An Indian prepares to preach Korean Buddhism

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An Indian prepares to preach Korean Buddhism

By the time Ajita was 18 years old, he was well on his way to becoming a doctor. In fact, he was the first from his region in Ladakh, India, 3,800 meters high in the Himalayas, to study modern medicine.

But in 1991, when he descended the mountain plateau to study in Bangalore, southern India, he was shocked by the social problems he saw. In particular, he was distressed by the way women were abused; he heard of self-immolations committed because of dowry shortcomings. The images traumatized him so deeply that he ended his studies.

About that time he met Park Chung-sue, a nun from the Won Buddhist temple in Gangnam, southern Seoul, who was doing charity work on the subcontinent. "I saw a woman who was always leading in whatever she did," Ajita said. "And then I found that the doctrines of Won Buddhism emphasized equality of the sexes. It was then that I gained a clear picture of what I really had to do."

Leaving his disapproving family behind, he came to Korea in 1993 to study the Won Buddhist sect, which sprang from the enlightenment of its founder, Pak Chung-bin, in 1916. After eight years of study, Ajita was symbolically reborn when he took the Buddhist name Wonhyeonjang. Hyeongjang comes from the Korean name for the sage who introduced Buddhism to China; Ajita says he will now bring Won Buddhism to India, the birthplace of Buddhism. When he graduated last month from the Graduate School of Wonkwang University (the sect's college), he became the first non-Korean monk in the 86-year history of Won Buddhism.

Learning Chinese characters was the hardest part of his course of study. "I had to set an entire year aside to study them separately," he said.

He will commence his work as a Won Buddhist monk by traveling between Ladakh and Bangalore and building a temple in the Himalayan region. His sense of duty as the first Indian Won Buddhist missionary to India gives him the courage to go on. As can be seen from his master's thesis, "How to Propagate Won Buddhism in India," he has been getting himself mentally ready for some time; but no amount of preparation can erase his nervousness.

"I have to take sole responsibility for all I do," Ajita said. "Especially as India is still a class-based society, there are many points to be careful of. When I work with one caste, the other castes ignore me."

Such concerns prompted him to plan to teach formal doctrine to the upper classes while emphasizing charity work for the lower classes.

"Indian religions focus on either asceticism or the spiritual life, but Won Buddhism gives both equal importance." He says he intends to use this advantage well.

His greatest source of strength is the translated versions of the Wonbulgyo kyojon, or the scriptures of Won Buddhism. With the support of Gangnam Temple, Ajita had his Hindi and Ladakhi translations of the works published in 1999. His ability to speak seven languages fluently will also be of help. His younger sister is also a convert; she is in her third year at Wonkwang University and will soon be helping him.

His vow as a Won Buddhist: "Not to be overcome by pride, temptation or anger. Not to be vulgar but to act magnanimously. I also repeat these teachings of the scriptures in my heart."

Ms. Park was present during the interview. She said, "Ajita was born with the nature of a Joseon seonbi (scholar); that is, the nature of one who fulfills all his duties in quietness."

by Jung Hyung-mo

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