Interview to monk Tae Hye

(Taken from n.51 of the magazine Paramita, year 1994)



Which existential reasons and spiritual motivations led you to Buddhism?

Since my youth I have been looking for a way which would lead to harmonize the intellectual, emotional and practical aspects of life; between human beings and nature, the way towards a sincere happiness. Buddhism seemed to offer the most reasonable philosophy and a higher morality based on non-violence. I was especially impressed by the love towards animals and all conscious beings. In the unity of life there is no separate self, independent from the interrelation with life as a whole. At the age of sixteen I started considering myself a Buddhist, even if at that time I didnít know any other Buddhists and had only a few books translated in Finnish.

What are your experiences in the study and practice of the Dharma?

As in Finland there were no Buddhist temples, I decided to visit Buddhist centers in other countries. In 1980 I reached the Lama Institute Tzong Khapa in Italy and stayed there for a few months. I understood that Tibetan Tantrism is too complicated for my simple mind, but the community life of the Institute was very illuminating and I felt I wanted to live following the monastic way of life, trying to help people as a monk. I later received the vows as novice in Thailandia and in 1987, after some years of travelling, I received the vows as monk in Korea. In my practice, the vipassana meditation naturally evolved into the zen of the single mind, the dhyana of the quid. The "home" of my life without a home is Songgwan-sa, a Korean Zen monastery, 1200 years old, where many other Western monks and nuns have practiced under the guidance of the deceased Kusan sunim and the present teacher He Kwang sunim.

How is the Korean Zen tradition different with respect to other Buddhist traditions and in particular Japanese Zen (Rinzai e Soto)?

The Korean Zen school chogye-son takes its name "chogye" from the residence of the sixth patriarch Hui Neng. "Son" is the Korean pronunciation of the word "dhyana", contemplation. The chogye school represents the school of Hui Neng, the original zen preceding the division in many branches. Its foundation goes back to the seventh century. It is said that if one wants to experience what zen (chan) was in ancient China, one should go to Korea, as the ancient way of life of itinerant monks and nuns has been best preserved in the mountains of Korea. The spirit of Koran zen is less militaristic than the Japanese spirit. The rules of the meditation hall are less formalistic, but the moral principles are more emphasized. Monks and nuns of the chogye order live in celibacy in accordance to the rules of the vinaya. As in the Rinzai school, the most common practice is the meditation on the existential doubt (hwadu), but some habits, like for example sitting facing the wall, are similar to the ones in the soto tradition. Korean zen is not unidirectional. In addition to the hwadu method one practices also the recitation of mantras, the awareness of breathing and the serene clarity (just sitting). The teachings were mainly passed on by the Chinese Lin-chi school (Rinzai).

How is monastic life in the Korean tradition?

In the Korean temples live many kinds of individuals: postulants who work in the kitchen, novice monks and nuns (one stays novice for three or four years), fully ordained monks and nuns, lay-people who practice and in some small temples there are also orphans or old poor people. "sunim" is the general term of respect to indicate monks and nuns. Many novices study Sutra and philosophy for some years in monastic schools. After the final vows, a sunim may begin a period of intensive zen in the meditation hall or work at the temple. Some carry out the duty of teaching, some become specialists in ceremonies and some meditators reach the mountain hermitages for solitary retreats of long periods. Life in the temple is divided in four seasons: winter and summer for the retreats, spring and autumn for other activities. During the three-months retreats, those who stay in the meditation hall, practice eight, ten, almost twelve hours every day. In the days of full moon or new moon, the masters give a talk on Dharma. Lay-people often visit the temple, take part in the activities, support the temple with offers. Many lay-people who practice are women and especially many old women practice intensely zen meditation, the recitation of sutras and prostrations.

What is the essence of contemplation?

The essence of contemplation is to reach the "non-mind", the nature of Buddha, instant by instant, to be aware of the present moment. Zen master Shen Hui, a disciple of Hui Neng, wrote: "Know by yourself that the intrinsic essence is quiet, empty and without attributes. It is without home or attachment and is the same as the space, and there is no place it cannot pervade. This is the body of the quid of the Buddhas. The quid is the essence of the non-thought"

We should continuously investigate what the mind without a home is, what is the clear mind without discriminations, what is true freedom. From freedom derives true morality, true meditation and true wisdom.

How is the practice at the Pagoda?

The Pagoda temple is a small and modest temple, with one or two monks and two cats. Rather than organizing group retreats or courses, we base our activity on a daily program. People who practice can come and share our life consisting of contemplation, brief ceremonies, work and study. We generally dedicate Sunday to intensive practice. The study is centered on the reading and in-depth study of the writings of the ancient masters: Hui Neng, Huang Po, etc. Guests at the Pagoda must respect the five precepts and the principles of meditative life, for example not eating meat and not drinking alcohol. Visitors can make voluntary offers to support the temple.

Which do you think should be the lines of evolution of Buddhism in the Western world?

In the Western world there are already many Buddhist centers for lay-people. Now the monastic life should be developed to a greater extent. Living as a monk in Europe or America is difficult. In some Buddhist centers the monks have more or less the functions of hosts. It would be important for monks and nuns of different schools to have frequent contacts, developing in this way a model for monastic life suitable to the Western world. Concerning the main Buddhist scriptures, translations in western languages differ from school to school and are not always reliable. I think that an agreement among various schools that would develop a unique and correct version would be convenient. For example, the Heart Sutra is used in the same version in China, Korea and Japan (the only difference is in the pronunciation). The Italian, English, etc translations, are on the other hand different from each other.

The base of the teaching of the enlightened is very simple: to be aware, observing reality as it is here and now. In 2400 years many Buddhist traditions have developed complex forms of doctrines, methods and rituals. We Western people can go back to the simplicity of the origins. I believe the future of Buddhism in the world will be characterized by a return to the essential teachings.

The most profound method is the non-method of the non-school. With an empty mind one can comprehend.


Tae Hye Sunim (right in the picture)

During a retreat in Taiwan