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Fighting it out, just like the monks used to

by Nahm Yoon-ho, JoongAng Daily, April 4, 2005

Seoul, South Korea -- Sometimes when Koreans are facing a dead-end situation and there's no way out, they'll use the term ipan-sapan, which can be roughly translated as "do or die." It refers to the desperate decision to take a situation to the extreme. If you're gambling and you keep losing, you might feel "ipan-sapan" and decide to go all-in. It is hardly an elegant phrase.

Its origins are in Buddhism. Ipan refers to a monk who explores the theoretical aspect of Buddhism, such as meditation, discipline and missionary work. They are also called "scholar monks." Sapan are the monks who are in charge of administrative duties at the temples.

Ipan and sapan monks have a reciprocal relationship, like the two wheels on a cart. Without either of them, the Buddhist order could not be maintained. Managing the temples and the organization of the order is just as important to maintaining the Buddhist canon as studying and propagating the Buddha's teachings.

"Ipan-sapan" began to take on more meaning during the Joseon Dynasty, under which Buddhism was suppressed in favor of Confucianism. During this time, Buddhist monks were considered the lowest class in the social system, and becoming one meant falling to the
bottom of society. And so "ipan-sapan" became a term used in reference to a dead-end situation.

But there is another interpretation. This theory goes that because ipan monks are primarily interested in the ideals and fundamentals of Buddhism, while sapan monks spend their days dealing with practical business, it is hard for the two sides to compromise when a dispute
comes up. That was how ipan-sapan came to mean fighting it out to the end. (Naturally, the Buddhists deny this interpretaton.)

Whatever the term's origins, these days "ipan-sapan" is most commonly used to describe extreme, confrontational situations. When political strife is ignited these days, it seems to become ipan-sapan. The labor unions, which prize unity and solidarity, will fight out an internal dispute to the end. Between Korea and Japan, even diplomacy, which by its nature is supposed to be a matter of careful maneuvering, is becoming "ipan-sapan," with no reconciliation or compromise in sight.

But in Buddhism, ipan can only exist because there is sapan, and vice versa. Essentially, they are one. And so the true meaning of "ipan-sapan" has to do with harmony and coexistence. Perhaps it is the narrow-mindedness of the people that has changed the term's
meaning to its opposite.

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The writer is head of the family affairs team at the JoongAng Ilbo.


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