My Blog

Finding Inner Peace

Once Alone, Zen Master Now Leads 500,000 Worldwide
by Gail Vida Hamburg
Special to the Tribune (Syndicated by Tribune Media Services)

"It is all mind. It is all eternal energy. There is no evil or good. It is all within you. You are responsible for everything that you do. You kill, you maim, you hurt, you love. It is all you, nothing outside of you. There is no separate evil, no separate good, it is all you."  -- Dae Haeng Sunim

Dae Haeng Sunim, Zen master, began thinking about life's important questions at a very early age. The instant reversal of her family's fortunes from prosperity to poverty during the Japanese occupation of her native Korea in 1930 left an indelible impression on the 5-year-old.

"We were forced to flee to Seoul with only the clothes we were wearing. We lived in a mud hut, eating only what we received by begging," she remembers. "I began asking myself, 'who created us so that some are poor, some are rich, some are sick and some are healthy,' and 'who put me in this predicament?'"

The family's poverty took a toll on Haeng's father, a former military officer of high rank. He turned his wrath on his oldest daughter, Dae.

"Nothing I did was right in his sight," she remembers. "I ran away to the mountains to escape his beatings and also to protect my mother who always tried to protect me," she says.

By the time she was 6 years old, Haeng says, she began sleeping in the mountains at night.

"When I turned 10, I was thinking deeply about the meaning of things, I wanted to know, Where did I come from and where am I going?" she says.

At the age of 20, Haeng left home and fled to the mountains for the last time.

"I did not carry any supply of food or any other need, as I wished to abandon myself to nature," she recalls. "I wanted to surrender my whole self to nature and have it support me or not."

Her retreat to the mountains began with a deliberate effort to detach herself from all things.

"I was able to let go of everything, including life and all the attachments to life," she says. "The mountain was my pillow, and the sky was my blanket, I ate the roots and fruits of plants to live. Everything that I knew, all the programming and conditioning that I had received in my previous life disappeared. I was able to go beyond everything I had ever known, and my consciousness began to vanish.

I began to live my life with complete natural spontaneity, in complete emptiness. I was free from attachments with any objects."

Her inward journey included a period of extreme asceticism. She slept in ditches filled with leaves and ate unknown plants and fruits.

"I spent my days in contemplation and did not concern myself with the conditions of my body," she remembers.

During an especially harsh winter, after spending a few days in a sand ditch near a frozen river, she climbed up to the ridge of a mountain.

"I saw myself, the sky, the land, and the trees all filled with a very serene and tranquil light," she says. "I knew at that moment the essential oneness of all being. "

When I attained this state of freedom, there was a point of complete oneness with the universe. I understood this freedom from attachments to be the foundation of the universe, the original state of all living beings. Making this connection was the most important event of my life."

Haeng began to explore more deeply, life's eternal questions.

"From the realization about the source of the universe, I was brought to the knowledge that the whole of the universe is of one body and one mind," she says.

Haeng spent 12 years alone on the mountains.

"I stayed for a long time because I wanted to thoroughly confirm and reaffirm my new knowledge, to test it at all levels of existence in the world," she says.

An untutored mystic, Haeng entered a Buddhist monastery to be ordained as a Zen nun. At the age of 32 she left her mountain isolation to initiate her ministry.

"By then, I felt that I had discovered something that might help others," she says.

She believes that everyone should examine his or her own life and reflect on the human condition.

"You have to ask yourself the important questions, about who you are and why you are here," she says, "because you cannot live without knowing who you are."

The simplicity of her message--that deep within oneself, each person can touch a center of awareness and vitality: one's true self, and what she would later call the "genuine self" -- struck a chord among those who heard it.

She founded a center, the HanMaUm (One Mind) Zen Center, near her mountain retreat, at Anyang, Korea. In the next decade she opened 13 branch centers throughout Korea. Beginning in the 1980s, she established Zen centers in Canada, Argentina, Germany and five in the United States. An estimated 500,000 people attend the centers and follow her teachings. Her organization also funds projects for the poor and for youth. In addition, her philosophy of the "genuine self" is disseminated through newsletters, seminars and the Internet.

The people she gravitates to repeatedly are prisoners.

In 1990, Haeng met with prisoners on Death Row in San Francisco. Even there, her outlook was one of hope. "It is never too late to change. It is through your mind that all things in the world occur," she remembers telling the prisoners. "Through using this mind, everyone can live freely."

In July, she visited young inmates at the Joliet Juvenile Detention Center. The center's chaplain, Joseph O'Connor, said the rambunctious teenagers grew quiet and listened intently as the gentle Zen master told them about the power they hold within themselves.

"It is all mind. It is all eternal energy. There is no evil or good. It is all within you. You are responsible for everything that you do. You kill, you maim, you hurt, you love. It is all you, nothing outside of you. There is no separate evil, no separate good, it is all you," she told them. At the end of her speech, the teenagers pressed their palms together in the traditional Buddhist manner and bowed. She gave them gifts of T-shirts with the legend "In Search of the Genuine I" on the front.

To solve the problems America still faces as we race to the new millennium, Haeng urges a true return to the self.

"Rather than just focusing on the material world and looking for more and more, we need to also look at the spiritual, unseen world," she says. "The universal condition of unhappiness afflicts the affluent as well as the disadvantaged. Everything is located inside of us, and finding that source will help everyone toward living peacefully with themselves and with others."

On race relations and violence on our streets, Haeng says: "If we go to the source, to the genuine self, we will understand that we are all connected. Then it would be impossible to hurt someone else because to hurt someone else would be to hurt yourself."

Perhaps because of her own painful childhood, she has a special affinity with children. With children, she says, there is the opportunity to begin fresh.

"Children should be taught that they are like flowers, that just like flowers they have roots that nourish them, roots that go deep and connect to the source," she says.

Though one of only a handful of female Zen masters and probably the most prominent Zen master in prison ministry in the United States, Haeng dismisses her accomplishments.

"I never practiced to become something or somebody," she says. "I never knew if my path was the genuine way.

"I was only concerned with getting to know who I was. I only wanted to know who was behind my thoughts and my actions and who made me the way I am."

Copyright(c) Gail Vida Hamburg


Copyright(c) Gail Vida Hamburg | Site Design by Netrix LLC