Mirror of Zen Blog

My Final Encounter with Hyon Bong Sunim, the Patriarch of Song Gwang Sah Temple

Less than two years ago, during the last trip to Korea, the very first senior Korean monk who I greeted after arriving and bowing to Zen Master Dae Bong at Mu Sang Sah, was the patriarch of Song Gwang Sah Temple, Hyon Bong Bang Jang Sunim. Not only was he then the patriarch of the temple where I did so many intensive 90-day ango retreats over the years, but I considered him to be perhaps the Korean elder to whom I felt the closest and most natural connection over the years. He always took very deep interest in my practice during the retreat seasons I had at Song Gwang Sah, even when he was in those years not always present in the main temple precinct during our retreat seasons. He was energetic, very, very warm and deeply funny, and he was also extremely devoted to (dare one say “passionate about”?) Song Gwang Sah, its history and previous patriarchs and masters, its long history and its particularly significant contribution to the development of Korean Buddhism over the centuries.

The first bows to Hyon Bong Bang Jang Sunim after seven years of absence, October 2022.

Immediately upon arriving in Korea for that visit — my first in seven years since founding Zen Center Regensburg — of course I went directly to give formal greetings to the eldest monk in our lineage, Zen Master Dae Bong. That is the work of honoring the teachers and elders of one’s own lineage, one’s Teacher and home temple.

But immediately following that beautiful encounter with our lineage’s most precious older brother in Dharma, I traveled straight down to Chogye Mountain to bow to the chief monks who had supported my practice over the years at Song Gwang Sah, especially Hyon Bong Sunim. He was so kind and generous during the visit, calling me several times for tea and even setting up a place for me and two traveling guests to stay at a very nice hermitage in the mountains high above Song Gwang Sah. He assigned a driver and an official temple car to take us wherever we needed to go. He presented me with several very nice gifts, including some special and rare tea that had been grown in his own nearby hermitage, and picked and lightly fermented himself. He pressed a thick envelope of cash into my pocket as a donation for Zen Center Regensburg.

Called again to Bang Jang Sunim’s personal hermitage for his rare homemade tea, we gathered in front of the entrance for a commemorative photo, at his insistence. How strange it is to realize now that two of the monks in this photo are presently dead: Bang Jang Sunim (center), and his closest disciple, Mu In Sunim (at right). They are two of the Korean monks I was particularly closest to for the last two decades or more.

Tea with Bang Jang Sunim and Boep Ung Sunim in his personal tea room.

But his kindness did not stop there: When it came time for participating in the daily offering in the Main Buddha Hall before lunch (사시 마지), with all of the monks and followers solemnly assembled, he insisted that I walk over to the ceremony along with him from the Patriarch’s House (삼일암). Such a gesture is a particular display of honor: that a patriarch brings you with him to enter the Main Buddha Hall together — when the entire community is gathered, and his entry is so watched and revered — was such a deeply humbling experience. I actually tried to squirm away from the situation, feeling so terribly squeamish about entering the Main Buddha Hall of Song Gwang Sah with the Patriarch in front of elder monks under whom I had received years of teaching and guidance. But Bang Jang Sunim grabbed my elbow quite forcefully, and insisted that I walk with him, encouraging and joking in his usual way the entire length of the walk. He was particularly interested in hearing details about the progress of my work with developing the practice at Zen Center Regensburg, and he expressed several times his regret that he could not yet travel there to support us with a Dharma talk yet. I will never forget it.

Walking over to the Main Buddha Hall — the Dae Jeok Kwang Jeon — with Hyon Bong Sunim for the daily rice offering ceremony (사시 마지), October 2022.
My head is stooped further and further the closer I get to the entrance to the Buddha Hall, feeling the shame and utter disconnect to be brought in there in front of all the elder monks alone along with the Patriarch himself, and at his strong, personal insistence. I am well aware of the signal. Three-plus decades of Korean temple life taught me the strength of what Bang Jang Sunim is communicating to the Community by this, showing them — perhaps a bit too strongly for my own tastes — his public approval of my practice and work for the Dharma.

One year after my visit, Bang Jang Sunim had to endure the unexpected passing of his relatively young disciple, Mu In Sunim, from complications owing to Covid. The Zen Center Regensburg sent a large floral arrangement to one of the memorial ceremonies, and made a donation in his name for one of the weekly memorial chanting ceremonies. I could imagine that the impact from this unexpected passing was truly big upon Jang Sunim‘s shoulders, as Mu In Sunim had been a constant help by his side, since our days practicing together in Song Gwang Sah.

Hyon Bong Bang Jang Sunim passed from his body unexpectedly in his sleep this past week, on May 1. I had always said that he is one of only two monks for whom I would fly back to Korea to attend a funeral service for, conditions permitting. And yet how unfortunately he passed away while I was carrying out some scheduled teachings and retreats here in Norway, with people having made travel commitments and their flight reservations being locked in for these events many months before, which could not be easily reversed without great financial and personal loss for them. So it would have been impossible – – nay, even absurd – – to depart these so-sincere practicing souls in order to commemorate the law of impermanence of one great monk’s merely physical existence, no matter how great his stature, and how deep his personal importance to my own life and practice.

But the bond with this truly unique and inspiring monk is something which has long been a part of my connection to the practice, and it will continue to inspire me for as long as I am allowed to breathe further.

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