By Victoria Cheng, Globe Correspondent, October 30, 2007
The Rev. Youngju Kim has spent years working to establish a temple dedicated to Won-Buddhism in the Boston area
SOMERVILLE, MA (USA) -- Sitting in a dusty house on Hill Street in the deep winter months of 2003, surrounded by rubble and collapsing ceiling panels, the Rev. Youngju Kim wondered whether she would ever fulfill the task that had been entrusted to her: to establish a Buddhist temple in the Boston area that would provide a sanctuary of peace and reflection to all.
"I lived as a laborer," she said, laughing as she recalled the months spent painting walls, fitting doors, installing cabinets, reviving hardwood floors, and sweeping out a rectangular area in which to sleep at night.
The temple opened for meditation services in 2005, and last month Kim welcomed nearly a hundred neighbors and passersby to Boston's first Won-Buddhist fair, an all-day event that included a tea ceremony, free Korean food, yoga, and lots of introspective meditation.
Dressed in a white linen shirt and loose grey slacks, Kim greeted visitors with a bow, her palms pressed together. Her modest attire and neatly wound black hair exuded serenity, but the 42-year-old nun also has high-flying hopes for the temple.
"I want to let our communities know that we are here," she said, "and I want to get people to think of more essential questions: 'Who am I? How can I become a better person?' These are the questions of a mature, awakened life."
Donald Baker, a professor of Korean Civilization at the University of British Columbia, explained that the founder of Won-Buddhism, Pak Chungbin, or Sot'aesan, as he is known to followers, rejected the emphasis typical of other Buddhist traditions on the next life, advocating instead the importance of the well-being of creatures in this life.
Another distinctive Won-Buddhist trait is the prominent clerical role assigned to women, who, like the men, can become ministers of the faith, Baker said. Even as a child, Kim was told that she would be the one to follow her great-grandfather into Won-Buddhist ministry. Kim, who is also studying for a master's of divinity at Harvard, takes this mission seriously.
A streamlined philosophy
A dozen of the fair's attendees seated themselves cross-legged on silver cushions folded on the hardwood floor as Kim prepared hot water for the tea ceremony. The temple's meditation hall is carved out of the former living room and dining room of the two-story house. A large bowl-shaped gong and a round wooden drum sit to either side of the altar at the far end of the room, next to two stately pillars that Kim ordered from Home Depot and painted by hand. Flickering candles frame a large golden circle on the wall, meant to symbolize the connected nature of all beings.
In founding Won-Buddhism, Sot'aesan also disposed of the statues that serve as objects of meditation for mainstream Korean Buddhists, replacing them with this unadorned circle. "Some people have described Won-Buddhism as the Protestant Reformation of Buddhism in Korea," Baker said, in part because of its streamlined philosophy and outlook.
Sign up for: Globe Headlines e-mail | Breaking News Alerts Kim infused the tea ceremony with a similar aura of simplicity, explaining that "drinking green tea helps us empty our mind with relaxing time to reflect on ourselves." She measured two tiny scoops of bright green powder into a ridged stone bowl, filled the bowl with hot water and beat the tea with a small bamboo whisk until it was frothy and gave off a subtly grassy aroma.
"Green tea is not special, but it has many complicated steps and is made with utmost sincerity," she said, handing the bowl to a young man on her right and measuring out two scoops of powder into a new bowl. Eleven more bowls to go.
Half an hour later, as she drew water for a second kind of green tea, this one from steeped leaves, Kim smiled as people shifted on the cushions, stretching their legs and peeking at their watches. "American people drink coffee on the way," she said. "Serving green tea takes very long - it takes patience and we learn how to relax."
Kim, whose religious name, Hyunoh, means "profound enlightenment," advised her visitors to apply the slower pace of the tea ceremony to daily life: "When you drink water, don't drink the way you usually do. Put a glass of water in front of you and think, 'This is something without which I cannot survive.' "
Serving community needs
In the temple's backyard, under a blue autumn sky, children were clustered boisterously by the small stone pond, playing a Korean game that involved throwing bamboo sticks into a woven basket 10 feet away. Other guests tried their hand at crafting lotus lanterns with delicate tissue-paper petals, folding intricate paper swans, and soaking preserved cabbage in chili pepper paste to make kimchi, a pungent and spicy traditional Korean dish.
In part because of Won-Buddhism's policy of avoiding proselytizing and conversion, there are only about 2,000 self-identified adherents in the United States. These members are mostly Korean immigrants and international students who are relatively new to the country, but a growing number are also American-born or -bred Koreans interested in learning more about Korean culture and religion.
Christina Kim Nyren, 23, was adopted as an infant from Korea by a white American couple from the North Shore. She was raised Episcopalian, but a visit to Korea in 2004 spurred her interest in Buddhism, and she has been attending the Boston Won-Buddhist temple for a year. "I tried a couple of temples in Cambridge and Boston, but they were Western orders and there were a lot of rules," she said, adding that she likes the informal, discussion-oriented style of the meditation sessions.
Yong Choi, a freshman at Tufts who brings a group of friends to the temple to meditate every Thursday, noted that he and his sister are unusual among second-generation Korean-Americans in their adherence to Won-Buddhism. "From what I've noticed, a lot of kids, especially second-generation, attend Christian churches for the joy of hanging out on weekends, going bowling, and doing stuff together," he said. "There isn't the same volume for Won-Buddhism."
Kim estimates that there are 4,000 ethnic Koreans in the Greater Boston area. Of the 60 members at the Boston temple, about 40 speak Korean and meet on Sundays for meditation. In addition to the temple's Thursday English services, Kim added Saturday English services to the schedule in June to address the growing demand from members who do not speak Korean.
Boston University freshman Bryan Hanrahan started attending Won-Buddhism services four years ago in his hometown of Glenside, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia. A former Catholic, he said he especially liked that Won-Buddhism posited no dogmas he found objectionable, noting that, in some Buddhist traditions, "women can't become enlightened, which is crazy to me." Proximity to a temple factored heavily into his college decision, and his interest in Won-Buddhism has fueled his desire to study Korean at BU during his sophomore year.
Alana Dery, 26, visits the temple occasionally because her boyfriend, a second-generation Filipino-American, is a temple regular who introduced her to Buddhist meditation. She described Won-Buddhism as the "creative writing version of Buddhism," with a relentless emphasis on being a good person. "We're all part of the universe, so we should leave it a bit better off," she said. "Won-Buddhism gives you a couple of tools for how to do that."