’s oldest Buddhist monastic order — in 1994, there was this gap of 7 years on his record where he could not show a job or schooling. The Order wanted paperwork to prove that all monk-aspirants had a legitimate record of schooling and employment, that monk life was not just something being taken on because the applicant had had a bad stretch of unemployment or hanging around.

No problem!

Sitting in an office at the Providence Zen Center in the Summer of ’94, we used these years of incarceration to declare that he had earned a PhD at the Montelupic Institute of Poland (“one of the oldest institutes of higher education in the former Soviet bloc” is, I think, how we did it, back in those pre-Googleable days). It might be a different situation in Korea today with regard to ordinations in Korea for foreigners, but we were not sure if they would accept a former prisoner inmate. (Even if his tenancy were, it was true, due to political activism and maybe one or two complicating forays into neuro-chemical development, shall we say.) We justified it, under howls of laughter together, as maybe just another form of monk-life he was being trained for! Opposing communism and totalitarianism is what got him thrown into prison; not backing down from challenging the rough guards inside the prison got him thrown into solitary confinement. In a sense, he had already taken his first steps in monk life when he was incarcerated. We still have a great laugh every time we think about it. We even had someone design a fake Diploma from the Montelupic Institute!

He was always intent on freedom. He is my precious Dharma brother, no matter what. He is a wild chemist and crazed meditator, a demon-bodhisattva beyond repair. The first time he met my Irish-Catholic mother, shaking her hand on the lawn in suburban New Jersey, he took the handshake gesture and turned it into kissing her hand. She had never experienced that! And my sister, Colette, also had this descended-from-nobility 6.5-fingered Gollum-like monk kiss her hand, as well — she was in such frozen shock at the witness of it happening to my Mother, that she could not react meaningfully when he reached for her hand!

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