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Monk Hyon Gak: “Zen Buddhism is jazz.”

Monk Hyon Gak: “Zen Buddhism is jazz.”
Kim Yun-deok

Staff Reporter
The Chosun Ilbo

On a day last month, a crowd of people applauded and cheered a blue-eyed Buddhist monk at a Zen center of the Jogye Order in Gyeonggi Province. Some asked him to pose with them for a photograph. Ignoring the commotion around him, the monk walked toward the door when he wheeled around and yelled, “What’s the use of looking at this ugly American bastard? You should rather look at yourself, your true self, in the mirror!”
Two days later, the same monk appeared at the lecture hall of the Buddhist Television Network in Bangbae-dong, Seoul. He strode ahead through the crowd that packed the lecture hall, jumped onto the dais, and sat on it cross-legged in a flash. With a playful smile on his face, the monk said, “This is the most comfortable posture in the world! I really like it.”
A Harvard University graduate who became a Zen monk, Hyon Gak (Hyongak), 46, attracted curious attention from the public for his extraordinary background. Furthermore, he rose to “stardom” in Korean Buddhist community with his memoir, “Manhaeng: From Harvard to Hwagye Temple,” in which he describes a story of how he became a Buddhist monk at the tender age of 28. (Manhaeng refers to a practice of Zen monks wandering around the world after each three-month retreat.) The book’s cover image of his serene, bespectacled face in meditation (photographed by Kim Hong-hui) was so clearly carved in the public’s minds that he became an icon of the globalization of Korean Buddhism. Either in Korea or overseas, his Dharma speeches attracted hundreds of attendants, who formed a long line after each session waiting to meet the monk in person.
All of a sudden, however, Hyon Gak left Korea in 2008 on his “manhaeng to Europe.” The monk says “I started to get myself prepared to leave on the day my great teacher Venerable Seung Sahn (Sungsan) Sunim passed away” in 2004. The main reason for leaving Korea was the fame that engulfed him like a perfect storm. “I felt shame wondering if I’d been performing a show rather than practicing Zen.” Having left Korea, his wandering in Europe ended in Germany, where he opened the Munich Zen Center (a.k.a. Non-duality Zen Center) in 2009.
I interviewed Hyon Gak Sunim (A Buddhist monk is respectfully called “sunim,” also spelled “seunim,” in Korea), who came to Seoul last month to participate in the G20 World Religious Leaders Forum. The monk was full of vitality just like a young man, and answered my questions with his characteristic straightforwardness and vigorous gestures. He used Zen jargon for some delicate questions.
Q. Your speech was rather short at the World Religious Leaders Forum. People who came for the opportunity to hear your words were quite disappointed.
A. Zen monks do not talk much. A panelist [at the forum] from France said something remarkable: Religion should be a code of ethics rather than a belief system. I agree with him. We should abandon religion. It just causes wars, instigates conflicts and destroys the environment. Today in 2010, it is ridiculous for humankind to still be attached to religion.
Q. However, you’ve also devoted yourself to religion, haven’t you?
A.This is just skin-deep. Sakyamuni was not a Buddhist. Nor was Jesus a Christian. They never taught you to create religion. Protestant doctrines were in large part formulated after the time of Christ. For religion to be truly religious, it has to put universal ethics into practice ─ to love and give.
Q. The remark that religion should be a code of ethics rather than a belief system sounds like a warning against the deification or worshiping of Jesus or the Buddha.
A.Religion is a human creation. Any true religion advocates universal values acknowledged by all and puts them into practice in everyday life. The last words of the Buddha to his disciples were: “Don’t believe anything I’ve said just because I said it.” Blind faith is poison to religion.
Q. What made you leave Korea?
A.Haven’t you just seen it? People who’d been praying at the Dharma Hall came rushing out, probably thinking that a celebrity was here. It’s my sin. In the first place, however, I didn’t intend or plan to become famous, but I think I made a mistake as a Zen practitioner. All of a sudden, I became a famous figure in the mass media, and I was inundated with requests for Dharma talks, special lectures, wedding officiating, and interviews. I asked myself what I was doing, and I felt doubts.
Q. The fact that you graduated from Harvard and that you have such good looks certainly contributed to your tempestuous popularity.
A.I felt shame for that. Zen practitioners should serve as a mirror in which people can look into themselves, but my outward looks only seduced them. In Japan, there was a beautiful Buddhist nun. So many people fell in love with her beautiful looks and suffered that she slashed her face with a knife. But please don’t take me wrong. I’m not saying that I am as beautiful as the nun. It’s just that I felt the same way.
Q. When did the thought of leaving first occur to you?
A.On the day Venerable Seung Sahn Sunim passed away in 2004. I wished to leave immediately, but I had to wait until I saw my teacher’s work for the globalization of Korean Buddhism come to a stable stage.
Q. Did you have any conflicts with the Korean Buddhist community?
Q. Some people say there were not a small number of Korean monks who disapproved of you.
A. I don’t know. If that was true, it must have been for my behavior and atmosphere not becoming of a Buddhist monk. I tended to get so boisterous at my Dharma talks that people around me used to tell me, “A Korean monk is not supposed to act like that.” So I said, “I did not come here to become a Korean monk. I came here to find my true self.”
Q. You have always extolled Korean Buddhism. Now that you’re away, can’t you give us a healthy dose of criticism?
A.I’ve received nothing but great teachings, so I just don’t want to cause any harm.
Q. Well, some criticism can be beneficial.
A.Suppose you stayed at my home in the U.S. for two or three weeks, and as you left you said something bad about my family. We’d be hurt immensely. I have no choice but to give a political answer.
Zen Buddhism is Jazz
Hyon Gak was born Paul Muenzen to a devout Catholic family in New Jersey, United States, as the seventh child out of nine siblings. He studied religion at Yale University, University of Freiburg (in Germany) and Harvard Divinity School. He was deeply influenced by the German philosophy of Kant, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and others, and first read about Buddhism in Schopenhauer. While at Harvard, he attended a lecture by Zen Master Seung Sahn from Hwagye Temple in Korea and decided to become a monk. Hyon Gak says, “When Venerable Seung Sahn Sunim asked me ‘Who are you?’ I was dumbfounded. Then, he guffawed, saying, ‘You are a Harvard student, but you don’t know yourself!’ It was a radically different world, a totally different code.”
Q. In your book “Manhaeng: From Harvard to Hwagye Temple,” it is clear that your parents had great expectations of you, their unusually brilliant son.
A.I can’t forget the look in their eyes when my parents first saw me with my hair shaved off. Now, they have a higher understanding of Buddhism, but still they feel regret. My mother once told me, “I saw a few of your college friends behind President Obama at a press conference.”    
Q. What were you like as a child?
A.A troublemaker! I still am. I don’t like being straight-laced.
Q. But you were good at studying, weren’t you?
A.Umm… Some people are good at painting, and I was good at studying. That’s all. It was not hard for me. It was the fun and challenge that mattered to me. Although good children follow the rules of adults, I liked to learn by falling down and getting hurt. How dull and boring it would be to live up to the expectations of others and always have predictable results!
Q. You would have made a good politician with your ability to appeal to the masses.
A.Many people have told me so. Well, if I had taken to politics, my inner self would have been dead. Being a good politician might have looked good outside, but would I have been happy inside? Tell me how I look right now.
Q. You look joyful, and full of energy.
A.I am what I look like to you. Zen Buddhism is jazz. A Zen monk’s life is like jazz. Many religions emphasize formality and a certain set of rules, but Zen Buddhism is different. It’s as free and impromptu as jazz music. I was destined to become a Zen monk, and so I’m happy.
Q. Buddhism is jazz?
A.A hippie or an artist could live freely. However, freedom in Buddhism is different. It means breaking free from the “small I” and being free for others. In the U.S., people clamor for freedom, but rampant is the freedom to shoot anyone at whim. Let’s say there’s a fork in my hand. Depending on my will, it could be either a tool for eating food or a weapon with which to stab a person. It’s not freedom for one’s ego but freedom for others that Buddhism seeks.
Q. You had a fiancée. Getting married doesn’t mean you can’t practice meditation.
A.Getting married and having children tends to lead one to think only about “I.”
Q. Last year, the scandals over sex abuse by priests placed the Catholic Church in Europe under severe criticism. There is a claim that the requirement of celibacy for priests and other religious practitioners may be against God’s will.
A.I am a Zen monk. That’s my answer.

I Wanted To Be Alone

Being a foreign monk, Hyon Gak plays an important role in the globalization of Korean Buddhism. One example is his publication of “The Mirror of Zen” in the United States and Europe in 2006. The book is an English version of Great Master So Sahn’s (Seosan) classic guide to Zen practice, with the original title “Seonga gugam” (禪家龜鑑). The original book, written in the 16th century Joseon in Sino-Korean, had been translated into Korean by the late Venerable Beopjeong (Boep Joeng), and this Korean version (Kkaedareum-eui geoul) served as the basis for English translation. This book is a masterpiece of Zen Buddhism, in which Great Master Seosan compiled passages from a variety of sutras and quotations from Zen patriarchs to guide his students on their practice.

Q. How did you get acquainted with Venerable Beopjeong?
A.One day in the spring of 2004, Beopjeong Sunim requested a meeting at Gilsang Temple. He asked me to translate this work into English, but I declined at first. I’m not a scholar in the field. I’m just a monk, with an ignorance of Chinese characters at that. However, Beopjeong Sunim said, “I’ve heard you practice earnestly. You are qualified to translate this work.” In order to convey the true meaning of the teachings delivered by the Joseon-era Zen master to Western readers, I had to translate them in a way that allows a more open reading, rather than render them word-for-word, very strictly and conservatively. Just like music that defies the aid of language, I wished them to be accepted naturally and spontaneously.
Q. What kind of person was Beopjeong Sunim?
A.An exemplary Zen monk with strict personal austerity and extraordinary moral and physical clarity.
Q. I’ve heard that you expressed your wish to live in a shack in the mountains and practice meditation but that Beopjeong Sunim said you would never be able to do so. What did he mean by that?
A.He meant that it would be difficult for a monk as tall, big-nosed and pale-faced as me to live in quiet solitude because word would spread to the neighboring villages.
Q. Did you really wish for a solitary life in a shack?
A.Of course. I’ve actually gone into the mountains to live. After a while, however, hikers started to recognize me, and it got noisy around me again.
Venerable Seung Sahn Sunim: My Hero and My Enemy
Q. What kind of person was Seung Sahn Sunim, who attracted an elite young man from Harvard to a Buddhist temple in Korea?
A.He was sometimes a father and sometimes a mother to me. He was my coach and my trainer, my hero and my enemy.
Q. Did you say “enemy?”
A.To put it bluntly, a person without such emotional impact, without such drama, is not a true teacher.
Q. It seems you were scolded a lot by your teacher.
A.I was — especially when I published my book (Manhaeng). He must have taken it as the vanity of a young student who was deficient in practice but wanted to show off himself as early as possible. You know even my face was featured on the cover. However, I had a secret that I couldn’t confide to my teacher.
Q. What would that be?
A.At that time, Zen Master Seung Sahn’s teachings had barely been introduced to Korea. His students, including me, felt it our duty to integrate them in publication. And we had been contacting a number of publishers when the Asian currency crisis broke out in the late 1990s. In its aftermath, all the publishers declined our proposal, but then, one of them offered that they would publish my teacher’s book on the condition that I wrote a book about my renunciation. I was tempted. After thinking it over, I signed the contract and finished the manuscript in six weeks. And then I entered into a 100-day meditation retreat, after which I found out that the book created a huge sensation. Because of that, Venerable Seung Sahn Sunim became better known to the world.
Q. Was publishing your teacher’s book your sole purpose of writing “Manhaeng”?
A.Apart from that, I wanted to awaken Koreans into the fact that they have such beautiful traditions and philosophies. When I first came to Korea in the early 1990s, I couldn’t understand Koreans who would abandon their good traditions and follow the American lifestyle. Meanwhile, the Western world was anxious to learn about the spiritual culture and philosophies of the East. When I was in college, reading about Buddhism, along with piercing, was the latest trend among young people. Suppose you threw away an old scarf and then someone picked it up and admired its beauty, wouldn’t you want to have it back? I hoped my book would play that role.
Q. But your book is not available these days.
A.I had it out of print. I suffered greatly because of the book. Many people, even my fellow Buddhists, asked me if I made a lot of money. Because of the book, I had to appear on TV shows and radio programs, and was summoned to give lectures too often. Was I a celebrity? No. I just wanted to live as a practitioner.
Q. “Manhaeng” sold hundreds of thousands of copies. What did you spend the royalties for?
A.As I had stated that I would in the last chapter of the book, I donated the royalties to globalization projects of Korean Buddhism, which was Venerable Seung Sahn Sunim’s grand aim.
Q. What were the last words of Venerable Seung Sahn?
A.“Don’t worry. Don’t worry. The mountain is always green, and the water keeps flowing. It’s neither a path for coming and going nor a path that once exits and then disappears. It is nature as it is.”
My Favorite Scripture
Q. Now, let’s talk about the Munich Zen Center. What made you settle down in Munich?
A.While wandering around Europe and looking for a place for my practice, I met some Buddhists in Germany. They asked me to help them with their practice, so I happened to stay in Munich.
Q. I presume it must look quite different from Korean temples.
A.We rented a small house and renovated it into a Zen center. There are about 40 lay practitioners, and half of them are Korean Germans.
Q. Tell me about its other name, Non-duality Zen Center.
A.Non-duality is an essential Buddhist idea that you and I are not two separate beings, that human nature is one. Saliva, urine, rain, snow and tears… they all have different shapes, colors and smells, but essentially they all are H2O. They may appear distinct, but are not separate. Duality is a human idea, which makes us fight, claiming ‘You’re wrong and I’m right.’ This idea of duality is behind the recent conflict over some young Korean Protestants who went to Bongeun Temple and prayed for “treading down of temple grounds.” The same is true for suicide bombings by Islamic fundamentalists. Non-duality has special implications to the two countries: Germany, which has become one from the state of division, and Korea, which still remains divided. Division breeds exclusivity and alienation. In this sense, Buddhism will contribute to the peaceful reunification of Korea.
Q. Don’t you feel bored in Germany since you’ve just come from such a dynamic country as Korea?
A.Back in Korea, I once had a tour around rugged cliffs of Geoje Island in a boat, in which “trot” dance music was blasting from the speaker. I asked the captain to lower the volume a little bit, but he said other passengers would be bored without the music. Sensations and stimuli are some of the things Korea has taught me about. People are so accustomed to these that they don’t know how to enjoy tranquility and peaceful emptiness. Go to any café, and you’ll easily find a couple sitting side by side, each rubbing their fingers on their respective smart phones. In a temple, people perform 108 bows murmuring “gwanseum bosal, gwanseum bosal” (Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara) and their phone rings and rings in their pockets. I’m so worried.
Q. It should be harder over there financially than in Korea.
A.My fellow Buddhists and many Korean monks have given us great support for the center, but we do have difficulties. I think I may have to wash dishes at some restaurants.
Q. Don’t you miss the days back in Korea when things were taken care of by so many supporters?
A.No, I don’t.
Q. Following your Dharma talk for the Buddhist TV, people were waiting in a long line to meet you in person. When visiting Korea, do you brace yourself for this popularity to some extent?
A.Getting famous was neither my plan nor my ambition. It came to me like a storm. I’ve tried to use my popularity in the best possible ways to help others. After all, I realized that fame was just another burden and a source of suffering. I went to Europe to be alone. If I become famous again there, I will leave for somewhere else. Zen Master Gyeongheo Sunim, the great teacher in Zen Buddhism, also disappeared when he became famous. A few years later, he was found at a small village school, teaching children Chinese characters, wearing layman’s clothes, and having long hair and a long beard. I imagine I may live like that someday.
Q. Don’t you ever feel weary of your practice? There are lots of fun things to do in the world.
A.Is that true? Secular pleasures come and go, and then are followed by boredom. Before I became a monk, my life was one of constant searching and seeking: money, honor, power, love, et cetera, et cetera. People often ask me how I could renounce all the sweetness of the world, but that was not honey, but poison. My way as a Buddhist monk has been the best choice of my life. I was fortunate.
Q. It’s been almost 20 years since you were ordained. Have you found your true self?
A.The coffee we’re now sipping — isn’t it fragrant?
Q. Your lectures on the Diamond Sutra are still remembered by many Buddhists. What is your favorite scripture?
A.The “Sutra of This Moment”! This moment that I smell the coffee. This moment that I listen to the jazz music. This moment that I walk, talk and go to the market. This moment that I feel the breeze brushing my cheek. This moment that I shake hands with my friend and share the feels. Moment, moment, moment. . .
* Who is Monk Hyon Gak?

Monk Hyon Gak (Hyongak) was born in 1964 to a Catholic family in New Jersey, United States. He studied philosophy and literature at Yale University, and the philosophy of religion at the University of Freiburg in Germany and Harvard Divinity School. While at Harvard, he attended a lecture delivered by Great Zen Master Seung Sahn (Sungsan) from Hwagye Temple in Korea. Attracted by his teachings, Hyon Gak was ordained a monk under Great Zen Master Seung Sahn and moved to Korea in 1992. He was the guiding teacher at Providence Zen Center, the U.S. headquarters of Korean Zen Buddhism, and translated and compiled Seung Sahn’s texts into books in English, including “The Compass of Zen,” “The Whole World is a Single Flower” and “Only Don’t Know.” In 1997, he wrote a book entitled “Manhaeng: From Harvard to Hwagye Temple,” which earned him great fame in Korea. In 2006, he translated “The Mirror of Zen” written by Great Master So Sahn (Seosan, 1520-1604) into English. He has lived in Germany since 2009 and is currently the guiding teacher for the Munich Zen Group.

[December 11, 2010]