Memorial Rises to Commemorate Revered Buddhist Monk

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Memorial Rises to Commemorate Revered Buddhist Monk

In the back country of Sancheong-gun in South Kyongsang province is the birthplace of the late Venerable Songchol, one of the most revered Buddhist masters in Korea. He is believed by many to have been an embodiment of the spiritual knowledge known as the dharma, and for many his life symbolizes the teachings of Buddhism in general.

Venerable Seongcheol captured public attention when he summed up the teachings of Zen (pronounced seon in Korean) with the suitably enigmatic phrase, "mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers."

On the site of his birthplace stand two magnificent buildings, a new memorial hall built to commemorate the master and an affiliated temple.

The memorial hall, in the shape of a traditional Korean house (hanok) is named Poyeongsil, and the temple, Geop-oe Temple.

It is fitting that the space in which the relics the master left behind are displayed is called poyeong, the Korean pronunciation of Chinese characters that mean literally "shadow of a bubble," and figuratively, "transitory, fleeting." The temple where his spiritual enlightenment is admired is called geop-oe, meaning "eternity that transcends time and space." The names seem to reflect Venerable Seongcheol's teachings that material life is useless and meaningless whereas the world of spiritual awakening is eternal.

In the memorial hall, the first things visitors notice are ragged clothes and a pair of black rubber shoes. These items were formerly kept in Baekryenam, a small temple within the grounds of Haein temple in South Kyongsang province, where Venerable Seongcheol passed away in 1993. They were brought in to the memorial hall when it opened on Friday.

There are other interesting relics exhibited, which give a glimpse of the master's life before he entered the Buddhist priesthood. For example, elementary schooling was his only official education. His elementary school register shows that he was good at his schoolwork, ranked 10th among 60 classmates, and that he barely missed a class. The record also indicates that he was a well-behaved child.

"Lee Yeong-ju's Book Review" is probably one of the most fascinating records of Venerable Seongcheol's interests as a young man. Lee Yeong-ju was Venerable Seongcheol's name before he become a Buddhist priest. In the book, the young man records the titles of the numerous books he read. They include many works on philosophy, Chinese classics, and Christianity, demonstrating his deep interest in knowledge and eternity.

Some of the notes and scribbles particularly underline his enduring interest in eternity. He left the words, "From everlasting to everlasting," in English on a book of oriental medicine. Another time he wrote "Return to nature," on a Chinese book. (It seems that he was comparing Chinese philosophers with the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau when he wrote the words.) Venerable Seongcheol also took notes, in English handwriting, about Isaac Newton's writings likening himself to a boy playing on the beach. He translated the part he copied into Korean.

The rest of Venerable Seongcheol's relics are linked to his training and teaching after he entered the priesthood. As a Zen master, Venerable Seongcheol always emphasized the importance of training for spiritual awakening. The memorial hall, though not very big, is full of records that reflect that belief.

For more information about Venerable Seongcheol, visit: www.songchol. net (English version available).

by Oh Byung-sang

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