Documentarian sends viewers in search of self

By Tomas E. Moralez, DAILY LOBO, Sep 1, 2009

Singapore -- Sit down in the deep mountains of South Korea. Prepare to find your inner self.

Sang Hwan Kim, the producer of “Zen Buddhism: In Search of Self,” which premieres at a Singapore film festival this month, says that one can spiritually die and be reborn, become one with the body and mind, and ascend to another level of life through meditation.

The documentary is set in the Baek Hung (pronounced ‘beck kung’) Temple, deep in the Palgong Mountains of Daegu, South Korea, during a 90-day event known as Dong Ahn Geo, when Zen Buddhist nuns gather for rigorous meditation, fasting and contemplation.

Kim, a Korean-American who was born in what is now South Korea, is working on a doctorate in exercise science at UNM.

It took Kim several years to persuade the Zen Buddhists to allow him and his crew to film the 90-day retreat, and he finally got permission in 2001.

The Zen Buddhists have been taking part in this event for nearly 1,000 years, Kim said. However, no one has ever been allowed to film the event because doing so is considered taboo in Korean society, especially when women are involved.

“What I found so amazing was the extreme seriousness of this religious event, but also the irony when the Zen Buddhist nuns were given leisure time,” he said. “They would create a fun and loving atmosphere through games and singing.”

For the past 25 years, Kim has been teaching Tae Kwon Do, a Korean style of self-defense, in the United States. He said he has practiced martial arts his whole life. Throughout his teenage years, he trained deep in the mountains of Bisul in the Yuga Temple, three hours west of the Baek Hung Temple. He also went through rigorous meditation and fasting.

“Generations of my family were martial artists, so it was only natural that I would also become one,” Kim said. “It was an experimental journey for enlightenment. I wanted to synthesize Eastern and Western methods of martial arts to find better ways of helping people develop healthier lifestyles.”

Kim said his love for extreme environments, where the terrain is difficult and challenging to live in, is what drew him to the Land of Enchantment. He said it reminded him of his training in the Korean mountains as a teenager.

In March 2009, Kim was contacted by representatives of the 2009 Thus Have I Seen Buddhist Film Festival in Singapore, who wanted to feature his documentary.

The 2009 T.H.I.S. Buddhist Film Festival is sponsored by Dharma in Action, a nonprofit organization that promotes the Buddhist lifestyle in Singapore for the benefit of society and mankind.

“At first, I thought they were joking, because the film was a for-television documentary, not a form of entertainment, but I realized they were serious after receiving more requests from them,” he said. “So my wife, Cynthia, and I got to work on making changes to the film to match the specifications that were requested.”

The film is scheduled to be shown this month at the Brothers Lido Cinema in Singapore, but it’s also for sale online.

Freshman Anthony Santistevan said he would be interested in seeing the film and possibly imitating the Zen Buddhists.

“It looks like something only seen in the movies, but it opened me up to the idea,” he said. “I would actually like to try something similar, such as training in New Mexico’s wilderness. It sounds like a good experience.”

Kim said he was pleasantly surprised to find out his documentary will have a wider audience, being presented on a much bigger stage than he had planned.

“There is a saying in meditation that goes, ‘Before training, a mountain is mountain and water is water,’” he said. “‘During training, mountain becomes water and water becomes mountain. After training, mountain is mountain and water is water again. It is the same mountain and water, but changed perspectives.’ It’s symbolic of how when we are beginners at something new; we take steps, but as we master it, we become less conscious of our actions.”