Dahnhak has grown into a multimillion-dollar enterprise, claiming more than 200,000 members worldwide, including some 50,000 in the United States.
The group operates centers in 17 states, including more than a dozen in New York, along with a spa and holistic center in Closter, N.J., and a 160-acre retreat in Arizona. Grand Master Seung Heun Lee also has several properties of his own, including one where his wife lives in Alpine, N.J., and another custom-designed 5,000- to 6,000-square-foot home completed last year in Sedona, Ariz.
While Lee’s primary residence is in Sedona, he travels extensively, giving lectures promoting peace and Dahnhak. He also returns at least once a year to South Korea, where he was born in 1950.
A modern Siddhartha
He presents himself as a sort of modern-day Siddhartha, the Hindu protagonist in a 1922 Herman Hesse novel about a man seeking enlightenment. Growing up in the midst of war and upheaval, Lee tells of his own spiritual awakening and of a time when he spent 21 days on a remote mountain without sleep, food or water until pain pierced his head and he heard a voice that transported him to another world.
“This voice told me that my body is not me, but mine,” he wrote in his book “Healing Society.” “It told me that my mind is not me, but mine. It assured me that the cosmic mind is my mind and that the cosmic energy is my energy. Through this moment, I came to feel the all-encompassing rhythm of life.”
He also speaks of squatting for hours on a snow-covered field in sub-zero temperatures. Ready to die, he wrote, his body emanated a furious heat, melting the snow and forming a capsule of energy that shielded him from the cold.
“I learned a profound lesson through this episode, that you need divine help, there is divine help, there is a divine connection to assist you in this journey,” he wrote. “And how do you access this power? Complete belief and trust. Give yourself up completely to the trust of the beneficence of the divine.”
Lee said he came to rediscover ancient healing practices. His goal was to recreate them and develop a new program with mass appeal, integrating “body, mind and spirit into one, through stretching, breathing and meditation.”
He opened his first center in Seoul in 1985 and named it Dahnhak — “dahn” the Korean word for energy and “hak” meaning study. More than 300 centers eventually opened in South Korea, and a loyal following grew, though many other people who were outspoken in their disdain for the group.
“If you go over there, you’re either going to find people saying it’s the best thing in the world or it’s a cult,” said Will Berkhardt, a Dahn master in Sedona and former spokesman for the group.
Fueling the controversy there was Lee’s arrest in 1993, which led to him being sentenced to some time in prison for manufacturing a health supplement without a license and selling it at the centers. Dahn officials wouldn’t comment on the case, other than to acknowledge it happened and say it was brought on by “disgruntled employees.”
To the United States
Lee moved to the United States in the mid-1990s and established a national base in Sedona, a bastion for new-age activity. Dahnhak also opened a spa in Closter, N.J., and began opening smaller centers across the country, staffing them mostly with Koreans, though the group presents a primarily American image to the public.
Photographs of white women are featured prominently in its magazine and on its Web site.
Dahnhak has set up more than a dozen companies in Sedona and Mesa, Ariz., to run its operation, including two corporations that manage the centers and at least two tax-exempt ones responsible for “spiritual training” and education programs.
The group has raised millions of dollars through membership fees — which cost roughly $125 a month, though they vary — as well as seminars, retreats, workshops and other special programs, such as a $3,000 ceremony for members to commune with the souls of ancestors. It also collects donations and sells a line of Dahn products, from $90 “power brains” to $4,500 “healing turtle” figurines.
As the organization has grown, so has Lee’s profile. He has gained notoriety as a new age guru, publishing nearly two dozen books that have sold more than 1 million copies. He was invited to offer a prayer for peace before the U.N. General Assembly in 2000 and to lecture at a humanity conference in South Korea with Al Gore in 2001.