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Upper West Side Temple Tries to Restore Peace After Years of Conflict

SARAH YOKUBAITIS, HOST: For the last 8 years, the atmosphere in one Buddhist Zen temple in New York City has been… not so Zen. The Chogyesa temple on the Upper West Side has been tormented by lawsuits, conflicts, and ultimately the departure of the head monk. Now, the community is trying to restore peace, but as Clara Grunnet reports, they aren’t sure how.

CLARA GRUNNET: The Chogyesa Temple takes up a few floors of a brownstone on West 96th Street. There’s a large gold buddha, an altar and pillows to sit on. Normally, the head monk would be here… leading meditations and providing spiritual guidance. But now, interim board member Euijin Son is filling in.

EUIJIN SON: Every statue of Buddha there is water we change every day, Sunim, Abbot used to do it, but now I do it, all three floors.

GRUNNET: The head monk - Doam Sunim - left this February after years of conflict, leaving the temple without a spiritual leader. Few people agree how the troubles started or who’s to blame. But according to legal documents, in 2014 the head monk, together with other members, sued the chair of the Temple’s board, Hyung Seok Kim. Then later Kim sued the monk. They both accused each other of bad behavior and embezzlement. The Buddhist community here is split. Some support the monk Doam Sunim. Some say that Mr. Kim is right.

Everyone agrees that the conflict has taken its toll:

SAM CHOE: It is time to move past it. We've spent too much time, too much resources, too much heartbreak over this.

GRUNNET: Sam Choe has been a member here for ten years, and for the last few weeks he and the rest of the members have been gathering to find a way forward. At this meeting, around twenty people sit in a circle on the meditation pillows. Without the guidance of a leader, they have to elect a new board, sort out the finances, and hire a new chief monk. And… it got a little heated. I wasn’t allowed to record during the meeting, but Choe described it afterwards:

CHOE: Passionate. There’s a lot of fighting. That’s kind of Koreans in a nutshell.

GRUNNET: On some level, the temple’s conflicts are just like any organization's. It’s about money and who’s in charge. But when you add a deeply felt religion into the mix it can seem like life or death. Jeff Wilson is a professor at Waterloo University and an expert in American Buddhism:

JEFF WILSON: There's sort of a deeper commitment often and a feeling that at least this institution should be above the fray, it should be a place where people are moral. Then that can become very disappointing when the human beings involved turn out to be very human and continue to act in very human ways.

GRUNNET: Wilson says that in these circumstances, there will likely never be agreement on who is right. The best bet may be that everyone just admits to some share of the blame and moves on. But some members are not giving up on trying to get them all on the same page. Aiyoung Choi, chair of the interim board, has recently created a truth and reconciliation committee.

CHOI: There was a very loud demand to know what happened. Who did the right thing and who did the wrong thing and who was the winner and who's the loser and it was just too toxic.

GRUNNET: The group is going through all 456 court documents, trying to create a coherent narrative about what happened to their temple.

CHOI: we're working on something that I hope will satisfy those who still want to know, we don't want anything to be hidden. We want it all out there.

GRUNNET: So that the Chogyesa community can once again focus on the reason they came to the temple in the first place: a sense of peace.

Clara Grunnet, Columbia Radio News.


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