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Benjamin Bell: U.S. Buddhist in Seoul
When Benjamin V. Bell tells people he is a Buddhist, the reaction from most is: "Pure surprise, and usually laughter and smiles, because we literally are all one in the universe (and) they know that.
"But because I`m American, maybe they expect me to be like a certain outgoing cowboy from Texas who uses `strategery` to become the `decider,`" he said.
Being a foreign Buddhist in Korea, especially if you are from North America or Europe, can have some tremendous advantages. Foremost is the accessibility to temples and monks.
"I wholeheartedly recommend visiting any temple in Korea. There are hundreds in Seoul and thousands all over the countryside of Korea. Check out www.templestay.org for a chance to spend some time with a monk/nun," said Bell.
Bell points to the Buddhist English library of Seoul as somewhere to find more information on Buddhism, and more specifically, Buddhism in Korea. "The Buddhist English library of Seoul is located near Insadong and Jogyesa Temple. They have a diverse and wonderful selection of Dharma texts and also offer Dharma talks in English from foreign sunims/monks," said Bell.
Bell was first drawn to Buddhism when he was in the U.S. Peace Corps in Zambia, Africa, in 2003. He said serendipity brought him a book called "In the lap of the Buddha" by Gavin Harrison, which he found in the Luapula province library. "Reading it and meditating in a mud hut with a grass thatched roof in rural Africa for two years will certainly change one`s perspective - for the better."
His early perceptions of Buddhism, those before his time spent in Africa, were not unlike most Westerners`. "It seemed to be all about peace, simplicity, and kindness. I remember studying about E.F. Schumacker`s "Buddhist Economics" and "Small is Beautiful" in high school.
So what was he wrong about?
"Everything and nothing," he said. "Surprises constantly occur and continue to enlighten me."
Bell said the inner journey of constantly thinking and checking negative thoughts struck a cord with him. "Sometimes no thought is best thought," he said." Also, I strongly feel the Buddha`s Dharma can be a mediator between Christian crusaders and Muslim jihadists, thus creating more dialogue, diplomacy, and peace in the world."
Being from Montgomery, Alabama, it has not always been an easy journey through Buddhism. His family are devout Christians; "they often don`t identify with thinking in terms of Dharma," he said, but they are understanding of his newfound passion.
"But like I mentioned, Jesus and Buddha probably would be best friends since they both taught love, peace, kindness, gentleness."
Being an American Buddhist in Korea, according to Bell, can be challenging yet rewarding.
He said there are some English-speaking monks around, but it will take some effort to track them down.
"Venerable Hyung Gak Sunim ... is an American who went to Harvard and then (was) ordained as a monk here in Korea with the gray robes. Not sure where he is these days, saw (him) on Buddhist Television Network here on Korean cable TV."
If it`s a foreign community of Buddhists you`re after, Bell said, "Community is where you find it." He recommends Hwagyesa Temple in Seoul. The International Zen Center hosts a large gathering of English speakers for meditation and Dharma talks every Sunday.
Another good place to visit is Bongeunsa Temple, near COEX, southern Seoul, said Bell.
By Matthew Lamers