Venerable Samu Sunim became an orphan in Korea at the age of 10, after which he lived as a beggar on the streets of Seoul. One day, seeing a beautiful temple at the end of an alleyway, he went to inquire how he might live in such a place. The resident monk told him that he could do so only if he became a Buddhist monk, and so he traveled to a mountain monastery, where he studied in the Son (Zen) tradition.
Samu Sunim came to the United States in 1967. Since then he has established centers in Toronto, Mexico City, Ann Arbor, and Chicago. The following interview was conducted in New York last June by Tricycle Senior Editor Clark Strand.

Samu Sunim in New York City, 1995, courtesy of Sally Boon.
Samu Sunim in New York City, 1995, courtesy of Sally Boon.

Tricycle: You have been quoted as saying that it would take nothing short of a complete transformation of the Asian model of Buddhist monasticism for Buddhism to successfully establish itself in the West. What kind of transformation do you envision? 

Samu Sunim: We Buddhist teachers—those of us who came from Asia—are like transplanted lotuses. Many of us are refugees. Here we find ourselves in the marketplace—as dharma peddlers, you might say. I am concerned with the Zen movement becoming more easily accessible to ordinary common people.

Tricycle: You have said before that you feel that Zen Buddhism has been mostly an intellectual movement in America. 

Samu Sunim: It was largely the intellectuals who were attracted to Zen Buddhism in the beginning. Even today most Zen Buddhists are college-educated, liberal-minded—they’re mostly white baby-boomers who couldn’t make it back to their own childhood religions. We have failed to attract people from African-American communities. And we also have this attitude: if you cannot sit properly on the mat and cushion, then you cannot practice Zen meditation. That’s not very inclusive.

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