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Have Hammer, Will Travel

Chicago Reader (January 15, 1999; written by Sridhar Pappu) 


You expect Samu Sunim to say that everything changed for him when his father left to fight the Japanese and didn't come back, Or when his mother went mad, or when he began to train as a Buddhist monk. Instead, he explains, his life changed forever when he began putting up drywall and breaking through floors. He was different in Korea, Sunim says, sitting in the basement of the Zen Buddhist Temple, a three-story brick building on Cornelia just east of Lincoln he's helping to renovate. "At my age I would not do these things. I would have my disciples do it for me. "But I teach this way. No matter how tired I am, I get up, do prostrations, then after some time I pick up a hammer and do something useful." Sunim's hammer has become an agent of his faith. He's helped build three temples in three cities and turned a newsletter, begun with a $100 printing press, into a magazine - Buddhism at the Crossroads - published four times a year. In the process, he says, he's built a happier and more productive life. Terrible isn't the word Sunim uses to describe his early life in Chinju City, South Korea. He does say that he was just three when his father, an instructor at a teacher's college, left his family to join the anti-Japanese nationalist forces in Manchuria in 1944. And he will tell you about his mother, an educated woman, left alone with four children, who took a job teaching at the boarding school she had once attended. He will tell you about his rich but traditional maternal grandmother, who considered working with men to be a form of prostitution, and how his mother quit in response. His mother became a cook at the school, then borrowed money from her mother to buy a plot of land. It was there, Sunim says, that his mother, unaccustomed to the rigors of farm life and faced with the Korean war, finally came undone. "She... she became insane," Sunim says. "All of it was too much. If you were a man, you could go to a bar and drink and talk about it. But there was no one she could talk to. I was the only one still with her because I was the youngest." His mother was taken away to her mother's house, while Sunim stayed behind. Two months later she died. Sunim did not cry when he was told the news or when he was taken to her grave. His mother's family was lying to him, he assumed, keeping her hidden for reasons he did not understand. He was suspicious, he says, because he was young. At the age of 11, Sunim possessed the kind of slouching loneliness some find only at the very end of their lives. But with it came self-rule. He decided to leave the plot of land for Pusan, where he begged in order to eat, then Seoul, where he found work as an aide at a school for shoe-shine boys, teaching them how to read and write. It was only after the school was forced to disband in 1956 that Sunim found Buddhism. "It was for all the wrong reasons," he says. "I was back on the streets, walking in this district in Seoul, and I looked into an alleyway. There I saw this traditional structure that looked quite familiar from my town. You know, in Seoul there are all these big buildings, and here is one with traditional roof tile. "I thought, 'Wouldn't it be nice to live in such a place? With traditional peace of mind?' But I didn't know what that place was." It was a temple, of course - in such stories the building never belongs to a bank. The temple's architecture led Sunim inside, and then on a cross-country journey to find a monastery where he could train and an abbot whose tutelage he followed. Informing his early monastic life was a scorn for manual labor, a belief that any act outside the mind - even boiling water for tea - was wasted effort, time stolen from meditation and the pursuit of a spiritual life. "Not only was I not concerned with these non-essential, secular and impure practices," Sunim would later write in an issue of Buddhism at the Crossroads, "but I was contemptuous of them." He might have thought this way forever had the impure world not intervened. When the South Korean government began drafting monks into the army, Sunim went into seclusion, then fled to Japan in 1966. That country was attracting the kind of Westerners - young men and women interested in Eastern religions - who would represent the future for Sunim. In an act of compassion, an American bought him a plane ticket to the United States. In New York City, after trying - and failing - to live off the Buddhist monk's approach to begging, he got by on hippie largesse, spending his first night in the apartment of a French woman who had bought a black cat for each of her abortions. "At first I was scared," Sunim says. "She was gone for the nightlife, and I was left alone in the apartment with five black cats." When his visa expired in 1968, he moved to Montreal, where he stayed for four years, and then to Toronto. He found a basement apartment near the University of Toronto that flooded whenever it rained, and he worked long days in the post office and at a restaurant. He rented some land just outside the city where he tried to grow vegetables. Yes, it was lonely, he says, but assuaging in its solitude. It was a condition he could have lived with forever. But gradually people discovered he had been trained as a monk and soon he was taking students in the basement. By 1976 he had 15 followers. Together, they bought a ramshackle house that had 75 citations against it from the city, and in order to renovate it the group began to live on-site. They taught themselves plumbing and carpentry, slept in tents, and cooked over open fires. The closest bathroom was in a housing cooperative across the street. In order to pay the mortgage and buy building materials, everyone took on outside work. They organized themselves into small groups to clean up construction sites. They delivered newspapers, held rummage sales, and moved furniture. Some of the women began selling homemade tofu, and one of them went to work at a waffle house. "That completely changed my life," he says. "We were working all the time. There was a great need. There was no heat in Toronto, so if you just sit and do nothing you get cold. You had to constantly move around to stay warm. But there was so much energy." Sunim's Zen Lotus Society finally finished their new digs in 1979. Two years later they repeated the process, and much more quickly, in Ann Arbor. In 1991, they came to Chicago, ready to gut the building at 1710 W. Cornelia. "In Ann Arbor and Toronto I had plenty of young people willing to help out," he says. "You see, here I experience much more difficulty, because these are professional people who come to temple, and most are not used to manual work. Most of them are not willing to go down on their knees and scrub the floor." Still, he has done well. The Chicago temple now has 130 active members and owns a store for books and gifts. Currently, it offers weekly services open to the public on Sundays at 9:30 and 5. There are retreats, a program for seniors, and a spring and fall lecture series. Sunim hopes to finish the temple's most recent addition—a meditation retreat center by the end of [1999]. Located on the top floor, it will include six or seven bedrooms, a meditation hall, a lounge, a kitchen, and hopefully a solarium. It will be a place for solemn escape, he says, "for being alone." "Year-round you can come," Sunim says. "Three days, two days, half a day. Just for peace of mind... It's also for people who need to make a big decision in their lives. It takes a lot to decide whether to divorce somebody, your spouse. To contemplate, to make sure this is something you want to do, you need time." Crews from Toronto and Ann Arbor periodically help out with the project, but there are some things they won't be able to do. The temple recently raised $10,000, but Sunim estimates costs of at least $15,000 for advanced carpentry and between $15,000 and $20,000 for a new roof. Yet, he says, the work will have its rewards. "Enlightenment is available right here. That's the emphasis —Buddhism from the underside. Some people come into Buddhism, into high Buddhism. That's fine. I have no qualms about that. But the real work is done, the real work we have to do, from. We have to be grounded."

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