Melodius monk finds happiness and harmony in modern musicHe’s no Snoop Dogg or Michael Bolton, but the monk in his traditional grey robe was good enough to enchant a crowd with his microphone and synthesized tunes.
The Venerable Neungin, 53, on a weekend afternoon was singing, “Like Clouds, Like Rivers,” and “Mother Whom I Miss,” during an annual celebration of the Diamond Zen Order, the Buddhist sect he belongs to, while the crowd clapped along.
Both songs were written by the monk. Instead of banging a traditional wooden gong and humming sutras, he preaches messages of love and a life of harmony with modern songs in the styles of disco, rap and trot, traditional Korean pop music loved my many of the older generation. After the ceremony ended, many of those gathered asked if they could buy his songs. “You can order them from my Web site,” the monk said.
The Venerable Neungin has released three albums and is busy working on his fourth and fifth albums, both to be released on the same day.
“I have finished the recording and mastering of the albums,” he said. Since March last year, the Venerable Neungin has managed the small Haengbok temple in Mia-dong, where most of the residents are poor. The temple sits at the entrance to the poorest area of the neighborhood where the houses are small and low. The temple itself is easy to overlook as it is completely different from the usual temples one sees in tourist guidebooks.
It is comprised of one small room with a kitchen and toilet attached. In a corner of the room, which the monk uses as an office and sleeping place, sits a computer and numerous records, stacked beside musical scores.
“I spend a lot of my time working on new music rather than Buddhist ceremonies,” he said. “To me music comes naturally and any sound that comes from my surroundings, such as the sound that is made when a train passes a track, turns into a musical beat.”
The monk has never received any musical training and the first time he ever touched the keyboard of a synthesizer was when he was 37. He dropped out of elementary school and all of his subsequent learning, including playing and writing music, is self-taught.
The Venerable Neungin said he was born to a rich family in Gimcheon, North Gyeongsang province in 1953. He was the fourth of seven brothers and sisters.
“My father, a politician then, lost his seat in the local government assembly when the coup led by Park Chung Hee occurred on May 16, 1961. “Our family lost everything and not long after that, my father suddenly passed away,” he said. “I starved for months and it was then that my eyesight got bad.”
He was only 12 when he stopped going to school and started to take odd jobs to support himself ― working in small factories, restaurants and on construction sites or delivering papers. He attended a Catholic church until he was 16 and almost converted to Catholicism, but he became sick and missed his opportunity to be baptized.
While he was recovering from his illness, Buddhism caught his interest. “I started to think about Buddhism and studied the scriptures on my own. My interest in Buddhism only got deeper as the years went by. Most of the thoughts I had were ‘What has happened to my family and why did the things that happened to my father happen?’”
He was 18 at the time.
When he was 26, he married and he and his wife had a child a year later. He now has a son and a daughter.
At the time he was working at a car repair shop. One night, not long after his daughter was born, he saw a Buddhist goddess of mercy in his dreams. “She told me that the path I must take was to do charitable works and the means to achieve that goal was singing,” the Venerable Neungin said.
“The next morning when I woke up from the dream, the world seemed very different from the previous day. Everything seemed clear and music started to form on its own in my head.”
He said he wrote his first music at the age of 30.
“Most of the time I was humming tunes. At a company fair, people would tell me to sing my song and I realized they found it interesting. Someone told me that music can only become what it is when it is put on paper and that’s when I started to study on my own how to write scores.”
But it was not until he turned 46 that he decided to leave his family to pursue the life he quested for.
“One day when I was working, I hurt my left hand badly,” the monk said as he rolled up his sleeve to show a huge scar on his wrist. “Then I knew I had to go and leave the life I had.” He visited a nearby temple and prayed for a week.
“I asked as I prayed, ‘must I become a monk?’ but it was clear I had to become a monk and live my life doing charitable works.”
The monk said he was thankful for his wife, who supported him in his decision. “I was lucky because my wife understood me. My children also understood the path that I had to take.”
He said he joined the Diamond Zen Order because the sect accepted him regardless of his age and educational background. To become a monk in the major orders, applicants must have graduated from high school and be less than 40 years of age.
After training, the novice monk was positioned at Baekun Temple. “The head monk didn’t like it when I started to get attention from the media as a singing monk,” the monk said. Despite that, he stayed at the temple until last year and released his three albums on Asea Records. He was able to work with Asea with the help of a visitor to Baekun Temple who was a television producer.
“I told him that I was interested in making an album and he told me the number for Asea Records.” The monk said he previously had tried to give his songs to several singers for free. “I realized that the singers only wanted songs written by popular writers.” The monk said it took him two years to create his albums, all of which are titled Shimhyang, which means scent from the heart. “It took me days to come up with the name, and when I was sitting at a graveyard next to the temple, I simply asked myself, ‘How can I spread the scent of my heart to the world?’ And it popped into my head, this is it!”
The monk sings nowadays mostly at charity events. Last month he sang at Jongmyo Park downtown, which is crowded with old people. “With my songs I would like to bring hope and warmth to everyone, especially old people who have been abandoned by their families and have nowhere else to go,” he said.
His dream is to create a center that can house old people abandoned by their families with money earned from his songs. “The temple that I am in is called Haengbok, which means happiness, and regardless of one’s religion, the ultimate goal is to find happiness,” he said.
by Lee Ho-jeong