Mirror of Zen Blog

With the Nuns of Chil Bul Am Hermitage at ZCR

Some 18 years ago, became acquainted with a very serious Korean nun — wise, perceptive, intelligent, and filled with high devotion and an unstoppable sense of service to others. I immediately noticed the great potential in Ye Jin Sunim, indescribable attributes of intelligence and ability which made her stand out among the large group of other Sunims who were all practicing with us together during the 90-day winter Kyol Che retreat at Su Dok Sah Temple, on Dok Seung Mountain in Korea. But, knowing all too well the educational system for Sunims in Korea, it seemed unethical not to find a way to deepen her vast abilities by exposing her to a wider experience of practice than can be found merely by remaining in the Korean system of monastic training.

After the retreat, I immediately urged her to encounter Zen Master Seung Sahn’s teaching, and specifically to train in one of our Zen Centers in the West. Specifically, I promised to arrange a way for her to live and practice at the Head Temple of the Kwan Um School of Zen in Cumberland, Rhode Island. She jumped at the chance, and we worked very hard to complete all of the visa paperwork to make sure that she could go. In those years, for whatever reason, there was a difficulty in obtaining any sort of long-term visas for Koreans, as sometimes periodically occurs, when there is some abuse in the system, or a political decision. Sunim‘s case was made especially difficult because, as a penniless nun, with no children or property in Korea to secure as a guarantee for her return, she — by her very status as a truly homeless person — checked every box of no-no’s as an aspirant for a long-term visa to the US. Several people who I contacted regarding the matter, said that we would be lucky if she even got a short-term visa. But I really, really believed in the potential of this person to help to widen the perspective of Korean Buddhism, if only she could have the chance to see how her tradition was being practiced by people in the West. I pulled every string and used every connection possible to obtain for her a five-year visa. (This included, among other tactics, making a special request to a higher-up in the US Embassy, Seoul, who had been attending my public talks for several years.)

In the end, she got the visa. She lived at our Zen centers in the US and Hong Kong for several years, developing an awareness of how Korean Buddhism is being transferred outside her own country, not supported directly by her own culture. And she lived at our international Zen Center in Korea for several retreat seasons, and was highly regarded, even beloved by the international family there.


For the last 15 years, Ye Jin Sunim has been the Abbess of an ancient hermitage which is located far up in the craggy heights of one of Korea’s most storied mountains, Nam Sahn, located in the ancient capital, Kyongju. Her hermitage can only be accessed by an arduous walk up a narrow rocky mountain path: there is zero vehicle killer access. That means that every single drop of water which is drunk, employed in the cooking of food, used for washing/showering, needed for the constant cleaning (Korean nuns are cleanliness fanatics, so just imagine…) — every molecule of it must be carried up that rocky mountain path by her for her disciples. And what is more astounding about this life in the hermitage is that the temple is besieged, all day long, by not only Buddhist followers, who have traveled great distances to chant in front of the seven ancient stone Buddha carvings which give the hermitage its name, but also, there is an unyielding flow of hikers who will stop in to the temple to have a cup of tea (or a bowl of rice) on their way through this well traveled hiking area.


And every single drop of water that they consume or use is something which has been carried up a steep path by simple, pure meditation nuns, who ask for nothing in return. On one visit to Ye Jin Sunim several years ago, I noticed some hikers refilling their travel bottles with water from the hermitage kitchen. At one point, he stepped away from the water spigot during a refill, letting it run on while he attended to something else for some moments. I distinctly remember the sense of panic I experienced for several moments, almost as if feeling that each drop left to run down the drain was an act of aggression against these poor women, however, unintended and unrealized.

So, after years of extremely hard work, and recently establishing and managing a major conference of Zen practitioners in Korea, Ye Jin Sunim had time to take a few days off. She decided to come to Zen Center Regensburg. For the trip, she selected three of her closest Dharma sisters. Two of the nuns have never ever owned even a handphone before. They obtained some used copy from someone several weeks before the retreat, and one received a €35 phone on her way to the airport. The nuns have no apps, and needless to say, no interaction on social media. They don’t even know what it is. When they arrived at the airport in Korea to come here, they did not even know how to navigate themselves through the airport. What documents to show where for what approval, where to put their bag, where to walk. They had completely zero idea. Three of them had never been to Europe before, and two of them had never been outside the country. They got passports expressly just for this trip to Zen Center Regensburg at Ye Jin Sunim’s invitation.

There are many things to say about this visit. It was an awakening experience for the nuns, for sure, and it was also an awakening experience personally for me. Practicing and teaching alone out in a European city, without contact with monastic brothers and sisters (not in a full protective “temple”), it is easy for me to lose my way. I do not get the radio contact of life with monk/nun family that would continue to keep me on the right path, without all of the damaging for a raise I needed to take to learn how to be a better person. Being with them was like medicine for my monastic soul, and re-inspired me in a more correct way of being in the Zen Center. Their purity truly strengthened me!

And the nuns expressed a strong wish to make some way that they can return for periods to practice with us and learn more, and also to broaden their practice and their teaching. They were not freaked out or turned off by any situation or food they were required to face; they received everything with glee and with incredible spontaneous joy. It was like being with angels instead of people, I must say. And everything they did wordlessly on cue, altogether. It was like watching bees. Even after a meal, they all went off to the room together, and all came out of the room, with toothbrushes with a little toothpaste, on the brush, and all went into the bathroom together, and all could be seen standing in the bathroom doorway, brushing their teeth, and all came out and walked back into the room. Not a break in the line! Without any speech or compulsion. Pure flow. Pure purity. Just watching them do this was worth the entire visit!

The Nuns raised a little amount of money to pay for their travel and housing, from their followers in Korea, who worried so much about the Nuns’ accommodations out in the strange West. The Nuns stipulated that anything that is left over after their bills are paid — and they insisted on paying for some things — that that money please be given to the Zen Center Regensburg. They also brought a donation of €2500 cash to the Zen Center Regensburg. (That is nearly the equivalent to one month ZCR rent, folks! — from really pure NUNS from the countryside!)

They also collected the equivalent of €2500 for the Zen Center Regensburg to transmit to helping children in Ukraine.

It was such a beautiful journey together — a journey through lands and cultures, through drizzly winding streets of Regensburg, Nürnberg, and Bamberg. But most of all, it felt like a journey through an ancient karma shared with a very special practitioner-bodhisattva of the highest order, one who I am honored to call not only a Dharma-sister, but also a Friend.












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