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A Buddhist Monk’s Advice on Achieving Peace of Mind

‘The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down’

By Haemin Sunim, Translated by Chi-Young Kim, Art by Youngcheol Lee, 288 pages, $18.00, New York: Penguin Books [2017]

In a world plagued by the many problems we see today, how can anyone maintain their sanity, let alone peace of mind? Haemin Sunim (sunim, also Romanized as seunim, is a Korean title of respect for Buddhist monks) looks to the Buddhist concept of mindfulness for guidance; indeed, the very first thing the reader sees at the top of the cover of this book is “How to be calm and mindful in a fast-paced world.”

Mindfulness entails being fully aware of what is going on within you and around you, but it goes beyond that. It is realizing, as the author notes in the first chapter, that “the boundary between the mind and the world is actually thin, porous, and ultimately illusory.” One important aspect of mindfulness is being able to observe phenomena without reacting to them, understanding that our reactions are not necessarily connected to those phenomena.
Yet, “The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down” is not an esoteric, metaphysical exploration of Buddhist thought. The eight chapters deal with topics that will be accessible and appealing to all readers: rest, mindfulness, passion, relationships, love, life, the future, and spirituality. Each of these chapters is in turn divided into two sections that begin with short essays and continue into brief meditations, formatted almost as poetry rather than prose. And while Haemin Sunim’s writing is certainly deep and profound, the book and its author could not be more down to earth. In the chapter on life, for example, he begins meditations with phrases such as “Life is like a slice of pizza,” or “Life is like jazz.”
What makes this such a powerful text is Haemin’s spirit and attitude. While he is without a doubt dispensing wisdom, he does not do so from a high and exalted place, but as a brother who has been through what you’re going through — yes, even love unrequited. The meditations are effective because they are in touch with reality; the essays are moving because of how open and honest the author is about his own trials and experiences. Reading “The Things You Can See” feels like having a conversation with a close friend who really gets you. No doubt in part due to the conversational nature of the text, the book flows easily and reads quickly. It could, in fact, be read in a single sitting, but to do so would be missing the point. Both the essays and the meditations are rich food for thought.

In addition to the essays and meditation prompts, the chapters are punctuated by the beautiful artwork of Youngcheol Lee (or Lee Young-cheol), intended as “calming interludes, to be lingered over much like the meditation prompts are meant to be.” The works largely depict one or two human figures in beautiful natural settings, but the proportions give the reader pause for thought: Nature is vast while the figures are tiny. Yet, rather than being overwhelmed by or lost in nature, the figures seem to complete the scene, showing the interconnected nature of all things.
“The Things You Can See” is written for everyone. Haemin Sunim has been influenced by and engages with spiritual traditions outside of Buddhism, and his insights into the workings of the human mind transcend the categories of “religion” or “spirituality.” This is one book that will certainly reward the time spent with it.

A Female Diver-photographer Zooms in on Jeju’s Haenyeo

‘Haenyeo: Women Divers of Korea’

Words and photographs by Y. Zin, 192 pages, 58,000 won/$84.95, Seoul: Hollym International Corporation [2017]

“Haenyeo: Women Divers of Korea” offers a window into the lives of the famous female divers of Jeju Island, off the south coast of Korea. These divers harvest shellfish and other seafood off the seabed, free diving in waters some 5 to 20 meters deep, and last year, their culture was inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Y. Zin has been working to honor the culture, traditions and values of the haenyeo for a number of years now, and this book is the result of what she calls the “Happy Haenyeo Project.” Although haenyeo are respected for their skill and dedication, their lifestyle has often been negatively associated with poverty and a harsh life; Y. Zin hopes to show that, while this may have been true in the past, the haenyeo who dive today primarily do so out of love for the sea and their work.
If anyone is equipped to carry out such a project, it is Y. Zin. She is an accomplished diver, holding a world record in sidemount cave diving, and often speaks at diving expos and conventions. She is also a skilled underwater photographer; in fact, she is the first National Geographic underwater photographer to hail from Korea. Her abilities as both diver and photographer, not to mention her love and respect for the haenyeo, are evident in the full-page color photographs that adorn the book. To peruse the pages is to step into a day in the life of a Jeju haenyeo.

We join the smiling women as they prepare for their dives, follow them into and under the sea — a magical world of brightly colored corals and bountiful harvests — and then gather around a campfire on shore as they chase away the chill of the ocean before heading to the fields to work on their farms.
The book celebrates a time-honored Korean lifestyle in a way that presents these divers not as objects of wonder or fascination, but as real people preserving traditions they love and cherish.

Award-winning ‘Phantom Singers’ Release Debut Album

‘Forte di Quattro’

By Forte di Quattro, MP3 Album $9.49, London: Decca Records [2017]

Forte di Quattro’s eponymous debut album comes hot on the heels of their first-place finish in “Phantom Singer,” a Korean TV singing competition for male crossover quartets. Inspired by the success of the classical crossover group Il Divo, the show’s producers aimed to showcase hidden talent (so-called “phantom singers”) from all musical backgrounds. In that they introduced to the world the melodies of Forte di Quattro, the project must be considered a success.
Forte di Quattro brings together a variety of musical talent: the classically trained Kim Hyun-soo (tenor) and TJ Son (bass), musical actor Ko Hoon-jeong and stage actor Lee Byeori. When singing solo, each singer’s training and background is easy to discern, but when they join together the result is a seamless harmony.
Fans of the TV show will be happy to hear that the group’s debut album is comprised mainly of the songs performed during the competition.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, half the songs are Italian (unfortunately with no translations in the accompanying lyric booklet). Of the remaining songs, five are Korean — including original songs written for the group — one is a Swedish folk song, and one is Coldplay’s smash hit “Viva la Vida.” Overall, it is a strong debut effort from these new stars, setting the stage for what hopefully will be more to come.

Charles La Shure Professor, Department of Korean Language and Literature, Seoul National University

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