Penn State Buddhists celebrate their faith

By Laura Baker, Collegian Staff Writer, Nov 22, 2004

Pennsylvania, USA -- Soft chanting is heard floating through the lonely corridor outside the Wilkinson library in the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center Friday night.

A group of eight men and women sit in the room about to begin their study of Sutra. They are members of the Penn State Korean Buddhism Organization (KBO).

It is 8 p.m., and their meeting is getting underway.

"We're always late," Hargsoon Yoon, research associate with the department of engineering science and mechanics, said with a laugh.

Organization members meet once a week for about two to three hours in the library for meditation and Sutra study, which President Namsu Ahn explains is like studying the Bible to Buddhists.

"Many of us are graduate students, so we don't have much time to study the Sutra, so we learn a lot in that time," Ahn said.

The group includes a mixture of Korean graduate students, faculty, visiting scholars and community members.

"We always talk about adapting Buddhism Sutra to real life," State College resident Lee Younghum said. "Korean Buddhism keeps their own traditional Buddhism. But Tibetan Buddhism is mostly known in the U.S. now."

There are many different types of Buddhism. "Each country develops its own slightly different Buddhism," adviser Seong H. Kim, professor of chemical engineering, said.

He said Buddhism can be interpreted in many different ways. "It depends on people's experiences," he said. "No one is right, no one is wrong."

Kim said the group began meeting in the homes of group members in the early 1980s. At that time, the group would visit a temple in the Catskill Mountains in New York twice a month. Now, it is an officially registered group with the Pasquerilla Center with about 30 members.

"Like the economy though, membership goes up and down," Kim said.

This is one particular obstacle the group faces.

Ahn said several members will graduate and leave in December, including him, and the organization needs more members.

"We are not a big club, so we have difficulty organizing big things," he said.

Still, members have managed to help with the Moon Festival this fall by cooking traditional Korean dishes for the event. Last spring, they organized a picnic for veterans of the Korean War.

"In America, it's a bit of a forgotten war," Kim said.

Ahn said the group organizes the picnic to show its gratitude for the help that the United States has provided.

Another issue the group is grappling with is how to include more of the Penn State community.

"In our meetings, we talk in Korean, so it's not entirely open," Yoon said.

Kim said there are no temples or Zen masters in State College to help when members have a particular question that requires help from a "higher level."

Still, the group is at ease as they sit in the snug library, drinking warm tea from Styrofoam cups and seamlessly transitioning from chanting to meditation to a discussion of the Sutra.

"We try to make you realize that you are Buddha already," Ahn said. "You just don't know it."