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Korean Buddhists’ Humanitarian Activities in North America

By Dr. Stephen Long, Asian Tribune, May 3, 2010

Los Angeles, California (USA) -- When my business partner Won Joon Lee and I returned from a trip to Korea this past December I wrote an article for the Asian Tribune entitled, “Korean Buddhists (Quietly) Helping Their Neighbors.”

I described the way the prosperous, 1,200-year-old, 15-million-member-strong Jogye Order of Korean Buddhists, and its NGO, Good Hands, had been helping the poor and underprivileged in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Siberia, North Korea, Laos, Mongolia, and Indonesia since Good Hands was founded in 2003.

Good Hands has provided international relief services to help cope with natural disasters (e.g. Sri Lankan tsunami), safe drinking water (e.g. 1,000 new wells in Cambodia), agricultural micro-development projects (e.g. mushroom farms in Matara, Sri Lanka), and support for North Korea – all with no political agenda and “no strings attached” in regards to proselytizing for the Buddhist religion.

Good Hands has been motivated purely by dana, the Buddha’s principle of generosity, and it has an impeccable record of success wherever it has set up operations. It will expand its activities this year into Bangladesh, Colombia, Ethiopia, and Tanzania with a variety of new programs.

Good Hands is the creation of Wol Joo Sunim, the chairman emeritus of the powerful Jogye Order, and its former official president who served for an unprecedented two terms. Wol Joo Sunim’s vision of helping the unfortunate in neighboring countries was inspired by a true heart of compassion, and a desire to simply “walk the talk” of the Buddhist faith rather than draw attention to the Jogye Order or its high-profile individual and corporate donors in Korea. By the way, Wol Joo Sunim’s wisdom and counsel is so highly regarded that he is on the President of Korea’s Advisory Board. This is not a Board for religious affairs, mind you, but an official committee that develops and guides the various policies of the Korean Government.

Three years ago Good Hands founded a branch in the United States, which is headquartered here in Los Angeles. Under Wol Joo Sunim’s leadership, Hyun Chul Sunim, the top-ranking Jogye monk in North America, and abbot of Banyasa Temple in LA, set up Good Hands America to benefit the unfortunate in Los Angeles and elsewhere on this continent. Hyun Chul Sunim is currently President of Good Hands America while Wol Joo Sunim continues to serve as Chairman of the international organization. This LA-based NGO has developed programs to provide shelter and food for the homeless, lunches for Mexican day laborers, scholarship funds for poor students (primary, secondary, and university), admission tickets to local Korean saunas so homeless men and women can bathe, and relief supplies and medical support for Haiti earthquake victims, just to name a few.

The interesting thing is, I’m quite certain that beyond the large expatriate Korean community in America (e.g. Los Angeles has 1.5 million, and New York has 500,000), no one knows about Good Hands or its humanitarian activities that take place right here in this country. Jogye and Good Hands are so low-profile that their generous activities go virtually unnoticed by the larger population.

Won Joon and I had the good fortune to get to know Wol Joo Sunim when we were last in Korea. In addition to being his guests at a “Temple-Stay” at 8th-century Guemsansa Temple in the snowy mountains of Cholla Province, we visited the House of Sharing, a home Wol Joo founded several years ago to care for comfort women survivors, those unfortunate young girls who are now in their 80’s that were trafficked and forced to be the sex slaves of the Japanese Imperial Forces during World War II. We went to Sharing House as part of our research activities for a feature film we will be writing, and that Show East America will be producing on this subject, entitled “Silence Broken.”

Wol Joo Sunim will be coming to Los Angeles this coming week to participate in Vesak (Buddha’s Birthday) celebrations in LA, and to preside over an event on May 10th marking the third anniversary of the founding of Good Hands America. Wol Joo Sunim has given Won Joon and me the honor of introducing him at the Good Hands Los Angeles event, and we will give the opening address to members of the Korean expatriate community.

Also while in Los Angeles, Wol Joo Sunim along with Hyun Chul Sunim will meet with Ven. Walpola Piyananda, abbot of Dharma Vijaya Buddhist Vihara and President of the Sri Lankan Buddhist Sangha Council of America and Canada. They will discuss ways the Korean Mahayana and Sri Lankan Theravada communities can work together in this country, and in Korea and Sri Lanka as well. By the way, Wol Joo Sunim has graciously written the “Foreword” to the new book Ven. Piyananda and I recently completed on the life of Buddha, and this generous monk from Seoul will provide the pathway for its Korean language translation and publication.

As I said in my earlier article, Good Hands is the “gold standard” for international humanitarian NGO’s. Its only agenda is helping others, and it quietly stays deep in the background, unattached to praise or recognition. It definitely stays out of the internal politics in its host countries. I’m hoping that the NGO’s operating in Sri Lanka and elsewhere will take note and emulate this selfless group.

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