Myo Ji Sunim’s Original Face

Today is the ninth anniversary of the passing of a renowned Dharma sister, Myo Ji Sunim. She was an inspiring figure who helped my rocky transition into monk’s life in Korea. She was a serious, strong practitioner – – maybe even too strong, for some softer types! — who always worked hard to guide and inspire other practitioners in the temple community at Hwa Gye Sah when I first arrived.

Her decision to become a nun was not an easy one. She was a mother of three children and a busy businesswoman in Canada, but only working everyday in the family business, being active in Toronto society, and living only for her family had grown meaningless to her. She told me once that she had fine dinners out, she travelled whoever she wished, and she had a very comfortable life. Yet it all felt purposeless. “Will I spend the rest of my days only making money and living well? What is the point of that?” In the 1980s she encountered the teachings of Dae Soen Sa Nim and felt that this is what she wanted to devote her life to – – to waking herself up, and helping others to wake up. But she had a wonderful family, a husband and a big house and life in Toronto.

But her kids were nearing college age, so they had a great support network and were already well formed by her charismatic presence in their lives. She had worked hard to provide them with a good education and strong values of concern for others. She felt that she had already accomplished everything that she could accomplish for her family. Her friends tried to dissuade her. Her family even tried to prevent her from taking this very strong step. She was determined that she needed to leave for the mountains, but her emotions were heavy with the sadness’s this would bring her husband and children.

To make her mind clear about such a momentous decision, she embarked on a 100-day solo retreat at the Providence Zen Center. She bowed 3000 prostrations every day through a blistering hot summer. At the end of the retreat, she felt clear and confident that she would leave her family and become a nun. She cut her hair and never looked back.

When I was a young monk at Hwa Gye Sah, she was one of the more senior monastics who guided us new arrivals, schooling us in the basic behaviours in very, very conservative Korean temple-life. In those days, I was doing many prostrations, and I naturally bonded with her over this, since she seemed constantly to be engaged in long, 100-day prostration efforts even during our intensive winter Kyol Chesterfields in the mountains. We became good friends. She would occasionally ask me to help her letter-writing when she needed to reply in English to the handwritten letters her children sent her in those pre-email early-90s. Myo Ji Sunim had been born in Korea, during the Korean War, so her English skills being not so confident, she would ask me to read aloud to her the letters from her children, updating her on the news of their lives and their struggles. The letters had often been held back for the entire length of one of our 90-day winter Kyol Ches. “Dear Mommy, While you are on retreat, I am getting my prom dress ready. It was hard to pick this out without you. I have this-and-this struggle. I miss you very very much. But I believe in what you are doing. One day, you will become Buddha and save many beings. I am very proud of you.” Things like this. Tears would stream down Sunim’s face as I read her children’s letters to her. She would brighten up only when she could turn to the reply. I copied out everything as she said it, though she asked me to make the English more “correct” than her “since they are already near high school age — I don’t want them keeping any of Mom’s bad-English habits.”

This is how Sunim described her path to the Dharma and the homeless life of a nun:

Even as a young child, I always felt an emptiness in whatever I did. When other kids joined a dancing class, I thought, “Maybe that is what I want.” So, I took the dancing class. But it was not what I wanted. Some others tried piano, so I thought, “Maybe that is the way I have to go.” But that was not for me either. Whatever others were interested in, those activities were not my way.

Both my father and grandfather were Christian ministers. The house I grew up in was like a church. But I was never 100 percent into that because everything felt empty. I was always searching for something — nothing seemed to complete me. My question was this: If what people say is true, why do I feel so much doubt? Why do I always feel this emptiness?? When I moved to North America, however, I did have a belief system. I joined the Catholic Church. I fell in love. But I still asked myself, “If these things are true for me, why is there still this emptiness?”

Later I met a Buddhist nun and asked her, “What is Buddhism?” She said, “Everything is created by mind alone.” When I heard that, I clapped and cried out, “That’s it! That’s so it!” That nun was the one who taught me how to practice, to bow. Then one day she called my house and said, “There is a great Zen Master visiting our temple. You must come and meet him.” I dropped everything I was doing and rushed right over; that was when I first met Zen Master Seung Sahn.

At that time I was very busy, working long hours every day, so he told me to do midnight kidos. If I just sat, I would fall asleep, so I bowed from 12:00 midnight to 2:00 a.m., every night. I was getting by on very little sleep but still I had a lot of energy! I don’t know where it all came from. Today I am not empty any more because of this practice. The emptiness was filled in and things have become clear. This practice is our teacher.

These days I don’t have money, a car, a house or even hair! But I am no longer empty — it is always fulfilled.

Myo Ji Sunim infected you with her “can-do” mind and her singular passion for practice. She inspired and sustained the efforts that I made to do midnight practice during the winter retreats in Korea. Without her, I might have never tasted the power of that practice, which was so essential in burning through so many layers of dark, heavy karma. We made a pact (or, rather, I made a pact with her already-established exemplar!). Every night, when the rest of the retreat community had gone to sleep by 21:00 after 10 hours of meditation, we rose again — she in the women’s room, and me in the Dharma Room, where I slept with all the monks. We met outside in the snow, flashlights in hand to guide us through the unlit mountain temple’s uncertain pathways. We always bowed in the most isolated of the five Buddha Halls — the Mountain God Hall. It was set apart and also the least visited hall, so there was not the usual bustling on periodic Buddhist notable days.

This ancient Buddha hall was constructed of planks of who-knows-how-old wood. The icy mountain air blew in strongly between the planks. The altar candles danced by the movement of wind in the room! Once in a while, a mouse would scamper out onto the altar, in search of at least a few grains of leftover rice offering from some ceremony that might have happened that day. The room was unlit, save for the candles. And we did not speak to one another.

Two sets of icy cold knees on the cracked floorboards of an icy cold floor in Shin Won Sah Temple. I would bow a few sets of 108 bows, then sit meditation, then a few more sets of bows. Her bulldozer direction and limitless energy truly helped to shape and give confidence to my efforts. I am always grateful that I met her, and we became good friends. She is one of the strongest reasons why I was able to continue this practice until today.

Sunim was an elder practitioner to me, but also — really — a sister. She was one of my closest monastic connections. She frowned playfully at any expressions of my “bad-boy” character. She may have actually enjoyed seeing me behave in a way that most of the conservative Korean fellowship of the temple found strange or indecipherable. I wasn’t acting — there is just a natural edginess one feels, having been raised in the free-wheeling West, to have to confine things to the 1,001 ways that Korean-mind needs to check-in with the Confucian hierarchies and etiquettes. They never become natural to you, and she knew that, having lived, herself, between two cultures. She saw that I was never going to be a straight-arrow monk, and I think she had the sophistication to perceive that someone with this kind of bent character would not be able to stay around long by acting any way other than what he authentically felt. It didn’t hurt that we had this holy-pact-like connection to doing so much extra practice. Many people did not understand how we seemed to get along so well. After all, Myo Ji Sunim was something of a strict disciplinarian, and certainly with the junior nuns and monks. Some of the new entrees lived in real fear of her! Maybe it was because she reminded me an awful lot like my oldest sister, who help raise me and my brothers. But I connected with Sunim without hindrance.

She spent her last years trying hard to establish a temple community on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It was a day-to-day struggle to survive. But she practiced relentlessly, and lived off of the leftovers of the foods that people brought to the temple on Sundays. She would spend the whole following week re-boiling and re-frying the rice and the mini pancakes that had been left after a large Sunday service, when far-flung members of the Korean Buddhist community would gather in her narrow little temple space. Everything was all mixed together in a vague soupiness, the rice-rolls refried in egg and utterly tasteless and joyless. But it was no matter to her. She was indefatigable, always joyful. She expected that her students made consistent efforts in practice. So many people — among them, many young — started to appreciate and love the effect of doing daily 108-bows practices.

When once, one of her Korean students asked Sunim to help with a video installation project, she readily agreed. Even though, in her sick condition, it would require Sunim to be out on the streets for several hours, virtually unprotected in the cold, she was enthusiastic to help her student teach Buddhism through a film project that would help him to complete his university degree. For a Korean nun at the time, this was still unusual — they had formal ideas about just teaching in the temple. Assisting with such things was not as acceptable in the nuns’ community as it is today. This is the reason why we have this record of her practice, in a city she loved so much, and where she died of an aneurysm, at a relatively young age.

Every year, when the leaves turn glorious colours and that sweet musk of soft decay fills the nostrils, my heart feels that time for winter Kyol Che is approaching. And with that feeling — right alongside it — is the memory of this anniversary of her sudden passing. I cannot experience the Autumn without Myo Ji Sunim filling the mind, and I cannot pass through Manhattan without it, either.

Attachment, attachments, without end.