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Monk Spreads Buddhist Philosophy With 140-Character Tweets

Feb 12, 2017
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It's a tale as old as Twitter. In a spare moment maybe in the elevator or at work or waiting in line at the grocery store, you open up a social media app on your phone and suddenly the floodgates are open, a deluge of memes, news alerts, complaints, annoyances - not exactly a place to find your zen, unless perhaps you've discovered Haemin Sunim's page. The Buddhist monk is a sensation in South Korea where his daily 140-character tweets promote peace and mindfulness on the otherwise hectic social media platform.

Haemin Sunim's tweets are available offline, too, in his book "The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down." South Korean book sales have taken off with his ideas in paperback as viral as his tweets. Now the books hit the U.S. market. Haemin Sunim is with me now from the Buddhist radio station in Seoul. Thank you for joining us.

HAEMIN SUNIM: Thank you.

SINGH: So this book is in part a collection of 140-character or less tweets, and they read almost like haikus. So can you share with us one of your tweets from this week?

SUNIM: OK. (Reading) Do only one thing at a time. When you walk, just enjoy walking. When you listen, really listen. You will become happier and more center.

SINGH: That's wonderful. We mention your Twitter account because this book is a collection of tweets - we know - but you also have a podcast, and you have a YouTube channel, a Facebook page. When did you first get the idea to bring Buddhist philosophy to social media?

SUNIM: Like about five or six years ago. I realized that it's very difficult to give a talk in front of, you know, 100 or 200 people. But I found it much easier by doing it online. People are holding onto their cell phone every day, so I tried that. And then little did I imagine that this will become a huge success.

SINGH: The word unplug - we've heard that a lot, and it's become sort of shorthand for mindfulness when you can just pick up a phone and instantly find out what's trending on the other side of the world, right? It's a distraction from living in the moment, right? So some might argue, Haemin, that social media and mindfulness are directly opposed to each other. I mean, what you've hit is a contradiction.

SUNIM: Right. I thought about it, too. You can also fight against the technology, but I realize that it's difficult to fight against technology. So rather than fighting it, why don't I provide better content?

SINGH: The first chapter in your book is "Rest." Was that intentional?

SUNIM: Yes (laughter). Because we are living in a very unsettling and busy life nowadays, and we always feel pressured to produce. So I thought that maybe I can provide my readers a moment of reflections and meditations.

SINGH: One of the portions of that chapter was really intriguing. On page 41, the beginning of the chapter called "Befriend Your Emotions." Would you mind reading a bit of that for me?

SUNIM: OK. (Reading) Imagine that a strong negative emotion is like a mud swirling inside a fish tank. To get the mud to sink to the bottom of the tank so that you can have a clear view of the fish, the last thing you want to do is submerging your hands in the muddy water and try to push the mud to the bottom. The more you try to push it down, the more you turn it up. Similarly, you know, attempt to control a negative emotion, you may try to push it down. Unfortunately, the harder you try, the more it resurfaces.

SINGH: How do we take that message? How do we put that into practice?

SUNIM: Well, you can certainly return to your breathing. And also when you are feeling angry or agitated or frustrated, rather than, you know, being lost in that emotion, see if you can become aware of the fact that you are agitated and you are angry. As soon as you are aware of it, you will notice that you are actually stepping outside the emotions and thereby you are not lost in them. So my - one of my core messages is that your mind has much more power and don't think that your mind is just powerless and just vulnerable.

SINGH: Your book was released here in the United States where the power of Twitter has become much more pronounced since it became sort of a go-to mode of communication for our current President Donald Trump. How has this influenced your hopes or your expectations for the impact your work will have on a U.S. audience?

SUNIM: Well, I - to be honest, I don't know how it's going to impact. However, I hope that my message can bring some moment of calmness and reflections, especially in this very unsettling period of time. So that rather than we are lost in those messages, we can take a moment and then bring our attention to our inner side.

SINGH: I'm curious. Tell me about the people who've responded to your daily tweets. Can you give me one or two of your favorite stories most moving to you so far?

SUNIM: I still remember there was a woman who just lost her husband. It was a sudden death, I think, by car accident, and she didn't know what to do. And she was able to read some of my tweets. And she was able to find some moment of peace and calmness. And so she sent me a very heartfelt tweet message to me. And I feel very grateful because I didn't know my little message can have so much meaning to some people.

SINGH: Tell me, Haemin, how do you keep balance in your life between your online presence and your real life? What do you do on a daily basis?

SUNIM: Well, I try to practice mindfulness, and so whenever I feel agitated or unhappy and - you know, try to become aware of it. And also when I'm with friends or people around me, I try to really listen to what they're saying, and that's my - one of my main practice.

SINGH: Haemin Sunim. His book is called "The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down." Thank you.

SUNIM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.