A disability leads toward enlightenmentSUWON, Gyeonggi province
This temple in Suwon, west of Seoul, does not look different from others at first glance. From monks sounding wooden gongs to a Buddha’s statue sporting a warm smile, everything looks the same.
One standout from the stereotypical picture is the head monk, known as the Venerable Seonggwan, who holds his gong between his legs. He greets the devotees to the Yongwhajungsa temple in the Jangan district, with only one hand, unlike other monks who join their hands, following the Buddhist custom.
The Venerable Seonggwan, however, is not acting strangely ― he’s missing his left arm. First-timers to the temple have shed tears at the sight of the monk. But he doesn’t need their pity ― in fact, he has devoted his life to helping others.
His tale is a great reminder of the virtues of Buddha on his 2,548th birthday, which falls today.
It was 1967 when he lost his left arm in a traffic accident while he was working as a cab driver. Back then, he was 19 years old, with no plans to be a Buddhist monk, just trying to make a living in Incheon, Gyeonggi province, after leaving his home in Dangjin, South Chungcheong province.
In their first encounter, the Venerable Beopsin happened to ride in his taxi. He looked at his driver closely, then told him to join the religion of Buddhism, for his face was full of the mercy of Buddha.
The cab driver forgot about the monk’s advice until after he lost his arm in the accident, when depression overwhelmed him.
“I went astray back then, making a number of suicide attempts,” the Venerable Seonggwan says. “Then my mentor, Venerable Beopsin opened a whole new chapter in my life.”
Remembering that the Venerable Beopsin got off at Cheongdo Temple in Jeongneung, he visited the temple and told his future mentor that he was willing to renounce the world.
The Venerable Beopsin, however, kept a certain distance from his one-armed student, giving him a harder time than other trainees. After two years of such harsh training, the Venerable Seonggwan hit the road with no destination, following the advice from his mentor.
The Venerable Beopsin had told his student, “When a Buddhist monk renounces the world, he should be able to see the world in the distance of 1,000 li (400 kilometers) when he’s seated and 90,000 li when he stands up.”
The Venerable Seonggwan thus started on a journey in 1969 for two years, which he recalls as the hardest time of his life as a monk.
“I was penniless, begging for two years, roaming about every corner and nook of the peninsula. I spent most nights out on the street, and skipping a meal or two was something common,” he says.
His teacher told him, “If a time comes when you can no longer stand hunger, find a village rich with persimmon trees.” It turned out that the villages with many persimmon trees were the ones whose people were good-hearted enough to feed the vagabond monk to his heart’s content and to his amazement.
The end of the training, however, did not bring happiness to the Venerable Seonggwan, who thought being a Buddhist monk would release him from the stigma of being disabled. Instead, he still felt the unkind stares from others when he prayed, which was nothing compared to some dubbing him the “one-armed maimed monk.”
In 1984, the monk started to drive again, which he hadn’t done since his accident. He did it to show other disabled people that they can also overcome any perceived barriers to a goal.
His dream is to establish a welfare center for the disabled. With the support of the devotees, the Venerable Seonggwan bought land in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi province, about 3,300 square meters.
Another project is welfare for the elderly. “You cannot quite call working for the elderly volunteer work, because it gives you a chance to mirror your own soon-to-arrive old age. By doing so, you can shape your life better and change what’s wrong in your course of life,” he says.
He recently opened the Seoho Welfare Center for the Elderly, which coordinates volunteer work, medical care, guidance for teenagers and environment-friendly activities.
No wonder his motto is “Buddhism for the disabled and the elderly.” He is constantly visiting and tending to the elderly living alone and the families of the disabled.
He also officiates, for free, weddings for poor couples. His favorite wedding gift to them is a bankbook with enough money for a honeymoon, which comes from donations from devotees of his temple.
He thus remains true to Buddhist spirit of sharing everything with everyone, unlike some so-called charities.
“You cannot deny the fact that many ‘normal’ people often sponge off the disabled” by misusing funds collected for charity, the Venerable Seonggwan says.
He says he wants to make asceticism and welfare for the disabled his highest priority.
“The basic tenets of Buddhism is benevolence and mercy, but Korean Buddhism somehow does not seem interested enough in welfare activities as other religions are,” he says, emphasizing the importance of social activity based on welfare. It’s a Buddhist virtue that he himself would like to practice more.
Another Buddhist philosophy he promotes is “lucid nature.”
“What welcomes you first when you go to a big temple is a small stone monument called ‘Hama’ or ‘Daeso-in Hama,’ meaning ‘Whoever you are, big or small, dismount from your horse.’ Those stone monuments originally stand in front of birthplaces or gravesites of kings, generals, high-ranking officials and saints,” the monk says.
“The reason why temples keep such monuments is because temples are homes to great saint like Buddha, requiring an expression of respect, regardless of the social rank of visitors.
“Other than these worldly meanings, Hama monuments also mean a lot as a part of discipline, because they tell people to remove all the burdens of greed and desire and to enter the world of Buddha with an empty heart. In other words, it means ‘Keep your lucid nature, learning from the Mother Nature,’” he says.
It’s obvious he has taken his philosophy to heart: The Venerable Seonggwan shows no traces of the bitterness that initially accompanied his disability. He instead gives off a generous sense of peace from years of prayer and discipline on top of making endless efforts to help the disabled, the elderly living alone and teenagers without parents.
He may have lost his left arm, but in the process of learning about the Buddhist way, Venerable Seonggwan gained wisdom and a heart of mercy.
“Until the last day of my life, I’ll keep tapping my wooden gong and pray,” he says. When asked why, he says simply, “For the sake of the wearied and those who are feeling sad in this world.”
Praying With One Hand Only
Over the hill of beautiful nirvana
Which is barely visible
I pray with two palms put together
Day and night
Please let me meet
You, who are the symbol of mercy
Twined around my body
Is gone with the rainstorm
Now that I cannot join my two palms together
I now gently take my heart
With my one hand
Then to my lord
I pray eagerly so that
I could meet you!
The very place
Which is barely visible
The hill of nirvana
God of mercy
It’s in your heart
God of mercy
It’s in your heart
God of mercy
In your heart
This poem is well known to Buddhists, ever since the poem was used as the lyrics for the theme song of a radio drama years ago on the Buddhist Broadcasting System, based on the Venerable Seonggwan’s autobiography. When a singer asked for 6 million won to do the recording, the Venerable Seonggwan refused, saying that the money could be better spent for the welfare of the disabled. The monk instead asked Ahn Byeong-rok, a head of the Buddhist missionary team at the broadcasting system, to sing the song. Since then, “Praying With One Hand Only” has cemented its status as a theme song popular with Buddhists and performed at almost every Buddhist event.
by Shin Joong-don, Chun Su-jin