[Viewpoint] A president’s wise final words

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[Viewpoint] A president’s wise final words

Early Monday morning, I visited the altar in one corner of the courtyard at Jogye Temple in downtown Seoul.

The courtyard had been cleaned shortly before, but even still traces of the crowds remained. People were already waiting in line to pay their respects to the deceased former president before going to work, holding white chrysanthemums in their hands. There was a sign on a piece of white cotton that instructed mourners to leave messages to the former president if they wanted to. Under the sign there were many messages. I put my hands together, lowered my head and wished peace for the deceased.

I met former President Roh Moo-hyun for the first time when he visited Haein Temple in Hapcheon County, South Gyeongsang Province, while he was running for the presidency. Just as other presidential candidates did, he visited Janggyeonggak Pavilion. When he did, the Venerable Semin and other elderly monks paid respects to the Buddha together, and I explained about the Palman Daejanggyeong, or Tripitaka Koreana, to the then-presidential candidate. He was a very open and down-to-earth person. I remember him standing there clearly.

Beneath the altar at Jogye Temple, there was a copy of his will printed on a black and white photo of him. The will was 14 lines, 172 Korean letters. I read it through from the first to the last line. This document will become a quotation of our time, and it provokes thought about many things. Even though the deceased leader told us, “Do not blame anyone,” some mourners in Bongha Village have discriminated against some people, not allowing them to pay their respects to the former president. They are blaming someone.

As it is prohibited to set up makeshift altars in Seoul Plaza and Cheonggye Plaza, citizens and policemen are blaming each other at the Daehanmun Gate of Deoksu Palace. North Korea sent condolences, and the foreign press in the Western world report that mourners there are mostly students and leftists.

Here, politicians, whether they call themselves conservatives or progressives, lit incense at the nearest makeshift altar, making a political calculation. That is the reality of the earthly world of suffering.

Some 1,700 years ago, Bodhidharma left India, went to China and made constant efforts to build his ideal, new world. However, the political and ideological wall of the privileged was too thick and high. For various reasons, his work ended in a miserable way. He left behind one of his straw sandals in an empty coffin. He held the other sandal in his hand and left China.

“Don’t be so sad. Both life and death are parts of nature,” wrote the former president in his will.

When the Indian monk left China, he was asked where he was going. He only answered he was heading west. He was ahead of his time. But the seed that he has planted still remains. When the time is right, the seed will sprout.

No matter what has happened, those who are alive must go on. The former president gave consolation to those who would live on, but the ones who remain in this world are naturally sad for the deceased and miss him. There is nothing that we should feel sorry about or blame each other for. The former president left us a message, telling us to overcome division by regional ties, social class and ideology and to unite, and he has gone to the other side.

The Venerable Jiwon (976-1012) wrote his own funeral oration before he entered Nirvana. The oration starts, “Do not make my flaws overblown. Put two jars together to make a coffin for my funeral.”

He ordered them not to exaggerate his flaws, but also to use leftover jars for his simple funeral. He did not mean for them to overestimate his achievements, either.

“Cremate my body and leave a small gravestone near my house,” Roh wrote.

The Buddhist monk who lived some 1,000 years ago and the former president had the same intention. Fearing people would have other plans, he ended with determination, writing, “I have considered this for a long time.”

When the funeral is over on the 49th day after his death, according to Buddhist and Confucian traditions, everybody will be busy in their daily lives again. The concern is now that the recent tragedy will become the past, that nobody will remember it. The reality in which the deceased suffered while he was alive makes us sad.

I’d like to recite a Buddhist mantra to help alleviate that resentment.

Om samdara gadak sabaha.

*The writer is the head of the finance department of the Korean Buddhist Jogye Order. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Won Cheol
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