Daybook of a Modern Zen Priest

by Haju Sunim, Ann Arbor Zen Buddhist Temple

In the morning:

It’s still dark with only an occasional swish of a car passing on Packard Road.

The heavy wooden front gate of the Temple is unbarred and open, the porch lamp on, casting light onto stairs and nearby walkways.

Bok        bok      bok   bok  bok bok bok bokbokbokbok   

The compelling sound of the wooden mok’tak pierces the early morning silence as the wake-up person heartily chants the “Great Compassion Dharani” to the drumbeat of this traditional wooden instrument.  She makes slow rounds of our Temple building and even crosses the back garden to the Hermitage, to rouse residents there.  Each one of us washes up, then joins with others in rooms next to our seonbang (meditation hall) to stretch a little - some with yoga, some with tai chi.  Occasionally, members living in the community join us.  We are shadowy grey figures in the dim morning light, slowly, mindfully moving.

Formal practice begins at 6 am when we gather in front of our candlelit alter for 108 vigorous prostrations. After each set of 25, we shout out gathas (verses to aid in mindfulness practices):

Great is the matter of birth and death!

Impermanence surrounds us!

Be awake each moment!

Do not waste your life!

And then we sit for 30 minutes of meditation in the increasing light of the new day.

When the heavy iron meditation bell sounds three times, we bow and stretch on our mats and cushions.  The crack of the wooden chukpi alerts us to stand, smooth our mats and cushions, and then with hands pressed palm to palm, we chant the morning liturgy, “Homage to Buddhas” and “Morning Prayer.” We chant for the relief of suffering, for peace and happiness, for peaceful passage and for relief from illness, accidents, and natural disasters; for beings whose names have been written on cards and placed on our alter so that we may remember them during our practice.

To conclude, we formally greet each other in the foyer.  Some help to finish breakfast, others prepare their work or school things. Breakfast commences with the recitation of the meal gatha:

This food comes from the labors of beings past and present

From this, our body-mind is nourished, our practice sustained,

Gratefully, we accept this meal.

Silence has been kept since last night’s 10 pm bell, so midway through breakfast we often enjoy a little dharma discussion.

Our one-bowl meal usually contains any combination of the following: cooked grains, miso soup, garden greens (usually kale), nut butter, egg, yogurt, nuts and seeds, fruit, and sometimes beans.  When finished, we carefully clean all the bits left in the bowl with tea or water, and end our meal with a recitation reminding us of the places pivotal to the Buddha’s life and teaching:

Buddha was born in the Lumbini Garden

He attained enlightenment at Bodhgaya

He set in motion the wheel of dharma at Sarnath

He entered Parinirvana at Kushinara 

Clean-up is accomplished with our usual “together action.” Then, while some of us leave for work or school, others continue with a daily schedule that includes rest, study, work practice, meditation, meal preparation, and personal time.

And so goes the rhythm of Temple life, according to the seasons, with members and friends joining in, especially for Sunday Public Services, meditation courses, retreats, study groups, training weekends, special celebrations like Buddha’s Birthday Celebration, Peace Camp, and volunteering in a myriad of ways. 


In the evening:

Our big temple bell sits beside our Kwan Seum Posal altar,

On the altar to the right sit boxes of remains, gathered over the years

Waiting for our cemetery and country retreat center.


The bell is rung to begin evening service and later

To announce time to retire.

Really it’s beautiful

Sound calls us to attention

Penetrating in all directions.

Just this!  Just now!


A sign on the bell reads:

If you have ill-feelings or hurts, ring this bell and listen to the sound.

The sound of the bell will wash your distress away.

The bell was made so as to relieve all beings from their suffering,

And help them to attain their Enlightenment.

If you wish to know all the Buddhas of past, present, and future

You have to realize that all Dharmas arise from your mind.


At 6:30pm I strike the wooden moktak to signal the beginning of evening practice, light three candles on the altar, open the water vessel, and shift our homemade candles so they illuminate our Buddha statue.  Shadows of flowers waver on the wall behind it.

Holding my robe with two hands at eye level, I silently recite the robe verse while placing my brown-patched robe over my left shoulder and grey meditation clothes:

Wondrous is this robe of liberation

Jewel beyond form and emptiness.

Wearing it I unfold Buddha’s teaching

For the benefit of all sentient beings.


After bowing, I do three, deep prostrations and sit on a round brown cushion, arranging my legs, my hands, my eyes for meditation practice.  Alone. Steady. Focusing. Over and over again a deep probing, “What is it?  What is it? What is it that keeps me going on like this?”  This is the great question given to me years ago by an ancestor in South Korea while I was on pilgrimage.

At 6:58 pm I arise from meditation and walk quietly through unlighted rooms to ring the evening bell.

Kneeling beside the bell that hangs in its timberframe stand, and waiting until it’s exactly 7pm, hands palm to palm in the gesture of a sincere heart, I grasp our old, worn, wooden mallet and strike the bell stand three times. Then, swinging the mallet and striking the metal of the large bell, I punctuate the bell chant verses, according to tradition.


Gatha for the Evening Bell

Listening to the sound of the bell,

My defilements are eliminated,

Wisdom grows, awakening mind arises,

Wrongful paths are left behind, the three realms transcended,

I vow to become a Buddha to save all beings.





I carefully replace the mallet on the carpet inside one of the legs of the frame, make a slow bow, then I return to the candlelit altar, the Buddha, the shadows.  I chant “Homage to Buddhas” in appreciation of all those who, over the ages, have contributed to my being here; to the Temple, the teachers and Dharma.  And then I chant the Heart Sutra in Sino-Korean.

Somehow, even alone, when it would be so easy to become perfunctory, I am full-hearted and quite concentrated with these words and sounds that I have chanted for more than 30 years.

Then I hear another sound, quite near. At first I wonder if it is my own voice cracking, as it does sometimes in the evening. I turn my head ever so slightly and see that it’s Maum, arriving in her business suit from work to join me for the last lines of the Sutra. How wonderful!  Turning up for just the last few verses is simply precious!

Together we bring the chanting to an end, extinguish candles, cover the water bowl, greet each other in the foyer and recite aloud these phrases.

The Six Right Livelihood Guidelines

1.  Consume Mindfully.

Eat with awareness and gratitude.

Pause before buying and see if breathing is enough.

Pay attention to the effects of media you consume.

2.  Pause. Breathe. Listen.

When you feel compelled to speak in a meeting or conversation, pause.

Breathe before entering your home, place of work, or school.

Listen to the people you encounter.  They are buddhas.

3.  Practice Gratitude.

Notice what you have.

Be equally grateful for opportunities and challenges.                     

Share joy, not negativity.

4.  Cultivate Compassion and Loving Kindness.

Notice where help is needed and be quick to help.

Consider others’ perspectives deeply.

Work for peace at many levels.

5.  Discover Wisdom.

Cultivate ‘don’t know’ mind.

Find connections between Buddhist teachings and your life.

Be open to what arises in every moment.

6.  Accept Constant Change. 

These guidelines, and the following precepts or ethical guidelines, are used in mindfulness training, and express the essence of our everyday life practice.

Eight Precepts

1.  I resolve to abstain from doing harm and to cherish all life.

2.  I resolve to abstain from taking what is not given and to respect the things of others.

3.  I resolve to abstain from engaging in sexual misconduct and to practice purity of mind and self-restraint.

4.  I resolve to abstain from lying and to speak the truth.

5.  I resolve to abstain from partaking in the production and trading of firearms and chemical poisons.

6.  I resolve to abstain from wasting and to conserve energy and natural resources.

7.  I resolve to abstain from harboring enmity against the wrongs of others and to promote peace and justice through non-violent means.

8.  I resolve to abstain from clinging to things that belong to me and to practice generosity and the joy of sharing.


Through formal and informal practice, the Zen Buddhist Temple sangha members endeavor to embody these values and intentions in the course of everyday life.

In the spirit of “ just this, just now, just here,” we prepare greens for breakfast, answer the phone and the door, carry newborns out on walks, clean, walk, tend our garden and our bees. In this spirit, we repair a broken drawer, we replace a button, we sew meditation mats and cushions, we  conserve water and electricity, we greet the neighborhood cat who often visits to wander our garden, we live-catch ground hogs who have been ravishing our vegetables, we sweep the front sidewalk and pick up litter, we conduct services and classes in prisons, we offer meditation at the Law School, we contribute food to pantries, we host our annual fundraising yard sale, we teach meditation and yoga and conduct retreats, we visit our ill and dying, we send out weekly ebulletins, we fundraise, we watch movies some Sunday evenings, we nurture our Zen families program, we have wonderful sangha gatherings each season, and more.

As I glance out this office window

I see smoke lazily wafting north from the Vacuum Store chimney

It reminds me of standing outside a crematorium in Royal Oak after performing a service

And watching smoke waft

This great natural way…


Awakening in the very early morning

To a smell

Not strong but clearly there

The fragrance of skunk awakening from hibernation


It’s a cold 4th day of spring

Snow drops and a small yellow flower are blooming in the Temple yard

In our foyer, an azalea is in radiant bloom.  Red.

Last fall when we were cleaning up the garden

We found it, scrubby and pretty much dead, dried up.

We didn’t even know what kind of plant it was.

We just decided

To put it in a pot with soil and bring it inside and see what would happen with care.

Today it’s a most beautiful azalea and an inspiration in the Temple entranceway.

Sometimes we forget that we have that same spunkiness

Which just needs a little spiritual care.




As I write these words, morning sun streams through dusty windows, creating shadows and light across this comfortable attic sitting room. There are even shadows on this recycled page, fetched from a sheaf of papers in my black backpack.

I am quiet, alert, calm, sipping the dregs of re-warmed coffee meticulously prepared by my son-in-law a few hours ago. I’m on retreat from my home of almost four decades, visiting my younger daughter at her home in the historic district of Buffalo where her large brick house is in the process of transformation after she daringly purchased it with a HUD loan when she was 20.  It was disheveled and run into the ground; the price equally low.

I have the company of this sunshine and their street dog, Cricket, who walks with one wonky foot and bears a festering sore on her left buttock. From time to time she soothes it with her lapping, pink tongue.

Earlier this week, my daughter and I spent our first evening together catching up by the fire.  One night we walked downtown and took the streetcar to see the Sabres play the Vancouver Canucks.  We saw a movie, “Duff”, and in the same mall visited a make-up store where I purchased some shea butter and tried a little lip gloss.  We ate out for one lunch and one brunch, and brought home Indian food for another meal, but mostly we enjoyed home cooking.  She recommended two provocative Ted talks, which we watched and discussed.  Last evening, she gave me a wonderful foot massage, starting with a foot soak and scrub to remove dead skin. Then she oiled and massaged my seventy-one year old peds.  After pushing back cuticles she clipped and polished my toenails – two coats, a crème color.  Usually my son-in-law cuts my hair, which I keep very short, but not this time. 

Next month I’ll visit my older daughter and two grandchildren in Illinois, and then I’ll travel to our other temples over the next few months, teaching, helping with temple duties, and visiting with other teachers.

Dharma realms unfold everywhere!  So it goes.

Rev. Haju Sunim is the resident priest for the Ann Arbor Zen Buddhist Temple, where she has lived since 1982.

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Posted on May 11, 2015 and filed under Daily Rituals.