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Buddhism as social service
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승인 2010.08.13  14:28:29
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▲ The main house for Yakcheon Temple's residents. Photo by Alpha Newberry
It is easy to become lost within the many labels given Jeju and to forget that this island is where people live, work, raise families and deal with the troubles that plague citizens of the world over, including those with physical and mental disabilities.

In an exclusive interview with Abbot Sung Won of Yak-cheon Temple (or Yakcheonsa), he describes the pains and joys of daily life there.

A traditionally-decorated two-story building just to the west of Seogwipo City, Yakcheonsa's house sits behind the Yakcheon Temple, one of the largest in East Asia. It permanently houses 18 patients, the youngest of whom is five years old. The oldest is well into middle age. They wake up at six in the morning, and after breakfast those who are able leave the house for school or vocational rehabilitation do so. Some are unable to leave the building without help, and they spend most of their time inside.

The house was made possible by a grant from the Seogwipo government. In Korea, local governments offer financial support to the most qualified bidder. Yakcheonsa donated the land and a portion of the building costs.

Seogwipo provided the rest, including 16 full-time staff and a budget for food. But that is not quite enough to keep the facility running.

“The government is supposed to pay all of the employees,” said Sung, “but the truth is when we need 20 people, the government will only pay for 16.”

Yakcheonsa has hired four extra part-time staff. The total of 20 includes office workers and a cook, so according to Sung, only 10 people are left to work the three daily shifts with the patients.

“There is a patient who needs care at all times. He eats out of a tube. So if you have one person take care of him, that leaves even fewer people,” Sung said.

The food budget is supplemented by donations from the Yakcheonsa congregation.

“If they are a butcher, they bring meat. And you know how the congregation donates rice? All of the rice that this congregation donates goes to the house. That's why the government wants religious groups to do this kind of work. It's easier for us to provide extra support.”

▲ One of Yakcheon's 18 patients relaxes with some music and activities. Photo by Alpha Newberry

It is not always religious groups that run homes for the disabled. The government also gives grants to families.

Sung worries about such situations. “Some patients moved here from other facilities. When they go to events, our staff hears that they had been in poor condition. Now they are clean and smiling. The patients can't say it for themselves. That's why I want this facility to go further. I want this space to be comfortable and not for profit.”

“Some people use the grants to support themselves,” he added.

As for Yakcheonsa's facility, it is growing fast. “This is not even six months old. The government had recommended that we have 16 patients by the end of the year. We already have 18. The building is made to house 40 patients, and if we continue at this rate, we will have that many by the end of the year. In that case the government may provide a few more staff.”

Despite the labor crunch described by Sung, on a half-day visit to the house this writer observed clean and relaxed patients. After lunch, they loitered in the hallway, hanging off of each other much like middle-school students on a bus. Upstairs, some sat watching a World Cup soccer game, playing with over-sized Legos, or reading a newspaper.

There is occasional drama, said Sung who related that once a patient jumped out of a second story window. He landed unhurt. “You can look at it seriously, but it's kind of funny,” Sung said. “Some people eat too much from time to time, and we don't know what to do about it. They can't digest fast enough so they have to go to the hospital.”

Yakcheonsa wants to take care of more than just the disabled. Sung outlined plans for a labor center, child support center and even a facility for foreigners, including migrant workers. Asked how this fits with the goals of Buddhism, Sung answered: “Buddha said that everything alive is very important, no matter how intelligent or worthy. Those who have things must protect those who have less. We are trying to protect minorities by giving them what they need and widening where they can stand.”

If you are interested in donating to Yakcheon Temple’s facility, you can find more information (in Korean) at www.자광원.kr.

ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (
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