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Greener pastures; Monk leads eco-movement for sustainable living

The Koeran Herald 10th September 2001


Korea --Clad in gray hemp clothes, a straw hat and white rubber shoes, a monk squats and draws a couple of squares in the yellowish soil with his finger. He calls for attention, and a group of people gathers from their construction of wooden houses in a valley facing the scenic Mt. Jiri range in Namwon, North Jeolla Province.

"For a sound community, we need an individual meditation room to reflect our everyday life," says Dobeop, the chief priest of Silsang Temple on Mt. Jiri, while adding several curves to the squares. "I think we should make a cave-like room equipped with an ondol (traditional floor heater) system for winter."


A man in modified hanbok (Korean traditional clothes) and rubber shoes nods. "I totally agree with you, though it may require thorough planning," he says. "That will work as a perfect place for seeking enlightenment."


The 45,000 pyeong of the uncultivated field, where these two exchange their visions on their communal lifestyle, will be a mecca to realize the Indramang movement - an ecological community movement pursuing a new mode of life - with the term "Indramang" implying Buddhism's philosophy that "all phenomena (objects) exist only interdependent on other phenomena." The valley will be equipped with farmland, a farming school, an alternative medical center, an alternative school and a meditation center, and all the establishments will be made of environment-friendly materials such as earth and wood.


The movement is geared by the realization that materialism, consumerism and competitive orientation - coupled with dichotomous thinking, which separates human and nature, "I" and "you" - have brought about such ill consequences as ecological destruction and human alienation in today's society. Thus, it intends to change the most fundamental aspects of people's belief systems and patterns of social life by espousing Buddhism's idea of "yeongi" (interdependent origination meaning "causes and conditions leading to results"). Activists of the movement believe that the philosophical reorientation will enable people to realize interdependent relationship between various life-forms and consequently lead society to peace and harmony.

"If we adopt the idea of 'yeongi,' nothing serving others will be a sacrifice or loss, because the object under your care is part of you," Dobeop said. "When applied to human-nature relations, this will solve the current ecology crisis by encouraging people to recognize their positions as participants in an intertwined ecological system," said the monk, who initiated the ecological community movement in 1999.


A leader of diverse reform measures in Jogye, the nation's largest Buddhist order, as well as an active figure in various social movements, the priest was selected as the fourth most revered Buddhist priest (No. 1 among currently active priests) in this year's survey of 500 Buddhists.

Though the Indramang movement was officially launched just a few years ago, the philosophical ground has long been sought, Dobeop said. "When I stressed ecological thinking a couple of decades ago, few people paid attention. But with the serious deterioration of the environment, more people began to recognize the urgent need to search for a new paradigm," he said.

Ecological movements gained public attention in the late 1990s when the nation saw a variety of new social movements, most of which dealt with lifestyle issues, and now Korea has a dozen communities advocating ecology and communalism. With minor differences in their pursuits, the communities view the ecological crisis as raising fundamental questions about beliefs and value systems, and thus encourage citizens to live on a philosophical basis for an ecologically grounded view of self.


Aspiring to spearhead social movements that create a human culture working with nature, the Indramang movement's ongoing projects include Back-to-Farm, Saving Mt. Jiri, Small School (an alternative school) and cooperative linking of farmers and consumers. And they will soon expand to the welfare sector and newspaper publishing to keep interactive relations with the regional society, according to Dobeop.


Several greenhouses are scattered in the farmland surrounding Silsang Temple, set up for teaching techniques of agriculture, which is given much importance as a "bio-industry" since it provides vital elements for human survival.


"When I urge more citizens to return to the land by engaging in farming, I hope they will change not only their jobs but also their modes of life from human-centered to ecological," the Ven. Dobeop said. The community movement pursues ecological agriculture by practicing organic farming, using only animal and vegetable fertilizers. With this method, they believe farmers can save earth and provide safe produce for humans.


People from assorted walks of life, most of whom are fed up with the hustling and bustling city life, have participated in the three-month courses of the farming school, which combines theory and practice in the temple's farmland. With an average of 50 students in each program, the school will have its 18th batch of farmers-to-be this September.


The growing popularity of the farming school can be explained in large part by the nation's "back-to-farm" movement, which gained momentum with the launch of a national headquarters for the movement in 1996. Currently boasting alliances with about 40 civic groups supporting citizens' return to farming, the organization stresses self-supporting agriculture, collaboration with neighbors and coexistence with nature.


For a fundamental change in people's belief systems, Dobeop emphasizes reforms in education. "So far, education in general has failed to let students understand the true meaning of life while exclusively emphasizing subject-based competition."


In line with Dobeop's belief, the Silsang Temple opened "Small School," an alternative school pursuing humanity education for junior high school students, early this year. Curriculum of the school, yet to be sanctioned by the government, is based on the values of the Indramang movement and includes mountain climbing, hands-on farming experience, social services in welfare centers as well as subject studies. The school's 15 students are immersed in the educational process all day by living in one of seven teachers' houses in the region.

"I hope more people will recognize we need philosophical reorientation to view the Earth as one organic body, to rectify ill consequences that the modern lifestyle has brought about," the Ven. Dobeop said.


Finishing their daily work for the new community village, movement activists and construction workers bow to one another with their hands joined, the action meaning "You and I are one."


Updated: 10-9-2001

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