1967 to 2017
Photo: Solbong Sunim (1890–1969)
“After I left Solbong Sunim and the country I became constantly subject to the ups and downs of life. Like a piece of driftwood I drifted along unprotected in the wide world of conflicts. Sometimes different social forces and currents that tossed me around were so strong and swift that I submerged and suffered loss.
Other times I observed and enjoyed different scenery and the changing faces of life situations. All along I was making a journey which had no set purpose aside from my being one with it wherever it took me.
Ten years passed from the time I left Solbong Sunim. During those ten years my journey took me to Japan, San Francisco, New York City, Montreal and Toronto.”
Photo: Samu Sunim in his basement apartment 378 Markham, Toronto (c. 1978)
Samu Sunim was born in 1941 in Chinju, South Korea. His father had been missing since he was three. His mother died of insanity when he was ten. At the age of twelve he decided to pursue a homeless life. He wandered about from place to place, alternately begging and looking for temporary work. After three and a half years of leading a homeless life in the world, he inadvertently discovered a Buddhist temple for peace of mind.
In 1958 Sunim began his three-year novitiate at Namjang-sa Monastery in Sangju. In 1962 at Pomo-sa Monastery in Pusan, he was ordained as a disciple of Tongsan Sunim (1890–1965) and began his Zen training under Solbong Sunim (1890–1969).
However, a series of events forced Sunim to leave the country in the early winter of 1965.
“When I first became acquainted with Samu Sunim it was spring of 1975. A hand-written poster on a telephone pole invited people to come and meditate. The temple was humble, to say the least. It was a dark basement apartment on Markham Street in Toronto’s Italian neighborhood. Sunim shared the apartment with mice and other small rodents, and was once even visited by a snake. The living room and dining room had been turned into a sonbang. The kitchen and one small bedroom, which was hardly big enough to lie down in, were used by Sunim as places to do his work and to rest.
Back then  things weren’t quite as organized as they are at present. When we attempted to have our first Buddha’s Birthday celebration at St. Clarens we were completely dependent on Sunim and the Koreans to know what to do. I remember walking around downtown Toronto chanting with the Korean ladies, Sunim leading the way. Just a small band of us, maybe 10 or 15 people, carrying signs like ‘The best education is no education.’” <Sanbul Alexander Lundquist>
Photo: Samu Sunim in Toronto mid-70s
“In the late fall of 1977 I finished my three-year retreat. On the day when I finished my retreat I held a service in which I invited the spirit of Solbong Sunim and asked his Dharma be transmitted. I became his Dharma heir after the service. I offered the following gatha for the occasion:
Having grown trees without root;
Having built gates with no pillars
You have allowed all beings to come in and out
And to enjoy joy and sorrow!
Larger than heaven and smaller than a grain of sand
The meritorious acts of the Buddhas and Patriarchs are,
I now realize.
Ah-ah, Oh-oh, uh-uh, Ih-ih, Eh-eh, Bodhi Svaha.”
Photo: Samu Sunim meditating in his basement apartment, 378 Markham, Toronto
Sunim moved to Toronto in the spring of 1972 and settled in the basement of 378 Markham Street.
“It was in the basement apartment on Markham Street in Toronto in the winter of 1974 that I began my three-year solo retreat. After experiencing a number of worldly troubles and suffering a serious illness and two operations, it seemed I had come to an end of my worldly journey as Solbong Sunim had predicted. The basement apartment in Toronto was radically different from a mountain monastery in Korea or from a meditation hut in the traditional setting. But it was quiet and isolated from the outside by way of three doors which led to the underground apartment.
It was also cold and damp and it occasionally flooded when there was a heavy rain.
...For nearly ten years I lived in the turmoil of events. It was training in the ‘market place’ of the world and the events were my Dharma teachers. Now the days, months and seasons followed each other quietly. I lived uneventfully.”
Photo: Samu Sunim in front of his basement apartment, 378 Markham, Toronto (c. 1977 or 1978)
In August of 1967 Sunim arrived in New York City. He supported himself by working the night shift at UPS. During the daytime he would make posters and put them up in Washington Square Park and in Greenwich Village. In the evenings, before he went to work the night shift, he sat in meditation with whomever showed up for the meditation practice. This is the beginning of the Zen Lotus Society.
In February of 1968 Sunim moved to Montreal, Canada. The Zen Lotus Society became established in a second floor apartment on Park Avenue in Montreal, where he finally settled after having made the uneasy journey to America from the East. It was here that the Society functioned by holding regular meditation classes and conducting weekend retreats. The Society became the first Zen centre in Montreal."
Photo: Samu Sunim with the Korean Sangha, 378 Markham, Toronto
“It was during this time that Sunim decided that if we wanted to do anything, we had to consolidate our incomes and live as cheaply as possible. So from August of 1978 until April of 1979 we used Markham Street for practice and people supporting the temple lived close by. These were wonderful days as I remember, the good old days.
I began to understand what Samu Sunim was trying to do. He worked so hard organizing temple events for the Koreans and conducting Sunday services for them. He also kept teaching beginner’s class and maintained the regular meditation schedule for Canadians. It would be easy for most people to get discouraged in such a situation. Anyway, as the year came to an end and winter set in, Sunim began planning for the spring. He decided in late winter of 1978 that a temple should be bought for the Koreans. They had saved $11,000 in 7 years and for some of them this meant contributing all they earned to the temple while keeping just enough to get by on.” <Sanbul Alexander Lundquist>
Photo: Meal time in the midst of renovation at 46 Gwynne Avenue, Toronto (c. 1980)
“Although the [Gwynne Avenue] temple was still a construction site in late June and early July  we moved in. Fortunately it was summer and we could ‘camp,’ so to speak. We had no plumbing, one electrical outlet, and one tap with running water. Thanks to the help of the Co-op next door in sharing their facilities, and to the great efforts of sangha members, it all became a wonderful time. Many people lent a hand, some for a few hours, others came, bedded down on bare floors, and helped for several months. Renovations went slowly because we were learning the skills as we went along, and at the same time we had to go out to earn money to buy materials.
That summer we came to know the Korean members of our sangha better. Not being able to help with the renovations they invited us to their homes on many Saturday evenings for wonderful meals. We were touched by their generosity and by the appreciation they showed for the work being done on the temple. The devotion of the older women (posalnims) in particular was something we had not experienced in our North American upbringing.” <Haju Sunim>
Photo: Toronto Zen Buddhist Temple at 46 Gwynne Avenue (Left in 1981, Right in 1982)
“The group which had been fluid and eccentric and which had for years deliberately remained on the fringes of society, settled down and focused wholeheartedly on renovating the temple and setting up formal Zen training in a North American context. Basic decisions were taken. The temple was to house a lay monastic community of men, women, and children, living communally under a vow of poverty. A vegetarian diet was adopted.
Many months of eighteen-hour-days of manual labour passed before the temple was finished enough to reinstate the regular schedule of morning and evening sittings. But in the words of one early resident, ‘...sheer joy and energy seemed to fill every moment of that first year on Gwynne Avenue. Many times the last dollar had been spent and renovation had to be suspended while me all went out to work. People grew. Beyond what they thought their strength was, beyond what they thought their capacity was. Our starry eyes saw in the gutted walls and piles of lumber, the temple as it was going to be." <Sujata Linda Klevnick>
Photo: Sunim with Karima, Haju’s Daughter, 1979
“Early on, Karima spent most of her awake time in the snugli slung to my front and then, when she got heavier, in a backpack from which she peered over my shoulder during cooking, cleaning, caulking cracks, laundry and so on. When she began to crawl she pretty much had the run of the temple, navigating in the midst of the renovation.
She learned to be with everyone. Sunim would spend time teaching her to sit and asking her questions. On Sunday mornings she got to know the Korean ladies and particularly as an infant spent a lot of time with them in the kitchen. Their laughter was earthy and warm-hearted. When the others working on the temple had time she’d go on errands with them or they would look after her so I could sit. And she came on outings—to pick apples in the country, on our yearly pilgrimage to the Six Nations Indian Reserve.” <Haju Sunim>
Photo: Ordination of Dharma Teachers (Sukha & Sujata) and Precept-taking Ceremony with Wolha Sunim, October 15, 1983 at 46 Gwynne Avenue, Toronto
“I had greatly worried about the precepts. As a modern Westerner, no longer religious and far removed from the Christian beliefs in which I had been brought up, I felt that once again I was asked to accept rules out of tune with modern validities. I felt I was to adopt a world view which would be constraining and confining and which would be coming to us from a time when the dilemmas of modern life could not even be imagined.
I now know that this is not so. The first Bodhisattva precept says: Do not harm but cherish all life. And this is all that is needed. When one begins with the first precept one has all there needs to be understood. ... Samu Sunim’s guidance, and especially the Venerable Wolha Sunim’s presiding over the ceremony brought an ancient practice of peace to life for us. There is a continuity of human understanding in this which I want to reflect upon and embrace.” <Mu’un Dieter Misgeld>
Photo: Toronto Sangha members working on printing and collating Spring Wind magazine in 1986
“All of a sudden, we ran out of work. Sujata Linda Klevnick, the temple secretary and later editor of Spring Wind, found a printing press sitting in someone’s basement. We bought it for $100. We assembled and played with it and made it work. That’s how Spring Wind Newsletter and later Spring Wind: Buddhist Cultural Forum magazine was born as a product of cottage industry [in 1981].
The enthusiasm and high energy we had for renovation work we applied now to magazine publishing. So the magazine kept growing in content and volume and gained a reputation as an international Buddhist magazine. When we published the special issue of Women and Buddhism in 1986, it was 400 pages solid. However, the cottage industry finally reached its limit. When we had no response to our appeal for a laser printer, photocopier, and a new press, Spring Wind had to cease publication."
In the winter of 2002, the publication of Spring Wind resumed and 15 issues were published through the fall of 2005.
Photo Top: Tremendous volunteer work was required to renovate the abandoned synagogue into a beautiful Buddhist temple.
Photo Bottom: Conference on Buddhism in Canada was held at the Toronto Zen Buddhist Temple, 86 Vaughan Road, July 1990
By 1988 the Toronto temple on Gwynne Avenue became insufficient for the growing Sangha. A new building was purchased. It was located at 86 Vaughan Road and the move took place on April 10, 1988. The renovation began right after the moving. Because of the amount of work, the publication of Spring Wind stopped. The Buddha Hall was temporarily set up in the basement while the first floor was being renovated.
Many big events took place at the Toronto temple on Vaughan Road. This included art exhibitions, conferences and celebrations. Among these events was a Day of Celebration in Honour of H. H. the Dalai Lama upon his receipt of Nobel Peace Prize (November 25, 1989). Another event was the Conference on Buddhism in Canada held in July 1990. Various Buddhist temples and organizations in Toronto sponsored this Conference. The conference marked the first time in history Buddhists from across Canada came together.
Photo: 297 College Street was a home for the Toronto Temple from February 2002 to December 2011
In February 2002, the Toronto temple moved to a much larger property in the downtown area. The dream was to build a new Korean style temple to attract mainstream Canadians. Thanks to good visibility from College Street the temple was easy to locate and many people came to the Sunday service and took the meditation course.
July 2007 on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Sunim's being in North America, the Society decided to pursue founding a temple in New York City where Sunim had his first meditation group. Selling the Toronto temple property became an obvious option to fund this ambitious project. March 2011 a five story building in the Upper East of Manhattan was purchased for the NYC Zen Buddhist Temple. The Toronto temple bought back its old home at 86 Vaughan Road and moved in December 2011.
Photo: The first retreat in Ann Arbor at a rented apartment 2215 Packard Street, December 1981.
In the fall of 1981 Sunim sent Sanbul [Alexander Lundquist] to Ann Arbor to found a temple. After an apartment and then a rented house on Arch Street, the Ann Arbor temple found its permanent home on Packard Road in the summer of 1982. Although in much better shape than the Toronto temple was, the Ann Arbor temple nevertheless required extensive work.
“When I took beginner’s class at Zen Buddhist Temple in Ann Arbor, I was often one of very few people or the only one taking the class. It was conducted by Sanbul Sunim, a North American monk who was working full-time as a carpenter and living by himself. The temple was a large old house badly in need of renovation and repair. Although the class included basic instruction in postures and breathing, most of it consisted simply of sitting in silence. Afterwards we would have a cup of tea, Sanbul would sweep the kitchen floor, and I would go home, often without a word having been said the entire time.” <Musim>
Photo: Conference on World Buddhism in North America at the Ann Arbor Zen Buddhist Temple (July 10–17, 1987)
“The conference attracted 38 Buddhist leaders and scholars representing various traditions and over 300 participants and lasted 8 days. The conference closely reflected the mood of the Buddhist movement taking place in the West.
The topics included: Ethnic & North American Buddhist movements; Vinaya rules and regulations; Monasticism and the lay Buddhist movement; Feminism, ecological awareness and social issues; The role of tradition in the contemporary Buddhist movement; Cross-cultural assimilation of Buddhism; Theravada-Mahayana encounter in the West.”
A two-hour documentary on the conference was produced.
Photo: Summer Buddhist Peace Camp, 1989
Peace Camp was conceived by Sunim in the hot, muggy summer of 1986. We were running exhilarated in a downpour and drenching each other with buckets of water from a small plastic swimming pool. Our central focus came from Ven. Maha Ghosananda’s words: A peaceful person makes a peaceful family, a peaceful family... a peaceful world....
It was all fun! Five half-days of Peace Camp in the temple backyard with about 20 children and some parents has evolved to six full days of tenting and outdoor living at Friends’ Lake Community for up to 80 children and adults of all ages.
A wonderful experiment in peaceful community living and Sangha building, our programs now include lake and forest activities while we explore yearly themes like the Four Brahma Viharas, generosity, stories from the life of the Buddha and more. Many years later our camp coordinator is one of our original campers.
Photo: Precept-taking Ceremony at the Ann Arbor Temple, August 17, 1985
“At 5 am, those taking the precepts, temple staff and Sangha members gathered in the sonbang and did over 500 prostrations, led by Samu Sunim. Each person taking the precepts had been asked to do 3,000 prostrations during the preceding three months, viewing each prostration as an offering to be made with utmost care and sincerity. They had also prepared themselves for the occasion by reciting the Great Compassion Dharani during the three months. After breakfast and a work period, we again assembled for two hours of chanting. We did Yebul (homage to Buddhas), and chanted the Great Compassion Dharani and Kwanseum Posal (Bodhisattva of Great Compassion).”
Photo: Conference on Zen Buddhism in North America at the Ann Arbor Zen Buddhist Temple (July 14–19, 1986)
“The conference had been looming in our minds as a challenge and a goal for months. Suddenly it was upon us. A last minute scramble to get quite major things done greeted the Toronto visitors when we stepped out of the van. The Ann Arbor temple looked like a Breugel painting—a large house in a landscape swarming with people bent industriously on carrying out a variety of manual tasks. We turned the temple from a construction site to a basic presentable building in 36 hours.
Presenters and audience both stayed at the temple. We rose early, we practiced together, we took out meals outdoors at long wooden tables. Six sunny hot days passed quickly. The guests from far and wide, the stimulating conversations, the friendships, all went to ‘season’ the newly-renovated temple. It was a great joy to be among a group of people to whom Buddhism really matters.”
Photo: Summer Training Retreat at the Ann Arbor Temple, Summer 1983
“There was so much work to do that summer  on the old boarding house that was our temple! We clambered around the very high, steep-pitched roof, tearing off the old shingles and putting on the new. The entire exterior was scraped and painted. Truckloads of scrap lumber were cut up for firewood and stacked to the roof in the shed. Rooms were painted. A dormer on the third floor was begun. We aspired to keep silence and to work as a form of meditation, but some, like myself, were hardly equal to the task. Sunim occasionally called us down from the scaffolding to give us a compassionate blast from the garden hose. We got up in the mornings at four; we practiced until seven and again every evening from six to ten. The days were hot and humid, the work was filthy and tiring, and my ego was under constant assault. We tried our best to leave our wayward ways behind and endeavored to learn the heart of this strange new religious life: half-ancient tradition, half-modern invention.” <Yosim>
Photo: The Harvest from the Ann Arbor Temple’s Organic Garden, 1984.
The Ann Arbor temple has a large yard and a good-sized garden. Much of what is organic garden now used be a dump site. Sunim and other temple members spent many hours under hot sun cleaning the soil [in 1983].
“This year’s  garden began in February, when Kumara ordered seeds. Planting began in early March at the time of the new moon. Sitting in the basement, Kumara carefully placed tomato, eggplant and green pepper seeds in the low boxes he had made and filled with potting soil. By the time of the full moon the seeds had sprouted, and the boxes were brought upstairs and placed in the sunshine in the front of hallway. Although outdoors snow was falling, we could feel the beginning of the new growing season in the seedlings’ new leaves.”
Photo Left: Yongmaeng Jeongjin Retreat in Mexico December 1984
Dr. Jorge Derbez was the first therapist in Mexico to integrate Zen and psychoanalysis. Ansim (Daniel Chamberlain) in Toronto made arrangements with Dr. Derbez to invite Sunim to Mexico to give talks and lead a Yongmaeng Chongjin in the spring of 1984 (May 21 to June 3). This was Sunim's first visit to Mexico City.
Toyun (Edith LeBrely) was originally a member of the Centro Zen in Mexico City. She collaborated with Ansim to prepare for Sunim’s second visit to Mexico in winter 1984. Toyun converted the living room of her apartment on Berlin Street into a sonbang. This became El Centro Zen Loto de México. Her Berlin Street Sonbang destroyed by an Earthquake on September 19, 1985.
Toan (Jose Maria Castelao) lived near Tanaka Sensei's acupuncture clinic and began attending meditation sessions at the clinic since September 1984. Toan attended the Yongmaeng Jeongin retreat with Sunim in December 1984.
“Sunim arrived by plane on December 24  while several members from the Toronto and Ann Arbor sanghas drove all the way to Mexico in an old Chevy van. A five-day Yongmaeng Jeongjin took place at the Hacienda de la Manzanilla in the state of Puebla. I recall vividly one of my first interviews with Sunim where he raised his right hand emphatically and shouted, ‘Zen is religion in movement!’
One night I was walking down a street with Sunim. As we crossed a wide avenue, Sunim lightly took my hand and said, ‘So you come to Toronto and become a monk.’ Very naturally, as if responding to something quite obvious, I said yes. In March 1985, I took a bus to Toronto for a three-month training, which turned into eight and a half years of temple life.” <Toan>
Photo: Opening Ceremony for the Mexico City Temple, December 20, 2003
“We made an important decision to buy a house and move to a better location. We envisioned that this would help reach more people in the city and serve the Sangha better. Several months of searching for a future temple building bore fruit when we found a house in Actopan 30, Colonia Roma in October 2003. I immediately moved in and became a full-time resident teacher at this new home. The fact that someone lives at the temple and receives phone calls and visitors seems to create a sense of stability in the Sangha. The feeling of owning our own space helps the Sangha work together to grow.” <Toan>
Photo: July 2014 the NYC temple hosted the first summer Yongmaeng Jeongjin retreat in the midst of all that construction dust.
The mission to found a temple in New York City began November 2007. Sunim moved from Toronto to NYC and rented an apartment in the China Town with Kohye (Jeff Boland). From there, the temple moved to Brooklyn and back to Chelsea until Sunim spotted the current building. The temple building was purchased in March 2011 and went through extensive renovation. Sunim dedicated tirelessly to the search and supervision of the renovation and Toan often visited from Mexico to assist Sunim's efforts.
Photo: Sunim and Tohaeng working on the Chicago temple building
When we purchased our Chicago temple building in June 1992, it was very rundown and in disrepair. So we began our Dharma work by fixing the kitchen and building public bathrooms. After cleaning out all the junk and debris from the building—there was so much of it!—it became clear that the work would be nothing short of a major renovation. New plumbing, heating and electrical wiring were required. We had a limited budget to pay for all of this, therefore much of the workload fell on volunteers from the Toronto temple.
When the first snow fell in late November  seven of us sat around a wood stove for Sunday morning meditation. Toan Sunim arrived from Toronto for a change-of-guard duties. He worked through the winter all by himself. The wood stove donated by a Toronto Temple member was the only source of heat. It took nearly two years to have the ground floor, public bathrooms and the Buddha Hall ready for public meditation service and events.
More on the early history of the Chicago Temple