Out of Korea: Where Zen and the Irish help souls in turmoil

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The Independent Online
SEOUL - As the sun sinks over the mountain peaks, a monk in the Zen monastery of Paegyangsa in south-western Korea kneels alone in front of a Buddha statue. He is droning a sutra and beating a wooden bell, his back to the world as he tries to empty his mind.

About 40 miles away in the provincial capital of Kwangju, a young man squats in front of a blank wall, murmuring to himself. He too has turned his back on the world, for reasons deeply embedded in his troubled mind. Beside him is an Irish monk from the St John of God Psychiatric Centre, trying to coax this man back into the world.

The Zen monks with their discipline of solitary meditation and the St John of God brothers with their centre for the mentally ill are both outsiders. In their own way, each is trying to cope with the alienation produced by South Korea's breathtaking pace of economic development. Within a generation, Korea's landscape has changed from wartime devastation thronged with starving refugees, to Asia's second industrial nation with smartly dressed youngsters in new cars.

The change has caused enormous strains in a society which has traditionally been governed by a mixture of Buddhist and Confucian ethics. In many ways, Korean society has still not caught up with itself. In April, the Ministry of Justice suggested that a law criminalising adultery was old-fashioned and proposed rescinding it. Adulterers face two years in prison, but the ministry's proposal created an uproar. In one survey 73 per cent of respondents said the law should stay to protect the country's morals.

Such matters are of little concern to Chay Yun, 31, a monk who has been in Paegyangsa monastery for three years. He wakes every day at 3am as a monk beats a moktak - the wooden bells made from elm wood - and another strikes a large drum. The day passes peacefully: prayer and meditation, sweeping the courtyard and small cells as a ritual purification, and three small meals of rice and pickled vegetables.

As Buddhists, the monks eat no meat, but one sunny morning this week Chay Yun took pity on a vagrant Westerner and arrived outside my cell with a plate of watermelon. He sat on the verandah, shaven head and grey linen robes, popping the seeds into the bushes.

The temple, founded in 632 in a secluded valley, has of late become popular with tourists from South Korea's teeming cities. Many come in their cars to take water from the well, or gape at the Buddhist statues. The monks find this disturbing, and most retreat into the mountains during the holiday season to meditate as hermits. Was he happy here? 'I am satisfied,' said Chay Yun, with that enigmatic smile copyrighted by Buddha 2,500 years ago.

Others take a different route to escape Korea's turmoil. 'When people have nothing, they are too busy to get mentally ill,' said Brother Gregory McCrory in the St John of God Psychiatric Centre in Kwangju. 'But as they become more well- off, so they develop neuroses and other problems.' Brother Gregory came to Kwangju 14 years ago, and says there is a link between rising affluence and mental illness. The Centre now has 35 in-patients and up to 100 out-patients a day.

Brother Gregory is one of many Irish religious who have been coming to Korea for decades. Mostly strong, hearty men, they have no problems with meat or even the odd drink, and seem to get on well with the tough, straightforward Koreans. Far from retreating into the contemplative life, the Irish brothers plunge into local communities, and battle with conservative local officials or even the government.

Setting up the psychiatric centre was a big undertaking, as mental illness is regarded as shameful in Korea and sufferers are expected to be locked away. 'At one stage we even had a team sent down from Seoul to investigate us,' said Brother Gregory with a smile. But now the people of Kwangju value the centre's services.

One evening last week as the sun was setting and Chay Yun would have been preparing for bed, Brother Gregory was holding a barbecue with his Korean psychiatrists and nurses for a staff member who was leaving. The mood was slightly more boisterous than that in the Zen monastery. But these guardians of the human spirit did not have to get up at 3am.