Zen Buddhism Temple of Ann Arbor
By: Harrison Tamke
Introduction to Buddhism, Fall 2017
Near the corner of Packard and Wells St., in the affluent, liberal college town of Ann Arbor, Michigan, sits an unassuming red brick house. Flanked by a (closed) bicycle repair shop and an (open) vacuum cleaner shop, the building is surrounded by a short brick wall without a gate. Beside the entrance to the yard is a simple wood sign. It reads: “ZEN BUDDHIST TEMPLE. SUNDAY SERVICES 10 A.M. & 4 P.M. ALL WELCOME”. This is a visitor’s first view of Ann Arbor’s Zen Buddhist Temple, run by the Buddhist Society for Compassionate Wisdom. It is home to a community of about a thousand lay people (mostly white converts), who come for daily or weekend services, Dharma talks, meditation sessions, and other community events. It is a quiet place, where one can meditate and find inner peace, but it is not a hiding place. Though there is a small residency program, it exists mostly to minister to laypeople, and a recurring theme in the priests’ dharma talks is that practice need not be confined to the temple (Fellowship for Intentional Community 2016). Rather, one can continue to practice throughout their day-to-day lives, helping not only to finally achieve nirvana for oneself, but also to make one’s community a better place.
The Zen Buddhist Temple of Ann Arbor was established by a Korean monk named Samu Sunim. After wandering for several years as an orphan, he entered the Namjang-sa monastery in Sangju in 1958. In 1962, at the Pomo-sa monastery in Pusan, he was ordained as a disciple of Tongsan Sunim, training also under the monk Solbong Sunim. However, in 1965, he left South Korea for the United States, in order to avoid conscription. He settled first in New York, before moving to Montreal in 1968, where he established the Zen Lotus Society in his apartment. Later, in Toronto, he helped organize and minister to a small sangha of Korean immigrants, but was soon after joined by a small group of white converts. Together, they held meditation practices and weekend retreats. As the sangha grew, its members realized they would need a bigger facility. So they purchased a dilapidated house and renovated it all by themselves. In addition to the Buddhist practice and constant renovation of the facility, the sangha started a Buddhist newsletter, Spring Wind, on a printing press they purchased and rebuilt themselves (Pappu 1999).
In 1981, Sunim decided to begin a new community in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He dispatched one of his disciples, Haju Sunim (formerly Linda Murray), to identify a suitable location. Haju had formerly been a school teacher in Canada, and was one of the original members of the Toronto sangha. She helped to identify the Packer Street site, which the sangha (again) renovated by themselves (“Our History” 2017). In 1989, Haju was ordained, and received the dharma transmission from Samu Sunim just ten years later. While Samu Sunim resides with the New York sangha, she remains as the head teacher of the Ann Arbor sangha (“Teachers” 2017).
The Zen Buddhist Temple in Ann Arbor, being part of the Zen school, heavily emphasizes the relationship between practice and enlightenment. During a dharma talk at the Yongmaeng Jeongjin retreat in 2015, Samu Sunim explained that practice was important to enlightenment because practice is enlightenment. All beings, Samu Sunim explained, already possess Buddha nature, and this nature is developed through practice (specifically, meditation). Indeed, he compared practice to a mother’s womb, in that it gives birth to enlightenment in much the same way that the womb gives birth to a child. However, he cautions that practice is no simple thing (Samu Sunim 2015). In another Dharma talk, delivered at a Sunday service in Toronto, Samu Sunim talked about how right practice requires “true humility” and “profound gratitude”, as well as silence, and solidarity with all sentient beings (Samu Sunim 2008).
However, this meditation need not happen only in a temple. In a dharma talk at the at Yongmaeng Jeongjin retreat in 2013, Haju Sunim shared an ancient story about a temple that was trying to elect a new head monk. To their collective surprise, they found that the wisest among them was the monk who did the cooking. He had honed his concentration and grown in wisdom not in group prayers or meditation in the temple, but during his daily walk to and from a nearby stream, to carry water in a heavy pot along a difficult path back to the temple kitchen. Just as the monk was able to cultivate his mind and spirit during his daily work, said Haju Sunim, so, too, could a layperson cultivate their own mind in their day-to-day activities (Haju Sunim 2013).
While the Zen Buddhist Temple preaches the importance of practice and meditation as means of achieving enlightenment, it also preaches the importance of being engaged in the community. In 1987, the Ann Arbor temple hosted the Conference on World Buddhism in North America. Some of the topics discussed included: ethnic and North American Buddhist movements; Vinaya rules and regulations; monasticism and the lay Buddhist movement; feminism, ecological awareness and social issues; the role of tradition in the contemporary Buddhist movement; cross-cultural assimilation of Buddhism; and Theravada-Mahayana encounters in the West (“Our History” 2017). Even to this day, social issues are an important topic at the Zen Temple. The temple hosts an “Earth-in-Mind” group that meets twice a month to discuss environmental issues. The emphasis on social issues can also be seen in some of the poems written by Samu Sunim. In one, titled, “The American Women’s March”, Samu extolls the Women’s March that took place in Washington DC in 2017, writing, “Would women be our future! Let their compassion and wisdom prevail. ‘When men go low, let nasty women go high!’ Let them be our guardian for all beings on our planet!” (Samu Sunim 2017). Similarly, in a poem titled, “Let’s All Get Along”, Samu writes about a homeless friend of his named Ken. The poem talks about poverty and social strife in America, with references ranging from pop culture (e.g.: how Ken resembles Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls) to the political (the beating of Rodney King in 1991 is frequently referenced) (Samu Sunim 2017).
With respect to other Buddhist traditions, there is little indication of the temple’s views on the matter. As the Conference on World Buddhism in North America shows, engagement between Buddhist traditions is a topic of interest. However, I could find no indication of joint events with other Buddhist communities, even though there is a Tibetan Buddhist community- the Jewel Heart Buddhist Center- in Ann Arbor as well.
On its website, the Ann Arbor Temple states that it, “seeks to establish a viable and nurturing balance between zen training and one’s obligations outside of residency to family, school, and work”. To become a member of the sangha, one must take a short beginner’s meditation course. While the classes are a prerequisite to becoming a regular member, the temple advertises them as being open to anybody who wants to learn meditation for their personal benefit (“Meditation Class” 2017).
Once prospective members finish the course, they are able to participate in the two main activities at the temple, which are communal services and retreats. The services typically include two meditation periods, with a group chant and recitation of the Three Refuges in between, and a dharma talk by one of the priests or senior lay members at the end. The talks are recorded and posted on the temple’s website so that visitors can listen to them, as I did. They are not at all dull, but typically incorporate stories and parables (e.g.: the story of the cook-monk). And the talks always incorporate periodic yelling by the instructors to keep the sangha on its toes and ensure understanding of key concepts.
The temple also conducts retreats, which can vary in length. Over the course of a year it will offer several short retreats of less than 24 hours, including several expressly for beginners, and one five-day Yongmaeng Jeongjin (or “fearless practice”) retreat. In addition to services and retreats, the temple also organizes community events and celebrations. Each year it hosts a two-day celebration of the Buddha’s birthday; the celebration usually includes poetry readings and storytelling, singing and chanting, and even a vegetarian buffet, before concluding with a “Peace & Happiness Parade” down Packer Street (Axelsen 2010).
Finally, the temple offers some services regarding aging and death. The temple has a “Mindful Transitions” group that meets once a month. When a member (or, interestingly enough, their pet) dies, the temple will perform a modified version of the traditional post-mortem rite: members will gather to meditate and chant for the deceased for a period of 49 days, as their soul transitions to its next place in the universe. However, rather than performing the rite over the unburied corpse, as is traditional in some Buddhist countries, the rite is performed around an altar with a picture of the deceased and “small items of importance to the person” (Gaudin 2016).
The city of Ann Arbor, Michigan, is a boisterous college town, home to the famed University of Michigan. Many of the finest and most ambitious students and athletes in the country call it home, striving endlessly for the pinnacles of academic and athletic achievement. Yet on a quiet little road near the great Michigan Stadium sits a quiet little Buddhist temple, the Zen Buddhist Temple. Adjacent to an institution that exists to further worldly ambitions, the Zen Buddhist Temple of Ann Arbor exists to help its members find inner peace and, ultimately, escape from the worlds of pleasure and ambition. Through weekly meditation services and retreats, it helps its members to not only purify their minds, but also to realize the sanctity of potential of day-to-day life, so that they can work toward enlightenment not only in the meeting rooms of the temple itself, but in the activities of their day-to-day lives. As Katherine Brown, a senior lay person in the sangha remarked, “The wall is there not to separate us from the rest of the town” (Dwyer 2011).
Axelsen, Katherine. “Zen Buddhist Temple Celebrates Buddha’s 2,554th birthday”. The Ann Arbor News. 27 May 2010. Web. 5 December 2017. http://www.annarbor.com/faith/zen-buddhist-temple-celebrates-buddhas-2554th-birthday/
Dwyer, Ann. “Silence is Golden at Zen Buddhist Temple”. The Ann Arbor News. 27 January 2011. Web. 5 December 2017. http://www.annarbor.com/faith/silence-is-golden-at-zen-buddhist-temple/
Gaudin, Madeleine. “Understanding Life: Zen Buddhist Temple Offers Placid Sanctuary”. The Michigan Daily. 27 January 2016. Web. 5 December 2017. https://www.michigandaily.com/section/arts/copy-buddhist-temple-bside
Haju Sunim. “Dharma Talks from Summer Yongmaeng Jeongjin 2013 (Chicago)”. 30 June 2013. Zen Buddhist Temple. Web. 5 December 2017. https://www.zenbuddhisttemple.org/dharma-talks
“Our History”. Zen Buddhist Temple. 2017. Web. 5 December 2017. https://www.zenbuddhisttemple.org/history
Pappu, Sridhar. “Have Hammer, Will Travel”. Chicago Reader. 15 January 1999. Web. 5 December 2017. https://www.zenbuddhisttemple.org/samu-sunim-stories (text from temple website; could not find original story)
Samu Sunim. “American Women’s March 2017”. Poem Collections. 2017. Web. 5 December 2017. https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/df6bb4_494cf3d72a8941c586fb6bb5ea7d7bca.pdf
Samu Sunim. “Dharma Talks from Summer Yongmaeng Jeongjin 2015 (NYC)”. 27 June 2015. Zen Buddhist Temple. Web. 5 December 2017. https://www.zenbuddhisttemple.org/dharma-talks
Samu Sunim. “Let’s All Get Along”. Poem Collections. 2017. Web. 5 December 2017. https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/df6bb4_494cf3d72a8941c586fb6bb5ea7d7bca.pdf
Samu Sunim. “Samu Sunim 2008 October 12 Toronto”. 12 October 2008. Zen Buddhist Temple. Web. 5 December 2017. https://www.zenbuddhisttemple.org/dharma-talks
“Teachers”. Zen Buddhist Temple. 2017. Web. 5 December 2017. https://www.zenbuddhisttemple.org/teachers
“Meditation Class”. Zen Buddhist Temple. 2017. Web. 5 December 2017. https://www.zenbuddhisttemple.org/meditation-class
“Zen Buddhist Temple – Ann Arbor”. Fellowship for Intentional Community. 30 April 2016. Web. 5 December 2017. https://www.ic.org/directory/zen-buddhist-temple-ann-arbor/