Hyon Gak Sunim (addressed as “Sunim”) was born Paul J. Muenzen in 1964 to a family of devout Catholics in New Jersey, U.S.A. He was educated in literature, literary theory, and philosophy at Yale University (Class of 1987) and comparative religions at Harvard Divinity School, where he received the degree of Master of Theological Studies in 1992.
Hyon Gak Sunim became a student of Zen Master Seung Sahn in 1989 while studying in Cambridge, Mass., and lived for several years at the Cambridge Zen Center. He was ordained by his Teacher in 1992 in China, at the Temple of the Sixth Patriarch, on Chogye Mountain: he was the first Westerner to be ordained in the People’s Republic of China since the Communist Revolution. He has been doing training in various remote mountain places in Asia, including 3 intensive 100-day solo meditation retreats and some forty 3-month intensive meditation retreats (ango) in some of the most esteemed Zen temples of Korea.
In August 2001, in a public ceremony at Hwa Gye Sah Temple, Sunim was publicly tested in Dharma combat before an assembly of monks and nuns who had just completed the Summer Kyol Che, and received inka (formal approval of enlightenment, and certification of teaching authorization) from Zen Master Seung Sahn. It was the last teaching authority conferred directly by Zen Master Seung Sahn.
In 1,700 years of Asian Zen tradition and the Chogye Order of Korean Buddhism, formal inka means one is publicly recognised as a 禪/(Soen) 師/(Sa) — literally the words “Zen” and “teacher” [Jap.: Zenji], what is sometimes called in the West a “Zen master”. (The Kwan Um School of Zen — from which Sunim made himself independent in 2010 — requires seven additional years of strict adherence to the organization, regional recommendations from appointed bodies within the organisation, and committee approval for recognition in their 45 year-old organization’s franchise teaching orthodoxy.)
In 2002, Zen Master Seung Sahn appointed Hyon Gak Sunim to be the Guiding Teacher of the Zen Hall at Hwa Gye Sah Temple, thereby becoming his official teaching representative at the temple where Zen Master Seung Sahn had been based for 50 years, and where he died in November 2004. During that time, Sunim was also his Teacher’s secretary.
Sunim is often cited in Korean media with leading a revival of interest in Buddhism in Korean society, especially among the young and educated. His multi-million bestselling book, From Harvard to Hwa Gye Sah Temple (1999), is regarded as the first major Buddhist bestseller in Korean Buddhist history; and his editing, translation, and teaching of several texts by Zen Master Seung Sahn made him one of the most recognized and influential voices in modern Korean Buddhism. The Education Department of the Chogye Order has been famously quoted in media that “it is believed that over 100 Koreans have left home [become monks or nuns] crediting his bestselling book that was first published at the end of 1999.” Since his ordination in 1992, three temples in Korea were donated to Sunim; he transferred them all to other monks and nuns.
As the former Buddhist co-Chaplain at Harvard University (1996-97), Sunim has given public talks at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, UC-Berkeley, Oxford, Columbia, NYU, Union Theological Seminary, Brown, SUNY, Université de Paris, University of London, Charles University (Prague), University of Latvia, Vilnius University, University of Salzburg, and University of Oslo, among many others, in addition to colleges, divinity schools, and countless temples throughout Korea, and other temples in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Japan. Sunim has led two pilgrimages to Tibet, and in March 2008, he was caught up in the Lhasa Uprising, and placed under house arrest with others after witnessing the brutal crackdown of protesters at Sera Monastery.
He was invited to teach meditation to executives at Facebook HQ in Silicon Valley in 2012. In June 2018, he was invited to teach Zen meditation at a conference in the Vatican: it was the first time that Zen is ever known to have been taught inside the Vatican.