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6 May 2014

Everything is change – It has been another long while—roughly three weeks now—since my last post. As usual, it was not necessarily because I did not have the time to post, but because I did not really feel like posting. I have debated whether I should say anything about the Sewol tragedy, but have found myself reluctant to write about it. It hit everyone hard, I think, and the constant exposure to the situation on the news has not made it any easier. I understand that there is a process to tragedies, but it simply got to be too much for me. One morning we were sitting there watching the latest Sewol news, and suddenly I just started crying. I could not watch any Sewol-related news for several days after that. It still bothers me now, of course.

“Everything is change. This is another way of saying that nothing lasts forever.”

So I’m not going to talk about the Sewol today. Instead I’m going to talk about something a little more personal. Today is, as you may know, what is colloquially known as “Buddha’s birthday.” It seems a fitting day to talk about something that happened a week ago, but which I did not find out about until last Thursday.

I was sitting in my office that morning, preparing for my class in the afternoon, when I got a text message from my former editor at Koreana (where I translate and write book reviews). The first thing I saw was the photo attached to the message. It showed a large crowd of monks gathered around a stone circle, in the center of which was a bier covered in white cloth. The bier had just been set alight, and the flames were climbing up the side. I realized that this was a Buddhist cremation ceremony. Then I read the text of the message—and then read it again, because I was sure that I had read it wrong. Sungahn Sunim? The easygoing, enthusiastic monk who headed efforts to preserve the Tripitaka Koreana? It couldn’t be. He couldn’t have left us so soon.

I quickly typed his name into the Naver search engine and was shocked to discover that he had been involved in an accident on the Olympic (88) Highway on Tuesday. According to an article I found, he was a passenger in a car that had lost traction on the rain-slick road and hit a guardrail, only to be rammed by a dumptruck that was not able to stop in time. I was shocked. He was only 47. First the Sewol, now this?

I suppose I should explain that I met Sungahn Sunim in 2011 when I went down to Haein Temple as part of a team of writers and reporters from Koreana. We were there to cover the Millenial Anniversary Festival for the Tripitaka Koreana, the oldest complete set of woodblocks for the Buddhist canon. (The resulting issue is online if you would like to read it.) As reporters of a sort, we got special access to a lot of activities and locations, but for me the highlight of the trip was meeting Sungahn Sunim. His official title is (was... I still can’t believe it) Director of the Office for the Preservation of the Tripitaka Koreana, but he struck me as a cross between a crusader and an evangelist. You could tell right away that he had a deep love and respect for the Tripitaka, and he wanted to share that love and respect with everyone he met. He took us around the buildings where the woodblocks are stored and explained how they are preserved, gesturing enthusiastically all the while.

When we were finished with our tour, he brought us back to his quarters for tea. In my article, which primarily covered the festival and activities, as opposed to the Tripitaka itself, I devoted two paragraphs to our meeting with Sungahn Sunim. But I didn’t write in detail about how he sat us down and then gave us a true/false quiz to complete, threatening to levy fines on anyone who did not score high enough. The quiz was on the Tripitaka and the culture and history that surrounded it, and it was very hard. Neither HJ nor I did very well, although I was quite pleased that I beat HJ’s score. Sungahn Sunim good-naturedly upbraided us for our poor performances, but he let us off the hook when it came to the fine. This entire episode got a single, vague line in my article: “Over the next few hours we discuss many things, and along the way we learn just how sparse our knowledge of the Tripitaka Koreana really is.”

I know it’s a cliché, but his enthusiasm and vigor were infectious. It was impossible not to take an immediate liking to him. And though we only spent a day in his company, somehow it felt like I had known him for far longer than that. I suspect that anyone who met him would feel the same way. I listened intently as he spoke about his work and his ideas, but there was one thing in particular he said that stuck with me, so much so that I had to put it in my article. After the line I quoted at the end of the previous paragraph there came the following passage.

“Everything is change,” he says with a smile, “and accepting that fact is the key to escaping the troubles of life.” At first, this seems like a strange thing to say for someone who is charged with the preservation of the centuries-old set of woodblocks. Is not the act of preservation an attempt to hold back the tide of change? But then his meaning becomes clear. “The Tripitaka is a very difficult text. We need to create a link or code that can connect us to it.” Indeed, everything is change, and preservation of the Tripitaka does not simply refer to the physical preservation of the woodblocks but the preservation of everything that the Tripitaka represents.

His words rang in my mind for days and weeks after our meeting. Everything is change. This is another way of saying that nothing lasts forever. Every life comes to an end. Yet I find myself wanting to argue that, even so, Sungahn Sunim’s life—like so many other lives so recently—ended too soon. But with whom would I argue now? All that I can do is write this, and in my own small way remember a man I knew too briefly, but who left an imprint on me far greater than one might think such a brief meeting would allow. I don’t know what to say, Sungahn Sunim, but “Thank you.” May you be reborn in Paradise.

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