After completing grammar school, I moved to Seoul and lived
alone in the Heuksok Dong neighborhood while attending
the Kyongsong Institute of Commerce and Industry. The
winter in Seoul was extremely cold. It was normal for the temperature to fall to minus twenty degrees Celsius, and when it did, the Han River would freeze over. The house where I lived was on a ridge, and there was no running water. We drew our water from a well that was so deep it took more than ten arm-lengths of rope for the pail to reach the water below. The rope kept breaking, so I made a chain and attached it to the pail. Each time I brought water up, though, my hands would freeze to the chain and I could only keep them warm by blowing on them. To fight the cold, I used my knitting talents. I made a sweater, thick socks, a cap, and gloves. The hat was so stylish that when I wore it around town people would think I was a woman. I never heated my room, even on the coldest winter days, mainly because I didn’t have the money to do so. I also felt that having a roof over my head when I slept meant that I was living in luxury compared to homeless people forced to find ways to keep themselves warm on the streets. One day, it was so cold I slept while holding a light bulb against
my body under the quilt, like a hot-water bottle. During the night, I
burned myself on the hot bulb, causing some skin to peel. Even now,
when someone mentions Seoul, the first thing that comes to mind is
how cold it was back then.
My meals consisted of a bowl of rice and never more than one side
dish, whereas average Korean meals include up to twelve side dishes. It
was always one meal, one dish. One side dish was enough. Even today,
because of the habit I formed while living alone, I don’t need many side
dishes at my meals. I prefer to have just one side dish that is prepared
well. When I see a meal that has been prepared with many side dishes, it
only seems troublesome to me. I never ate lunch while attending school
in Seoul. I became accustomed to eating just two meals a day while
roaming around the hills as a child. I continued this lifestyle until I was
My time in Seoul gave me a good understanding of how much work
goes into managing a household.
I returned to Heuksok Dong in the 1980s and was surprised to find
the house where I once lived still standing. The room where I lived and
the courtyard where I used to hang my laundry were still there. I was
sad to see, though, that the well where I had to blow on my hands while
pulling up pails of water was gone.
During my time in Heuksok Dong, I adopted for myself the motto,
“Before seeking to dominate the universe, first perfect your ability to
dominate yourself.” This means that to have the strength to save the
nation and save the world, I first had to train my own body. I trained
myself through prayer and meditation and through sports and exercise
programs. As a result, I would not be swayed by hunger or any other
emotion or desire of the physical body. Even when I ate a meal, I would
say, “Rice, I want you to become the fertilizer for the work that I am
preparing myself to do.” I learned boxing, soccer, and self-defense techniques.
Because of this, although I have gained some weight since I was
young, I still have the flexibility of a young person.
Kyongsong Institute of Commerce and Industry had a policy that
the students would take turns cleaning their own classrooms. In my
class, I decided to clean the classroom every day by myself. I did not
do this as some kind of punishment. It was an expression of my desire
that welled up naturally from within to love the school more than
anyone else. In the beginning, others would try to help, but they could
see I didn’t appreciate this and preferred to do it alone. Eventually my
classmates decided, “Go ahead. Do it by yourself.” And so the cleaning
became my job.
I was an unusually quiet student. Unlike my classmates, I didn’t engage
in idle chatter, and I would often go an entire day without speaking
a word. This may have been the reason that, although I never engaged
in physical violence, my classmates treated me with respect and were
careful how they acted in my presence. If I went to the toilet and there
was a line of students waiting their turn, they would immediately let me
go first. If someone had a problem, I was frequently the one they sought
out for advice.
I was very persistent in asking questions during class, and there
were more than a few teachers who were stumped by my questions.
For example, when we were learning a new formula in mathematics
or physics class, I would ask, “Who made this formula? Please explain
it to us step by step so that I can understand it exactly,” and refused to
back down until I got clear answers. I was relentless with my teachers,
digging deeper and deeper. I couldn’t accept any principle in the world
until I had taken it apart and figured it out for myself. I found myself
wishing I had been the person to first discover such a beautiful formula.
The stubborn character that had made me cry all night as a little boy
was making its appearance in my studies as well. Just as when I prayed, I
poured myself completely into my studies and invested my full sincerity
Any task we do requires sincerity and dedication, and not just for
a day or two. It needs to be a continuous process. A knife used once
and never sharpened turns dull. The same is true with sincerity and
dedication. We need to continue our efforts on a daily basis with the
thought that we are sharpening our blade daily. Whatever the task, if
we continue the effort in this way, we eventually reach a mystical state.
If you pick up a paintbrush and focus your sincerity and dedication on
your hand and say to yourself, “A great artist will come and help me,”
and concentrate your mind, you can create a wonderful painting that
will inspire the world.
I dedicated myself to learning how to speak faster and more accurately
than anyone else. I would go into a small anteroom where no
one could hear me and practice tongue-twisters out loud. I practiced
pouring out what I wanted to say very quickly. Eventually, I was able
to say ten words in the time that it took others to say just one. Even
now, though I am old, I can speak very quickly. Some say that I speak
so quickly that they have difficulty understanding me, but my heart is
in such a hurry that I cannot bear to speak slowly. My mind is full of
things I want to say. How can I slow down?
In that sense, I am very much like my grandfather, who enjoyed
talking with people. Grandfather could go three or four hours talking
to people in our home’s guest room, explaining to them his views on
the events of the day. I am the same way. When I am with people and
there is good communication of heart, I completely lose track of time,
and I don’t know if night is falling or if the sun is rising. The words in
my heart form an unstoppable flow. When I am like this, I don’t want
to eat; I just want to talk. It’s difficult for the people who are listening,
and beads of sweat begin to appear on their foreheads. Sweat is running
down my face, too, as I continue talking, and they dare not ask to excuse
themselves and leave. We often end up staying up all night together.