Samu Sunim, a Korean Seon (Zen) Buddhist master who established temples throughout North America and in Mexico, died on August 6, 2022 at his temple in Toronto. Samu Sunim (“venerable monk”) had been living with Parkinson’s disease, and was surrounded by several of his students when he died, according to the Buddhist Society for Compassionate Wisdom. He is survived by two children: Maji Raphael Kim and Micheline Kim.
His cremation was held on August 11 in Milton, Ontario. “We chanted and gave Sunim a final farewell as the smoke blended with the radiant summer sky,” the temple reported.
Born as Sam-Woo Kim on March 3, 1941 in Chinju, South Korea, Samu Sunim became an orphan at the age of 10. He spent several years homeless, begging and working temporary jobs in Seoul, before becoming a Buddhist monk in the Jogye Order, first at Namjang-sa Monastery and later at Pomo-sa Monastery, where he ordained with Tongsan Sunim (1890–1965) and studied Zen with Solbong Sunim (1890–1969).
Samu Sunim first left for Japan and then the West after being drafted into military service (despite being a Buddhist monk). He recalled: “After I left Solbong Sunim and the country, I became constantly subject to the ups and downs of life. Like a piece of driftwood, I drifted along unprotected in the wide world of conflicts. Sometimes different social forces and currents that tossed me around were so strong and swift that I submerged and suffered loss. Other times, I observed and enjoyed different scenery and the changing faces of life situations. All along, I was making a journey which had no set purpose aside from my being one with it wherever it took me.”
In 1967, Samu Sunim founded the Zen Lotus Society in New York City. Zen students found Samu Sunim through hand-drawn posters in Greenwich Village; he is said to have spent time meditating with “whomever showed up” before leaving to work the night shift at United Parcel Service (UPS).
Samu Sunim started his formal teaching career following a three-year solo retreat in Toronto, teaching meditation to the Korean-Canadian community from a basement apartment that flooded when it rained too much, according to his biography. In 1979, Samu Sunim moved into his organization’s first temple: a “former flophouse” in the Parkdale neighborhood that he and his students purchased after fundraising and living frugally for several years. The community significantly renovated the building themselves, a tradition of work-practice that would continue when Zen Buddhist Temple opened centers in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Chicago, New York, and Mexico City, and a farm in upstate New York.
Samu Sunim’s community also applied its “cottage industry” mentality to publishing, starting the Spring Wind newsletter and magazines after buying a printing press for $100 in the early eighties. The international magazine was published until 1986 and later revived from 2002–2005. The Seon master also organized the 1986 Conference on Zen Buddhism in North America and the 1987 Conference on World Buddhism in North America, both held at the Zen Buddhist Temple in Ann Arbor. In July of 1990, Samu Sunim organized the Conference on Buddhism in Canada, which was sponsored by various Buddhist temples and organizations in Toronto and marked the “first time in history Buddhists from across Canada came together.”
In an interview with Tricycle published in 1995, Samu Sunim talked to editor Clark Strand about what he saw as a disconnect between “high” and “folk” Buddhism. He called upon Asian monastics to go beyond their preoccupation with “looking inward” to serve their own communities, and to create an inclusive sangha beyond the white and intellectual converts.
“Right now, Buddhism in the West is helping people who can come to Zen centers or Buddhist groups—people who can help themselves. We lack the organization, the funds, and the manpower to provide other kinds of aid,” Samu Sunim said at the time.
“In monastic Buddhism, the main thing is to imitate Shakyamuni Buddha—to imitate the six years of ascetic practice he did after he renounced the world. That’s the whole monastic career. But I don’t think we can repeat that here, and there is no need to repeat it. I think the focus should be on Shakyamuni Buddha after he attained enlightenment. The first thing he said was, ‘Lo and behold, every being, without exception, without discrimination, is endowed with the buddhanature.’ We ought to imitate what Buddha did for the last forty-five years of his life: ministry Buddhism.”
Samu Sunim retired in the summer of 2019, giving his dharma staff to Toan José Castelão Sunim, his dharma heir. His later years were “simple and peaceful,” according to the Buddhist Society for Compassionate Wisdom, and spent at the New York farm and temples in Mexico City and Toronto.
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