En route to elementary school each morning, I passed by the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in Singapore. As I navigated the winding paths around the temple, the monks’ chants echoed off the walls and incense perfumed the air. Reflexively, I would steal a few glances into the temple, intrigued by the robed figures shuffling to attend to their daily tasks.
A handful of my family members were Buddhists, and our bookshelves at home were naturally peppered with hefty volumes of Buddhist scriptures. Naively believing the volumes would aid my understanding of the mysterious temple, I would sometimes crack one open, only to be left on a more bewildered page.
That was 12 years ago. Fast-forward to today, and, frankly, I am still nowhere near enlightenment.
This month, I sat down for a conversation with Professor Hwansoo Kim, an associate professor of Korean Buddhism and culture in the Yale Department of Religious Studies.
Born in a Buddhist village temple in Korea, Kim was as if destined to be a devout Buddhist. However, young Kim was anything but. Though he was set to inherit a small village temple his that great-grandmother had commissioned, Kim rejected and “hated Buddhism” as a child.
“Buddhism was widely associated with superstition, so I converted to Christianity in middle school and joined a Christian organization. One time, I was so inspired by the gospel that I placed a Bible on the palm of the Buddha statue and begged, ‘Please, embrace Christianity. Embrace the teachings of Jesus.’ My great-grandmother was, of course, very upset,” Kim laughs.
The tide turned when Kim was introduced to his Buddhist master, whom he recalls as stern, powerful and highly disciplined. Kim grew up with an alcoholic father; very quickly, his master stepped in as a fatherly figure and mentor. Kim slowly grew to become more receptive of Buddhist texts, where he realized that Buddhism was not a superstition but a philosophy.
He describes his transition to Buddhism as a natural process: “You see, religion is also based on relationships, not only on doctrines. In fact, often times, relationships are a much more important factor.”
At age 15, Kim became a monk. Shortly thereafter, his master sent him to Seoul to pursue “modern education” in Buddhist history and philosophy. However, eager for a different perspective on Buddhism, Kim set out to study in Japan and Germany, both of which “presented a different picture of the religion.” Travelling afterwards to the U.S., Kim then received his M.A. from the Harvard Divinity School in 2002 and his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 2007, with a focus on Buddhism and modernity.
Kim’s journey did not stop there.
Kim recognized that some of the prestigious universities in the U.S. did not have a Korean studies program. Joining Duke in 2009, he aided the effort to strengthen the university’s Korean Buddhist program. Then, with the help of Chinese and Japanese scholars at Yale, he established Yale’s Korean Studies Program in 2018.
No matter where Kim went, he recognized that “there is a huge gap between essence and phenomenon.”
Kim describes phenomenon as the banal human realities and emotions that we experience from day to day: uncertainty, longing, anxiety, suffering, momentary contentment.
Standing in stark contrast to phenomenon is essence, or “reality as it is.” Essence is perceiving the world through the lens of the universe — through its vastness, emptiness, remoteness. Essence is the barrier at which all human realities cease to matter.
“In the context of Buddhism, if you look at things in the perspective of the universe, there is nothing we can call good or bad. Say, if you die today, the universe would not have any qualms about your disappearance. It is just as it is. In Buddhism, that is the way you are meant to see the world. That does not mean we should lie around and wait for finality. Instead, we ought to ask ourselves, what is the most meaningful way to live my life, in light of that reality?”
To contextualize these two concepts, Kim refers to the Sterling Memorial Library entrance: For the past century, an innumerable amount of people have passed through this space, each individual brimmed with dreams and feelings of excitement, anxiety and doubt. This is phenomenon — their unique emotions and suffering. However, if we are to step back and realize that these individuals come and go, that there is nothing permanent about the library or even human life, we are looking through the lens of essence. That way, we avoid swimming in the volatile waves of human emotions and can more easily control our reactions to everyday events. Essence, in essence, is living by the flow of the universe — it is to accept the banal realities of human sentiments as ephemeral.
However, Kim recognizes, too, that suffering is inexorable. “Pain is innate to our existence. The question is: How do we close the gap between essence and phenomenon? How do we live our lives based on the balance between the two?”
Relying wholly on one or another is foolish and unsustainable; therefore, Buddhism provides a roadmap through which we can reflect on the world and ourselves in order to reach an equilibrium between the two perspectives.
Central to this roadmap is meditation. “Meditation in Buddhism is very anthropological, since it gives you time to reflect on yourself and your mind. It’s not about an external deity. It’s about the mind. It’s about finding a way to manage our mind, so that we can live our lives as an awakened one.” Through periods of mindful meditation, we are able to pinpoint the source of our emotions, to accept the frivolity of them in the grand scheme of things, and to let them go and move on with a greater purpose in mind.
Once again, Kim gives a highly relatable example: Running into someone you detest. “If you avoid the person, you are creating an unwholesome reality. Instead, you have to identify your discomfort. Realize that what you feel in the moment is ever so trivial, open your heart, and smile. It’s painful and difficult. It requires a tremendous amount of bravery and determination, but you have to recognize that your discomfort is transitory and that it is pointless to attach yourself to this transitory feeling.”
Through reflecting and adopting the perspective of essence, we no longer mull over our misfortunes or overreact to good fortune. However, Buddhism teaches us not to stop there. Better equipped to face the ups-and-downs of life, we now have to be there for those in pain. “You can contextualize the pain they are enduring, so be there and understand their suffering. Since you won’t be overwhelmed by their suffering, you will be a calming presence for them,” Kim says.
Finding our own balance and aiding others’ quest for theirs is “the essence of Buddhism.” In fact, Kim’s courses at Yale — ‘Buddhism and Sexuality’, ‘Buddhism and Atheism’ and ‘Korean Buddhism from Sri Lanka to Japan’ — all orbit around this central idea.
I walked out of Kim’s office one step closer to enlightenment — I’d like to think, at least. Just as Buddhism is no longer a superstition to Kim, the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple is no longer as much an enigma to me. Rather, I see the converging paths connecting us all: Our attempts to live life more meaningfully and aid others to do the same.
“Buddhism is not an untouchable, high-level divinity,” Kim says. “Take a step back, and you will see that it provides a map and a mirror that facilitate our attempts to understand ourselves. Then, take another step back, and look at all religions, and you will recognize a shared underlying purpose: to make sense of our world and our soul.”
Bernice Zhao | firstname.lastname@example.org .