On Larks & Owls

Myong An Sunim JDPS visited to lead our retreat in October 2016. Currently serving as abbot at Haeng Won Zen Center in Malaysia, he worked in the financial services industry prior to ordaining as a monk. Sunim has completed several dozen intensive 90-day retreats, called "Kyol Che," in Korea.

On meeting Zen Master Seung Sahn ...

When I first met Zen Master Seung Sahn, it was back in 1992. That was the first time I encountered Zen teaching. I was completely bowled over. He completely hit my mind. I was very fortunate to have met Zen Master Seung Sahn. It gave me a direction in life.


On becoming a monk...

The decision to opt for the monastic life came later. I didn't wake up one morning and say, "Eureka! This is what I am going to do." It was a gradual transition, not a sudden change.


Are people familiar with Zen in Malaysia?

In the capital, in Kuala Lumpur, where we have been putting on retreats for more than 15 years, people are fairly au fait with it. But here in Penang, when I first came here, there was no familiarity with the Zen tradition at all. I was a little surprised when they looked at me a little blankly even when I mentioned the 6th Patriarch, Hui Neng, one of the greatest Chinese Zen Masters. There is not such a big understanding of Zen practice in Penang. There is a lot of Theravadan influence due to the proximity of Thailand.

A situation that a teacher helped him with...

I was already a monk and living at Mu Sang Sa. At that time, I had a temple job ... I was the director. I was always struggling. When I was in the office, doing office stuff, I always felt I should be in the dharma room doing Kyol Che stuff. When I was in the dharma room, I felt I should be in the office. It was a bit of a struggle to find a balance between practice and work. In an interview one day, I asked Zen Master Wu Bong about this. He looked at me and said, "When you're in the office, just be in the office. When you are in the dharma room, just be in the dharma room." I had heard that intellectually before. But I had not absorbed it. When he said it like that, it really hit me. I knew ... that's correct and mentally kicked myself. That's exactly what I should be doing.

Any advice for those who find it difficult to get up in the morning?

Some of us are larks, and some are owls. Some of us prefer to do stuff late at night. That's our body type. If you happen to be an owl, getting up early is always going to be a challenge. If you live in a community, then that type of thing is taken care of ... whether you happen to be a lark or an owl. Following the schedule is the best way. That takes away your likes and dislikes. Just do it. After a while, it no longer has this opposites thinking. It is no longer a question of whether I like it or not. Whether you like it or not doesn't really factor in any more. You just follow the schedule. That is a good way to train, to train the mind.


You were in the business world for a long time. Is being a monk now ... more meaningful?

Yeah. If it wasn't, I wouldn't be doing it. The monastic life held much greater meaning for me than climbing the corporate ladder. Initially, I felt I was doing what i really wanted to do. That lasted a few years. After that, [corporate life] just became just something to do to get money to pay the rent. I met a very nice man ... he used to be a CEO of an international investment bank. He was in charge of a few thousand people. He told me that throughout most of his life, he believed that freedom meant having lots of money. He was appointed CEO. He felt like he won the Olympics, but there was no prize. After a while, he became depressed, even in the top job. After a few years, he quit, even though he was at the top of his game. For some of us, we get caught in this kind of thinking. But eventually we will see what is meaningful—and what isn't.


His advice for a Zen student with trepidation around kong-an practice ... and his own difficulties with the Sun-Faced Buddha, Moon-Faced Buddha kong-an (#326 in The Whole World Is A Single Flower).

[Kong-an practice] is not a competition. It's not a grade game at school where you are trying to get it right. It is just experiencing the moment. Just answer with don't know, not knowing if it is going to be right or wrong.

I was stuck on that koan for God knows how long. I couldn't answer. I got very fed up with it. I was discouraged. I didn't want to go in again and be told again that I couldn't answer it. I kind of gave up on that koan. I had to drag myself in trying to face the situation.

That winter, I decided to try a different tradition. Where there is no koan practice. I had a good experience and came back [to the monastery]. [Then he had another interview.] I wasn't even thinking. Some answer popped up and I said it. The teacher said, 'Correct!' I said, 'Really?' I was surprised. I had not worked on that homework. That was a kind of experience of not-knowing. Life is a big don't know.