A Buddhist light is extinguishedOn a rainy afternoon last Saturday, Sudeok Temple in Yesan, South Chungcheong province, greeted about 500 Buddhist monks and devotees from various countries. They had one thing in common ― lamentation for their mentor, the late Venerable Seungsahn, who entered Nirvana on Nov. 30.
Following the Buddhist tradition, the body of the Venerable Seungsahn was cremated Saturday in the presence of his followers. The raindrops never let up during the ceremony, and neither did the sobbing and chanting from more than 9,000 followers gathered at the temple compound.
Venerable Seungsahn, who died at the age of 77, entered Buddhism at 20, and his pursuit of the religion never knew national borders. While cementing Buddhism at home through such achievements as establishing Hwagye Temple, the Venerable Seungsahn founded another temple in Japan in 1966, which was the beginning of his pursuit of the globalization of Korean Buddhism.
He then established 120 temples and Zen centers in 32 countries, including Hong Kong, the United States, Spain, Canada and South Africa. His followers, who call the venerable the “Dharma of the East,” number 50,000 around the world.
His teachings, compressed in such pithy sayings as “Only do,” “Do not worry” and “What am I?” led celebrated American Buddhist monks such as the Venerable Hyungak and the Venerable Muryang to be what they are today.
The Venerable Hyungak, a Harvard graduate, is the author of the bestselling book “From Harvard to Hwagye Temple,” while the Venerable Muryang, a Yale graduate, has been building a Korean-style temple, Taegosa, also known as the Mountain Spirit Center, in the Mojave desert in California for a decade.
The Venerable Hyungak, along with two other fellow monks, held a press conference on Friday at Sudeok Temple, saying in Korean, with tears in his eyes, “I just cannot believe the ways of this world. I had tea with my mentor, holding hands, up until last week.” The Venerable Hyungak choked back tears and could not finish what he was saying.
Before the cremation, a funeral rite took place, amid condolences from the senior monks. President Roh Moo-hyun also sent a message, saying, “The teachings of the great Venerable Seungsahn are a precious lesson for the harmony of all mankind.”
Senator John Kerry, the Democratic candidate in the U.S. presidential election in November, also sent a note of condolence, in which he mentioned the venerable’s influence on his stepson.
The ceremony was immediately followed by the cremation, which took place at the foot of Mount Deoksung Sudeok, near the temple.
Holding a portrait of the Venerable Seungsahn at his chest, the Venerable Muryang led the procession, followed by the body of the Venerable Seungsahn.
Monks and devotees followed the procession, holding elegies written on silk cloth in various languages, ranging from English to Sanskrit. A funeral procession of this nature had never before been seen in this temple, reflecting the international reputation of the venerable.
Then the coffin of the Venerable Seungsahn was placed on a cremation stand, surrounded by firewood and pine twigs that reached the size of a small house. With the signal “Light up the fire!” the cremation ceremony, or dabisik, using the Buddhist term, began. As the fire engulfed the coffin, some followers burst into tears, crying out, “Please, Venerable Seungsahn, come out from the fire."
The rain could not put out the fire, however, and the body of the Venerable Seungsahn turned to ashes. Four hours after the fire was extinguished, the remains were gathered, pulverized and then scattered around Mount Deoksung, thereby ending the cremation process.
Venerable Seonggwang, who served the Venerable Seungsahn for 40 years, said that the international missionary work of Korean Buddhism will be taken up by seven monks named by the Venerable Seungsahn himself.
by Cho Woo-suk, Chun Su-jin