On a quiet Sunday morning, Rev. Doyeon Park sits crossed-legged on a firm golden cushion, facing small rows of worshipers at the Won Buddhist temple in midtown Manhattan.
“Take a deep breathe down into your lower abdomen,” instructs Park in a sweet and gentle voice. “Be aware of your belly rising and falling. Control your breathing in and out. By letting go of all your thoughts and focusing completely on ‘the tangen’ (lower abdomen), your life energy will flow peacefully into this quiet center, and your mind will become stable.”
With a few sustained taps of a stone gong, Park leads the opening silent meditation for the service.
Buddhist practice and meditation are at the center of Park’s work as a minister (or Kyomunim, which in Korean means, one who devotes oneself to teach Buddha dharma in the Won Buddhist tradition).
“It really centers me,” Park says. “And, then with this practice, the service that I do for others just follows, and I’m really happy for that.”
Park wears a flowing white cotton dress and a small brown stole with a golden circle sewn into it, a marker of the Won Buddhist tradition. Her long dark hair is tied neatly in a small bun and there is an elegance to her movements.
Won Buddhism or Won-Bul-Kyo, shares main tenets and aspects with Mahayana Buddhism, one of Buddhism’s two major traditions. “Won” means circle and symbolizes the ultimate truth, “Bul” means enlightenment, and “Kyo” means teaching the truth.
This tradition was established by Pak Chungbin, known as Great Master Sotaesan in Korea in 1916 with the founding motto: “As material civilization develops, cultivate spiritual civilization accordingly.”
Although followers of Won Buddhism are a minority in Korea, Park says the community is strong and has a deep sense of pride in their work, which they say facilitates an accessible and modern avenue to ancient Buddhist philosophies.
Park was raised in Korea and moved to New York about nine years ago to dedicate her life to this practice and service. Growing up in Korea, Park says she received a fairly western-style education where she was taught typical modern values about life, success, career and financial stability. But for Park, it was meditation and Buddhist practice that really spoke to her.
In addition to leading the congregation in midtown, Park serves as the Buddhist chaplain at Columbia University and is the first official Buddhist chaplain at NYU. She leads mediation practice and is available to students for counseling.
Park says that while a lot of students come to her with the intention of alleviating stress and anxiety, there are also students of immigrant families from China, Japan, and Korea whose parents might practice Buddhism, but didn’t necessarily pass it on to their children who grew up in America. Park says by learning about Buddhism, these students don’t just come to a better understanding of their parent’s culture and heritage, but also of themselves.
Park appreciates the Won Buddhist tradition’s emphasis on social engagement and doesn’t live what you might imagine to be a typical monastic life.
“When we think about Buddhist practice a lot of people have this image of a meditating person maybe in a very quiet space that looks peaceful,” reflects Park. “But we cannot sit 24/7. We need to go out, we need to meet people. We need to interact with one another and make a living.”
For Park and other followers of the Won tradition, this practice means bringing the peace and calmness that is cultivated through meditation to all the aspects of everyday life.
“Whenever we do everyday activities, we try to be more mindful of our own actions, like how I use my mind and body, bringing more awareness into this present moment.”
“Once we have more awareness, we can be more conscious of our own intentions and the consequences of our own actions. This way, we are more likely to do something that is positive and compassionate. I don’t think anyone wants to intentionally do something that would harm others.”
Immigrating to New York City was a big change for Park, but she says that because she was able to continue her daily Buddhist practice, it helped keep her grounded and created a sense of home in this hectic new city. Park also remarks that it is often the stressful fast-paced lifestyle of New York City that draws people from a broad range of cultures to the peace and calmness of Won Buddhist practice. Won Buddhism also has a temple in Flushing Queens, which conducts services in Korean for the growing community there.
The temple where Park serves is led by three women, and she says women account for around sixty per cent of the leadership roles in the Won tradition. Park explains that from the beginning of the faith practice, 100 years ago, women were leaders in this community.
“At that time a woman would typically grow up, get married and live with her family, but living as a Won Buddhist minister means that you really have a much larger community… As women’s voices grew stronger that obliviously had an impact on Korean society and other religious traditions as well.”
But while the founder of Won Buddhism taught equality between men and women, that isn’t always the case.
“Although, the basic teachings of Buddhism says we all have this enlightened nature, in reality we have a long history of a patriarchal system. There’s a lot of hierarchies in which men and women are not treated equally.”
“For instance in other Buddhist traditions, no matter how old you are or how many years you practice, male teachers will always come above the female teachers.”
Won Buddhism also has the understanding that people take different paths to enlightenment and Park dedicates much of her time to interfaith work, especially with the United Nations.
“Unfortunately sometimes we see some religious traditions kind of fighting each other. But if we understand other’s teachings and their values, we see that we just have different expressions, a different language. Our Won Buddhist approach is to bring that harmony and understanding of one another.”