1. Bruce, hi! Tell us a little about yourself.
I am a very complicated person, I’m a human being. (Laughing)
Generally, I practice acupuncture, herbal medicine, and dharma in New York City. Lately, I’ve been teaching Asian medicine at the Virginia University of Integrative Medicine.
I started practicing acupuncture and herbal medicine in 2012 after graduating from the Tri-State College of Acupuncture in New York City.
I haven’t always lived in America. I moved to the U.S. from Seoul in 1995, where I was an ordained Buddhist monk, and later made Manhattan my home in 1998. When I first moved to the States, I wanted to study Eastern thoughts and philosophy.
In 1998, I founded the Lotus Dharma Society, which is a Buddhist scriptures program, incorporating teachings of Theravada Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism, and Tibetan Buddhism.
From there, I directed the society to teach Buddhist scriptures, to guide meditation groups, and to organize community activities for Korean Americans in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.
2. Can you tell us more about your life as a Buddhist monk in Korea? Why did you become one? What was it like? What were some of the best parts of being a monk? The worst?
I joined the Buddhist monastery in Korea at 17-year-old. My mother passed away at 12 and I had a difficult time with my family since then. In my final year of high school, I switched my life direction to join a temple and became a Buddhist monk.
I then lived in a mountain temple — at Taebaeksan — for one year. And I moved south to the oldest temple (Haeinsa); went to Dongguk University to learn Buddhist studies for four years; and even served two years of mandatory military service.
After graduation and the military, I conducted missionary work and taught Buddhism to the general public. I was very passionate about my work. I opened a Buddhist center in Seoul and I was teaching the people, creating a Buddhist congregation with over 2,000 members. The temple work though tired me out. I was waking up at 4 am and finishing at 11 pm, day in and day out.
In Buddhism there are lots of schools and teachings about helping other people with compassion and care. I wanted to apply Buddhism in real life and help real people – even if I had an idealistic life goal from my spiritual experience.
The main reason why I became a monk was to be a good healer as a spiritual leader. I wanted to help others to live a happy life through a well-balanced body and mind.
The best part of my monk’s life was the free lifestyle. Monks in Korea could go wherever they wanted to. All the temples in Korea were very supportive to them and they were respected.
One thing I didn’t like was the monastic code. The rules were very militaristic. Throughout the history of Korea, monks and nuns were affected by the military style of ruling system. I didn’t see much of compassion and loving in the monastery. It was so ironic to me.
3. Why did you decide to leave the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism? How difficult was the decision to leave? Do you still practice some form of Buddhism?
I moved to America and became disconnected from my country. I lost passion for a monk’s life; my heart went for ordinary living. My awakening aspiration went to a way of a lay bodhisattva.
I still practice some form of Buddhism. I do meditation, recite the scriptures, or practice Qigong exercises every morning. Publicly, I teach Buddha’s Teachings once a month. And as an acupuncturist, I introduce patients to Dharma Therapy, which is a protocol of well-being, integrated traditional healing sciences, and Buddhist practices.
4. How did you discover acupuncture and the field of herbal medicine?
I grew up in a rural area of Korea. Whenever I got sick, my father gave me acupuncture. He put needles on the tips of my fingers. He also cooked salts all night long and used them to cure sinus infections. Oftentimes, he took me to the mountain to gather medicinal plants.
When I had to build my new career, I found my lifelong practice of Buddhism would work with some fields of medicine. I believed that people who were getting sick could be helped if they integrated traditional medicine with ancient religious wisdom.
5. How do you introduce acupuncture to people who don’t know much about it? A lot of people are scared of needles? Does acupuncture hurt?
Acupuncture is good for people because it balances and harmonizes yin-yang energy or Qi. Our life has dual systems such as good or bad, day or night, male or female, so if there are imbalances we are ill, we are unhealthy, but with acupuncture we can make a balance the body and regulate Qi.
Acupuncture basically uses needles, but it means to stimulate acupuncture points using needles, cups, spoons, or herbs. Those tools of acupuncture are not that painful. So we stimulate the points to heal itself. At first, there’s a sharp pinch, and you feel very comfortable and great afterward.
6. This question is very similar to the last one. How do you introduce the field of herbal medicine to people who don’t know much about it? Should people be scared about bad reactions or contraindications to herbs?
Several years ago people in America weren’t familiar with Asian herbs. They’re imported from Asia, and most people don’t trust the products. In America, it’s not considered medicine. It’s considered food. We don’t have any legal systems or regulations overseeing the use of herbs. But in our community and associations, we know which herbs are good and bad. We have long histories and our own systems.
With the rise of organic foods, Asian herbs are getting more popular now. I often recommend these products over vitamins or supplements. Herbs are 100 percent natural without any artificial chemical compounds.
Still, herbs should complement your medicine. There could be interactions or side effects. You should always speak with your primary doctor.
7. You have published a new book. Can you tell us about it?
My book is called Classical Asian Herbal Therapy. It’s for Asian medicine practitioners – such as acupuncturists, herbalists, and martial arts practitioners — to help find Asian herbal therapies for Western diseases.
These practitioners have a lot of knowledge and experience but they don’t have practical manuals. That’s why I arranged a complete overview of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese herbal remedies divided by Western disease systems. This is a practical desk reference.
General readers can also get a rough idea of what Asian herbal medicines or formulas are being used to treat diseases. It can be a reference for individuals and families, as long as they don’t take any herbs before talking to their primary physician.
8. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever heard? And what advice do you always give your patients?
The best piece of advice is “Live well.” I learned a lot from Eastern medicine and Buddhist philosophy, but it really comes down to living well — having good nutrition, doing exercise and learning to control your emotions.
I also tell my patients about five essential sources for life. First, there’s food — a good diet is better than any kind of medicine. Second, we should take care of our nervous system with sleep and stress reduction.
Third, we have to learn how to take care of our body. Our body is the most important part of our life. We should always keep moving, always do something physically.
Fourth is the breath. We take our breath for granted. We need to learn how to breathe properly. You can take a yoga class, or Chinese tai chi class, or just simply sit down, calm down, and watch your breath or just focus on your breath go in-and-out.
The last one is mind management. Even if everything is under control, without a healthy, balanced mind, your life will not be good.
So you should keep those life sources — food, sleep, body, breath, and mind — balanced.