Buddhism: Keeping an Open Mind

by Chris Gasiewski

Her speech at the 1991 World Council of Churches, where she was accused of syncretism, put her in the international spotlight. And her notoriety spread throughout the globe.

Just a year later, Dr. Chung Hyun Kyung was teaching at Harvard University.

Everything seemed to be going smooth, except she felt a whirlwind of emotions internally. Her husband, who she loved so dearly, was a Marxist leader, and their conflicting views ultimately caused their separation and divorce.

She disguised her physical and mental anguish, making it almost invisible.

“I was madly in love with him,” she said. “I was struggling in my personal life. I was really dying inside. My whole world cracked open and was breaking down.

“On the outside, it looked like I arrived. On the inside, I was in pain.”

Dr. Chung suffered, a notion that she spoke of at length during “A Buddhist Perspective on Personal and Social Ethics” on March 29 at St. Joseph’s Long Island Campus and April 5 in Brooklyn’s Tuohy Hall Auditorium.

As the College’s third Dr. Reza and Georgianna Clifford Khatib Chair in Comparative Religion, Dr. Chung’s lecture focused primarily on practicing Buddhism despite her ties as a Korean-Christian theologian. It was the first time the chair focused on a religion other than Islam.

“We are fully Christians and we are fully Buddhists,” said Dr. Chung, an associate professor of ecumenical studies at the Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York and an Asian-feminist theologian. “People ask, ‘how is this possible?’”

That question has lingered since she began studying the practices of Zen Master Seung Sahn, founder of the Kwan Um School of Zen, which is known as the largest Zen institution in the West. Even more, she is consistently asking herself two questions she deems necessary to practice Buddhism: What am I? And how may I help you?

“If you answer these two questions, you get enlightened,” she said. “It’s something special if you know who you are.”

Buddhists, Dr. Chung said, envision their lives as full of suffering, which she initially learned from Sueng Sahn.

“Whatever you are, whoever you are, you suffer,” she said. And that practitioners face two separate and distinct types of distress.

“One is that you want something so badly, but you cannot have it. You suffer,” she said. “It can be your dream job; dream house; dream vacation; dream child, whatever, but you cannot have that, you suffer.

“The second suffering is really a more serious suffering — you finally got it, but it’s not good anymore. No matter what you do, you will be unsatisfied.”

Perhaps, because suffering stems from what Dr. Chung called three poisons: greed, anger/hatred and ignorance. Each contributes to the pain, and each is so prevalent in today’s society. “They are socially manifested in human history,” she said.

So are a Buddhist’s ideals. Dr. Chung said there are four main characteristics to which Buddhists live by, ranging from no sense of self, emptiness, karma theory and how everything is correlated.

“There is no separation between you and I,” Dr. Chung said. “Because of you, I am here, and because of me, you are here.

“People think emptiness is loneliness. Nothing is permanent. Therefore, emptiness is what teaches us wisdom and freedom.”

In all, Dr. Chung called Buddhism an open mind, and she said that practicing the religion brings peace, especially in troubled parts of the world, such as the Middle East.

“It's harmony with nature based on sustainability,” she said.

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