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5 Nov 2011

Change – Almost a month ago now, I visited Haein Temple, home to the 80,000+ woodblocks of the Tripitaka Koreana. 2011 is the 1,000-year anniversary of the commencement of work on the first edition of the Tripitaka Koreana—the edition currently housed in Haein Temple is the second edition, created in the 13th century after the invading Mongols burned the first edition—and I was part of a team that went down to report on the festivities for the magazine Koreana.

“Nothing stays still, everything moves, everything changes.”

I’m not big on traveling with other people (except for family members, of course), but there are advantages to being part of a “press team.” For one, we got a guided tour of the event grounds early in the morning, before the crowds poured in. For me, though, one of the highlights of the trip was meeting and talking with Venerable Sungahn, who is in charge of the preservation of the Tripitaka Koreana at Haein Temple.

I enjoy talking to spiritual leaders, be they Christian ministers, Buddhist monks, or whatever (I’ve yet to speak with an Islamic imam, although I think that would be fascinating, too). These are people who devote themselves to answering some of the fundamental questions of human existence: why are we here, and how should we spend the time we have here? Despite differences in religions and traditions, I’ve noticed some striking similarities in some of the things I’ve heard. For example, Venerable Sungahn told me toward the end of our discussion that he felt people were too afraid of being taken advantage of, or of suffering at the expense of others. Just a few months ago, though, I listened to a sermon by a Christian minister that focused on the same exact issue and even used the same exact phrasing.

There was something else he said that has stuck in my mind. I don’t remember the precise context, but it was very near the end of our talk and we had gotten all of the reporting and interviewing out of the way. In truth, my article didn’t have all that much to do with Venerable Sungahn, so this was the part of the discussion that I was really waiting for: when he would offer his views on life. This was when he talked about being willing to suffer at the expense of others. But another thing that he said that stayed with me was this: “Everything is change.”

Mind you, he said this in English. Our discussion was in Korean, but every now and then he would come out with something in English. I was taking notes, and I wrote it down as “Everything changes,” making the revision without thinking too much about it. The thing is that Venerable Sungahn is not just a Korean Buddhist monk trying out his broken English—he did his M.A. coursework at the University of the West in California, and his English is pretty good. I knew this, but I still made the correction almost automatically. I mean, that’s the way we would normally say it, right? “Everything changes.”

And everything does change. Nothing stays the same. We like to think that some things don’t change, because that gives us an anchor in the howling seas of time, something that we can hold on to so that we can feel secure. But nothing stays still, everything moves, everything changes. I am changing. You are changing. And the world around us is changing.

But a niggling little thought stayed with me, eating away at a part of my mind. Although it makes perfect sense to say that everything changes, that is not, in fact, what Venerable Sungahn said. He said, “Everything is change.” And he followed that with this statement (in Korean): “Accepting that fact is the key to escaping the troubles of life.” When I wrote my article, I included Venerable Sungahn’s comment the way he originally said it. I’ve seen journalists twist around quotes so that they say what the journalist wants them to say, but I can’t do that myself (maybe because I’m not a real journalist). So I ignored my notes and went with the phrase that was burned into my memory.

Now, I realize that attempting to read too much into this brief statement might not be a wise idea, especially given my limited knowledge of Buddhism. I wish now that I had asked him about this, but I was only part of a group, and other people had other questions. In the time since I first heard this statement, though, I’ve thought about it a lot, and I’ve come to my own interpretation: the nature of all things is change. We, and everything around us, are defined by the fact that we are not static, but constantly changing.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but Venerable Sungahn said something else that relates to this. He mentioned his age (only six years older than me) and said that he thought his age was the ideal age. I remember thinking to myself, “Ah, I still have that to look forward to, then.” But then he went on to say that he always thought his age was the ideal age, because it was how old he was at that moment. I felt a little embarrassed, but thankful that I hadn’t actually opened my mouth to say what I was thinking.

We tend to think of life as a series of milestones—or, at least, I do. Things like graduating from university, getting a job, finishing a doctorate, etc. And we—or I—think that these milestones are defining points in our lives. They are, of course, but they are also just fixed points in time that are soon no more than memories. For so many years I was obsessed with getting my degree. For so many years I looked forward to that one point in time, thinking that it would make everything else worthwhile. Then it came and went, and I was disappointed because it didn’t feel like anything had changed at all. Well, I was wrong about that. Things did change. Everything changed—because everything is change. I was just too busy obsessing over the future and the past to see that.

I’m not sure how much sense this makes. I had a pretty clear idea in mind when I started writing this entry, or at least what I thought was a pretty clear idea. Having attempted to put it into words, though, I find that it is a lot more slippery than I had first imagined. Perhaps I am out of practice, seeing how long it has been since I’ve written anything of substance here. Or maybe I still have some thinking to do.

I think the latter is definitely the case. I’ll end today’s entry here in the interest of not pulling a writing muscle, but I will continue to ponder Venerable Sungahn’s words. I think I will shift gears for my next entry, though, and I promise to (try my best to) stop mentioning the Dis and its aftermath.

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