Healing the mind takes patience and understanding. That's why Dahnhak (or Dahn), founded by Dr. Seung Heun (Ilchi) Lee, appealed to me. Lee boasts of having established the Korean Institute of Brain Science and of research collaboration with U.S. universities. I soon discovered, however, this science is not exactly what you might call rigourous.
Lee views the brain as a natural medicine chest and the way - don't you know? - to achieve spiritual enlightenment, peace and prosperity for all. Lee has authored numerous popular books on the subject and launched hundreds of Dahn centres, including nine in Canada (four in the Toronto area) and other businesses and organizations internationally.
According to Lee, 100 million enlightened people are required to effect a shift in global consciousness toward world peace. For followers, the sense of urgency is very real.
A friend of mine, a friendly, upbeat former student, decided to recruit me, along with everyone else she knew. The atmosphere at the Dahn centre in South Korea where I was first introduced seemed otherworldly. An enormous mural covered one wall - a sunlit North Korean mountain range depicting the birthplace of Dangun, the mythical founder and first enlightened leader of Korea. The members smiled continuously and were inordinately friendly to me, a complete stranger.
Their white (white is a symbol of purity) hanbok (traditional jacket and pants) strangely bore a symbol of their own esoteric calendar with the year 4557 in the centre. Wearing this outfit helps one to focus, they said, and they lent me one. I began to feel like one of the group.
Dahn offers a vigorous workout. We began by playfully slapping the lower parts of our stomach area (dahnjon) in a swaying motion. This was a warm-up to neck and shoulder stretches, then more rigorous tai-chi-style exercises. The initial class left me sore but happy.
Afterwards, my friend appeared for Dahn's customary tea. Here, the teacher gets to know you, finds what makes you tick, your strengths and weaknesses. Close relationships form among people with a shared purpose. But I was surprised that enlightenment was for sale at an exercise centre, where instructors persistently urged members to purchase higher-level courses, costly healing products and Lee's books.
The costs varied from around $1,500 for "New Human" training and $3,000 for a world lifetime membership to around $10,000 for healer school training and $20,000 for an ancestor liberation ceremony.
I exercised during those peaceful days with my new friends. Smiles brightened our faces; we shared jokes. This was where we wanted to be. Each new person in Dahn gets a peaceful, "love-bombing" honeymoon period while you bond with the Dahn centre . I realized later that the good vibrations would not last for those who questioned.
Our teacher, who was required to live in the centre, always offered kind words of encouragement. Members reciprocated by bringing gifts of food and plants. We also threw parties for departing staff, whom Dahn relocates about every six months. Dahn enlightenment is not easy. As I found out when I was recruited to teach, head office decides where to place teachers, in Korea or overseas. They must leave family and friends behind. Dahn doesn't want teachers becoming too attached to any place.
A few of the teachers I met at Dahn's frequent fundraising, farewell and recruitment parties expressed personal regrets to me privately. They missed their close friends at far-off centres and hoped to return one day. The sacrifice the teachers make is enormous. Dahn sometimes arranges marriages for green card and visa purposes, but most teachers give up their personal life to follow Lee's goals.
Dahn is mostly about exercising, but Brain Respiration, the name of the program, while enhancing mental faculties, is also supposed to bestow paranormal abilities: seeing while blindfolded and bending spoons telekinetically.
Dahn makes itself available to most people, with a few exceptions: the homeless, Africans, people in small towns and skeptics. According to my teacher, they're not ready for enlightenment.
Lee's followers believe he holds great mystical wisdom, but they're discouraged from asking questions. A Dahn teacher told me repeatedly that Eastern philosophy should not face critical probing. I began to find this formula for happiness hard to swallow. Can we really find enlightenment where questions are not permitted?
My friend joyfully bought into Dahn and encouraged me to do the same, offering me Lee's books as gifts. Somehow, she thought I would tolerate the constant sales pitches. The centre staff continued to advise me to stop asking why a supposedly non-religious exercise business would establish a religious tax-exempt organization like Tao Fellowship.
By the third "Be quiet," I felt on a subconscious "true-self" level (a Dahn expression) that Dahn was not for me. But it took me six months to leave.
Experiencing overwhelming doubt, I contacted my family and some ex-members. I wanted to believe my now irritated friend's assurances. People don't like to believe they've been on the wrong path to their true destiny.
My fellow students and I paid around $300 each to stay four to a room at a hotel, to take our first big step toward "enlightenment." Instructors insisted we keep our experiences to ourselves. No one was to find out how we screamed and cried, wrote a five-year plan to devote ourselves to Dahn and told our deepest pain to an assigned partner.
By the end, I felt like I'd had too many drinks, while my smiley teacher kept telling me I truly wanted to be a Dahn teacher. My "true self" pointed my "ilchi" to the nearest exit. I knew I had to leave Dahn, but it wasn't easy.
My friend, angry that her dreams of our studying together in Sedona were gone, said, "You're not ready for enlightenment." Conformity, suppression of individuality and rote learning are not my vision of the path to enlightenment.
Dahn teachers do seem content in their lives. Is Dahn the path to peace of mind or to a passive mind? What did I say farewell to? To a man who makes large promises, talks of our moving beyond the confines of religious consciousness and of not needing material things, while charging for expensive training and enlightenment programs.
But we mustn't question, right?