Practice Centers to Guide Practice in Daily Life
Three Practice Sites to
Fulfill the Era of Spirituality
Yu Gwon-jun | Head, Div. of Contents Production, Buddhist Broadcasting System
In this era mainly driven by science, technology and capital, where does religion fit in? In an era in which religious practices for the sake of good fortune supported by a system and organizations are in decline, what does religion mean to people? As the development of science and technology accelerates, we need to brace our minds all the more. A religion of spirituality, in which one can ask with a tranquil mind who he/she is, is born out of such questions. Such questions guide us to a path of reflection which ensures we don’t get lost. It was Buddhism that first revealed the path where one could discover one’s own spirituality in a state of mindfulness after one awakened from a mundane life controlled by habit. In this article I will introduce three practice centers that teach one how to practice and sail the ocean of suffering with mindful awareness in daily life.
Shechen Meditation Center Puts Meditation into Daily Life
Located near Sangmyung University in Segeomjeong, Seoul, Shechen Mediation Center teaches diverse forms of Tibetan Buddhist meditation. Its director, Ven. Yongsu, stresses awareness and relaxation as the basis of meditation. He regards peaceful relaxation as more important than postures or principles of meditation. He emphasizes restoring the mind to the present, away from the cycle of scattered thinking. He says distracting thoughts are illusions created by the mind, and the endless stories spun by our delusions are the actual samsara one finds in reality. Shechen’s Dharma gatherings are different from those of other Korean temples in many respects, including: the three refuges, the order of rituals, and prayer texts. The language used at Shechen is easy-to-understand modern Korean.
“I take refuge in the Sacred Buddha, the Dharma and Sangha until enlightenment is achieved. May I attain Buddhahood for the sake of all living beings.”
After the three refuges (above), they recite the Bodhicitta Prayer to reaffirm the four immeasurable minds.
“May all living beings know happiness and the causes of happiness.
May all living beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.
May all living beings never be separated from the happiness that knows no suffering.
May all living beings live in equanimity, free from attachment and aversion.”
Then they recite in a soft voice: the Morning Vows, Bodhicitta Vows, Bodhicitta Praise and Mind Training. Afterward, they recite the Heart Sutra, Metta Sutta, Great Dharani and the Dedication Prayer, which ends the Dharma gathering. Then they practice meditation. They enter and finish meditation to the sound of singing bowls. The Dharma gathering, consisting of prayers, meditation and a Dharma talk, runs from 10 a.m. until lunch. After lunch they take a walk and rest.
At 2 p.m. Dharma talks on various themes begin, followed by more meditation and another period of rest until 4 p.m. At the heart of the Dharma gathering is meditation in which people participate voluntarily, and Ven. Yongsu provides intermittent guidance.
Ven. Yongsu cannot emphasize the importance of awareness enough. The core of meditation is to bring the mind to “here and now” and away from discursive thoughts. It is a means to focus the mind on the present; the mind which tends to be distracted by the sense organs, especially the eyes,
which to most people are the primary sense organ, followed by the ears, nose and tongue. He also emphasizes that we should “allow the mind to rest” and “practice short periods of awareness frequently in daily life.”
Ven. Yongsu says the strong point of Tibetan Buddhism is that it integrates the wisdom of Early Buddhism, the diverse traditions of Bodhicitta practice, and Mahayana’s Bodhisattva ideal of sacrificing self to benefit all living beings. He adds that the traditions of Early Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism are not far apart, but rather should be understood in the context of the historical development of Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism without the wisdom of Early Buddhism is futile, and the wisdom of Early Buddhism without the vows of Mahayana Buddhism to save all living beings is like a ferry boat that has been blown off course.
During July and August, Korea’s traditional vacation months, Ven. Yongsu was doing a 27-day nyungne, a traditional Tibetan fasting practice. But even while fasting he continued to provide meditation guidance at retreats held by Bongseonsa Temple. He teaches diverse forms of meditation, including: basic awareness practice, lojong, “Letting Go Meditation” and meditation on death. Two of these concern the training of emotions; lojong (which teaches one to replace self-love with an open, altruistic mind) and Letting Go Meditation (which trains one not to avoid attachments but to accept, befriend and let go of them).
After Covid19 began to spread like wildfire, Ven. Yongsu held official Dharma gatherings online. Recently, he began using Zoom for online Dharma gatherings, which became necessary when in-person meetings posed a problem. A refreshing change to Shechen Meditation Center, Zoom Dharma assemblies are drawing more and more people as devotees get used to it. Participants 30 to 50 feel more closely connected through meditation practice via Zoom, which isn’t much different from in-person Dharma gatherings. Having been raised in the States, his Korean language ability is still awkward from time to time, and his unnatural pronunciation occasionally causes laughter, which tends to lighten the atmosphere, though unintended. Such incidents are apt to disarm beginners who are trying to learn how to meditate. Most participants are relatively young, and non-Buddhists participate to learn meditation too.
Ogokdo Meditation Center, Specializing in Hwadu/Koan Meditation
Established by two Buddhologists, Jang Hwi-ok and Kim Sa-eop, after quitting their teaching posts at Dongguk University, Ogokdo Meditation Center specializes in hwadu/koan meditation, a traditional meditation practice of Korean Buddhism and Japanese Rinzai Zen. Dr. Jang received his Ph.D. from Tokyo University, and Dr. Kim from Dongguk University. In 2003, the two secured an abandoned school on Ogokdo Island in Tongyeong, Gyeongnam Province, and opened a meditation center. The practice technique they chose was Japanese Rinzai Zen koan meditation. They continue the tradition of holding formal interviews that originated in Song China. In these formal interviews, master and student meet face to face, and the master assesses the development of the student’s practice.
Before opening their meditation center, Drs. Jang and Kim visited meditation centers and facilities around the world in search of a proper practice technique. The places they visited include: Japanese Rinzai Zen meditation halls, Vipassana meditation centers in Myanmar, Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village in France, Rabten Choeling Monastery in Switzerland, and Zen centers of the Kwan Um School in France. From these visits they concluded that the koan practice of Japanese Rinzai Zen is most suitable for Korean Buddhists. They believe a practice technique should embody the spiritual ability and culture of those who practice it. Buddhists from China, Korea and Japan often practice hwadu/huatou/koan meditation because the people have a similar disposition and their natural and cultural climates are not too dissimilar.
Under their guidance, Ogokdo Meditation Center provides one-on-one interviews in the Rinzai tradition, sermons teaching the essence of Seon/Chan/Zen, and they practice sitting meditation nine hours a day. During their intensive meditation retreats, both 90-minute sermons and private interviews are given every day. Silence is strictly observed except during interviews. According to Dr. Kim, a private interview may be compared to two swordsmen engaging in a life and death duel, except that here, master and disciple confront each other in the name of Dharma. The purpose of the interview is not to teach a fly in a bottle where the exit is, but to thrust a sword into the bottle so the fly finds the exit on its own.
The Center runs two annual intensive retreats in summer and winter. Those who have finished a retreat can participate in the weekend practice sessions provided once a month. That is when they sit with their masters and are granted interviews. Ogokdo Meditation Center aims to teach a practice which will eventually become part of one’s life, not academic Buddhism which is understood by one’s intellect. It is a practice where one learns to live each moment fully.
Diamond Practice Society, an Online Yeombul Seon Group
The Diamond Practice Society is an online practice group that practices the dual paths of meditation and Pure Land Buddhism called “Yeombul Seon” (“Nianfo Chan” in Chinese). Their café has a membership of 10,891 on Daum and 5,484 on Naver. The Society keeps alive the spirit of the late Master Cheonghwa who was the Guiding Teacher of Taeansa Temple in Gokseong.
The leader of the Society is Bae Gwang-sik, honorary professor of Seoul National University and former president of Burihoe, the Buddhist group of Seoul National University professors. Prof. Bae first met Master Cheonghwa in 1985 and has practiced Yeombul Seon for the past 35 years. He opened the online café in 2002 on Daum and then on Naver in 2004.
Prof. Bae learned Buddhism from the Master while serving as president and vice president of the devotees’ association at temples connected to the Master. Yeombul Seon is based on immaculate observation of the precepts and on the balanced practice of concentration and wisdom. With the recitation of “Skillful Means of Enlightenment” as its foundation, they practice reciting the names of Amitabha Buddha in daily life. The 1,000-day Yeombul Seon Practice Campaign, led by Prof. Bae, was enthusiastically received by devotees and ended its third session this year, achieving 3,000 consecutive days of practice.
The Society’s online practice extended to an offline sutra reading session once a month. Offline sessions were not held from February to April due to Covid19, but resumed in May. From June the offline sessions were converted to online, and participants read the Śūraṃgama Sūtra.
If the sutra reading sessions are intended to impart wisdom, the Diamond Practice Society’s intention is to internalize wisdom. The Society established a practice center named Sublime Gold Wheel Center in 2014 in Taean, Chungnam Province. Here they practice yoga, meditation, prostrations and Yeombul (reciting the names of the Buddhas). The Society’s all-night practice sessions recently finished its 168th session. The Society is also working on translating Chinese texts to Korean so today’s Koreans can easily understand the content. All their activities can be accessed through their cafés and websites.
The Decline of Formulaic Religion and Resurrection of Spiritual Religion
Gil Hui-seong, an elderly religion scholar, aptly said about the nature of religion: “Religion originally did not arise for the sake of a system or organization. It appeared in order to fill the thirst of the people, to fulfill a fundamental longing, which is spirituality. That’s what Jesus did and the Buddha did. However, at some point, spirituality disappeared from religion, and this vacancy was replaced by religious systems and organizations.”
In the current trend of religious disaffiliation, people turn their back not on religion itself. They simply avoid religions that appear to lack spirituality. Many Koreans’ efforts to perform Buddhist practice in daily life and to search for a means to practice away from formulaic religions represent their longing to seek out and attain spirituality. Human beings can live without formulaic religions but cannot live without spirituality. That is because we are beings who naturally ask questions.