The 75-year-old South Korean Zen master Samu Sunim, flanked by two of his followers in a recent photo, stands in front of the Zen Buddhist Temple he founded at 206 East 63rd Street on the East Side. Photo: Zen Buddhist Temple
There were aging beatniks and younger hippies, acid heads and flower children, radicals and revolutionaries, “freaks” and “squares,” cops and, tourists, ex-nuns and slumming socialites, mendicants and missionaries.
The place: Washington Square Park. The time: August 1967. The ethos? Psychedelic drugs and sexual abandon. The required reading? A pair of 1950s novels by Jack Kerouac, “The Dharma Bums” and “On the Road.”
Immortalized as the “Summer of Love,” celebrated for good vibes yet marred by bad trips, here was a countercultural cauldron into which stepped a then-25-year-old Zen Buddhist monk from South Korea who had found his way to Greenwich Village after a sojourn in San Francisco.
“Haight-Ashbury was my very first cultural shock,” Samu Sunim recalls. “The Village and the park and the hippies would become my second cultural shock.”
Orphaned in Korea, Sunim was a seeker of enlightenment and wisdom, salvation and liberation. But he was also a homeless beggar living on the streets, sleeping on park benches, panhandling from passers-by. A contradiction? Actually, no. In that turn-on-tune-in-drop-out era, one hardly ruled out the other.
It wasn’t long before Sunim realized he needed to earn a living. So he took a night-shift job sorting parcels for UPS. Soon, he’d rented an apartment at 454 West 45th Street, founded the Zen Lotus Society in his home and began his first Dharma practice, which in Buddhism refers to the realization of the teachings of the Buddha in one’s daily life.
His initial stay in the city lasted all of five months. He had entered the U.S. illegally, he acknowledges, and was forced to depart for Montreal.
Flash forward exactly 50 years. Now, he’s a 75-year old Zen master. And he’s finally come home.
After developing and running Buddhist centers across North America – in Toronto and Mexico City, Chicago and Michigan – he has at last built a retreat to serve practitioners and beginners in New York.
And after residing in Canada for decades, he now lives in a railroad flat on the third floor of his Zen Buddhist Temple at 206 East 63rd Street.
Perhaps the address sounds familiar?
The five-story, red-and-beige brick townhouse is a star-crossed building that housed 12 restaurants over a 34-year period between 1977 and 2011. Every single one of them failed, collapsed into insolvency or otherwise forced to shut down after money-losing tenancies.
The phenomenon was first reported by Gay Talese, the venerable author who lives nearby and used to park his 1957 Triumph across the street. After watching restaurants change like the seasons, he became obsessed with the aspirations and crushed dreams of those defeated restaurateurs.
In fact, Sunim says, Talese approached him when he first arrived to scout the building as a possible temple location, briefed him at length about its clouded history — and later, when the place had opened its doors, would pop in occasionally to meditate alongside Sunim.
“It’s the Willy Loman of buildings in New York,” Talese has written, a reference to the always striving, ultimately doomed protagonist of “Death of a Salesman.” Talese, a pioneer of so-called New Journalism in the 1960s and 1970s, chronicled the building’s lore in his 2006 memoir, “A Writer’s Life,” and again in a 2011 “Talk of the Town” article in The New Yorker magazine.
“Restaurants come to East 63rd Street to die,” Sunim says.
“But what is this jinx that haunts the restaurants when they come here? Gay Talese wanted to know. And suddenly, in this place where all those restaurants failed or went bankrupt, he sees this Buddhist monk show up!”
Choosing his words carefully, he adds, “I think I can say that the jinx has not hurt us.” There is a brief silence. Then he says, “Not yet at least.”
As the founder and resident priest, Sunim serves as both the spiritual and temporal leader of the temple, where he conducts the meditation service, provides instruction in chanting, emphasizes self-help, and gives the Dharma talk, or the rough equivalent of a sermon.
The centerpiece is the practice of meditating, which Buddhists believe is the direct path to freedom and enlightenment, and which Sunim has labored mightily to bring to his small but growing flock of two or three dozen adherents on the East Side.
“He has been trying to import Korean-style Buddhism to the West since the late 1960s,” said Ben Henry, a 43-year-old follower from Toronto who has been living in the temple under its residency program. “That is his life’s mission, and he’s been very successful at it.”
Henry said members pay $60 a month, non-members pay a suggested $10 donation for public services on Sundays, and five fifth-floor rooms are available for temple residencies at $1,150 to $1,750 a month.
Those prices are modest. The cost of operating in the neighborhood, however, is anything but. And that is perhaps the third cultural shock:
“If I had known how expensive the Upper East Side is, I never would have come here,” Sunim says. Is he joking? Well, maybe yes, maybe no. But very quickly, you glean the gravity beneath the mirth.
“I don’t like this mass consumption culture,” he says. “We tend to think that if you’re poor, you’re miserable and unhappy. But if you have too many things, you can be miserable and unhappy, too. But I also say that suffering is optional.”
What triggered Sunim’s flight from Manhattan in 1967? The Summer of Love had come to an end — and federal agents came calling, he wrote in a temple newsletter.
As Sunim tells the story, he’d been drafted into the South Korean Army in 1963, deserted to Japan in 1965, entered the U.S. illegally in 1967, and, after a confrontation with FBI agents that fall, moved to Canada in 1968.
It was a route well-trod by the draft evaders he’d known in Washington Square Park during the Vietnam War era.
For the next 40 years, Sunim was based in Toronto, founding temples and running his nonprofit, which changed its name in 1990 from the Zen Lotus Society to the Buddhist Society for Compassionate Wisdom.
In 1989, he was paroled for illegal entry into the country, and in 2001, received a U.S. passport. Before long, he began planning his return to New York, and in 2007, after loading a Buddha statue and meditation mats into an old van, he drove back into the city.
Sunim established three temporary temples – first in Chinatown, then in Brooklyn, next on West 29th Street in Chelsea – before finally buying the 1907 townhouse on East 63rd Street for $5.6 million in 2011.
After three years of intensive renovation, much of it performed by volunteers, the conversion from bad-luck restaurant space to religious use was complete, and in 2004, the temple opened its doors to the public.
The mission: Make Zen practice inclusive and widely available to New Yorkers. Present Buddhism as a family-friendly religion. Help Buddhist monks and teachers from Asia settle in America to spread the teachings of the Buddha.
“Buddhism is a self-help religion,” Sunim says. “I teach so people can help themselves, and from there, they can be self-empowered, that’s very important, and then, self-awakening.”
He adds, “I emphasize peace of mind because until you can establish peace of mind, you cannot make any progress.”