Born in 1927 on the second day of the lunar New Year, Daehaeng Kun Sunim’s family was originally quite well-off. Her father had been an army officer under the last king of Korea, and had continued to resist the Japanese military occupation of Korea.
For years he had evaded arrest, but when Sunim was six years old, in about 1933, the Japanese came after him. They confiscated all of his remaining lands and property, and he fled his house with his wife and children minutes ahead of the Japanese secret police. The family escaped across the Han River with only the clothes they were wearing.
There in the mountains south of Seoul they built a dugout hut. Their life of wealth and privilege was gone, as if it had never existed. For a long time all they had to eat was what they could beg or what was left in the fields after the harvest. Seeing the pitiful situation of his family and country, Sunim’s father was filled with despair. Although he was kind and generous with other people, for some reason he poured out all of his anger and frustration onto Sunim, his eldest daughter.
Confused and unable to understand why this was happening, she stayed away from the family’s hut as much as possible in order to avoid her father. She often slept alone in the forest, covering herself with leaves to stay warm. After about two years of such hunger and cold, she noticed that the fear she had felt at being out in the mountains at night had faded, and the dark night had gradually become comfortable and beautiful. However, the world outside of the forest seemed to be filled with suffering.
While spending her nights in the forest, Sunim often wondered who had formed her and why people had to suffer from hunger and disease. Why did people suffer? Who am I? What am I? What made me? She concentrated on these questions more and more, and intensely wanted to know the answers to these.
One day, with a flood of warmth, she suddenly knew that her true self had always been within her. It felt so wonderful and kind, unlike the father who awaited her at home, that she called it “Daddy.” This wasn’t the father whom she didn’t dare let see her, but was her true owner, the inherent nature that had made her. Sunim cried and cried with joy at knowing that her true parent, her true nature had always been with her.
Years later Sunim laughed about this saying, “If I hadn’t been so young and uneducated, I might have called it Buddha-nature or true self, but at that all I knew was that it was so full of love and warmth that I took the ‘Daddy’ that I felt within me as my father.” From that time on, Sunim took what she called “Daddy” as her place of comfort and poured all her love into there. As a poor and abused girl, she had nothing but “Daddy” to rely on. She knew that her “Daddy” was not separate from her and had always been within her. Furthermore, feeling that everything was the same as her “Daddy,” she couldn’t treat anything carelessly, not even a blade of grass, a root, or a stone. Afterwards Sunim just completely relied upon “Daddy” and knew that it could answer all of her questions. She did so naturally because she knew that it was the source of all things. She spent years like this, always taking “Daddy” as her guide and companion.
The Path that’s not an obvious Path
In the spring of 1950, Sunim was ordained as a Samini.Shortly after this, the Korean War broke out. As Daehaeng Kun Sunim witnessed the suffering and misery of the war, she wanted to know more thoroughly the meaning of life and continued to practice. “You will see your true self after you die” was the message that always arose within from her. Sunim gradually became more and more determined to completely solve this question. With a yearning to know the answer to this mystery, she attempted to kill herself in many ways.
One day she reached the edge of a cliff. The moment she looked down at the water, she forgot all about dying. She may have spent half a day standing there, looking at the water. Gradually her awareness of her surroundings returned and she started walking again. Tears flowed down her face. Now she understood that destroying the body was not the path. She had realized that she would be able to see her true self when she entrusted everything, including all that she had thought of as “me,” to her foundation.
Sunim was never content to settle for what she had realized. Instead, she just kept going forward while trying to sincerely apply and experiment with what she had realized, without clinging to any experience or understanding. At night she would stop walking and just sleep wherever she was, usually in a field or in the mountains. Wet from the morning dew, she would welcome the dawn when it arrived at the opening of each day. As the light spread across the land, she wandered wherever her feet took her. If she was lucky, she would find some wild fruit, but usually she just went hungry. All she had to wear was one thin set of summer clothes.
When winter came, she would spend the cold nights in empty mountain shrines, if possible. If she was fortunate, she would come across a haystack, which she thought was the most wonderful bed possible. Her feet were frozen from frostbite and her skin would swell and split, but even this pain did not hinder her. She said that she never attempted to find a particular teacher.
All beings and things were my teachers. Wild animals, birds, a clump of grass, and even a stone kicked underfoot were all my teachers, and they gave me immeasurable teachings. I gained an understanding of truth from tiny things, rather than from studying Buddhist texts or sitting in meditation. Above all, the supreme teacher who led me was my inner self, Juingong. And sentient beings, blind while their eyes were open, laughing when they are happy and crying when they are sad, were also my teachers. Had it not been for them, how could I have realized the principle that the Buddha and all sentient beings are not separate?
Although to others, Sunim seemed to experience much suffering, she never thought of her practice as such. She wasn’t intentionally trying to engage in some sort of physical hardship, it’s just that all of her attention was directed towards only her true nature. For example, when questions such as “What principle is this?” and “Who is doing this?” arose within her, she observed them very deeply, without noticing that it was getting dark, or how cold it was. Sunim wasn’t even aware of her body. Only her mind was clear and bright. Even when her eyes were closed, inside it was the same as if she was awake. One time, it happened that she spent a few days like this without moving at all, and afterwards her whole body was so stiff that she couldn’t even move her hands or feet.
Later, while Sunim was in the mountains, she experienced a huge light. She had been sitting in meditation and suddenly was surrounded by a huge brightness. The light extended in all directions for about four kilometers and filled her with indescribable fulfillment and comfort. Every direction was filled with light, and it seemed like the light was filling even the tiniest of spaces. After this experience, she felt like she was always surrounded by this light and that all things and lives were helping her.
From that moment, Sunim kept going forward from the stage where all things are not two, where self and the foundation of the universe are not different. By testing what she had experienced so far, Sunim was confirming the power of mind. She began to explore the planets, the solar system, the galaxy, and beyond our galaxy. She also paid special attention to diseases, having seen so much suffering caused by them. She would experiment with using the power of mind to cure diseases and later would check to see how the disease had been affected.
“All beings were my teacher”
In the late 1950’s, Daehaeng Kun Sunim ended her ten-year journey in the mountains and settled in a small hut near Sangwon Temple on Mt. Chiak. A great many people called on her. Whenever any of them spoke of their suffering, she took on that suffering as her own. She listened and responded by simply saying, “I understand. It will be alright.” The people would leave knowing that their problems would soon be resolved.
Although Sunim spent many years in 1960’s helping other people, sooner or later they always had another problem they needed her help to solve. So they would come and ask Sunim to take care of the problem. They didn’t know anything about the Buddha-nature within themselves, and they didn’t understand that their Buddha-nature was the one that could lead them and take care of all their problems.
Seeing the suffering of so many people, Sunim became determined to teach others how to solve their problems for themselves, so they could leave the bonds of samsara and karma behind and live freely. While seon masters have traditionally taught only monks and a few nuns, Daehaeng Kun Sunim was determined to teach spiritual practice in such a way that anyone, regardless of their occupation, gender, or family status could practice and awake.With this in mind, she established Hanmaum Seon Center in 1972 as a place where everyone could come and learn about their true nature and how to live with freedom, dignity, and courage.
As time went by, people from more distant areas began asking Daehaeng Kun Sunim to start a Hanmaum Seon Center in their area. In this way, as of 2015, 15 branches have been established within Korea, and ten Hanmaum Seon centers have been established overseas.
For the next forty years she gave wisdom to those who needed wisdom, food and money to those she were poor and hungry, and compassion to those who were hurting. Her teachings have been translated into twelve different languages top date: English, German, Russian, Chinese, French, Spanish, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Vietnamese, Estonian, and Arabic, in addition to the original Korean.