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When One Shows Sincerity, the Doors of a Million Obstacles Open

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Writer Jogye Date23 Jan 2019 Read1,113 Comment0

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When One Shows Sincerity, the Doors of a Million Obstacles Open

Cheongdam Hojun Kim

The Winner of the Executive Director Prize of the Jogye Order

             In the foothills of Tongdosa, at the head temple representing the wisdom of Buddha, I have been walking the path of an educator at a high school for seventeen years. At school, I am commissioned with the duty of supervising the student government. As a part of the guidance programs for students in the school, I have included one session for taking a short trip through the One Pillar Gate to Tongdosa Temple. The journey went over a forest trail filled with the fragrance of pine trees and cool breezes, to the temple to offer bows before the Buddha. Along with a band of young boys, I started out towards Tongdosa. However, the trip to the temple was not an easy one from the school. Before our visit, I was a bit concerned about whether we would disturb either the other practitioners there or the Buddhas of the Main Dharma Hall. Regardless, it was my small wish to introduce the Buddha to these young boys, swirling the experience into their own entangled stories. Furthermore, I had faith that they would be able to transform when they met the Buddha, based on my own experience. I wanted to share the gift that I had once been given with these boys. Undoubtedly, it was indeed the Buddha. In the Main Buddha Hall, the sight of troubled youth was nowhere to be found. There were no more boys who sat perversely, nor rebelled against their teachers; none who had been caught smoking during probation; none who refused to walk on the pine trail; and none who had been filled with resentments before entering the Main Buddha Hall. There were just little Buddhas, offering their bows on cushions just like the other faithful devotees beside them. My own self resurrected from 30 years before, the boy who found his dream after encountering the Buddha.    

             While I was in high school, I wasn’t into studying much. However, with the blessing of the Buddha, I have been able to walk the path of a mentor for the past ten years, with The Heart Sutra on my desk under a glass top and The Diamond Sutra upon my bookshelf. At a recent reunion, my high school buddies asked me where I was and what I had been up to after all these years. Upon hearing that I am a high school teacher now, they were taken aback, asking, “You?” They expressed their disbelief that I could have become a school teacher, I who had given up on studying in high school. I announced, “A troubled juvenile in high school became a teacher, introducing the Buddha to others.”

             In early March of 1985, I enrolled in a high school in Jinju, Gyeongsangnam-do Province in the southeast region of the Korean Peninsula. Jinju was one of the districts that implemented a national entrance examination, and the score required to pass was quite high at that time. All of the hard-working students from every middle school in the west part of Gyeongsangnam-do Province gathered and formed a crowd. Of course, I, my young self, had taken on the role of either class president or vice president every year from primary school all the way to junior high. Year after year, my report cards were filled with favorable comments from my homeroom teachers, remarking upon how responsible I was. The elders in my neighborhood, who took interests in my every activity, also had high expectations for me.

Then, everything changed. I look back upon myself as a young boy. It was the second period at 10:05 A.M. on Saturday, March 16, 1985 that a swamp swallowed him. That was the time that all the elite students in the area began to be friendly with each other after their admission. All these boys from different places were filled with high hopes, and in the morning they were busy making small talk before their weekend classes began. A teacher came into the classroom and shouted two or three times for the boys to settle down. The teacher called me as I was turned around, facing a boy from a place named Sancheong, who sat behind my younger self.

Then, there was a command, “You, the boy, who turned your head, come forward.” 

Instantly, my younger self thought that he would be struck at least five times when he came forward. At that time, it was normal to be hit. Teachers commonly imposed corporal punishment on pupils, and students didn’t even bother to question why they were being punished. The teacher’s palm flew, striking the boy’s cheek. Once, twice, three times, four, and five; he thought it was all done, but it continued, six, seven…and more. The thought came to his mind, “This isn’t right.” His cheek became swollen and his self-esteem sank down further and further. The punishment went on, even after twenty slaps and ultimately continued until 58. The boy’s dream was shattered, the pieces scattered in a deep pit.    

             Once cherished, the boy’s dream dissolved into gooey tears. The class was filled with silence. The boy wiped the tears from his eyes and returned to his seat. It had been only a couple of weeks since he had met his new friends, but his fragile ego had already become bruised in the most horrific way in front of the other boys. It was humiliating and terrifying. After the never-ending skull-breaking punishment, the boy was never again the same youth he had been before.  

             He had dreamed of working at the National Institute of Animal Science after completing his doctorate, after receiving a degree from the College of Agriculture and Life Science at Seoul National University, which was the most prestigious school in South Korea. He had high aspirations of making a life for himself in the country, specializing in cattle. When he was in primary school, he had no friends his own age. The most entertainment he got was tagging along with some old ladies in the village, going to fields and mountains to pluck wild herbs, or dig roots, or see who could gather firewood.

             Among his friends, there were chickens. Every spring, he bought chicks and raised them; it was fun observing the hens hatching eggs. It was his hobby and study. He also acquired textbooks about domestic fowl, small and medium-size livestock, as well as larger farm animals. For this boy, the books used by the students at a nearby agricultural high school were fairy tales. His daily routine included watching students being trained to raise cattle in their school facility. His decision to move to Jinju, a city, to attend a high school there, was part of his dream to enter the College of Agriculture and Life Science at Seoul National University. However, he now felt as though the road had been severed. It wasn’t his fault, but he didn’t know how he could keep going to school after being brutally struck in front of everyone.

             In his fear, he took his bag and left the school. The place he went was the training facility of the high school that he used to visit, dreaming of studying livestock when he was young. At his sanctuary, he watched cows ruminating their cud, but not even his favorite chickens could comfort him. Everything had fallen apart.

             He returned to school, but there was nothing and no one for him to lean on. There was neither consolation nor healing. The boy could not find the will to go on studying, and lost his strength to pull himself together. He just barely breathed. Around the school, there were a number of repeaters; they couldn’t enter a high school after graduating from middle school. They were reluctantly attending a private school, having already spent two or three years preparing to go to a high school. They were being exposed to adult culture as well, which they shouldn’t have experienced at such a young age. These teenagers needed money for entertainment. When all of the older boys’ lunch money was gone, they came to school and took the boy’s lunch to fill their stomachs. During recess, they also called other boys, who had graduated from the same middle school, and gambled with them in the classroom. They had so much more power than he did, the boy felt helpless.        

             Then, these bullies decided to use the boy when betting on soccer games. They placed a wager on a soccer match with other class, and took all the bets. When they won, they took advantage of the other boys. Even when they lost, they refused to return the wager to the winners afterwards. Anyone who refused to yield to their demands, the bullies called and ganged up on them. There were always plenty of bullies using violence. As the boy in this story was intelligent and rational, he was outraged, but he also feared their power. On one of those days, the sound of his nightmare of being slapped for 58 times deafened his ears.

             The school had no knowledge of this violence. In those days, students weren’t aware that they could report such violence to school officials. Furthermore, the school was only concerned with how many students were participating in self-studying sessions, and how many enrolled in Seoul National University, compared to other schools. It was torture to see this hypocrisy in his school. The school became a sea of pain, and was drowning him with fear, pushing him down deeper and deeper. He became anxious about how far he fell behind in his studies, and feared missing yet another meaningless headcount at self-studying sessions. Once all the teachers left for the day, he was terrified of those repeaters, who reigned the classrooms during the self-studying sessions. He suffered dreadfully when the echoes of slapping continuously filled his ears. The sound of those blows never ceased, even after he grew up and entered his military service. While serving his term, his anxiety over the possibility of being punished continued. Even after getting a job, he suffered from the nightmarish echoes for several years, every time a new semester started.  

             A year and a half passed since he had given up studying, yet the boy grew tall, shooting up to 180 centimeters, though he weighed only 58 kilograms. His thin body revealed the state of his anxious mind. As other students finished the thick standard mathematics textbook several times and went back over it again, he thought over and over about what his last moments of living should be like. Meanwhile, his mother was offering her repeated prayers for her son before the Buddha.

             If a person loses the one thing that he wanted to do the most in the world, is there anyone who could pretend to be happy, without the will to go on? If there had been no childhood dream to begin with, it would have been easier. The dream that he had planted, watered and cared for in his earlier years was rotting away. His branches were being broken, with even larger boughs in danger.

One day, during summer vacation, the boy was skipping a self-study session during his second year of high school. He was silently walking behind his mother’s body, as small as a bird, head drooped down and his shoulders hunched. With nothing to say, he kept his face fixed on the ground. He was following his mother toward a temple, swallowed in his own sorrow for his shattered dream, destroyed by the tyranny of monster repeaters, the school that had become a sea of pain, and his own failing grades. He spent his days filling his head with the thoughts of all the things in the world ostracizing him, and telling himself how worthless he was. He was filled with negativity about the world and resentment for others who had treated him so unjustly. 

             He arrived at a temple called Unheungsa with his mother. A white rock on the peak of the dark green mountain brought a smile to the boy’s face. He was filled with agonizing pain, as everything in his reality became a sharp blade that seemed to be aiming straight at him. The wound that had been inflicted upon him just after his admission had never healed. Rather, it became infected and bled from the pus; with his tired limps were bogged down in the swamp of pain, and the boy lost his will to crawl out of it. But then, the rock was watching him, smiling.

His mother told the boy, who had come into a dharma hall, to offer three bows to the Buddha there. He did as he was told. The Buddha also smiled at him. He buried his face in his cushion; he didn’t lift his head. Surrounded by terror, his back shuddered. The sound of 58 blows was ringing in his ears again. The punishment that changed the course of his fate made him shudder all the way to his bones. Like the others, he should have been able to go to school and have lunch, spending most of his energy on studying Mathematics and English, but pitied himself for collapsing at the starting line. 

             His mother didn’t get up from her cushion, either. Considering her son’s desperate school life, his limps stuck in the swamp, and his lifeless face, every parent would be in deep sorrow. 

             After coming to face to face with the Buddha, he could no longer hide his bare teeth from himself, others, nor the world. The echoes of the nightmarish sound of 58 blows gradually came less and less often. Looking at his mother offering the tears of pearls to the Buddha, he decided that he would graduate with his peers, who enrolled with him together.    

             On February 13, 1988, he received his diploma. His mother was filled with joy when he received his diploma, even though he failed to enter a university even after graduating from an academic high school. During his time at high school, he couldn’t even stand up at the starting line and collapsed, covered in dust by others, who went ahead of him. Nevertheless, she was joyous, and proud of him and his diploma that came back as the pearls earned through her tears of prayers to the Buddha.

             Prior to her son’s enrollment of the high school, his mother didn’t know about the Buddha either. After her son’s nightmare began, she met the Buddha. Thanks to the Buddha, both mother and son were able to overcome the effects of the boy’s situation. Every parent hopes his or her child will progress more than others. No parent in the world would just stand by and watch his or her child become a loser or quitter. Her son managed to get back on his feet when others had already passed the halfway mark. Yet, the fact that he didn’t give up and managed to cross the finish line made her happy. Finally, leaving high school after many twists and turns, the graduate told his mother,

“Mom, I am going to come back to this school as a trainee teacher.”

“Indeed! You can,” she replied but seemed to take his vow lightly. The boy now had another dream. Though he was unable to adjust to the school life and lost his way as well as his hope, he dreamed of becoming a real teacher, who could help students based on his experience of managing to pass the finishing line against high odds. From the place where one dream crumbled, the seed of another dream began to sprout.

             He started again. He began to use his brain, which he had neglected until his high school senior year. He cut off contact with all his friends and declined to learn how to play billiards. He didn’t even glimpse at girls. Exactly ten years later in 1998, he kept the promise he made to his mother on the day left the school. From the place he lost his dream and came out with another one, he went back to begin his teacher’s training.

             In the spring of 1999, he was preparing for his teacher’s certification examination while working as an instructor of a private academy. There was a temple on the way to the academy. By taking a mountain trail between home and the school, he could cut his commute time in half and study more in the time he saved. Though it was physically a bit demanding going up and down the mountain trail, he also stopped by the temple on the way home.

             ‘I would like to dedicate myself to become a being who can hold the hands of young souls, by cultivating endurance based on my firsthand experience of being broken down before I could understand my aspiration or existence,’ he heartily prayed for the realization of his wish.

             ‘It is my wish to become an educator, who can teach future students about a life of accumulating small accomplishments and show them how valuable their existence is while staying positive toward themselves and others as well as their livelihood.’  

By this time, the boy had become a man, and was already 31. There was no guarantee that he would pass the examination. His desire was overwhelming and he was determined. Additionally, his reason to become a teacher was also very clear. How the prayers of his mother could stop! In August of that year, a school contacted his university to say that they were looking for a teacher. At that time, the man would have even gone to the moon if he could have worked as a teacher there. On the day he submitted his resume, he dreamed that Venerable Seongcheol (April 6, 1912 ~ November 4, 1993), a Seon Master, came to his home on his ragged Buddhist robe. The words that we spoke still sound clear.

             “Oh, dear Venerable! I am honored. To what do I owe your visit to my home? I have never been to your temple, Haeinsa. But, I offer bows every day in a small temple on my way home from work.”

             “You, dimwit! Just learn about the Buddha. Why do you need to come to Haeinsa Temple?” he roared.  

             Now, I have met Venerable Seongcheol, who might only see me if I did three thousand bows. As I even had the opportunity to meet Venerable Seongcheol in person, how could I not become a teacher? My prayer was the expression of my passion and hope.

             On September 13, 1999, I still remember how delighted I was on the first day of school, coming back there after 17 years. After I became a teacher, I visited the sarira-stupa of Venerable Seongcheol. It was a rainy day in late fall. Though the floor of the stupa was wet with rain, how could I have stepped inside with my shoes on? I simply took my shoes off anyway, and went before his altar to offer my bows. The rain water seeped into my socks and wet my knees. I made a solemn vow to him.

             ‘I will be a great teacher.’ I offered my bows, silently repeating my vow. With the blessing of the Buddha, I was able to stand as an educator under the house of the Buddha-dharma. Whenever I lose sight of my initial aspiration, I ask myself if I am sincerely fulfilling my vow and duty as an educator before the Buddha, and I always pray.

             ‘Thank you Buddha for granting my wish to become a teacher.’

             Then, I go back 30 years and hold the boy gently rubbing his cheek, telling him that he endured it all well. I want to tell him that the pain and suffering inflicted at that time was an important lesson to take him to the path meant for me.

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