guiding teacher / abbot

Hyon Gak Sunim

Hyon Gak Sunim (“Sunim”) was born Paul J. Muenzen in 1964 to a family of devout Catholics in New Jersey, U.S.A. He was educated in literature, literary theory, and philosophy at Yale University (Class of 1987) and comparative religions at Harvard Divinity School, where he received the degree of Master of Theological Studies in 1992.

Hyon Gak Sunim became a student of Zen Master Seung Sahn in 1989 while studying in Cambridge, Mass., and lived for several years at the Cambridge Zen Center. He was ordained by his Teacher in 1992 in China, at the Temple of the Sixth Patriarch, on Chogye Mountain: he was the first Westerner to be ordained in the People’s Republic of China since the Communist Revolution. He has been doing training in various remote mountain places in Asia, including 3 intensive 100-day solo meditation retreats and some forty 3-month intensive meditation retreats (ango).

In August 2001, in a public ceremony at Hwa Gye Sah Temple, Sunim was publicly tested in Dharma combat before an assembly of monks and nuns who had just completed the Summer Kyol Che, and received inka (formal approval of enlightenment, and certification of teaching authorization) from Zen Master Seung Sahn in Hwa Gye Sah Temple, South Korea.

At the conferral of his authorization, Zen Master Seung Sahn said to the assembly, in Korean, “This is a clear mind. If anyone wants to know how to do this kind of Dharma combat, this is what you saw.” Those words are memorialized on the taped recording of the ceremony.

Formal "inka" Portrait, Teacher and Student

In 2002, Zen Master Seung Sahn appointed Hyon Gak Sunim to be the Guiding Teacher of the Zen Hall at Hwa Gye Sah Temple, thereby becoming his Teacher’s official teaching representative at the temple where Zen Master Seung Sahn had been based for 50 years, and where he died in November 2003. During that time, Sunim was also his Teacher’s secretary.

In 2010, perceiving a limiting institutional rigidity which he felt to be incompatible with the edgy, spontaneous heart of Zen’s expedient means, Sunim decided to teach independently of the Kwan Um School of Zen’s hierarchy-structure, while continuing to remain deeply faithful to the extraordinary teaching technologies of Zen Master Seung Sahn. Yet he often sends his students to Kwan Um retreats, and Kwan Um students often correspond and visit with him to get guidance on their practice.

Dharma Talk Serbia, September 2016

Sunim is often cited in Korean media with leading a revival of interest in Buddhism in Korean society, especially among the young and educated. His multi-million bestselling book, From Harvard to Hwa Gye Sah Temple, is regarded as the first major-bestseller in Korean Buddhist history; and his editing, translation, and teaching of several texts by Zen Master Seung Sahn made him one of the most recognized and influential voices in modern Korean Buddhism. The Education Department of the Chogye Order has quoted in media that “it is believed that over 100 Koreans have become monks or nuns crediting his bestselling book that was first published at the end of 1999.”

Due to his renown, Sunim became overwhelmed with demands. Over-burdened by the excessive expectations, and weary of the politics of Chogye Buddhism, Sunim left Korea for the West in 2009/10, where he is based today.

As the former Buddhist co-Chaplain at Harvard University (1996-97), Sunim has given public talks at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, UC-Berkeley, Oxford, Columbia, NYU, Union Theological Seminary, Brown, SUNY, Université de Paris, University of London, Charles University (Prague), University of Latvia, Vilnius University, University of Salzburg, and University of Oslo, among many others, in addition to colleges, divinity schools, and countless temples throughout Korea, and other temples in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Japan.

He was invited to teach meditation to executives at Facebook HQ in Silicon Valley in 2012. In June 2018, he was invited to teach Zen meditation at a conference in the Vatican: it was the first time that Zen was ever known to have been taught inside the Vatican.

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