A Profile of Ann Arbor's Zen Buddhist Temple and its Long-Time Resident Priestess
By Rachel Urist | Photos by Tobi Hollander
Reverend Haju Sunim has been at the Ann Arbor Zen Buddhist Temple since 1982. She was ordained as a Dharma teacher in l984 and as a Buddhist priest in l993. She hails from Vancouver, British Columbia, where she was born in 1944. In her early 30’s, she lived in Toronto, where she unwittingly joined the avant-garde of her generation, taking yoga classes and seeking new paths. In l977, she discovered zen/seon meditation, or “sitting” as it was called by the Toronto-based, Korean priest, Samu Sunim, who introduced her to it and took her under wing. She was 33 years old. Under his tutelage, she was drawn into Buddhist practice. He gave her the name Haju Sunim. She explained that the name Haju means “to hold a place” or “beyond wisdom.” “Sunim” is a Korean honorific for all Buddhist monks, male or female. It is, she said, an egalitarian title.
The Ann Arbor Zen Buddhist Temple on Packard and Wells is known to most Ann Arborites for its distinctive, dun-hued, brick wall with the hand-written sign: “Ann Arbor Zen Buddhist Temple.” The wall hides a typical Burns Park home, purchased by the group in 1982. Two years later, the community began renovations. According to those who took part, the work was exhilarating. Skilled work was contracted out, but community members did most of the grunt work. They built the brick wall along the street. They tore down walls inside. The ground floor’s enlarged rooms are used for lectures, worship, and meditation. The third floor is a multipurpose yoga studio. The second floor holds a lounge and several bedrooms.
When the group acquired the building next door at 1224 Packard, formerly a bike shop and previous to that a grocery and drug store with a soda fountain, they dug two tunnels underneath the building for steel beams to be installed to support the floor. It was a mighty effort. They also hauled bricks, dug trenches, filled dumpsters, made trips to the landfill, brainstormed, and fundraised. This building is now known as Sangha Hall. (Sangha means followers of Buddha.) Sangha Hall is part of a three-structure campus hidden behind the outside wall. The smallest structure is the hermitage, where Haju resides. In the outdoor space between the structures, the group planted a vegetable garden. It provides some of the vegetarian fare that fuels the followers.
The Buddhist life that Haju has chosen is built on a back-to-nature, self-reliant approach to living. Self-empowerment, she said, allows for greater faith in one’s awakening. She cites the Buddha’s injunction: “Be a lamp unto yourself,” explaining that in Buddhism, “everyone is Buddha.” Each person has the capacity and obligation to be awakened and to stay awake. “Faith,” she said, “is coming to know that for yourself.” The result is self-empowerment, which allows for greater faith.
Haju Sunim’s responsibilities at the temple involve teaching, guiding meditations, leading prayer services, and conducting weddings — an office she relishes. “I’ve done weddings at the Huron River, restaurants, backyards, and with other religious leaders, including priests and rabbis.” Each day begins with 108 prostrations before the meditation. The regimen is a reminder that our lives are a confluence of mind, body, spirit. Prostrations follow a fixed sequence. Haju demonstrated the regimen as we sat chatting in a room on the temple’s main floor. She lowered herself to the floor and began an elaborate sequence of choreographed movements. Bows and genuflections, done in quick succession, required stamina and agility. As part of the morning rituals, each worshipper does a set number of prostrations, then shouts out a verse. After 25 prostrations, the verse is: “Great is the matter of birth and death.” After 50: “Impermanence surrounds us.” After 75: “Be awake each moment.” After 100: “Do not waste your life.” These verses are called Gathas (GAH-tuhs). People seeking to become Buddhists are asked to do 3,000 prostrations. She explained: “The first thousand are to make amends for the past. The second thousand are to forgive those who have offended us. The third thousand confirm the commitment to be helpful to others.”
Until she became a Buddhist, Haju Sunim was known as Linda Hadfield née Murray. She grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia in a small fishing village by the Fraser River that was once a village of Japanese fishermen. She attended her mother’s Anglican Church. During the Second World War, when the Canadian government dubbed its Japanese residents “enemy aliens” and forced them into internment camps, the Murray family became squatters in one of the empty houses. Haju’s father fished. Her mother mended nets. When the salmon were not running, he landscaped. Haju remembers bright red roses outside the front of their small green-shingled house. In winter, the family sold Christmas trees. Eventually they bought a home of their own. It had “plenty of acreage.” Her father “loved to grow things.”
Of necessity, the family was frugal. They shared the values of the village, which featured a communal bath. Her parents’ work ethic ingrained itself in their daughter. She taught Sunday school and became a youth leader in her mother’s church. At the University of British Columbia, she studied English and history, took teachers’ training, and then taught elementary school. Eventually, she taught in innovative schools and worked with teachers on what she called “cutting-edge education.” Her perspective was further broadened as an associate faculty member at Simon Fraser University’s School of Education. SFU is located on scenic Burnaby Mountain near Vancouver.
After her very first year of teaching, at age 23, she married an accountant. He was soon promoted, which prompted their move to Toronto. She continued to work, but she also became a regular client of Vidal Sassoon hairdressers. “It was a different lifestyle from what I’d been used to,” she added, articulating the obvious. For a while, she worked for Interval, a day program for kids who couldn’t hack it in regular schools. The work was gratifying. When an outsider, someone trained in special education, moved in, she moved on. She taught English as a second language. Somewhere during these career moves, she fell in love with another man, a yoga classmate. He was a Detroit native who had played football in college.
She left her husband. After six years of marriage, her departure was, she said, “unceremonious.” She later regretted the hurt she caused him, but she needed a new direction. She and her new partner lived for a while in a yoga center. Both became certified yoga instructors. In l999, after her years of training and temple service, she received the capability to teach Dharma from Ven. Samu Sunim. In Buddhist vernacular, this is known as “receiving Dharma transmission.” The Sanskrit Dharma, a key concept in Buddhism, is sometimes translated as “disambiguation,” to reflect the Buddha’s emphasis on clarity, on being awake to the world and to oneself. Dharma also refers to a sense of cosmic law and order. Sometimes it’s described as simply “phenomena.” Receiving Dharma transmission also means becoming part of the Buddha’s spiritual bloodline; joining the lineage, the unbroken chain of succession.
A classic story regarding the Buddha’s teaching takes the form of this exchange between the Buddha and an acolyte. The acolyte asked:
— Are you a god?
— Are you an angel?
— Are you a saint?
— No, no, no.
— What are you?
— I’m a human being, and I’m awake.
Haju and her new partner lived, for a time, in a rented apartment across the street from the Toronto Buddhist Temple. Eventually, they scraped together the funds to buy a “seedy flophouse,” which they overhauled themselves. For Haju, this was good preparation for the renovations to come at Ann Arbor’s Zen Buddhist Temple. They became students of the Toronto temple’s resident priest, Ven. Samu Sunim. He had introduced her to meditation. He became her husband’s teacher, too, and he married them in a Buddhist ceremony.
When her first daughter was born, Samu Sunim came over to cut the umbilical cord. He also named the baby. The Korean “Karima” (the K is pronounced as G) means middle way and the ability to please oneself. Several years later, he named Karima’s little sister Komani, which means “enough.” Haju soon recognized that with that name, her teacher was telling her that two children were enough. Haju re-interpreted the name to mean “good enough.” She wanted to be sure her daughter knew that one need not aim for perfection.
Under the tutelage of Samu Sunim, Haju and her husband received priestly ordination. Haju’s mother, still in Canada, had long since decided that her daughter had joined a cult. She worried about her granddaughters being raised as Buddhists. Initially, she was alarmed when her daughter started doing yoga. Haju’s meditation and Buddhist practice increased her mother’s fears. In 1981, when Haju was invited to join a pilgrimage to Korea, her mother’s concerns deepened. For Haju, it was the opportunity of a lifetime, especially since a friend offered to help care for two-year-old Karima. But travel expenses were prohibitive. Haju’s mother, widowed at age 56, had come into money by remarrying a man of means. Haju turned to her mother for financial help. She said no. Haju asked her brother, then her sister for help. Each declined. In Haju’s words, “everyone was suspicious.” Finally, a member of the community stepped forward to cover her expenses. Haju left for three months.
Haju speaks of her trip to Korea as a “defining event.” The group, consisting of three men and two women, meditated, traveled, and learned together. Sundry others joined them for brief periods. They rose at 3 a.m. in the mountains and 4 a.m. in the cities to begin the day in meditation. They visited many temples, including some on mountaintops. It took spunk, determination, and stamina to reach certain destinations.
She described the experience of doing 3,000 prostrations, a prerequisite for seeing Ven. Song-chol, Patriarch of the Korean Chogye Buddhist order. The men did their prostrations in the mountaintop hermitage. The women, prohibited from joining the men for this ritual, did their prostrations near the foot of the mountain. It took the women ten hours to complete the task. The men took longer. Haju recalled that as darkness fell, she needed a bathroom. Her legs were so sore from the prostrations that she crawled down the stairs to the fancy, tile-roof outhouse, which bore a Korean sign. With a smile, she offered its English translation, “Pavilion for relieving anxiety.”
After her pilgrimage, the Ann Arbor Zen Buddhist Temple beckoned. Haju’s husband moved to Ann Arbor first. A few months later, Haju and the children joined him. Before long, he left to take a position at a Buddhist temple in Detroit. She assumed the priestly duties at the Ann Arbor temple. The marriage ended.
After 35 years at the Ann Arbor Zen Buddhist Temple, Haju Sunim is central to this Buddhist community. Last January, when she turned 70, her community celebrated by throwing a surprise party. The Friday of her birthday weekend, she was immersed in curriculum preparation when the doorbell rang. Reluctantly, she set aside her work to answer the door. There stood both of her daughters with her grandchildren. She was astonished. They live in New England. Typically, they return to Ann Arbor each May, for the Buddha’s Birthday Celebration. The daughters no longer consider themselves Buddhists, but they still consider May the time for family to gather and celebrate.
For Haju’s birthday, people came from around the world. Children and grandchildren and members and friends of the temple since the early days and up to the present attended, about 80 in all. Many knew Haju from the temple’s Peace Camp, an annual, six-day retreat on Friends Lake Community on Long Lake in Chelsea. Peace Camp draws people from Korea, Chicago, Arizona, Mexico, Florida, Ohio, and many parts of Michigan. Haju relishes Peace Camp. For many years, she was camp director. This year the temple celebrates the 30th anniversary of the camp, which started with a little morning camp in the backyard of the temple on Packard. Haju’s birthday weekend featured original music, poetry, and skits. There was worship, ritual, and communal chanting. The weekend event was a family and community celebration. There were lectures and workshops, just as there are at Peace Camp. Haju pointed out that many of the Peace Camp activities have rippled out to the larger community. Temple outreach includes work in prisons, where members teach meditation and Buddhist philosophy.
Haju Sunim looks younger than her years. Small-boned and slender, she keeps her hair closely cropped, dresses in simple and classic — if somewhat shapeless — garb, and remains limber. During our first interview, she easily assumed a lotus position on the couch in front of me in the small lounge area on the second floor. We sipped ginger tea and munched dried mushrooms. Her drawstring pants and cross-collar tunic were grey, the standard priestly hue of Buddhist garb in Korea, the source of the tradition she perpetuates. (Elsewhere in the Buddhist world, monks wear saffron colored robes. In Tibet, they wear maroon; in Japan, black.) Her cotton trousers were neatly patched with solid color blocks of fabric. Her daily prostrations, and she does many each day, take a toll on the knees. She has repeatedly reinforced those areas of her pants. Discussion of her garb brought back memories of her meeting with Ven. Su’un Chul Sunim in Korea. “He wore the kind of clothes I’m wearing now,” she said. “He patched his pants himself.” Patching is pulsa, work done with the hands. Such activity, which includes making kimchi for the group, or sewing mats and cushions for meditation, is valued in Buddhist life. It supports the principle of self-help.
For Haju, Buddhism represents a way to put theory into action. She is drawn to the integrity of its lifestyle. For her, living simply in a community of people who work together is key to fulfillment. She noted the words of Margaret Mead: “It’s amazing what a small group of dedicated people can be.” Haju added: “Voluntary simplicity is the essence of the Buddhist ethic.”
In Haju’s experience, Buddhism also offers women more meaningful participation. “In the Anglican Church,” she said, “I didn’t have a position, as I did being a cook in the temple. I feel more connected when I’m down on the floor with others, or in the garden. It’s important in our culture, because we are so disembodied.” She dismisses “all these hand-held devices” in Western culture. She finds meaning in physical labor, working with others to build community, reaching out, and nurturing a spirit wherein people help one another. She mentioned Gary Snyder, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, essayist, environmentalist, activist, and translator of Japanese and ancient Chinese writings. In his best known work, The Practice of the Wild (North Point Press, 1990), he echoed the Buddha by writing: “We must try to live without causing unnecessary harm, not just to fellow humans, but to all beings.”
I asked Haju about celibacy, having read about Buddhist monks and nuns who take such vows. She responded that in certain orders, including Haju’s Buddhist Society for Compassionate Wisdom, celibacy is not required. In most orders, however, celibacy is required for monks and nuns. In this sense, Haju’s North American Buddhist order is a departure from traditional renunciation practices. “Buddha left his wife, child, and palace and became a Bikku, a monk,” Haju explained. “He was called the great renunciate.” For Haju, who raised two children as a single mother, who has experienced both physical and spiritual passion, and who continues to reach out to many well beyond the temple compound, the kind of renunciation begot by simple living has been a path to fulfillment.
Haju explained the Visitors Program to me. People apply for the privilege of residing in the temple and becoming participants in daily, communal Buddhist practice. Those accepted into the program occupy the bedrooms on the temple’s second floor. Each offers a donation to the temple each month, shares in the preparation of communal meals, tends the garden, and helps run the temple’s programs. As Haju and I sat together in one of the temple’s main rooms, Sarah, a resident member of the Visitors Program, brought us a pot of tea and a bowl of dried apple slices. Sarah has been studying beekeeping. At the time of this writing, she expected delivery of her first hives any day. The bees will contribute to the garden’s health and provide homegrown honey.
Haju reached for her “gratitude throw,” which she had placed nearby. She wanted to show me this tangible result of pulsa: a patchwork quilt made of colorful fragments of old sweaters. It was a gift from Sanha, the temple priest in Toronto. Haju said: “Each of us is patched together in a beautiful way. There’s nothing that originates in us. I’m a patchwork person.”
Asked about her future, Haju responded that she hopes the community will find a way to support her in her old age. “I don’t see myself apart from what’s going on at the temple,” she said. At the same time, she knows that her daughters would welcome her with open arms. “At this point in my life, I’m learning to be someone else,” she said. “I’m letting it go. It’s hard to see myself not doing what I’ve always been doing.” She says she is learning to grow old gracefully, to let others take on leadership and responsibility. Part of that process is training others and learning to trust.
Haju talked about her connections with other people. For her, connecting with people is key to a meaningful life. At the temple, where she still works in the garden and even cleans toilets from time to time, such connections are built into daily routine. When she was younger, she said, she protected herself with a certain guarded distance from people. But in this time of life, no matter what the setting, she is simply more comfortable with people. “I rely more on who I really am,” she said. “Maybe it’s all about unwitting authenticity.” She emphasized that every moment is informed by previous moments of her life. She believes that she still has something to offer. As she learns to relinquish responsibilities, she recognizes that she has reached a new stage. “I’m at a poignant, crucial part of my life.”
Ann Arbor Zen Buddhist Temple is located at 1214 Packard Street, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48104. For more information about the temple, meditation courses, yoga, retreats, and residencies, visit http://zenbuddhisttemple.org/locations/annarbor/index.html