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Korean Buddhists (Quietly) Helping Their Neighbors

By Dr. Stephen Long, The Buddhist Channel, April 15, 2010

Seoul, South Korea -- I just returned a few days ago from a visit to South Korea where I had the very good fortune to meet Ven. Wol Joo, the prime monk and leader of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism.

There are approximately 15 million members and 5,000 branch temples in his organization, and he is a very powerful figure in that energetic society.  The President comes to visit him (not the other way around), and it is very rare for a Korean – even rarer for a foreigner – to meet this esteemed religious leader – much less have the opportunity to have tea with him three times, as we did.

We were also his guests for the weekend at a “Temple-Stay” experience in a 4th century mountain temple/national treasure called Guemsan, which is an architectural work of art.  “Temple-Stay” is the way Ven. Wol Joo and the Korean Buddhists share their religion with others: invite them to experience it first-hand by living with the monks, getting up and meditating with them at 3:00 a.m., and doing chores on the temple premises.  It snowed the entire weekend we had our Temple-Stay, and seeing snow-covered bamboo and passing through the “not-two” gate were high points I’ll never forget.

I also had the honor of meeting Ven. Ilgam, one of the brightest spiritual lights I have ever met, and who undoubtedly was, he decided, my brother in a previous rebirth.  He was in charge of our Temple-Stay at Guemsan (and Director of the Temple-Stay Center), and I had the privilege of meditating with him and conversing with him at length – using only our eyes and hearts.  I also met Mr. Nam-Jae Lee, the Managing Director of Good Hands, an NGO funded by Ven. Wol Joo and the Jogye Order; he was also part of our Temple-Stay group, and I was delighted to learn about the humanitarian projects sponsored by this prosperous Buddhist order.

The general mission of Good Hands is to provide international relief services when needed, to provide safe drinking water where needed, to educate children in poverty-stricken areas and provide for their health care, to sponsor agricultural development projects, and to provide humanitarian support for North Korea.  Mr. Nam-Jae Lee is a former pro-democracy activist from the infamous Kwangju/President Jeon era of the early 1980’s; he now channels his energies and metta into Good Hands projects in seven countries – and is expanding to additional countries over the next two years (including Bangladesh, Colombia, Ethiopia, and Tanzania).  His father was a Buddhist monk, and his brother followed him on this path.  Mr. Lee would also like to become a monk one day, but his current commitment to Good Hands supersedes any personal agenda.  He is indeed a remarkable, dedicated individual, and I look forward to being his friend for many years to come.

I am writing this article because I find Good Hands to be the ideal NGO, one that truly sets an example – indeed the gold standard – for all others, regardless of scope, size, or country of origin.  Good Hands very modestly refrains from blowing its own horn, and its low profile makes it little-known in the international community.  The whole notion of NGO has left a bad taste in the mouths of most Sri Lankans after the LTTE terrorist experience (I recall writing about a few of these in earlier columns), but I am very happy to report that there is a model out there that I hope everyone else will emulate: Good Hands from Korea.

Good Hands was founded in late 2003, and began its humanitarian activities in Cambodia.  It started by constructing village wells (called “Living Water” projects), building and repairing school facilities in backward areas, and quarantining individuals who were risks to community health.  Since that time it has constructed and opened several kindergartens, primary schools, and other facilities for youth in Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, post-tsunami Sri Lanka, Siberia, and Mongolia.

It has set up micro-businesses in Russia for needy Korean families, and opened a Korean school in the maritime province of Siberia for Korean children.  It developed an economic aid program in Mongolia that improved water resources.

It has also set up two agricultural micro-businesses in Sri Lanka.  These are mushroom farms that help poor women in Matara earn a decent living to support their families.  In addition to the kindergarten it built for Sri Lankan children, Good Hands also provided several water tanks for the tsunami-affected people in the South, and constructed a multi-use village hall in a tsunami refugee camp.  I’m sure the good people of Sri Lanka have expressed their thanks to their friends at Good Hands for their generous contributions.

In Kenya, Good Hands established a “Living Water” project, and a program to educate the public on health and hygiene.  It also set up an agricultural program in Kenya that helps villagers achieve sustainability.  In Nepal they are currently rebuilding an old and damaged school facility; and in Myanmar, Good Hands rebuilt a school and provided rice for communities affected by Cyclone Nargis in 2008.

Good Hands seems to have done more for Cambodia than any other country in its outreach program – possibly because it was its first recipient country.  They built schools and kindergartens in Kkurangyau, Kunai, Pumkunai, Younghwa, and Angkor Chey villages.  The project that impresses me the most is “Living Water 1000,” a program to build 1,000 wells to supply drinking water to over 200,000 poor Cambodian villagers who previously suffered from fatal diseases related to contaminated water.  Next month, Ven. Wol Joo will travel to Cambodia along with Ven. Ilgam and Mr. Lee to celebrate the completion of their 1,000th well – a project that took five years.  By the way, these wells are environmentally-friendly, and all are hand-operated; most of them are in areas that still don’t have electricity.

Ven. Wol Joo also supports several “comfort women,” the sex slave survivors of the Imperial Japanese forces of WWII who are now in their 80’s and 90’s.  The Jogye Order funds a home for these lone women called “House of Sharing” near Seoul.  It is next to a small museum exhibiting the paintings the women do for psychological and emotional therapy, and displaying other artifacts from that shameful era in history that has yet to be apologized for by the Japanese Government.  More to come on this issue…

I visited the House of Sharing with my colleagues from America and Seoul; we were doing research for a feature film on the subject of comfort women, and we wanted to personally meet some of the survivors while a few of them are still alive.  One of the surviving women came over and gave me a big hug and proudly told me (through a translator) that she had had the privilege of donating her last remaining money to pay for the 1,000th clean-water drinking well in Cambodia.  Needless to say, I was moved to tears, as were all of us.  We made friends with the kind old ladies that day, and they insisted we stay for dinner and see their rooms – something that has never happened when others had visited before.  It was because of our reported acceptance by these women that Ven. Wol Joo became curious about our group, and wanted to meet us the following day.  It was a lucky moment for all concerned.

The great thing about Good Hands is that hardly anyone knows about them.  They go about doing their good works quietly, and they leave no footprints when they are gone.  They have a “no strings attached” policy, they ask for absolutely nothing in return, and there is never a whisper of religious proselytizing.  They go to these countries to practice dana, the Buddha’s generosity, and have no attachment to outcome – other than to be remembered for their metta, their universal benevolence for all.

Let’s all take a lesson from Good Hands, shall we?  I think we can all apply it to some corner of our minds or lives where we still have judgments, still have attachments, and still think we can give under the guise of “give-and-take.”

On the web: http://www.goodhands.or.kr/english/intro/introduction.html

Originally published on December 31, 2009 on Asian Tribune.

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