When asked how smartphone technology can serve as an aid to spiritual practice, Ven. Song-Mook answers without hesitation:
“Whenever you’re going somewhere and you have some extra time, you could open up an app and read some of the Buddha’s teachings.” He adds that people studying Buddhist scripture can now look up difficult phrases with a few taps of their finger.
Among the Korean Buddhists embracing new technology, the most enthusiastic and successful has been the monk Hyemin. Currently residing in the U.S., Ven. Hyemin has well over 500,000 followers on his Twitter account @haeminsunim but has begun a period of electronic silence from April 1.
Ven. Song-mook believes that pursuing missionary work through social media like Ven. Hyemin has done is the wave of the future for Korean Buddhism. He sees this as the way to prepare for the “age without books” that is almost upon us.
“But would a monk sitting on a mountain somewhere meditating really know anything about smartphones?” he asks thoughtfully. In the bright office interior, decorated with thriving green plants, the only picture on the wall is of a snowy peak in Nepal.
Over 100 kilometers from Seoul at the base of Gyeryong Mountain stands the ancient Donghak Temple, one of over 1,000 associated with the Jogye Order. Here a nun named Myung-oh explains the functions of the temple’s own app, sitting at a desk next to a CCTV screen showing footage of visitors doing prostrations in the prayer halls.
In charge of supervising second year students at the temple’s school for Buddhist nuns, Ven. Myung-oh switched over to a smartphone only a year and a half ago. She shows her phone before admitting that she actually doesn’t like gadgets.
“All I need is to be able to make phone calls and send text messages,” she concedes, “so I chose an old-fashioned smartphone from the ones that were available. I don’t really make use of my smartphone that much.”
Speaking in a mix of Korean with a southeastern accent and polished English phrases, Ven. Myung-oh makes it clear that at Donghak Temple, the smartphone is a necessity for the nuns in positions of responsibility but a forbidden item for the novices:
“They get in the way of the very practice of religion,” she explains. “When the phone rings, you have to answer it, and you have to pay attention to it. Here at this monastic school, the teachers are nuns, and the students are nuns, too. They have left their home and family. They need to quit their secular life.”
Of course, when it comes to serious Zen meditation, the use of smartphones and their apps starts to seem absurd. Ven. Song-mook had mentioned that sometimes when deeply engrossed in his studies he turns off his smartphone for days at a time. And Ven. Myung-oh tells us that she finds it a relief when her phone goes out of service for a few days.
In the cool, shady interior of the temple office, Ven. Myung-oh’s calm explanation slowly begins to unpuzzle the relationship between technology and Buddhism. Ven. Song-mook wraps it up well.
“You have to let go of everything, embrace mindlessness and learn the way of emptiness. Could a smartphone really be necessary for learning this great truth?” he asks. “And of course, it’s not necessary. However, before we reach enlightenment, we are still humans, and (a smartphone) can help us learn a little more.”