[NOTEBOOK]A Young Monk on Road to Distraction

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[NOTEBOOK]A Young Monk on Road to Distraction

When I received a letter addressed in nearly illegible handwriting last week, I had to look twice to believe what I saw. Under "Sender" was the name Hyon-gak, written correctly, though in a childish scribble, on the envelope.

Surely, I muttered, this can't be the Hyon-gak who wrote the best-selling book "Manhaeng: From Harvard to Hwagye Temple"?

The letter was especially mysterious as the Venerable Hyon-gak, a 37-year-old American monk, has shied away from the press since his teacher, Venerable Seungsan, gave him a reprimand.

Early last year, when Venerable Hyon-gak became famous in Korea after publishing "Manhaeng," his hectic publicity schedule left him little time to pursue his ascetic practices. Venerable Seungsan advised him that unless he continued to devote himself to seeking enlightenment, he would forever remain a good-for-nothing, living in the dark. Venerable Hyon-gak took his teacher's words to heart and has since shunned the press.

When I opened the letter, it turned out to be an invitation to the opening ceremony of Hyeonjeong Temple in North Kyongsang province. The invitation was from the head priest of the temple, a monk called Hyon-gak.

It can't be that an American monk has become the head priest of a temple in Korea, I muttered again. But perhaps it could. So I called Hyeonjeong Temple.

It was he.

Suddenly I was confused, because I had two conflicting pictures of Venerable Hyon-gak in my mind. One was the hero of "Manhaeng" and the other was a head priest. The images refused to go together.

The hero of "Manhaeng," as the subtitle "From Harvard to Hwagye Temple" suggests, is a young Harvard graduate who decides to seek the truth, just like the author himself.

The book, the confessions of a young American youth - his personal background and the ignorant beginnings of the search that ended in Buddhism - touched those Koreans, born into familiarity with Buddhism, who read it.

It was his passion to find the truth and his pure heart that moved his Korean audience. Paul Muenzen (Hyon-gak's birth name), who came to a temple in a small country in the Far East to seek the truth, relinquishing a future as a prestigious Harvard graduate, made many Koreans feel shame. He is a model of a truth-seeker.

However, by no means does this experience - this small step on a long road - qualify him to be the chief of a Buddhist temple. Among jokes about temples, there is one in which even a beggar insists that he must meet the chief of the temple himself. The chief of the temple - in essence the manager of the temple - has the duty of representing it in secular society. It is extremely difficult for the monks who carry out this task to continue their practice and training. Thanks to these monks, others can concentrate on their religious practices. But it's hard to deny that temple chiefs are somewhat distracted from the road to the truth.

The hero of "Manhaeng" was a monk who was determined to find the truth. For this, he needed to wander the world, not set up shop as temple chief.

As a seeker of the truth, Venerable Hyon-gak should continue his ascetic practice with the mind-set he displayed in his book.

It is possible for a temple chief to do well in both secular affairs and religious training.

But Venerable Hyon-gak, as his great teacher Venerable Seungsan mentioned, is a young monk still learning self-discipline. Besides, he has yet to fully master Korean and is not totally accustomed to Korean society.

It is a matter for regret that Hyon-gak was appointed as the chief of temple. I am disappointed by the leadership of the Korean Buddhist community.

I don't want to lose the hero of "Manhaeng," who is a seeker of the truth.


The writer is a deputy

culture news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Oh Byung-sang

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