Zen Buddhist monk claps hands at Davenport Tea

Wearing a wry half-smile, the Zen Buddhist monk in the simple gray robes paused to consider the mild, momentary havoc he had just wreaked on a room full of attentive Yale students. With just a single sharp clap of his hands in the middle of a calmly intoned sentence, he had succeeded in startling his audience at yesterday’s Davenport College Master’s Tea — as well as in illustrating part of the meaning of the often-misunderstood word “Zen.”

“At the moment I hit my hands together,” said Chong Hae Sunim to the now-laughing students, “everyone in this room had the same exact mind. That was the moment at which all your thinking was cut off.”

One meaning of Zen, as he had explained earlier, is “to be awake in this moment,” the cut-off moment before thought and judgment. And it is the importance of the present moment that he chose to stress to the audience, whose life plans undoubtedly extend years into the future.

Chong Hae Sunim has been an ordained-for-life monk in the Kwan Um School of Zen since 1996 — Sunim is the Korean title for a monk or nun. The tea, organized by Davenport’s Yoonseok Lee ’05 and the New Haven Zen Center — represented another opportunity for Chong Hae Sunim to further awareness of Zen Buddhism among a group of students from diverse backgrounds.

In addition to his responsibilities as abbot of the Providence Zen Center in Cumberland, R.I., Chong Hae Sunim is also a guiding teacher of the Zen communities at Brown University and Wheaton College. Born a Catholic, he became a Buddhist in his late teens and trained in the Japanese and Vietnamese Zen traditions before joining Kwan Um, which follows the Korean Zen tradition.

Chong Hae Sunim said that when he trains in South Korea, he encounters some Koreans who think it is unusual for an American to become a Buddhist monk.

“I walk by the subway and there are always people who are very surprised by me,” he said.

Questions asked by students at the tea covered topics ranging from the reasons behind the self-immolation of Buddhist monks during the Vietnam War, to basic Buddhist precepts and the meaning of enlightenment. Students said they were glad to learn more about a meaningful topic.

“I was an atheist before, but I started to get interested in religion after I had three or four near-death experiences,” said Jay Yu ’06, who was among a group of students that went with Chong Hae Sunim to the New Haven Zen Center for dinner and a brief orientation.

“My impressions [of Zen] had mostly come from media representations — like soaps and bath products,” said Meg Reuland ’03. “[It was rewarding] just to get the basic definition of Zen from a practitioner versus The Body Shop.”

In our modern world, according to Chong Hae Sunim, Zen offers an important chance to seize one’s life in the present moment.

“The first part of Zen is [the question] ‘What are you?'” he said at the conclusion of his talk. “And if that’s so, then what do you do with it?”

“That’s not a Buddhist question, a Catholic question, a Christian question, a Jewish question, a Muslim question,” he added. “That’s actually a human question. I will give you as a gift that question: ‘What do you do?'”

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