Interview with Buddhist Author, Sumi Loundon Kim

One of my favorite aspects of Project Conversion is all the incredible people I meet during each month. Each person has a unique view or form of expression toward his or her faith, from music to art and philosophy, all of which gives us a more in-depth image of what that faith is all about.

I recently contacted Buddhist author and community leader, Ms. Sumi Loundon Kim, and she agreed to speak with me about what it means to be a Buddhist and a little about her anthology, Blue Jean Buddha. For this anthology, Sumi spoke with young Buddhists all over the country and asked them to share what Buddhism means to them and the challenges they face today.

Andrew: What prompted you to gather all the stories for Blue Jean Buddha?

Sumi: I was lonely. I needed a boyfriend. I loved the Buddhists in my community, but they were all 20 or more years older. There is something enormously invigorating and affirming about connecting with someone your own age and who’s part of your generation’s culture. Sharing and friendship are absolutely essential to the spiritual path. Basically, doing the book gave me a community of dharma peers. So, that’s the self-interested reason. The loftier reason, which came later, was that I saw how, if I needed community, others surely needed it, too. An anthology was one way of creating that community, primarily through helping young people know that what they’re experiencing is perfectly normal, natural, expected. Just that helps people relax and open up the the diversity of their lived experience rather than think in should’s and shouldn’ts.

Andrew: Is there a story which stands out most to you?

Sumi: Noah Levine, who went from rageful punk addict to dharma teacher. He’s a lovely person today; it’s hard to imagine he was so angry once. (Noah Levine is a teacher and author of several books on Buddhism, including Dharma Punx.)

Andrew: What underlying themes do you find in your talks with young Buddhist? What are their fears, concerns, challenges?

Sumi: Young Buddhists, and really any young spiritual seeker, tend to struggle with two things. First, with really huge questions like “What is the meaning of life” and “How do I become enlightened” to pragmatic, emotional and developmental questions like “How can I be a better boyfriend or girlfriend” and “How can I relate to my parents?” Young Buddhists often struggle with parents who are from different religious backgrounds and therefore are not always approving of the choices their child is making. Young Buddhists often struggle with whether or not they are Buddhist, what it means to be Buddhist, their identity at all levels. Finally, I’d say they have a strong sense about the world’s suffering and want to do something about it, although it’s hard to know what and I think that can feel overwhelming.

Andrew: Is there a revolution going on today in what it means to be a Buddhist in general and an American one in particular? If so, what are those changes?

Sumi: I don’t think there’s a revolution on the meaning of being Buddhist or a Buddhist who is also an American. That said, what it is to be a Buddhist is changing in our time, not just in America but everywhere else. Ritual, liturgy, and traditional forms are on the decline while meditation and study are becoming the two defining things Buddhists do. Again, not just here but also in other countries, there are changes sociologically, with a greater role for women, laypeople, with experiments or at least questions about power structures in institutional Buddhism, a broader tolerance of diversity — trends you find in society as a whole. There’s been some resistance to modernization, but Buddhism maybe has more potential for adaptation to modern sentiments than other religions — it’s hard to know, time will tell. It’s also not clear to me whether a wholesale adaptation is a good thing, but it is clear that only sticking to tradition because it’s tradition is not useful. These days, you’ll find a great range of ways of doing Buddhism, from conservative and traditional to syncretic to experimental. Having that diversity, which can connect to the diversity of people out there, will help Buddhism remain vibrant and relevant.

One trend that is a little troubling to me is that of people doing mindfulness practice alone without any of the other practices and elements that traditionally support this (conduct, community, study, ritual). So nowadays there are tons of people doing meditation almost as a counterpart to hatha yoga but in a completely de-Buddha-ized way. I’m not sure this will take people very far, spiritually, though psychologically there’s benefit. I just hope people don’t confuse the two.

Andrew: Buddhism experienced rapid growth and change after the death of Siddhartha. Do you think he’d recognize Buddhism today? Which tradition or school would he groove on, if any?

Sumi: He very likely would because much of the form of Buddhism we see today is a reformed style of Buddhism that bases itself on early texts. I’m not sure he would recognize the institutional aspects, but I think he would see that his teachings were kept intact relatively well. My guess is that the Buddha would find any form of Buddhism that directs people to find freedom through an understanding of suffering to be useful. “I teach one thing and one thing only: suffering and the end of suffering.”

Andrew: I understand your concern about folks going after the meditation only and leaving Buddhism itself out. Is this a more Western attitude where we only want the “good stuff” and leave out the more challenging aspects of the faith?

Sumi: I wouldn’t pin it down to be the fault of Western inclinations, although a lot of Westerners beat themselves up about it and say that it is our self-centeredness, yada yada, that has recreated Buddhism for the worse. But if you go to Asia, one sees lots of expressions of Buddhism that are self-interested, that avoid the difficult practices of meditation and study, that are this-worldly, and so on.

Andrew: I have heard many accounts suggesting that, because Buddhism has no real focus on a central deity, its practices can blend as tools with other faiths. What are your feelings on that?

Sumi: Yes, I think Buddhism is premised on an atheistic understanding of the spiritual life, and as such, it can be a little more adaptable such that one can be a ___-Buddhist (Unitarian/Jewish/Catholic/etc.). However, it depends on what you decide to take from Buddhism. That is, not all aspects of Buddhism are compatible with aspects of other religions. It’s hard to reconcile rebirth with heaven, for example. I think of religions as being comprised of a philosophy, practices, textual tradition, liturgy/ritual, cosmology, community, ethical system, culture, and institutions. It’s really just Buddhism’s philosophy, some of its practices, and the ethical system, to a degree, that are compatible with certain other elements of other religions.

Andrew: You are also a Buddhist chaplain at Duke University. Can you tell us about that experience; what it involves?

Sumi: Although the students in the Buddhist community at Duke are knowledgeable, engaged, thoughtful, and organized, they feel they have benefited by having an “adult” as some say. They are, of course, adults themselves! So I think it’s just the idea that there’s someone there with a little more experience, knowledge, and practice that gives the group a little more grounding. Moreover, they have now an advocate and liaison between their group and the university administration, which keeps communications flowing nicely. I am also someone who will be here as there are class turnovers and can hold the institutional memory for them, to a degree. I often find myself just making small nudges here and there to keep the group on track. It’s not that I lead the group (the president does that) but more that when things start to veer off in the wrong direction (for example, the group becomes too self-involved and newcomers feel like outsiders) that I make minor course corrections (suggesting we have an Open House).

Andrew: What’s next for you? Projects on the horizon?

Sumi: I’ve got my hands full as the chaplain and the minister of the Buddhist Families of Durham (BFD–it’s meant to be a joke). Plus, two little kids.

Andrew: Thanks for dropping by, Sumi. We’ll keep in touch.

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Bio: Sumi Loundon Kim is the Buddhist chaplain at Duke (not Dukkha!) University and teacher for the Buddhist Families of Durham (BFD). She has published two anthologies about young Buddhists: Blue Jean Buddha (2001) and The Buddha’s Apprentices (2005), among other articles and chapters. After receiving a master’s degree in Buddhist studies and Sanskrit from the Harvard Divinity School, she was the associate director for the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. Originally brought up in a Soto Zen community, she has been following the Theravada lineage for the past 20 years. Sumi and her husband, a native of Korea and professor of Korean Buddhism and culture, have two young children and live in Durham, NC.

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