Hyungak Sunim’s introduction to my book (현각수님)

Hyungak Sunim is an American who has established himself in Korea as a Buddhist monk and thoughtful commentator on spiritual issues. It so happens that the two of us were classmates at Yale College and have communicated on various matters over the years. Hyungak Sunim lived many years in Korea and is well-known for his book about his experiences in the practice of Buddhism.

He was kind enough to write this preface for my recent book  “A Robinson Crusoe in Korea: Life is a Matter of Direction, not Speed.”

Introduction to “A Robinson Crusoe in Korea: Life is a Matter of Direction, not Speed”

By Hyon Gak Sunim

Writing in the mid-19th century, the Father of American Philosophy,

Ralph Waldo Emerson, made strong and radical attempts to unshackle

his American contemporaries from the chains of their strict,

conservative, book-only views of education. Though he himself was a

child of the ancient Greek and Roman classics, graduated from

Harvard College with a classical education, as a mature philosopher

he urged his countrymen — and beyond them, their European docents

— to shake off the shackles, to move beyond a mere rote form of

education for youth. Emerson decried the mere memorization of

phrases and texts, the repetition back of trigonometric formulae, the

recitation of dusty speeches and moldy poems just for the sake of

accumulating a raw tonnage of knowledge. He hated the use of

human potential merely in the service of producing more and more

merchants, more and more producers and more and more

accumulators of capital. Emerson believed in the potential of the

complete person who could be produced by education, not merely the

greatest accumulators who could be produced by a structure or a


So, Emerson’s vision for a philosophy of education was one that

taught the WHOLE person; which connected him or her to the world

not so much through the grammars and stanzas expressed on a two-dimensional

page, but rather an education that led youth to a firmer

trust in their own inborn completeness and greatness as human

beings. Emerson warns us, above all, that if we use education to

merely produce better machines, we are not truly educating: we are

merely “manufacturing.”

In his timeless essay, “On Education,” he wrote, “The great object of Education should be commensurate with the object of life. It should

be a moral one; to teach self-trust; to inspire the youthful man with

an interest in himself; with a curiosity touching his own nature; to

acquaint him with the resources of his mind, and to teach him that

there is all his strength, and to inflame him with a piety towards the

Grand Mind in which he lives.”

This is the transcendental view: true education is not the amount that

we accumulate, but the depth that we can know of our world, our

place in this world, our proper use of its resources: our existence.

The teachings of Emerson were a great revolution for my mind. I

read his essays over and over and over again. In utter devotion, I

made pilgrimages to his home outside of Boston, to see and smell the

air in the rooms where this great man (大人) attempted to

revolutionize a young country’s future leaders about the proper path

of study. Emerson was my hero at the beginning of my spiritual quest.

Though I have not read him often, since then, his eternal thoughts

had a profound effect on my own view of the human condition.

Emerson was — like Jesus, Plato, William Shakespeare, William Blake,

Ludwig von Beethoven, Arthur Schopenhauer, Karl Marx, Gustav

Mahler, Sigmund Freud, Rainer Maria Rilke, Franz Kafka, the Beatles,

Led Zeppelin, The Clash, and a few others — a central spiritual

teacher. He was — and remains — the Teacher of Teachers.

But how could I, growing up in the Western context, find the real-life

tools for realizing this inner human completeness and greatness which

Emerson, Plato, Beethoven, Mahler, et al. so eloquently mapped out?

How attain the heights of ecstasy which Beethoven and Mahler

blasted so deeply into my soul? How could I find the road for

concretely realizing its goals? Those first steps were, sadly, not

taught to me by the modern Western educational system in which I

was raised. I found myself strangled like a slave by “mere religion”

and rote learning; although I had caught a glance of dizzying heights,

I was bound to remain on the dirty ground of exploiting great

educations at Yale and Harvard to “merely” for the force of making

money and establishing wealth, power and prestige. I was taught to

accept a remarkable education as a “route” to a good job. The

Classics were a route to a better socio-economic class.

In 1989, I came to know the teachings of Buddhism. More than a

religion, I was searching for a “technology” of looking deeply inward

to find a reason for going through with the seeming exercises of

answering an empty human existence.

In 1990, I was given a chance to meet a certain Korean monk who

taught widely in the West from the early 1970s. His name was Seung

Sahn Sunim. A native of what is now North Korea, he had become

known in many intellectual circles in Europe and America for his

radical, pointed, spontaneous teachings to people on countless

American college campuses, especially the Ivy League campuses

where he later established meditation centers, called “Zen centers.”

I was there in the audience for one public talk he gave on an

American college campus. I was so enthralled and moved by his

extraordinary spiritual charisma, standing there before the greatest

minds of my generation, that I asked one of his closest students for a

chance to meet him in person, alone. Directly.

One morning, after a breakfast at his meditation center in Providence,

Rhode Island, word came that I would be granted a short 10-minute

meeting with him. My whole body began to shake and tremble: this

man, shorter than me, with scalp shaved to mirror-like clarity, whose

broken and incomplete English-language skills challenged both the ear

and the mind of the audience, appeared in my presence for 10


I entered his room, and bowed three times. (Bowing before another

human being was an entirely new experience! But I later realized, it wasn’t an act of bowing to someone “greater” than me: it was merely my own current state bowing to the potential of my own possibilities to realize my fullest potential as a human being.)

He sat cross-legged on the floor. But his energy and focus had the

focused intensity of a tiger, crouched – wound-up with unreleased

energy — and poised before its unknowing prey. I had heard that he

was educated in Western philosophy before he became a monk, that

he was a big fan of the teachings of Socrates, and that he had been

raised, like me, a Christian. It all seemed like a perfect opportunity to

exchange views and insights with a like-minded soul.

I said something like, “I am a student at Harvard. I graduated from

Yale. I study Western philosophy and Christian theology. I believe

that there are insights in Western philosophy which corroborate the

insights of the East. I would like to use the insights of

Schopenhauer’s analysis of religion to gain insights into Eastern

religion. I understand this and that, and this and that, and this and

this and this, and that and that and that. Blah blah blah…..”

I was very happy, and proud, to show off my jewels of understanding

to this rather short messenger from the East. Surely he would be

most impressed by the breadth and depth of my Yale-and-Harvardearned

sophistication. People in Asia were really, really impressed

with Harvard and Yale, after all, so I had heard….

Suddenly, an explosion of thunder in a cloudless sky at noon,

magnified by the force of a million atomic bombs:




I stopped short. He was screaming this and pointing his finger

directly at my 25 year-old chest. I stopped cold.

“My name is Paul,” I said.

“That’s just your BODY’s name! Your Momma gave you that name.

That’s just your BODY’s name. Before she gave you that, you had NO

name! WHO IS THAT???!!!”

I was stuck. None of my Yale professors had ever taught me like this.

None of my Harvard professors had ever taught me like that. In fact,

no one in the WORLD had ever insulted my intellect so deeply, so

radically, and so TRULY as this. He was pointing PAST my formal

education, past my FORMAL accumulation of thinking and ideas, to

something else. I had never experienced such a sensation.

I stammered. “I…I…I…I…I don’t know…!”

He smiled. “From now on, study THAT. YOU don’t know YOU. Study

that!” I could only nod — a weak nod, but a nod of acknowledgment.

“From now on, no more books for you. (Pointing at my chest, where

Koreans traditionally believe the “mind” resides) Study THAT book.

Not other peoples’ words, OK?”

In this moment, I found my Teacher, the teacher who gave me a very,

very, simple tool for entering the road that Emerson had explained to

me previously in words. A Korean man, born far away in a land

divided, became the living pointer to a place that Emerson was only

able to suggest to me in words.

The eminent British historian Arnold Toynbee was once asked how

human beings of the far future would record the most important

event of the 20th century. He answered simply, “The coming of

Buddhism to the West.” Many people did not understand his

statement, at the time. He was not referring to the religion. He was

talking about the crossing of an ancient technology of mind from East

to West — the technology that allowed insight into the fundamental

human condition. He was speaking of a post-monotheistic world.

Korea is a great country. Ranked as the 11th most powerful economy

on Earth, the Republic of Korea’s achievements give every Korean

justified pride. And I share this pride. There is something potently

dynamic about the Korean mind, especially when we observe Korea is

poised between a rapidly rising China, and an eternally powerful

Japan. The mystery of how the Koreans have not only survived, but

succeeded, is NOT a mystery to those who have a familiarity with

Korea’s deep and ancient traditions.

But, the power of a great chip-maker or great boat-maker can be

short-lived, in these ever-changing economic times. Wasn’t the

Republic of Ireland recently declared to be one of the richest nations

on Earth?

I do not know for sure if Emannuel Pastreich is a practicing Buddhist;

anyway, it does not matter at all. This is not why I write these words

about his insights and about this book. But he has deep insight into

the structural problems which might prevent an ancient Korea — everbent

on equaling its colonial foes and internationalist dominators —

from achieving the greatness that is in its cultural DNA to achieve. I

think that his insights are worth listening to, and disseminating, to as

many corners of Korea as possible.

Although Emanuel and I attended Yale at the same time, we never

knew each other. As you will read, we only came to know each other

when he came to a temple in Korea where I was devoted to an

intensive three-month struggle in silence to attain the nature of my

fundamental existence. He met me while I was pursuing the rigors of

a life based on the ancient technologies of the Korean ancients who

are my teachers and who are the forefathers of the children he has

brought into this world.

I believe in the death of a mono-polar world and the death of the

narrow, science-denying monotheistic world views which limited

humans’ imaginations to narrow horizons. I believe very strongly that

people like Emanuel, through their immersion in both the Western

experience and Eastern thought, PROVE the words of Professor

Toynbee: the greatest event of the 20th century is the coming of the

Eastern technologies of mind to the West, where they can

reinvigorate and rejuvenate the traditions which we have developed

for so long.

Emerson is my “son bae” and he is Emanuel’s “son bae,” as well. I

hope, through this book, that the Korean nation can take a deeper,

fresher look at the ancient technologies which they have developed —

far far earlier than the works of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs — for

human beings to realize their potential, not as great “accumulators”

or “producers,” but as people better able to stand on their own two

feet and say, “I, so-and-so, I am here and this is who I am, and this is

why and how I exist, irrespective of some mythic god of moldied

pages. As a human this is how I propose to contend with and accept

and love my fellow suffering humans.” Koreans had this advanced

technology before there was any Samsung, before there was an

Einstein, an Edison or even an Isaac Newton. And yet, in the intense

drive for Westernization, and aping American spiritualities, perhaps

they have forgotten this a little. People like Emanuel can help to

correct this, and return Koreans to their true original spiritual posture

— not as a religion, but in the educational forces that help them to

shape their people in the true form of their ancestors, taking the

wealth of the West while respecting the treasures of Korea’s own

native impulses.

If you find this path from this book, you will answer to neither Buddha

nor Jesus nor Mohammed nor Plato nor Schopenhauer nor Beethoven

nor Mahler nor Freud. You answer clearly to your SELF.” That is the

purpose of any true education: answering directly to the question of

“What am I?”

Munich, Bavaria, Germany

Hyon gak

One response to “Hyungak Sunim’s introduction to my book (현각수님)

  1. Daniel Lafontaine September 27, 2011 at 2:51 pm

    I remember my professor who was a Catholic priest told me after he read and saw and talked to me for a half semester. He said to me since I am a devotee to all reading:

    “Where are you in all that?”

    Which is the quintessential question to life’s. My answer today to that one question is also quintessential:

    I am who I am and since I am who I am, I think.

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