by Barbara Yen
This article is written by Barbara Yen in conjunction with 2014 International Bhikkhuni Day Celebration at Gotami Vihara Society Malaysia Honouring Eminent Asian Buddhist Women in the Modern Era.
Korea – Venerable Bhikshuni Daehaeng Kun Sunim (1927 – 2012): A Great Meditation Master
Ven Daehaeng was born in 1927 in Seoul’s Itaewon district. Like Master Cheng Yan of Tzu Chi, she was a self made nun without obtaining formal monastic training. As a child her family suffered greatly and lost their home under the Japanese colonial rule as her father was in the Korean army. As she had an inclination to meditate she seized the opportunity of the family being homeless and living in the forest, she took to the mountains, to spend time alone in the wilderness.
Spiritual Search and Cultivation
In 1950, Ven Daehaeng took the samaneri vows with Venerable Hanam Kun Sunim. She entered Sangwon Temple and spent four years in the mountains. As a female ascetic practitioner, she encountered gender-specific challenges.
With only the clothes she was wearing, and sleeping under trees, she ate whatever leaves and grass that was available. To keep herself safe, she smeared her body with mud which caused her skin to crack and bleed during winter. She was mistaken to be mentally ill and was bullied and beaten. During the Korean War, she was arrested on suspicion of being a spy for North Korea.
Ven Daehaeng received full ordination in 1961 and for six years, she stayed in a small hut in Sangwonsa Temple on Mt. Ch’iak. Her focus was on finding her true Buddha-nature and trying to understand the true owner, the true doer. After about thirty years of intense practice and upon her awakening, she was absorbed in the various questions that spontaneously arose from inside. If a question arose in her mind, she stood on a spot for days and nights until she found an answer.
Teaching and Leadership Role
In 1972, Ven Daehaeng founded the Hanmaun Sonwon (One Mind Zen Centre) in Anyang, near Seoul and became its abbess. It was a place where everyone could learn about their true, pure nature and how to live with freedom, dignity, and courage.
Her teaching mainly emphasises on the daily cultivation of mind by observing ‘kuan’ or awareness; that everyday life and every moment was the perfect time to practice.
Ven believed that everyone was endowed with the wisdom and abilities of all Buddhas which was different from the egoistic, individual self. She called this wholesome mind ‘juinkong’ (the master who is void). One was to entrust everything to it and would be peaceful here and now and be free from the bondage of ego, and thus the web of suffering.
The perfect moment and answer to overcome suffering thus lay within us and there was no need to rely on outside powers or to search from elsewhere. Once this cloud of habits and discriminations had lifted, our inherently bright foundation, our true nature, could shine through. She taught us to entrust, to let go of everything that confronted us, to our inherent foundation, and then to go forward while observing.
Ven Daehaeng stressed the need to discover and develop our fundamental, universal mind and Buddha-nature and through which all beings and all universe were inter-connected as one. She was determined to teach spiritual practice in such a way that anyone, regardless of their occupation, gender, or family status could practice and awaken.
Ven was able to realise her teaching of harmonious living with all beings. The most outstanding activity was the formation of choirs for hymn singing daily as part of ‘kuan’ practice – for children, young adults, mothers and men.
Her Teaching on Truth
“Truth is the flowing that never stops for even a moment. It flows and penetrates and is alive. There is nothing in the world that is unmoving. Without beginning or end, without coming and going, there is only flowing, just as it is. Like flowing water, it flows naturally, without any hindrance. Because it is flowing like water, there is no moment that it ever becomes stagnant. Therefore, stopping something from flowing is the same as killing it.”
Ven’s charismatic leadership attracted several hundred disciples and became the first nun in Korea to have male disciples, despite of observing the Eight Chief Rules or Garudamas. She also had about 100,000 lay followers. About 40% were men, many of whom were young, male intellectuals who helped establish a leading weekly Buddhist newspaper, Hyundae Bulkyo (Modern Buddhism) in 1994. They also produced a journal and other publications, conducted research and workshops, and became a pioneer in setting up on-line sites. In 1996 they formed the Hanmaum Science Institute.
Her Dhamma talks which were usually attended by thousands of people, strove to combine the spiritual and material worlds under the teachings of One Mind. She used simple everyday language and was usually followed by questions and answers which was rarely practiced during her time in Korea.
She was seen as a Bodhisattva of medicine with her healing powers and had great compassion for people who were sick. She took on other’s pain, both physical and mental and healed them without even touching them. She also has psychic powers and communicated with deities, the deceased and with plants and animals.
She established fifteen branch temples in Korea and ten worldwide, in the United States, Canada, Germany, Argentina, Thailand and Brazil.
- No River to Cross: Trusting the enlightenment that’s always right here (2007, Wisdom Publications)
- Wake Up and Laugh: The Dharma teachings of Zen Master Daehaeng (2014, Wisdom Publications)
- A Thousand Hands of Compassion: The Chant of Korean spirituality and Enlightenment (2008, Korean/English, Hanmaum Publications)
- My Heart is a Golden Buddha: Buddhist stories from Korea (2012, Hanmaum Publications)
In the late 1970’s, she began translating the traditional ceremonies which were first used in the temples she founded. She was concerned that laypeople were missing the benefits that understanding the ceremonies could provide. She began translating them from the traditional Sino-Korean characters into modern, phonetic Korean. These included:
- Thousand Hands Sutra (千手經), which includes the Great Compassion Dharani (大悲咒)
- Heart Sutra (般若心經)
- Diamond Sutra (金剛經)
- Flower Ornament Sutra (華嚴經).
Her Korean version of the Thousand Hands Sutra and the Great Compassion Dharani has been published in English as A Thousand Hands of Compassion.
Due to her popularity and success, she was accepted by the Chogye Order, the largest Buddhist Order in Korea.
She passed away at the age of 85 after leading a monastic life for 63 years.
Ven Daehaeng is widely regarded as one of Korea’s foremost Seon (Zen) masters and left an indelible mark in Korean Seon mountain meditation with her extraordinary determination in her spiritual practice and commitment to spread the Buddha sasana. She contributed to the modernization and popularization of Korean Buddhism throughout the world. Her work has made her legendary, even during her life-time.
1. Pori Park, ‘The Leadership of Bhikshuni Master Daechaeng and the One Mind Zen Centre (Hanmaum Seonwon) in South Korea,’ Eminent Buddhist Women,’ 11th Sakyadhita International Conference, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, 2010
2. Hyesoen Sunim, ‘The Ascetic Mountain Practice of Seon Master Daechaeng,’ Eminent Buddhist Women,’ 11th Sakyadhita International Conference, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, 2010
3. World-wide webs: http://wakeupandlaugh.com/daehaeng-kun-sunim/, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daehaeng_Sunim, http://sweepingzen.com/daehaeng-kun-sunim-korean-zen-teacher-dies-at-85/
President, Gotami Vihara Society, Malaysia