Spiritual goals

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Spiritual goals

SEOGWIPO, Jeju Island -- Did you hear the one about the Buddhist monk who had a great gift for soccer? Seems he played even better when he stood up.

Seong Gong is relating this joke, and when Seong Gong mentions soccer -- and Buddhism -- one tends to listen and often laugh.

Seong Gong is the chief monk at Yakcheonsa temple here on Korea's big toe. At this moment, the chief`is seated inside his temple office, surrounded by paperwork, books, a fax machine, Taster's Choice coffee containers, a stationary telephone, a cell phone and teacups, plenty of teacups. Who says monks live a spartan life?

There's a lot for a chief monk to do at one of the most attractive and visited temples in Korea. So much, in fact, that the tasks can intrude upon soccer, which to Seong Gong rates a close second to religion in terms of life's joys.

Yakcheonsa temple, which is part of the Korean Buddhist Jogye Order, may be one of the few Buddhist temples in the world with its own soccer squad -- the Sampo soccer team. Sampo plays at various pitches across Jeju. The team, composed of about eight monks from the island and assorted other players, has been together for three years.

Sampo has no organized schedule. Whenever the weather is nice, which is almost every day on Jeju, the team will go to a vacant lot or stretch of grass on the island. Those present will be divided into two sides and for the next hour or so a spirited match generally follows.

"Soccer," Seong Gong says, "is a good way to relieve stress. Since monks spend a lot of time cross-legged on the floor, soccer is good for us. It gets us up and moving."

With doorway shoulders and fingers the size of sausages, Seong Gong is built like an American footballer. He is wearing this day what he normally does -- a gray monk's robe, or beopbok. Fixing a cup of tea for a visitor, the chief monk explains soccer's tug.

"If you go to any Korean town, you'll find a boy playing soccer. If you're a boy in Korea and you don't play soccer, something is wrong with you. That's how I started."

Where did you start? The visitor asks.

The chief monk smiles and says he cannot say.

He can't reveal his hometown because that's part of his past life, which for a Buddhist monk no longer exists when he leaves home. His new home becomes the temple and his name and other background information vanish when he joins an order such as Jogye.

"It's like all water becomes one when it goes into the ocean," Seong Gong says.

It's impolite to ask a monk his age, because that, too, has vanished, dissolved into the ocean. Pouring a cup of tea, Seong Gong smiles once more. "But I will tell you that I am 42."

The chief monk, who has been at Jeju for more than three and a half years, signed on with the Jogye Order 22 years ago. He says that it's an honor to be posted at Yakcheonsa. This land -- 100,000 square meters -- has had temples on it for centuries. The complex is called "Medicinal Stream," for the supposed healing effects that the water can have. In 1988, work began on the present temple, which took eight years to erect. The building is now the largest such facility in Northeast Asia. Inside the main structure sits one of the biggest free-standing statues of Buddha in the world, along with more than 1 million tiny golden Buddhas.

Seong Gong and the other monks here grow all they eat -- spinach, radishes, lettuce -- a strict vegetarian diet that excludes even fish. The crops are harvested on fields that slope southward from the temple, toward the South Sea, and are worked in part by the monks when they aren't praying, banging the temple's giant gong or drum, or playing soccer.

In truth, the monks mostly play soccer on the weekends -- following lessons. On Saturdays, the chief monk lectures on Buddhist thought and philosophy to high school students, and on Sundays he does the same to younger kids.

"After the lessons," he says, "we go out and find a place to play soccer. No soccer without lessons first."

The visitor can't stay for a lesson, but he wonders if the chief monk might make an exception this day and kick the old polyurethane orb?

Did Pele wear short pants?

Lying between the chief's office and the temple's main edifice is a stretch of ornamental grass. Visitors generally walk around it out of respect. The chief monk, still dressed in beopbok, but wearing tennis shoes now, suddenly appears, walking across the makeshift pitch.

He stops at a curbing and picks up two hunks of concrete, shards of statues, and clutches them like purses in his large hands. He drops one of the chunks on the grass, then paces a few steps and sets the other chunk down. Just then two of Seong Gong's top assistants, Jeong Gwang and Neung Won, both about 15 years younger than the chief, and also in beopbok, show up. Jeong Gwang is carrying a soccer ball.

Seong Gong warms up, deftly dribbling the ball from one side of the grass to the other. Then he directs Jeong Gwang to join him. They will play one-on-one.

A crowd of mostly Korean tourists has gathered on the edge of the grass, their eyes widening at this curious sight. Is this some sort of ritual?

For a burly, thickset, noseguard-of-a-man, Seong Gong is swift on his feet. He feints one way, then sends a soft pass through his defender's legs, picks up the ball behind Jeong Gwang and gently bunts it into the goal.

Eyyyahhh! cries the chief monk. 1-0.

Laughter drifts across the grass.

"There's no way you can stop him when he's on the attack," says Neung Won, watching from the sidelines "He'd be a great rugby player."

For the next 20 minutes, the two players alternate attacking the homemade goal. Afterward, when he sits down on the porch of his office, a beadwork of sweat circling his shaved skull, Seong Gong says, "I would like to be a striker, but people tell me I have the body of a defenseman. I may be heavy, but you know, I'm wiry."

Waiting for the laughter to subside, he says, "As chief monk, my speed has diminished. I've slowed down. But I'm smarter now."

The Sampo squad once played a team of former national competitors and entertainers at Haeinsa temple in Hap-cheon, South Gyeongsang province. The monks triumphed, 8-6. Racing endline to endline, Seong Gong scored two goals. "There's definitely a special feeling when you score," he says.

Nirvana?

"Almost."

Seong Gong's soccer intelligence spans all aspects of the game, particularly international play. But if truth be known, he has opinions on almost any subject.

- On religion in sports: "I don't agree with athletes who talk about God. It doesn't make any sense. Buddha doesn't care whether I block a goal."

- On Korea's chances in the World Cup: "Our nation would do great if we had one Ronaldo. I would prefer two."

- On how Korea can improve in soccer: "If the United States would leave us alone and let us unite with North Korea, we would catch up with just about anyone."

- On his favorite Korean player: "Hong Myeong-bo. A veteran when I was a boy. So skilled. He played at many World Cups. Sadly, he never won a game."

- On his favorite international player: "Roberto Baggio, former star of Italy. I watched him on television in the 1990 and 1994 World Cups. All right, he happens to be a Buddhist."

- On his second favorite player: "England's David Beckham. Such an artist. And such a genius to marry that Spice Girl."

- On Apolo Anton Ohno, American fast-track skater: "When he didn't go to the World Championships after the Olympics, that told me everything I needed to know about him. He is a coward."



It is about a 15-minute drive from Yakcheonsa temple to the World Cup Stadium in Seogwipo. Last December, Seong Gong gathered together some monks and temple staffers, climbed behind the wheel of the temple's new Bongo van and drove the group down the road to watch Korea play the United States. Though it was just an exhibition game, the match turned out to be Korea's first ever victory in a World Cup stadium. "A fine, fine night for us," Seong Gong remembers. "If Sampo had played that night, I think we would have done almost as well against the Americans."

He wants the World Cup to have favorable consequences for Korea, just like the '88 Seoul Olympics did. He doesn't believe Korea is doing enough to bring foreigners here. If foreigners do come, they need to be shown the beauty of Korea. He stops in mid-sentence and suddenly remembers he does not have tickets to any World Cup games at Seogwipo.

"Can you obtain a press pass for me?"

Do Buddhists believe in miracles?

There are prayers to say, a gong to ring, a drum to beat. As he gets up, Seong Gong announces that his religion is a lot like soccer.

"A Buddhist wages an endless battle against self. A soccer player does the same thing. And you know something? Neither one of us likes to lose."

by Toby Smith

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