Monk Taehye sunim, spiritual guide of the Bodhidharma Association
Taehye sunim was born on the year of the dragon on the shore of Lake Saimaa in Mikkeli, Finland. He became interested in Eastern philosophies at an early age and began to regard himself as a Buddhist at the age of 16, although he did not know other Buddhists at the time. Upon graduating from upper secondary education, he studied comparative religion, history and philosophy, among other subjects, at the Universities of Turku and Helsinki. After receiving his candidatus philosophiae degree (corresponding to a Master of Arts degree), he took on various jobs including lecturing at the Department of Comparative Religion at the University of Helsinki. He also familiarized himself with the practical application of Buddhism, first at the FWBO center in Helsinki (currently known as Triratna) and later in various Buddhist centers across Europe.
Ever since a young age, Taehye sunim regarded monasticism as an important aspect of Buddhism. Because of this, he “renounced the world,” traveling to Thailand where he became novice monk Mahapañña in the Wat Pleng Vipassana monastery in 1982. His Theravada teacher was the gentle, open-minded meditation master Phra Krusangvorn Samadhivat. Novice monk Mahapañña led a wandering life spending periods of time in Thailand and European countries. In 1985, he became the chair of the Registered Association Buddhismin ystävät (“Friends of Buddhism”) in Finland. Buddhismin ystävät (currently known as Bodhidharma) is the first Buddhist association in Finland, founded in 1947, and had been in a state of “dormancy” in the early 1980s without organized activities.
Life as a Theravada monk in Finland was very challenging. For this reason, novice monk Mahapañña traveled to monasteries in Japan belonging to the Sōtō Zen tradition and subsequently to Korea where he received full Korean ordination as a monk and the name Taehye sunim from the Seon master Ilgak sunim in the Songgwangsa monastery. The names Mahapañña and Taehye both signify “Great Sage.” Taehye sunim took part in summer retreats in Songgwangsa and Taiwan. Ilgak sunim granted him permission to initiate temple activities in the West, in practice in Italy where an opportunity presented itself. In 1992, Taehye sunim assumed residence in a domed building named Pagoda close to the city of Arezzo. In the Pagoda, two Italian youths embarked on monastic life and subsequently in Korea became monk Tae Ri sunim and nun Young sunim.
Later, in 2000, Taehye sunim acquired a more suitable facility located in Lerici on the coast of Liguria. Since then Taehye sunim has served as the abbot of the Musang Am temple. The lineage of Taehye sunim is a combination of Theravada and Mahayana. In 1999, he received full Theravadin bhikkhu or monastic ordination in Burma from Paññadipa Sayadaw, master of the World Buddhist Meditation Center.
There are only a few monks and nuns of Finnish origin. Taehye sunim is the only one among them to have become a “senior monk” (mahathera). He serves as the spiritual guide of the Italian and Finnish Bodhidharma Associations. He has also participated in international Buddhist events such as the General Conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists and later World Buddhist Summit in Bangkok, Japan, etc., as chair of the Finnish delegation.
Taehye sunim has authored, himself and as coauthor, a number of literary works in Finnish, including the following:
– Bodhipuun juurella, kokemuksia buddhalaisluostareista (Otava, 1984) (”At the Foot of the Bodhi Tree: Experiences from Buddhist Monasteries”)
– Buddhalaista viisautta (Gaudeamus, 1987) (”Buddhist Wisdom”)
– Buddhalainen sanasto ja symboliikka (Gaudeamus, 1990) (”Buddhist Glossary and Symbolism”)
– Suomalainen zen-opas (Basam Books, 2001 ja 2009) (”Finnish Zen Guide”)
He has also translated into Finnish the following literary works highly valuable for our practice:
– Shunryu Suzuki: Zen-mieli, aloittelijan mieli (Unio Mystica, 1995; Delfiini kirjat, 2006) (“Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” by Shunryu Suzuki)
– Zenmestari Wu-men: Portiton portti (Basam Books, 1995) (“Gateless Gate” by Zen master Wu-men)
– Zenmestari Shen-Yen: Kiinalaisten zenmestareiden runoja (Basam Books, 1999) (“Poems by Ancient Chan Masters” by Zen master Shen-Yen)
– Huinengin Suutra (photocopy edition, Taiwan) (“Huineng Sutra”)
In his teachings, Taehye sunim emphasizes that Inter-Buddhist cooperation beyond sectarian boundaries and the establishment of a male (monk) and female (nun) monastic Sangha in the Western environment represent critical factors in the development of Buddhism in the West.
In 2009, based on the initiative of Taehye sunim, the Registered Association Suomen Buddhalainen Unioni (SBU; “Finnish Buddhist Union”) was founded to facilitate the development of Inter-Buddhist cooperation in Finland. Since then he has strived to develop the activities of SBU.
Taehye sunim is also a renowned and respected teacher in the extensive field of Italian Buddhism, and is frequently invited to feature in various teaching and other events. He has often been interviewed for Italian newspapers and magazines.
Currently, in addition to him, the monk Kusalananda (Alberto Alcozar), who received monastic ordination in Burma and is also an accomplished composer and pianist, practices and teaches in the Musang Am temple.
As Taehye sunim received his bhikkhu ordination in Burma, he has visited in the country and actively followed its political situation during the violent regime by the military junta, as well as maintaining contact with opponents of the military junta. These activities have entailed providing various forms of aid to protect U Gambira and Ashin Sopaka, who served as leading activists in the so-called Saffron Revolution protests in 2007, from persecution by the military junta. For instance, U Gambira has been detained and subjected to torture in prison on multiple accounts, and human rights campaigns have been organized for his release.
Through the initiative of Taehye sunim, the charitable organization Karuna was founded in Italy in 2007. Karuna has organized volunteer labor and material assistance not only to orphanages in Burma but also to the cultural center known as the Burma Study Center, located in Chiangmai, which houses Burmese refugees and migrants. However, at present (2020-06-24), the activities of the Karuna Association have been suspended.
Even though most of the activities of Taehye sunim are focused in Italy, he continues to actively run the Bodhidharma Association in Finland and regularly visits the country organizing retreats and other events.