A Place of Beauty and Learning
Marcus Powles | English Teacher and Author
▲ 108 Prayers:
A Book of Devotion to the Bodhisattva of Compassion, written by the auther
Forty years ago, as a teenager in England, and to the bewilderment of my family, I became a Christian. My memories of that period are of long summers, walking across the gorgeous East Anglian countryside totally in love with the trees and fields and birds and insects, praising God in everything I saw. I’d walk from church to church across farmland and along country lanes, and never left the divine presence.
A couple of decades later my interest in things spiritual re-awoke and, living in Thailand at that time, I looked to Buddhism. I loved the temples and Buddha images and the devotion of the Thai people, but recoiled from teachings that I understood, perhaps wrongly, as denying the beauty of this world. I didn’t and don’t see life as only suffering and I don’t want to eliminate love for life.
And then work took me to Korea. I hurried to see the temples and loved the beautiful wooden architecture, the trees, the amazing images of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas. And I’ll always remember the day, just a few weeks after I arrived, that I stumbled across a beautiful little book called My Heart is a Golden Buddha. I thought the title alone was amazing, and I carried that book around with me for weeks.
Inside were many stories from this wonderful country; stories of farmers and kings, animals and sages, wives and wisdom, and some fabulous illustrations. A little later I saw that there was an American-born Korean monk running a Dharma group in English on Saturday afternoons at the Buddhist English Library of Seoul (BELS), and that they were studying another book by the same writer. I just had to go along.
That monk was Chong Go Sunim, and the writer of the book was his teacher, Master Daehaeng Sunim. And my time in that little group, which we all came to know as Saturday Sangha, was to become one of the most significant and profound periods of my life.
Over the weeks and months we met together at BELS, Chong Go Sunim often pointed to a teaching at once simple and profound. “Just trust in your foundation” he said. “Your Buddha-nature is the only thing that can truly solve everything, so entrust everything that confronts you to your foundation and let go to that.” It sounded so simple, but in practice it was easy to forget. Over the following weeks the members of the group, from Korea, America, England, all over the world, supported each other as we all made our best effort to live the teachings.
Eventually, some of us decided to formalize our commitment to these teachings, and in May 2008, just days away from Buddha’s Birthday that year, we took formal refuge at the Hanmaum Seonwon in Anyang. Chong Go Sunim led the ceremony, and Master Daehaeng Sunim gave us our Dharma names. It was a deeply beautiful and meaningful day.
A year or so later I had to return to Thailand, and was delighted to find that there was a Hanmaum Seon Centre in Bangkok too. I went along and was astounded by the kindness and generosity of the sunims and lay followers there who did so much in facilitating, leading, and building an English-language Seon group in Bangkok.
We met each month and started each meeting by chanting the three refuges, bowing three times, and sitting for a short meditation. Then people talked. In these meetings I came up against my tendency to try to work things out, to try to find the “right” answer. The beauty of our monthly Sangha meetings was that it was a place where real, meaningful sharing, under the direction of the Sunim, could happen, and where we could learn the practice of letting go; a practice I have returned to again and again.
I’ll always remember what Chong Go Sunim said there, in a short Dharma talk between a meditation session and lunch: “Don’t just let go of problems, you can go even further than that. Let go of your whole self. Let go completely of even what you think you are. And then you can move beyond any limitations.”
What I’ve seen, in both Korea and Thailand, is that with more and more English-speaking people like myself encountering the teachings of Korean Buddhism, many new people will be naturally drawn to this wonderful message of entrusting to one’s own True Self, and discovering together that our hearts really are all a Golden Buddha, and that this world, far from being a place of suffering, is a place of beauty and learning.
So I learnt that Buddhism is not life-denying; my Korean teachers showed me in words and actions how the Dharma encompasses a love of, and gratitude for, this very world we live in. I saw it in the attention to beauty in the Korean temples. I saw how that lovely balance of building, stream, woods and mountains didn’t come about by accident, but how it was a manifestation of the core teachings.
Today I am no longer in Korea or Thailand, and I’ve not seen my wonderful teachers or my dear Sangha friends for many years. So I’ve begun taking long walks again, just as I did when I was a teenager all those years ago, in love with the trees and fields and birds and insects. I’m looking around for a spiritual community to join, and I’m even gradually re-connecting with the religious tradition of my personal and cultural heritage.
But what I learnt from my Korean Buddhist teachers and friends changed who I am. The practices, of resting and appreciation, of faith in the deepest part of your heart, of entrusting and letting go, transformed my understanding of life and my purpose in living. These practices and teachings are true for all people in all countries, all cultures, and even all religions. They were Korea’s gift to me, transforming my life, and are Korea’s gift to the world. Thank you.
Photography by Joseph Bengivenni
Marcus Powles finished Birkbeck College, University of London studying Humanities. He has taught English all over the world for about 20 years including Eastern Europe, Thailand, Korea and Japan. His interest in Buddhism has produced two books: 108 Prayers: A Book of Devotion to the Bodhisattva of Compassion and The Tokyo 33-Kannon Pilgrimage: A guide to ancient Edo’s sacred path