This profile was last updated in 2006
Facing one of the major Atlanta highways, in a region where many Koreans live, Jun Dung Sa Buddhist Temple is somewhat hidden and easy to miss. Yet in the past decade, it has become not only a religious center but also a social center for many first-generation Koreans by providing members with prayer services, children’s classes in Buddhism and Korean, and a venue for family celebrations. The main worship hall houses a statue of Shakyamuni Buddha as well as murals and shrines. The beautiful garden with a Korean flare includes a golfing range for the snim (priest) and kimchi clay pots in the back.
The Jun Dung Sa Buddhist Temple currently includes approximately 250 members, some living as far away as Texas. Membership in the Temple is counted by family units, and most households average four family members. Most of the members are from the Atlanta area, but others come from Tennessee, Virginia, and Texas. The regular weekly devotees live mostly in the northeast suburbs of Atlanta, while the more distant metropolitan area members visit once or twice a month. Out-of-town members come to worship four times a year on average. The founder of the temple is Maya Suk, who is first generation Korean. She is also the snim (the Korean word for monk) of the temple. Since the temple opened, devotees have been of the same ethnic background, originally from South Korea. Today ninety-eight percent of the devotees are Korean citizens who have relocated to the United States. The other two percent includes Indian and American citizens who do not speak Korean. These devotees only attend the service to pray; without the language skill it is harder for them to to socialize and participate in activities as the Korean members do. Eighty percent of the devotees are adult women. In Korea, it is traditional for wives to attend services and to pray for the families. At the Jun Dung Sa Buddhist Temple, men are attending services more frequently as a result of the social equality they experience in America. The children also visit the temple, but they do not attend the weekly service. Instead, they are taught Korean culture and Buddhism in a separate class. The Jun Dung Sa Buddhist Temple does not have any affiliations with other Korean communities or Buddhist temples. The members operate and sustain themselves through their own means without financial or administrative support from elsewhere. The snim who operates the Temple is originally from a temple in South Korea, but she has not created any direct ties between the two.
In 1992 Maya Suk moved to Lilburn, Georgia, from South Korea. She immediately bought land with a 19th century home located on it. She began services that year with only two members in the house. In 1994, Maya Suk began construction for a larger structure to be built on the property to house a new temple, kitchen, dining area, food preparation area, sitting room, office, and quarters for herself. She created the architectural design for both the interior and exterior. Most of the funding came from Korea, but the rest came from either her personal savings or donations from other Korean Buddhist temples in the United States. In 1996 construction was completed. In 2003 an area in the backyard was built by the members for Maya and visitors.
Overall the community maintains a very informal organizational structure. Maya Suk, as founder and snim, heads all aspects of administration for the temple. Most decisions are made solely by her. In times of difficult decisions that affect the members, she may request some help or input. All maintenance and operations of the Temple are performed by Maya. When she needs help, Maya makes informal requests of her members or contracts work out. The temple is funded by voluntary donations. There are no tithes, and there is no obligation for members to donate. Distant members who live in other states send large monthly donations that provide a large portion of the funding.
Activities and Schedule
A weekly religious service is held at 11 a.m. on Sundays. The only exception is during January and July, when devotees are invited to pray with Maya three times a day in the morning, afternoon, and evening for 21 days. Although most Buddhist temples offer prayers every weekday throughout the year, since Maya is the only permanent snim, she is only able to perform daily prayers two months a year. Two to three times a year, one or two monks from Korea visit the Jun Dung Sa Buddhist Temple. They stay an average of one month, but some stay as long as three months. They provide variation in the service for the members and new teachings. The regular service is only attended by adults, and it has a casual feel with devotees entering and leaving throughout the service. The beginning of the service, which consists of bowing and chanting, generally lasts 45 minutes. This is followed by a sermon given in Korean, which lasts another 45 minutes or so. Around 35 adult devotees attend this service every Sunday. During the service, the children, who number between 15 and 20 on average, are taken to the original house where the temple started. Only fifty yards away from the new structure, the house provides a perfect classroom for the children to learn about their Korean heritage and the Buddhism. Classes are led by member volunteers who rotate monthly. Children are highly valued and cared for in this community, and the house often provides a location for a play area and birthday parties as well. Following the service and children’s classes, a potluck of vegetarian Korean food is prepared in the main temple kitchen. No meat is served during this lunch, out of respect for Maya’s commitment as a snim not to eat meat. The potluck is informally arranged in advance so that members know who will bring which dishes the following Sunday. The meal is free, and everyone who visits is warmly invited to join them. The meal is eaten sitting on cushions at low tables put on the floor by members after the service. After lunch, members work together to clean the dishes and put back the tables and cushions. At the same time, all floor space inside the Temple is swept and mopped. In addition to weekly services, weddings and funeral services can also be held at the temple. To date, Maya Suk has performed two weddings. The community regularly celebrates the Buddha’s birthday. Held every 8th day of the fourth month in the lunar calendar, it is the largest celebration of the year. Lotus lanterns dedicated on this date are hung throughout the year in both the main temple and the house where the children are taught. Each lantern is dedicated to an individual or family, and the names of the individuals or family members are printed in Korean and hung from the lantern. This temple also celebrates the Buddha’s birthday by giving scholarships to the children. The ten children who attended the most Sunday services during the previous year each receive a $500 scholarship. A $5000 scholarship is also given to the one child who has had the highest attendance over the previous five year period.
The temple is located on a busy highway road that winds away from the city and into the suburbs. Set back about a hundred yards from the road, the one story structure is easy to miss as it is hidden somewhat by the curve and the surrounding trees. The old house is closer to the road, so it is easier to spot, but it is architecturally indistinguishable as a Buddhist temple. The main identifier is a stone sign at the edge of the road. Korean characters spell out “Jun Dung Sa” and, in smaller words underneath, “BUDDHIST TEMPLE” is written in English. The landscaping on the property is neat and immaculate. The grass is green and lush and the bushes trimmed. The building is also well-maintained, and it looks younger than its ten years. From the outside, the one story main temple is fairly American in architecture but hints of detail in the windows and trim give it a Korean flare. On the other hand, the old house resembles a log cabin and looks every bit its one hundred plus years. A parking lot separates the old house from the new temple. The entrance to the old house faces the road. Directly behind the old house is a beautiful garden with three small ponds designed by Maya. A bench and iron patio furniture sit by the garden, encouraging visitors to enjoy the serenity. The front door to the structure can be easily found by passing the garden and following the sound of children playing in the front yard. The first room inside the door is a closed porch, used for removing and storing visitors’ shoes. The second door opens into a living room which is used as a classroom. There is no furniture except for a large television in the far right hand corner, used to show Korean films. The front of the classroom is commanded by a large chart of a scripture that is the core of the Buddha’s teaching, called Banyasimkyung. The only decorations are lotus lanterns that line the ceilings and bulletin boards that contain pictures and art work of the children. Past the living room are a bathroom and a kitchen. On the left side of the living room are stairs that lead to the second floor where spare rooms are located. At the front door, a sign hangs informing visitors that services are held every Sunday at 11:00 a.m. Shoes scattered in pairs around the welcome mat cue visitors to remove their shoes before entering. Once inside the door, there is a sitting room that could be found in any American home, complete with personal items of Maya’s, couches, coffee table, lamps, and a phone. Any member nearest the phone when it rings answers it with a Korean greeting, as they would do in their own home. The left side of the sitting room is open to the dining area. In this room, low tables and cushions are stacked against the wall that are brought down and put away before and after meals. A large glass case is also located in this room. Inside is an array of items used for prayer that can be purchased with the proceeds going towards scholarships for the children. Throughout both these rooms, the decorations are minimal, and the space is kept clutter-free and immaculate. Two rooms that remain closed to visitors branch off from the sitting room. These are Maya’s office and her bedroom. The dining room flows into the food preparation area. This area resembles a kitchen but without a stove and oven. There is a refrigerator, sink, and cupboards that allow the area to be used to serve the potluck lunches. A short hallway from here leads to the actual kitchen. This area is very casual, and children can be found eating snacks at the dining table and women doing dishes that have piled up. From the dining area is a door that leads into the actual temple. Cushions are laid out in rows to accommodate approximately 50 devotees. As there is a cupboard full of extra cushions in the back, some feel free to grab an additional one and create their own space. At the front of the room is a specific cushion for Maya where she leads the chanting and a podium where she stands to give the sermon. The part of the room in front of her is an elevated shrine that contains three statues and three murals (see photos). The mural on the right wall depicts the Buddha as a teacher surrounded by saints, disciples, and bodhisattvas (see photo). The two people at the bottom of the mural are being joined together. The devotees pray to this mural for various reasons, including enhancing their connection with others and increasing their fertility. The mural on the left wall includes figures that Maya calls “angels” in English (see photo). It is a common image in Buddhism, with the clouds in the middle, dividing the earthly and heavenly realms. Underneath the clouds are the king and his men, while above the clouds is the Buddha and saints. Devotees pray to this mural to acknowledge that the heavens watch over them on earth. The center of the elevated shrine holds a statue of the Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical Buddha, holding an alms bowl filled with the “nectar of life.” Standing on both his sides are statues of two gods that are specific to Korean Buddhism. The god to the Buddha’s right depicts death, while the statue to his left depicts life. Behind the Buddha is a painting similar to the statue, but this figure is surrounded by scholars, translators, kings, and saints. Located in front of the statues are offering bowls with fruit, incense, and rice. Also located inside the temple on the left wall is a shrine to the Mountain Spirit and an ancestors’ shrine (see photo). The bronze casting of the Mountain Spirit depicts an old man with a tiger at his feet. Devotees pray to the Mountain Spirit to keep the spirits who live on the land where the temple stands from getting angry. The ancestors’ shrine houses small banners of scripture and lotus lanterns dedicated to deceased love ones. Occasionally a small offering table full of fruit and candy is set up in front of the shrine, which the members eat when the offering is done. A door opposite the dining area entrance leads to a hallway where the bathrooms are located.
The property includes several distinct elements that are not religious in nature, but were included to reflect the personality of the community (see photo). The garden gives the property a lush appearance. It has three different ponds and an array of trees, plants, and flowers to enjoy. In addition, a set of clay pots is kept in the backyard. These pots are used to make and store kimchi, which is a traditional Korean dish made from pickled cabbage or radish. The members use the pots to make homemade varieties here in the United States, reflecting the fact that the members are mostly first-generation Koreans who are proud of their culture. Another unique addition is a small driving range. Located just beyond the kimchi pots are squares of Astroturf, each separated by a partition. Approximately thirty yards away is netting to prevent the golf balls from flying into the woods beyond the temple. The members built the golf area for Maya in 2003 to provide a place for her to get some exercise.