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Zen Master Samu Sunim

Zen Master Samu Sunim Samu Sunim at the Toronto Zen Buddhist Temple, 1986
Ven. Samu Sunim was born in Korea in 1941. Orphaned during the Korean War, he entered a Buddhist monastery following a period of homelessness. He studied as a novice monk and then undertook and completed his Zen training under Master Solbong Sunim at Pomo-Sa monastery in Pusan, Korea. When he was conscripted into active military service even though he was a monk, he left his native country for Japan and finally the West. In New York City in 1968 he founded the Zen Lotus Society (now the Buddhist Society for Compassionate Wisdom). After moving to Toronto in Canada in 1971 he completed a three year solitary retreat before beginning his teaching career. He reactivated the Zen Lotus Society from a basement apartment in Toronto serving the Korean-Canadian community and gave meditation instruction during the week. In 1979 Ven. Samu Sunim and a small group of his students (lay monastics in training) moved the Zen Lotus Society into a former flophouse.
The building was extensively renovated through the effort and manpower of those first disciples. Over the years Ven. Samu Sunim and the Zen Lotus Society has provided Buddhist meditation training, held Buddhist art and photography exhibitions, hosted visiting Buddhist teachers and organized public events such as Buddha's Birthday celebrations, benefits for the poor and hungry and peace vigils. In 1985 he established a three year Dharma Student Training Program (now the Maitreya Buddhist Seminary) to provide a consistent study-practice program for serious students wishing to train as priests or teachers. In 1986, he founded the Buddhist Institute of Canada to provide the public with accurate courses on Buddhism taught by qualified teachers.

Ven. Samu Sunim is the spiritual director and head of the Zen Buddhist Temple in Ann Arbor founded in 1981 and the Zen Buddhist Temple in Chicago founded in 1992. In the tradition of community effort both temples have been renovated and remodeled with the help of many volunteer man-hours always under the strong leadership and spiritual guidance of Ven. Samu Sunim. In 1988 the Zen Lotus Society in Toronto moved to larger premises where in 1989 Ven. Samu Sunim organized "A Day of Celebration in Honor of the Dalai Lama receiving the Nobel Prize for Peace". In 1990 delegates came from across Canada to attend the seven day "Conference on Buddhism in Canada" which he organized and co-hosted. Ven. Samu Sunim's concern for inter-Buddhist dialogue led to his organizing the conference "Zen Buddhism in North America" held at his temple in Ann Arbor Michigan in 1986 for the new generation of North American trained Zen teachers. In 1987 also in Ann Arbor he organized the "Conference on World Buddhism in North America", a historic gathering of ethnic and Western Buddhist leaders of most traditions active in North America. In addition, Ven. Samu Sunim has published two Buddhist publications, Spring Wind- Buddhist Cultural Forum, an international Buddhist quarterly journal from 1983-1986, and Buddhism at the Crossroads, a Buddhist magazine initiated in 1990. "Sunim", as he is known to many, is a talented and creative person. He is a superior meditation teacher, a poet and storyteller who transforms run-down buildings into beautiful temples. As a teacher, he is a disciplinarian with an eye for detail coupled with a great understanding of his students' Western ways. His frank, straightforward manner, ready smile, helpful attitude and compassionate heart combined with a tireless enthusiasm and determination for seemingly impossible tasks have earned him the respect of whoever comes across his path. He is now president of the Buddhist Society for Compassionate Wisdom and founding teacher and Zen Master of the society's four temples in Toronto, Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Chicago, Illinois, Mexico City, Mexico and a new sangha in New York City. Ven. Samu Sunim formerly served on the International Advisory Board of the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions. For the full story of Samu Sunim's life, see Have Hammer, Will Travel.

Samu Sunim and the Society celebrated the 40th anniversary of Sunim's Dharma work in North America on July 4, 2007 at the Toronto temple. On this occasion Sujata Linda Klevnick (former general secretary of BSCW and editor of Spring Wind) wrote:

In August of 1967, Samu Sunim arrived in New York City and founded the Son-Zen Lotus Society in a small apartment near Broadway. In early 1968 his karma brought him to Montreal, Canada, where I first met him when I was a student at McGill University. In 1972 he moved to Toronto. Right from the beginning Sunim wished to establish a Buddhist meditation community. Sunim attracted a few students and they worked hard. Those early years were difficult ones for Sunim marked by hardship, poverty and illness. Sunim lived in a shabby basement apartment in Toronto where he did personal retreat. When a few Korean Buddhist ladies discovered him, the basement became a temple where he conducted services and taught meditation. By1976 artists, musicians, students and dropouts came for meditation instruction in an unorganized way. Sunim encouraged community living and a series of houses were rented, first on St. Clarens, then Osler and Westminster. In 1979 with the combined effort of the Korean ladies and dedicated Canadian meditation students, a decrepit rooming house was purchased in Parkdale. In 1980 the Zen Lotus Society was incorporated as a non-profit religious organization. Over several years, the crumbling Victorian house at 46 Gwynne Avenue was completely renovated by the intense efforts of a lay monastic community of men, women and children living communally under a vow of poverty. Much support was received from the faithful Korean ladies. A regular schedule of services and meditations and retreats was held year round and a full-time training program for priests and dharma teachers was established. In 1981 an offshoot temple was founded in Ann Arbor, Michigan, organized on the same lines. The Ann Arbor temple has gradually developed into a thriving community of practitioners.

In 1983, Sunim made his first trip to Mexico and planted the seeds of a meditation group. It was then that he met some dedicated Mexican students, two of whom came for sustained training in Toronto. The 1980s were busy years for Sunim. Under Sunim's vision, the Society began to publish Spring Wind: Buddhist Cultural Forum, a non-sectarian publication for all Buddhists regardless of persuasion. Spring Wind sought articles from distinguished Buddhist teachers, scholars and artists, as well as lay practitioners. Sunim's emphasis on Buddhist ecumenism was ahead of its time. Another aspect of Sunim's conviction of the vital need for Buddhists to know each other better, was his organizing of the first North American Zen Teachers Conference. In 1986, he invited the first generation of western Zen teachers to meet for six days at the Ann Arbor temple. The conference has been held annually at different centres since then. In 1987 Sunim organized the Conference on World Buddhism in North America, bringing together Theravada, Pure Land, Zen and Tibetan monks, nuns and teachers, both eastern and western trained, to dialogue and learn about each other over eight fully scheduled days. A two-hour documentary video recorded the event. By 1988, the Toronto temple had outgrown its premises on Gwynne Avenue and relocated to 86 Vaughan Road, another crumbling but much larger building. In November 1989, under a leaky roof and with the temple still under renovation, Sunim organized a Day of Celebration in Honour of the Dalai Lama upon the occasion of his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. The events included an inter-religious service, a forum on non-violent social action and an evening of literary and musical celebrations. The following year, a historic weeklong Conference on Buddhism in Canada was held at the Toronto temple, another first for Sunim who is firmly convinced that Buddhism benefits when Buddhist groups communicate with each other. The Toronto community continued to grow; new members replaced those who had moved on. In an organic process of renewal, the Vaughan Road temple was renovated.

In the early 1990s, Samu Sunim became interested in establishing a temple in Chicago. In 1992, on March 3rd, Sunim's birthday, we set out from Ann Arbor to look for a temple building in Chicago. After several visits, a large run-down building was purchased and renovations begun. The following year, the centenary Parliament of the World’s Religions was held in Chicago. Samu Sunim organized a panel discussion on New Dharma for the West. While still undergoing renovations, the Chicago temple held several successful exhibitions of Korean Buddhist art, including Kwanjo Sunim's memorable photographs of Korean Buddhist nuns' life. Samu Sunim’s considerable energy and wide ranging efforts attracted some dedicated and wonderful helpers and, over the years the Chicago temple has been completely transformed into a beautiful venue for a thriving Buddhist community. Unique to the Chicago temple, the members hold an annual street parade for world peace during the Buddha's Birthday celebrations in May. More than anything else, however, Samu Sunim is a meditation master. He firmly believes that meditation and Buddhist wisdom are the right prescription for the salvation of humanity. He teaches that meditation practice based on the threefold discipline of ethical awakening, spiritual awakening and social awakening and the pursuit of the Bodhisattva path, are a self-sufficient regimen for all beings with a view to world peace and happiness for all. To this purpose he urges people to do chanting and prostrations for purification and empowerment along with regular meditation. Sunim sometimes gets impatient with Buddhist indulgence in long retreats and individualism. He points out,” The calm and peace from five years in a mountain retreat can shatter in one day spent in the marketplace. But a mind cultivated in the market place will shine bright in short retreats in quiet and solitude." Therefore, he recommends retreats in the midst of activities and everyday life. He reminds his students with a chuckle, “It’s easier to become a buddha, than to become a good bodhisattva.” To people who doubt the doctrine of the Wheel of Life and rebirth, Sunim would say, "Life will continue with or without you after you check out. It would be better to include yourself and enjoy voluntary rebirth as a bodhisattva. Stand with Life and support all lives! Above all, just be a good bodhisattva life after life." Forty years have passed since Samu Sunim came to North America. During that time, Sunim has carried out dharma work with modest resources but with enormous dedication and determination. In forty years, he has founded remarkable temple communities in Toronto, Ann Arbor, Chicago and Mexico City, Mexico. He single-handedly published a groundbreaking non-sectarian Buddhist journal and organized a series of significant pan-Buddhist conferences both in Ann Arbor, Michigan and in Toronto, Canada. The Buddhist Society for Compassionate Wisdom salutes Samu Sunim for these remarkable achievements. Sunim feels that he is still young. Let’s give him a big cheer and encourage another forty years of excitement!

Dharma Heirs of Samu Sunim

Haju Sunim (Linda Murray)

Toan Sunim (Jose Maria Castelao)

Zen Master Samu Sunim Samu Sunim in downtown Chicago, 1993
Zen Master Samu SunimSamu Sunim with a Korean Mexican family, 2005
Zen Master Samu Sunim Samu Sunim at the Mexico City temple, 1994
Zen Master Samu Sunim Samu Sunim on the pilgrimage in Korea, 2004
Ann Arbor
Mexico City Location
New York City Location

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