Friday 19 July 2019

Meet the Mega Monk who embraces imperfection

Buddhist Haemin Sunim tells people who ask for spiritual advice that the answer lies in the present, says Niamh Horan

Haemin Sumin takes a mindful moment out in the New York subway.
Haemin Sumin takes a mindful moment out in the New York subway.
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

Meet the Mega Monk. The modern-day version of the wise old man sitting on top of the mountain. Except he is here, among us, experiencing modern life in all its hell and glory.

With over two million followers online and five million copies of his two books sold - Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down and his latest offering Love for Imperfect Things, Haemin Sunim is officially the world's most influential Zen Buddhist.

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And the best thing about him? Well, he's just as human as the rest of us. If you're struggling to stay mindful amid the stress and strain, fear not. Haemin feels just the same.

"My biggest weakness," he says, "is I wish I could live my life more like what I am saying. That is my honest truth. Sometimes when I feel depressed I read my book and it helps. I do my best to close the gap between my behaviour and my work but it is a lifetime practice."

He says the last time he lost his temper was "two days ago". The New York subway was down due to maintenance work and Haemin had to find an alternative way to the station where his train departed at noon. He arrived at 12.01.

Frustrated at having to buy a new ticket, he did what he encourages others to do and took a moment out to consider the good in a bad situation. It's what he calls "the filter of light".

"Firstly, I remembered, due to the cold weather I hadn't had a chance to exercise that week. Then I realised I was out of breath and sweating. So this was great exercise.

"Secondly, I had one hour to use and rather than get chips on the train, I realised I could have a good meal. It's impossible to get good Mexican food in Korea, so here I could take the opportunity to enjoy it." Although he has dedicated his life to mindfulness, even Haemin admits he has to work at not letting the critics steal his peace of mind.

"Initially, when I first put my message on social media, I became very interested in what other people were saying about it," he says.

"Even though 95pc of the comments were positive, the human mind tends to gravitate towards the negative 5pc. So I was becoming very critical and hard on myself. I realised this is not just me, a lot of people feel this way. We zero in on negative comments that make us feel lousy."

His advice is to remember - in the grand scheme of things - people give us much less thought than we imagine.

"Although we think other people think about us a lot, actually they don't," he says.

"For example, try to remember what your friend was wearing a week ago. Can you remember? No. And yet, when we go out, we believe, 'My friend will judge me on my appearance'.

"So don't give so much power to other people's opinions. They don't really care as much as you think."

His new book, translated into over 30 languages, offers practical bite-sized pieces of Buddhism and encourages us to embrace our imperfections. So why should we love the imperfect? I ask.

"Let me give you some down-to-earth advice," he says. "When I first became a monk, I had this idea of what would make a perfect monk.

"I thought I had to behave in a very sincere way. And naturally I was hoping my master would do the same. However, when I met my master he was not very sincere at all. He would make jokes and had a fierce temper. I was very upset and wondered why I had been assigned to a monk who was so imperfect.

"Around that time I had a very good monk friend who invited me to his home temple. When I went there his master was very sincere and educated. I was very envious.

"Ten years later I met him and asked how his master was. He told me they were no longer in touch. He said because his master was so perfect he expected all his disciples to behave just like him. But they could never live up to that."

Haemin learned a lifelong lesson. He realised his relationship with his master could grow and was not abandoned due to crushed expectations at the first sign of trouble.

"Because my master knew he was not perfect he always had much more patience with me. He was also much more willing to forgive."

Which brings him to the meaning of life. "We are here to grow," he explains. "Each painful experience gives us an opportunity to grow our compassion."

Only when people are willing to drop the exhausting veneer of perfection, he says, will they experience deeper and more meaningful connections.

"One of the reasons we cannot open ourselves up is down to the belief, 'If I expose the imperfect things about myself then the other person may judge me or not accept me.' That fear makes us close up," he says.

"Only when we have the courage to be vulnerable and speak our truth - no matter how difficult - will the other person's heart open and there is a good chance this person will also respond with the same level of honesty.

"You also might hear some of the difficulties this person is going through. You will realise we are all human and struggling."

Educated at Berkeley, Harvard and Princeton and now basking in the glow of financial success thanks to his books, the monk says the most luxurious item he has splashed out on is a MacBook Pro. "I like my Apple products," he says. But he adds: "I think it's important to treat ourselves from time to time."

At the same time he keeps in mind that "trying to find your own self worth in money or the accolades you collect will leave you feeling it's never enough".

Instead happiness, he says, relies on the ability to appreciate the present moment.

"The sun in the afternoon, nature, a nice coffee on a Sunday morning, the good feeling you get after exercising or seeing a friend you haven't seen in a few weeks. If you can cultivate an ability to do that, that is where happiness lies."

As for the best piece of advice he can offer? He apologises for the fact it sounds "a little bit spiritual". Pausing for a moment, he considers, then concludes: "That which you are seeking the most, you already have in your pocket."

'Love for Imperfect Things' is in bookshops now

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