Buddhist’s quest for ‘live’ wisdomOn a road in the Tehachapi Mountains of Southern California is a small sign that reads “Taegosa Temple” in Korean, Chinese characters and English. Next to the name of the temple, also known as the Mountain Spirit Center, the sign says “Please drive slowly” in Korean and English. Driving along the unpaved road, one soon catches sight of this temple of Korean Buddhism in an American locale.
Upon reaching the temple you may run into a tall, lean, blue-eyed American in a work uniform, complete with sunglasses and a straw hat. Working under the sun, he might look not so monastic, but he’s the Venerable Muryang, who established the temple in 1994.
Since he bought the land in 1993 based on the principles of feng shui, or geomancy, he has been living there, driving a forklift truck under the California sun. After leading a secluded life in a temporary building for years, Venerable Muryang, now 45, completed a dormitory in 2000, followed by the opening of the main temple and other buildings. To him, labor is an ascetic practice.
Venerable Muryang, who prefers to be known simply as Muryang Seunim, a Korean word meaning Buddhist monk, discusses his decade spent in the mountains in a strictly Korean-style temple in a book that has recently been published in Korea. Titled “Oe Saneunga” (Why Do You Live), this two-volume essay has sold about 50,000 copies so far, with all profits going to the temple complex, which is still under construction. The title comes from the question that occupies his life, and that also appears on his car license plate as “Y Alive.”
Born Erik Berall in 1959, he entered Buddhism when he was 23 years old, becoming Venerable Muryang. The name Muryang is a combination of two Chinese characters meaning “no” and “quantity,” which together imply “infinity.” Mr. Berall, however, had not always been aware of his destiny to pursue Korean Buddhism. In his early teens, he loved to read Geoffrey Chaucer and William Faulkner, and friends nicknamed him “Brain.”
His life took a drastic turn at age 13, however, when his mother took her life by drowning herself in a river. She always had fundamental questions about who she was, he recalled, and was deeply interested in yoga and Zen. From then on, Mr. Berall began to ponder what being a human being means.
But his awakening to Buddhism came much later. After being accepted at Yale University, he dreamt about being a lawyer, like his father, or even a pilot. After his mother’s death, he did not have a good relationship with his father, whom he describes as “a typical American man” in the book.
One thing in common between father and son, however, is their connection to Korea. His father fought in the Korean War, an event that is still carved deep in his memory, and he takes part in ceremonies commemorating the war, wearing a beret with the phrase “Freedom is not free.” The younger Mr. Berall was more of a free spirit; attending yoga classes and Zen centers became his routine.
It was at the Providence Zen Center in Rhode Island that young Mr. Berall found true peace of mind, after meeting Venerable Seungsahn. “I realized that what I wanted was not dead knowledge but live wisdom,” Venerable Muryang said in a phone interview.
Upon graduation from Yale University, he devoted himself solely to the Zen center to pursue Buddhism, putting an end to his days in the mundane world, where he once indulged in taking LSD, which he frankly speaks about in the book. He regained peace of mind from the ascetic practices at the center. His mentor, Venerable Seungsahn, was Korean and thus began his association with Korea.
In his first visit to Korea with Venerable Seungsahn and other devotees in 1979, he only saw factories run by Hyundai and other conglomerates, guided by government officials of the Chun Doo Hwan military regime. But Venerable Muryang says he was still strongly drawn to the country.
Soon he returned to Korea to go through the ascetic practices in Korean temples, including Taegosa Temple, for which his temple in California is named. He meditated, chanted, bowed to Buddha and traveled on foot from one temple to another, and came to the view that Buddhism is what he should devote his life to.
Returning to the United States, he continued to practice Buddhism, bowing 3,000 times in front of Buddha every day. After turning to Buddhism, he says his relationship with his father got much better.
Thus began his years as Venerable Muryang. Asked about the hardest and happiest times, he simply smiles and says, “Every moment is a challenge. I don’t think about the past.”
Following the teachings of “Only Do” from his mentor, Venerable Seungsahn, he just tries his best at every moment, moving on to the next moment in his life.
His next challenge after becoming a monk was to build a Korean-style temple in the United States and he began to wander the country searching for a suitable spot. His knowledge of geology from college was very helpful, he recalls, in learning feng shui, which he used in his search for the temple site.
Building a temple was a project of great importance to him since he wanted a place for a community of people, regardless of nationality and race, who were searching for truth and peace.
The Venerable Muryang’s highest priority in building the temple complex was to make it environmentally friendly. To provide energy, he chose solar and wind power, setting up the systems himself. He also built the temple in a strictly Korean style, using the same type of tile roof and construction. He occasionally serves kimchi at the temple, along with an American-style vegetarian diet.
Pak Kyung-kwui, a painter of Buddhist art who created the altar paintings for the Mountain Spirit Center, calls Venerable Muryang respectable not only as a monk but as a human being. “Especially when it comes to his efforts to protect the environment and understand foreign cultures, Venerable Muryang has unlimited patience and wisdom,” Mr. Pak says.
Venerable Muryang’s efforts have paid off, and Taegosa Temple welcomes a couple of hundred members of the congregation every Sunday, 90 percent of whom are American citizens.
Venerable Muryang shuns the word “missionary” in Buddhism, saying, “Buddhism is not about giving my idea to others.” But he also dreams that Buddhism will have a greater influence in his country, saying, “Maybe there’ll be American Buddhism some day, like Chinese, Indian or Korean Buddhism. Who knows?”
His most recent major project was installing a “Peace Bell” in his temple, like those found in any other Korean temple. Listening to the sound of the bell, he directs a comment at the U.S. president, whom he jokingly calls his “seonbae,” a Korean word meaning an upperclassman, because they have the same Yale University background.
“What we need in America I think is dodeok jeongchi, or wise leadership, which can teach Americans wisdom.” Then he adds, “I want the Peace Bell’s vibration to reach Washington, D.C., sending a message of harmony with the rest of the world.”
by Chun Su-jin