Korean Monks discuss Buddhism, culture

In their traditional grey monk suits with shaved heads and wearing iPods, they’ve walked Park Avenue, listened to the concerts in Lincoln Park and played football in Lyndhurst—a part of their introduction in the Western world. The monks are a group of three Korean monks and four nuns from Donguk University in South Korea, and are staying at Felician College in Rutherford while studying English as a Second Language and learning about Buddhism in the Western world.

They live under a rule of 250 precepts. And on a typical day, they’re up at 4 a.m. for meditation, have breakfast at 6 a.m., and have university studies, chant three times a day and do agricultural work until sundown. While staying mentally and spiritually active, they also stay physically active and technologically savvy.

“I like football and soccer,” says Sung Cheol Lee a.k.a. “Great Wisdom.” Their trip to the fields in Lyndhurst was also their introduction to the American game of football.

“And I use Twitter for journals and chants. I have iPhone apps for chanting, ‘I Need Coffee,’ painting and a dictionary,” says Heyjun Changeon Kim, a.k.a. “Blue River.”

Lee, 19, and Blue River, 42, noted that it is customary in Korea not to use your birth name…

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when you become a monk. At times, they spoke through a translator. Blue River has been a monk for 12 years. Lee is two years into the five-year journey.

Why learn English? “Globalization, the Internet; a lot of info is in English only,” says Blue River. “If I had the chance, I’d like to teach meditation in the United States.”

The six-week trip for the Buddhism and Meditation majors includes visiting temples, Ivy League colleges and museums in New York, Boston and Washington, D.C. They went to Dharma Drum University, Blue Cliff and Gem Mountain monasteries, Boston University, the John F. Kennedy Library, Harvard, MIT, Rubin Museum of Art at NYU, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“At Harvard, the opinions are concentrated in one study. I envy that,” says Blue River. “It made me think to concentrate more on my major, meditation,” he said, adding that he also minors in Architecture and Art History and is fascinated by scholarly writing on many religions.

In the nation’s capital, Lee said the two met with Congressman Dan Burton (R-Indiana), attending a ceremony commemorating the anniversary of the end of the Korean War.

For achieving peace, tranquility and physical fitness, Blue River reflected on Western meditation through yoga and Buddhism.

“The main point of the Western view of Buddhism is compassion,” Blue River notes, adding that he was surprised by Westerners’ vast knowledge of and interest in Buddhism.

Both men also believe that Americans lead in materialism and the science of medicine, for example. And the Western society has just begun to adopt spirituality into the mix. “I pursue spirituality. Americans sort of mix the spiritual and material and mental,” Blue River says.

He defines Buddhism as being “free from suffering.” “Buddhism began with a prince born in India 2,000 years ago. His mother died during childbirth, so he always thought about birth, age, disease and death. So he became a monk. He practiced for six years, not eating. He also realized the theory of cause/effect,” Blue River explains, adding that the reason monks never marry or have children is because marriage and child-rearing would yield material needs.

The prince found three truths, Lee adds.

“Everything is impermanent; nothing stays the same. Be selfless. Be free of suffering by erasing three poisons: greed, anger and ignorance. The key is to meditate in order to remove poisons. The goal is to be free of suffering. The idea is to achieve nirvana,” says Blue River.

Rules, however, vary between southeast regions of Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Vietnam and northeast regions, including China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia and Tibet.

“It’s stricter in the south,” Blue River says.

“The south has the same theories as the north, but different conceptions [of being a Buddhist monk],” Blue River says. “You can’t work. You can’t cook in the temple. In Myanmar, I had to go out [to ask] for food. You can’t touch money. When you take the bus, the driver has to take the money out of your wallet.”

Not quite ready to leave Rutherford for South Korea, Lee and Blue River thanked Felician staff and reflected on their stay.

“They’re like family. We have the same purpose,” Blue River says. “When we teach, we also learn. They learn about us and we learn about Western culture.”

Blue River will continue his trip in America in Maine to continue his meditation research.

[Kelly Nicholaides, North Jersey]

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