Toan Sunim was born on September 8, 1957 in Mexico City. In August of 1984, while still an art student at Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico,
he began practicing Zen meditation at an acupuncture center run by a Japanese monk, Ejo Takata Sensei. In December of that year, he met Ven. Samu Sunim during Sunim’s second Yongmaeng Jeongjin retreat in Mexico. Accepting Sunim’s invitation to come to the Toronto temple for three months of training, Toan left his last semester of art school and arrived in Canada in March of 1985, staying on for the next seven years as resident monk and later as priest. In December of 1992, Toan left for the newly-purchased Chicago temple, which was badly in need of renovations, and worked there until December of 1993. While renovating the Toronto and Chicago temples, Toan was a “true monk,” living at the subsistence level and working very hard in difficult circumstances, often with no heat, no shower, and alone―but with joy, clarity and focus. Toan was ordained a priest in July of 1989 at the Toronto temple at 86 Vaughan Road. He has made spiritual pilgrimages with Sunim to Korea in 1995, 2002 and 2004, visiting dozens of mountain temples during each trip.
In the spring of 1994, nine years from the time he left home for Toronto,Toan returned to Mexico to lead the Mexican sangha and to again take up his art-making. Since then, he and Sunim see each other during Sunim’s annual teaching trips to Mexico and Toan’s annual retreat trips to Toronto and Chicago. For seven years, Toan pursued solitary Zen training and painting in the Sonoran Desert. Since November of 2003 he has lived as resident priest in the newly purchased Zen Buddhist Temple in Mexico City.
Samu Sunim's Dharma Transmission Talk to Toan Sunim:Transmission of Dharma to Jose Maria Castelao Camara. It is no small matter, even in an increasingly shrinking and changing world, for two people of different cultures to meet through Dharma connections and forge the bonds of the relationship of teacher and disciple. How much more so to spend twenty years faithfully in that relationship―and the first nine years under the same roof. Toan Sunim is a constant, humble, hard-working, and extremely frugal yet generous person. Above all, he has been a blue-eyed Son (Zen) practitioner whose example and discipline far surpass mine.
Toan Sunim's Talk: My main interest and passion has always been doing artwork. Since childhood I was very inclined to draw, even in the midst of classes at school. In my teens I realized, through contemplating works of the past, how worthy and noble it would be to dedicate one’s life wholeheartedly to that activity. It was like suddenly recognizing a certain potential at hand and the opportunity to develop it, to develop the joy, the love and dedication for it. A sense of responsibility arises with that potential, to cultivate it and make it bloom. Many times, through works of art, I have felt hope in humanity.
I went to art school and for several years worked hard. But as time passed, I felt more and more that something was lacking. For my teacher, Luis Nishizawa, the world of art seemed to be all he needed in life, and painting a spiritual path in itself. I wanted that for myself, but I couldn’t do it, or at that time didn’t know how. Something very important was missing. With time I realized it was spiritual practice. Since I came from Catholic background, I started exploring more in that tradition. For the next nine months I went to church regularly and had many conversations with a priest who had been one of my high school teachers. He was a very open-minded person and, above all, a good friend who motivated young people to see and think for themselves. Through these informal talks, I could visualize for the first time a life dedicated to inner cultivation. Also I recognized artists from the past whose spiritual aspirations went hand in hand with their artistic work.
But as I continued to participate and practice in the Catholic tradition, it became clear that it was not the path for me. Simply, I couldn’t believe in that way. So I started exploring other possibilities. One day, walking in the countryside, I saw some people practicing some kind of meditation―maybe doing some yoga, I thought. So I started to look for a yoga center. But soon I learned about a nearby acupuncture center where Zen meditation was practiced. From the first time sitting I knew I had found my path. Something touched me deeply about just sitting in silence.
I started sitting daily at the center and also at home. Soon, through the practice and some reading, I began to realize that everybody has the potential to awaken, that within, we all have an inexhaustible treasure ready to be discovered. A sense of responsibility and duty grew from that. These words―duty, responsibility―may sound too serious. But truly, it is a source of joy and inspiration to practice, cultivate this treasure, and make it grow; to see that, whatever your circumstances may be, the potential is there.
We have just had a five-day Yongmaeng Chongjin. All these five days, Sunim has been motivating us in many different ways to connect for ourselves with this inexhaustible well, to realize this potential, this so-called Buddha nature, Great Unknowing Mind, Buddha within. We all can do it. As different as our conditions might be, with different paths and life situations, all of us are endowed with this treasure. Each of us, then, just has to cultivate the seed, learn to get in touch with it, trust it, live it and enjoy it. There is nothing to construct or make up. Just discover what it is already there.
I feel grateful that I spent all these years close to Sunim, with the teachings, and with all of you. Being at the temple, living through so many different situations, one’s mind broadens. As Haju Sunim said during the retreat: “All of a sudden, here we are faced with a big project that we never thought or planned or wished to do.” And working together in the retreat with that wonderful silent energy of everybody, we are in the midst of this project, which is our practice itself. As we transform and complete the task, we also cultivate, process, open up and enlarge ourselves, instead of just being narrowly concerned with our own interests.
There is one approach of Zen that I especially appreciate deeply, which is that Zen practice, as you know, focuses on or emphasizes everyday ordinary life. And, as you know, Sunim’s style of teaching very much puts emphasis on work practice and everyday situations. Sunim has the difficult task of transmitting the teachings to another culture, another environment, and to help them take root and flourish. Through this process, I think that if we really learn to carry our practice in all circumstances, certainly Buddhism will take root in the West, because first of all it will take root in ourselves. Everywhere we go then, we will be able to carry our temple within ourselves.
A long time ago, when I was still in art school, my art teacher, Nishizawa, completed a mural for a government office. The theme of it was: “Man and His Freedom.” At the inauguration, the authorities spoke and praised the work and the artist. Then it came his turn to speak. Nishizawa is a sincere, humble man, and when one is with him, one can feel in him a quite spiritual and genuine person. He had this to say: “The world of painting is not the world of words. It is the world of the mute; silent communication; communication through colors, space, forms. I belong to that world, so I have nothing else to say.”
On that occasion, he had a remarkable mural to present to people. Today I would wish to present you something worthy. But, certainly, I have here no mural, not even a scroll. My favorite Zen anecdote has always been about that Master who, whenever someone asked him a question, would just lift his finger in response. It is my sincere wish to devote every breath that remains in my life so that one day I might be able to transmit something worthy, joyous, and wonderful, just by lifting a finger.