10 Questions with Incredible Western Buddhist Monk Gen Togden

Modern Religion and the Art of Happiness

As a Western Buddhist monk of the Kadam Order, Gen Kelsang Togden speaks three languages (with Korean, almost four) and has lived all over the world, from Brazil to Canada and Korea. He spent much of 2014 splitting his time between Seoul and Jeonju, where he has hosted a variety of talks and regularly guided meditation sessions to spread “modern Buddhism.” His name tells much of his story: “Gen” is the title for teacher and “Togden” means “possessor of realization.” Togden’s mission is to teach others to realize their own happiness through meditation and modern Buddhist practices. 10 Magazine sat down with this emissary of happiness to get more of the story.

silhouette buddhist monk
Photo by Amy Chandra

1. You hail from an area of the world where Buddhism is not prevalent. How and when did you become a monk?

I have always been very interested in spiritual development—inner development—because I felt people didn’t really live life with deep understanding. I found, even as a small child, that people were very much on the surface, not thinking about things. But Buddhism wasn’t really an option. It basically didn’t exist where I was until I was probably around 30 when I began to look into it. I became a Buddhist monk when I was 33 –that was 21 years ago. Now Buddhism has become the main thing that I do: learning, teaching, and the activities related to it.

2. Why did you choose to teach Modern Buddhism in Korea?

It was an invitation. I was living in Argentina, and I received a call from the assistant to our main teacher asking if I would be interested in going to Korea. And why not? I decided in my life that I don’t need to look for people to help. They appear. The opportunities appear if I keep an open mind. I basically feel very open to following whatever appears, and it’s been very interesting.

3. There’s an emphasis on the fact that your form of Buddhism is “modern.” What makes a Buddhist practice modern?

I think not only Buddhism, but all religions, are being faced with a huge challenge because the modern world has developed very quickly, and completely transformed the way of life. For example, with education: How can traditional presentations of any religion, including Buddhism, be relevant if they don’t change to present themselves to somebody who now has access to a lot of information and a different way of thinking because of modern education? That’s what this presentation is. It’s actually quite easy to relate to this as opposed to relating to older presentations which were for people who didn’t have education and would accept things because they came from the authority of the church or the organization. So the examples, the presentation of modern Buddhism, everything is relevant to modern life.

4. What are the most striking features or challenges of Korean Buddhism, compared to other forms of Buddhism you’ve studied?

Temples are in very beautiful places, but it’s very difficult for the majority of urban people to get to them, and there isn’t a lot being offered in the cities. Very little, actually. And the temples tend to get people more like visitors, like tourists, and of course, then they get people on special occasions. I think it really speaks to the need for Korean Buddhism to show people, how does this apply to modern life? How is this an option for you to deal with the stress you have? For example, an alternative to drinking alcohol. Because I think alcohol and watching K-dramas, things like this, are some of the main choices people make now in dealing with stress. My sense is Buddhism has to become part of the menu for daily life.

5. There’s always been a kind of controversy over the expression that Buddhism isn’t a religion, it’s a way of life. What’s your take on that idea?

Well, I think we need to think, why did Buddha teach? For people to be happy. And that isn’t necessarily the way we understand religion. Now, there is no doubt that it is classified as one of the five main religions in the world, and so, in what context can we understand the word “religion” here? It’s a necessary structure and organization to sustain these teachings generation after generation, to preserve them and transmit them. So I see religion as the container.

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If we think about Buddha presenting what his teachings were, with the intention for people to find inner peace, contentment, happiness, deal with adversity… you could almost say, as somebody has in the past, that Buddha is the greatest psychologist the world has ever seen, and probably the greatest educator. So it’s easy to understand why people would say that it’s a way of life rather than a religion.

6. What are some of the main misconceptions that people have about the way your life is like as a monk?

I think the main misconception is that we don’t do anything. We just sit there and contemplate and pray. And of course, that’s not at all the way it is. My life before being a monk was being an executive with technology and incredibly busy. 11-hour days or more! And when I became a monk, I also had the misconception that it would be quite tranquil, but I have never been busier! So I think the main misconception is that if you are a monk, you’re not supposed to do anything. What becomes important here is to be sensitive to people’s expectations even if they are completely opposite to what actually is happening.

7. Also in terms of misconceptions, what are some misconceptions that people have about meditation, since you teach it?

The most common misconception is that meditation is making the mind go blank. Thinking of nothing. But the easy way to challenge that notion is to say, do you really think the world would be a better place if everybody had a blank mind? It would be like a whole bunch of vegetables! And so then comes the clarification that actually meditation is making the mind peaceful, so that it can process at a much higher, more sophisticated level. What you need is to make the mind stop being engaged in so many things that don’t make any sense so that there is room in there for much more important understanding and contemplation.

8. You often speak of your teacher, and, like many of the expats in Korea, you are now a teacher as well. From a Buddhist perspective, what do you think is the essence of being a teacher?

I would say that begins with what my mother used to say – that being a parent is the art of making oneself unnecessary. To me, that is the same with teaching. A real teacher is not just transmitting knowledge, which is a very common understanding of being a teacher. To me, a teacher is much more than that. A teacher has to intrigue the student to want to grow, to want to learn, and to be transformed by that learning. And I also think a very important aspect of being a teacher is to inspire because there is so much that’s actually killing people inside, that’s working to actually make them more numb. Very strong forces. I think we as teachers have a very important role to play to make sure that the mind actually wakes up.

9. What’s been the best moment or incident in your teachings in Korea thus far?

It was a very recent one because he’s a classmate in a Korean class. He doesn’t believe in religion. He’s from Holland, a young guy. He said, recently he became aware that he hurt someone, unintentionally, and for the first time in his life he realized that we are connected with others and that we impact others depending on how we speak and what we do. He asked, what can you tell me about the Buddhist view of how we are related to others? And then, of course, I told him the very essence of Buddhism is not hurting… rather, it’s compassion. The opposite. To me, that was very striking for so many reasons. One is that he doesn’t believe in religion. That he became aware of his influence or effect on others, that he would be open to investigating this, and when he understood that the essence of Buddhism is compassion, he was very impressed.

10. Many of your talks focus not just on Buddhism exclusively but on cultivating happiness. What advice would you give others, even if they’re not Buddhists, to make their lives happier?

I think to protect their inner peace. To relate to their own minds in a different way. They should understand that anything within them that is working against their peace of mind is sabotaging their happiness. So, therefore, even if someone feels completely justified in being angry, the result is they lose their happiness because they lose their peace of mind. This concept of justified anger doesn’t help anyone because, in fact, the very person who is getting angry is unhappy now. If they act from that unhappy mind, they will just multiply that energy, that negative energy.

Though Gen Togden has been called to Sintra, Portugal for another teaching endeavor, others will continue to spread “Modern Buddhism” in Korea, and are leading weekly guided meditations in his place in Jeonju, and will soon come to Seoul as well. For more information email the organizers at kadam@konglish.info.

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