SUNCHEON, South Jeolla – With an unassuming ceremony Saturday, the late Venerable Beopjeong left just the way he’d urged his many followers to live: with no hint of materialism. About 15,000 people attended the cremation of the late Buddhist spiritual leader at Songgwang Temple in Suncheon, South Jeolla, and paid their final respects.
Venerable Beopjeong passed away last Thursday of lung cancer. Around 10 a.m. Saturday, as his body was being transferred to a spot where the cremation would take place inside the Songgwang Temple, mourners lining the path said their emotional prayers. Venerable Beopjeong’s body made one final stop at the temple’s main hall, before the statue of Buddha.
Respecting Venerable Beopjeong’s final wishes, there were no streamers, eulogies or special sermons given by Buddhist leaders. There were simply piles of wood that would be set on fire for the cremation. Venerable Beopjeong had told his disciples that he didn’t want his funeral service to cause trouble and that any ostentatious displays would be unnecessary. By 11:10 a.m., when Venerable Beopjeong’s body was placed under the woodpile, the sound of prayers grew louder. Half an hour later, a few white chrysanthemum flowers were tossed on top of the pile, and the fire was lit.
Several of the mourners screamed, “Venerable, the fire is on! You have to get out now!” The fire quickly engulfed the pile, and the prayers turned into cries. The cremation ended around 12:10 p.m., but mourners lingered on, saying their final prayers.
Venerable Deokhyun, the head priest of Seoul’s Gilsang Temple, where Venerable Beopjeong’s ashes will be stored, later reminded the remaining mourners that, “Though the Venerable Beopjeong is no longer with us, his wisdom will blossom like a lotus flower.” Monks at Songgwang collected Venerable Beopjeong’s remains yesterday, with about a thousand mourners, some of whom stayed overnight, looking on. They quietly said their prayers as Songgwang monks and their disciples put the ashes into an urn.
Venerable Beopjeong wrote dozens of books, including the widely read “Non-possession.” Bookstores across the nation have seen sales of his books nearly double since his death. Venerable Beopjeong had asked that his titles no longer be published once they’re out of print. Buddhists and other book lovers yesterday were trying to get their hands on Venerable Beopjeong’s writing but Non-possession by Saturday had sold out at most major bookstores.
Born in 1932 in South Jeolla Province, Beop Jeong is one of the most renowned Korean Seon (Zen) Buddhist monks, and has had his writings published for over thirty years according to Naver Encyclopedia. The website of Korean Buddhism says of him, “he is counted as the most pure spirit of this generation (이 시대의 가장 순수한 정신으로 손꼽히고 있다).” As an introduction to this author, perhaps it is best to use the words of Pyo Jeonghun, who wrote an article for the website List, a site devoted to books from Korea, in their online journal, Theme Lounge, entitled “A Colourful Panorama: Korean Buddhism.” He writes of Monk Beop Jeong, “Beop Jeong is well-known for his ability to communicate widely with the general public in Korea. Of course, he is a devoted Buddhist practitioner, but he also excels at couching Buddhist teachings in a modern context in his writing.”
Zhou Xiangchao, editor-in-chief of the Chinese 21st Century Publishing House, is the man who brought the works of Beop Jeong to a Chinese audience. He describes him as “one of a small group of practitioners who retreats from the mundane world in order to live in harmony with nature. He has lived in the deepest corners of a Korean mountain for years, rarely leaving his residence. His house does not have an address. He lives alone, but he lives with nature.”
Despite not being the leader of any of Korea’s Buddhist sects, his teaching and philosophy, as laid down in his published writings, are read by millions of Koreans and impact greatly on their lives.Korean publishing company Wisdom House explains why such an unusual figure in such a modern country commands so much respect, and has such a profound influence on the population. “Combining lessons for spiritual practice with a strident objection to the mundane values of the modern world, his works have maintained their popularity for over three decades, owing to the invigorating power they have in influencing the lives of his readers.” Indeed, Beop Jeong appears to provide a philosophical counter-balance to the unrelenting quest for modernity and affluence that has been evidenced in South Korea over the last fifty years.
Wisdom House’s appraisal of him goes on to discuss how, in his book May All Things Be Happy, Beop Jeong teaches, “The goal of humanity must not be to affluently possess, but to abundantly exist.” I think this is certainly something that should be a more widely-held idea in Korea. He’s certainly hit the nail on the head with regards to this attitude in Korean society here. Buddhism is a major religion in Korea, but I feel that this sometimes conflicts with the modern life that people sometimes feel they are compelled to lead, constantly pursuing financial gain and social elevation, whether it be through their job, income or where they live.
As the most prominent proponent of non-possession and non-attachment and living with nature in modern Korean Buddhism, I feel Beop Jeong’s teachings and philosophy have struck a unique chord with the Korean people. Many Koreans have some of his teachings committed to memory, and often school children are required to do projects or research about him. This speaks to me about the clarity of thought he demonstrates, as well as his poetic writing style that I find elegant, entertaining and memorable. He conveys his ideas clearly, but with beauty, meaning it is never a chore to read. Regarding the content of his work, I find it remarkable that he has managed to maintain such high standards over so many publications spread over more than thirty years.
For a man who lives alone with the bare minimum of worldly possessions in a mountain hut, I think it is clear he does not write for the money or the fame, but simply to share his ideas. This appeals to me, as it has done to so many Koreans.However, despite Beop Jeong’s undoubted reach, influence and importance to the modern societies of East Asia, his works being sold in both Japan and China in addition to Korea, his writings have largely failed to reach the western world. A search for his name in Google Scholar, as well as the same search in Google Books produce no results. A search for “Beop Jeong” in Google, produces only 1,170 results, whereas a search for “Patriarch Kirill,” the Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church, produces almost 70,000 results, as an example.
I wish there was more information about him in English, and that it was possible to acquire English translations of his works. I admire his use of the Korean language, and find it compelling and attractive, and so on a personal level I enjoy reading his work in Korean. I do, however, feel that there are many non-Korean speakers who would also enjoy reading his work. On top of this, I think that the fascination some people in the English-speaking world have with East Asian culture, Buddhism and Zen (Seon) in particular would ensure that any translation of Beop Jeong’s work would find a significant audience there too.
Cheers and Bows,