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A force of nature in monk’s robes

The slight woman in the slate-gray monk’s robes was taking a meditative walk in the woods when she happened upon the bulldozers.

She had spent more than a decade in solitude, leaving her rural monastery only for outings in the nearby forest. But this hike, on a spring day in 2001, was different.

The harsh whine of the machines, their garish colors contrasting with the lush green of the woods, almost made her weep.

“A certain sadness came over me,” recalls the 52-year-old, who goes by the single name Jiyul in accordance with her Buddhist faith. “On my way back to the monastery, I decided I couldn’t help but do something.”

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After some investigation, the monk discovered the unthinkable: The South Korean government was preparing to drill an 8-mile railroad tunnel beneath her monastery, piercing the heart of a mountain she considers sacred.

Jiyul had always viewed nature as a gentle mother who nourished the planet’s residents. In her eyes, to wreak such damage merely to shave a few hours off a commercial train trip was criminal.

Mentors warned Jiyul against leaving the monastery, but she would have none of it. Displaying an iron will that vexed the bureaucrats, the 5-foot-tall, 90-pound monk waged a one-woman battle that included dozens of sit-ins, hunger strikes and arduous pilgrimages consisting of walking three steps and then lying down on the ground -- repeated for hundreds of miles.

But instead of Jiyul’s effort changing the world, it was the world that would change her.

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‘The monk is very lonely. It really hurts me,” says friend Kim Jong-chul, a former English literature professor and the editor of an environmental magazine. “If she had known how much this society has been corrupted and spoiled, she would never have come out from solitary.”

It turned out Jiyul simply wasn’t ready for modern life.

“I was naive -- I had been in isolation for so long, I didn’t even know there were cellphones and computers,” she says. “I didn’t realize how big a challenge I was facing. Once I stepped through that door, there was this huge picture I had never seen before.

“The speed that the culture was moving at, it was too fast.”

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For years, Jiyul had kept her own counsel. For days on end, she said little, losing herself in meditation, focusing on the inner self.

Then came the grinding noise in the forest.

After that fateful hike, she pored over the details of the government project to build the bullet-train tunnel through Mt. Cheonseong.

Slowly, Jiyul devised a plan: Armed with a camera and compass, she would get to know the mountain intimately, taking hundreds of walks to document its wildlife and record its sounds, smells and feel.

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Her quest, she says, was more than aesthetic. The mountain ecosystem supported a dozen streams and 24 wetlands that would be irreversibly altered by this man-made intrusion.

She wanted to show how the wildlife on the mountain -- which had once been legally protected by the government -- would be altered by the vibration of the train.

Other environmentalists were also critical of the tunnel plan, and Jiyul at first joined in their protests. Roh Moo-hyun, a candidate for president in 2002, responded to the growing outcry with a vow to redirect the project if elected.

Roh won. But as president, he sent in an army of bulldozers and dynamite.

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Environmentalists were outraged, but perhaps none more than Jiyul. In 2003, she began to fight the government at every turn. She waged her first solitary hunger strike that February, for 38 days.

Over the years, she would stage four more hunger strikes, each time alone, subsisting on salt, water and tea. One lasted 45 days, another 58. They were followed by two that went on for about 100 days each.

Later, Jiyul walked 175 miles between the cities of Busan and Daegu with five other monks. “The rules of the monastery say we cannot go outside the main gate,” she says. “We broke the law, but the stakes were so high, we thought, ‘What do we have to lose?’ ”

Plenty, as it turned out.

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“I tried to be careful in the outside world. I was really timid after so many years in isolation,” Jiyul says. “It was painful to overcome my own personality. I didn’t get hostile or agitated. No matter what the critics said, it’s only important if it is based on truth.”

Jiyul found herself the object of scorn. She endured a harsh media spotlight; there were threats of violence on Internet chat rooms, nasty letters, howls of derision.

Although she is considered an environmental hero by some, Jiyul says she has been harassed by police and ostracized by many fellow monks in the Jogye Order, the nation’s largest Buddhist sect.

The government said her protests had cost taxpayers millions of dollars. They also brought her legal trouble. In 2004, she was indicted by federal prosecutors on charges of obstructing state business.

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Last month, the South Korean Supreme Court upheld those charges, saying her methods of civil disobedience were “not reasonable.” But the court did not order Jiyul to jail, noting that she was nonviolent and that her hunger strikes had left her in poor health.

Supporters say Jiyul has helped make environmental protection a national issue at a time when the government has been cutting corners in pursuit of profit.

“She is a polarizing figure,” says Cho Eun-su, an associate professor of philosophy at Seoul National University. “Some people call her stubborn; others see her as a pioneer. But whether seen as positive or negative, her work has brought change.”

Friends say privately that Jiyul is the changed one.

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“She has become an outcast,” says friend Kim, the magazine editor. “It is unprecedented that such a selfless act by one person could be so mocked and ignored.”

Worse, her campaign nearly killed her.

In her most recent fast, in 2005, the monk lay near death in a house not far from the presidential mansion in Seoul, watched over by a few confidants. She refused to see supporters, dignitaries, government officials, even her own family.

She ended the hunger strike only after officials promised to conduct an environmental impact study.

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But the victory was short-lived.

In 2006, the Supreme Court rejected a lawsuit Jiyul and other environmentalists had filed in an attempt to stop the tunnel project, citing an endangered salamander.

The news media mockingly dubbed her legal salvo the “salamander suit.”

Even now, the critics continue to crow. “It would be better to bury her with a salamander,” wrote one blogger after the recent Supreme Court ruling.

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The Mt. Cheonseong tunnel is scheduled to open next year.

Jiyul offers a visitor a bitter plant known as kajuk.

“The monks like to eat this one,” she says. “It tastes like garlic.”

She stands along a dirt road a few miles from the central city of Andong, taking a break during a drive to a 16th century Confucian academy.

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Later, sitting on an academy observation deck overlooking the Nakdong River, she scans the lazily moving water.

While she was recuperating from her last hunger strike, a friend carried her piggyback to this spot.

Friends related how the government planned to turn the Nakdong into a deep-water shipping canal to promote tourism and boost the nation’s economy.

“When I saw the beauty of this endangered river, my heart started pumping again,” she says.

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So now the tiny monk is at it again.

She is walking and biking along the river, a 35-millimeter camera hanging from her neck, jotting her thoughts in a pocket notebook, with the aim of creating a document of river life that will demonstrate the government’s folly.

“This all used to be wetlands, but the government drained the water in the name of progress,” she says. “How beautiful it would be if they just left it the way it was.”

This time there won’t be any hunger strikes or civil disobedience. Jiyul plans to present her notes and photographs -- she also has a website, www.chorok.org -- to schools for seminars on the importance of saving the river.

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Still, she has no regrets about her mountain war. On this afternoon, she sits in the warming sun, groups of tourists swarming about her, and seems at peace.

“My parents saw tigers and bears on this land and my generation can see wolf and fox,” she says. “But our descendants will be lucky to see squirrels and rabbits. It’s all happening so fast, not over a million years but only half a century.”

As she talks, she spots a tourist peering through a gap in a crooked door at the ancient academy.

“Why is it,” she asks, “that people have such curiosity to look inside a place when the doors are closed?”

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john.glionna@latimes.com

Ju-min Park of The Times’ Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.


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