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They live by the sword

Students of Shim Gum Do seek enlightenment through martial art in Brighton

Sebastian Rizzon wakes just before dawn every day in the bell tower of the former First Parish of Brighton . He bows 33 times to Buddha and chants for 20 minutes for good luck and enlightenment inside the adjacent wood -beamed sanctuary with his housemates. He has cereal or rice for breakfast with them before heading off to his job as a structural engineer.

At 6 p.m. Rizzon returns to the old church, where he hones his sword fighting skills and trains in weaponless martial arts. Dinner is at 8 p.m. in the church's dining room. Then he's off to do more training before he goes back to bed in the bell tower loft.

Rizzon, 38, lives and trains at the Shim Gum Do Zen center, along with nine other live-in students who have centered their lives around the martial arts form that seeks to unify mind, body, and spirit.

The $850 monthly fee covers rent, food, and classes. Students spend a month, three months, or even a year there as Shim Gum Do followers. They do so to get full exposure to the art form, which translates from Korean as ``mind, sword, and path," and was founded by Zen master Chang Sik Kim , who also lives in the 112-year-old church.

When he's not teaching the students the various forms of sword fighting and Shin Boep , a weaponless fighting technique similar to karate, Kim, who radiates a certain peacefulness with his kind eyes, acts like a den father. He makes sure the housemates clean the floors, wash their dishes, and cook for one another.

``I wanted to train more and see what my potential was," says Rizzon, sitting in the dining room of the 9,000-square-foot temple while his housemate Glenn Palmer cooks stir-fry for him and the other students. ``I feel my mind and body are sharper than [they've] ever been before."

When Kim was 21 and living in his hometown of Seoul, his Zen Buddhism teacher sent him on a 100-day meditation retreat to a cabin outside the city. During the retreat, Kim says, he attained the ``Mind Sword" enlightenment, and the art of Shim Gum Do came to him during his meditations. He developed the form to include sword fighting, karate-like moves, and Ho Shin Sul , which means self-defense by breaking grabs, throwing, and rolling.

Kim says the fighting forms teach control and how to empty the mind of everyday distractions and to focus on a task at hand.

``It's very meditative. It has a lot to do with internal energy," says Kim, 62, who followed his teacher, Seung Sahn Lee , to Rhode Island where he established the Kwan Um School in Cumberland. Kim eventually established his own school on Boston's Boylston Street in 1976 before moving in 1981 to the Brighton church, where he says thousands of students have studied.

Lately the center seems to be coming out of its red-fenced border on Chestnut Hill Avenue as word of its presence has spread. Last year Kim blessed a Boston City Council meeting by request. Last winter he led a workshop on meditation and stretching exercises for emergency room medical residents at Boston Medical Center. The first Friday of every month, Kim offers a free class on meditative exercises. The school is also the art form's main teaching center: Other Shim Gum Do schools have opened in Pennsylvania as well as Korea and Italy, but the Brighton center is the only one that houses students.

Kim added the live-in arrangements for serious students when he opened his first school.

``It's very difficult for people to go live in a secluded environment and experience the Buddhist way. Historically, people who were very serious about it would enter a monastery," says Mary Stackhouse Kim , a head master at the school and Kim's wife. ``Our schedule works around that."

Above the main entrance of the church hangs a sign that reads ``Mind Light Temple," with the image of an eye and a sword as the pupil.

On Saturdays the housemates mop the floors of the two sanctuaries and the staircases to a sheen. On Sunday afternoons they pick raspberries, tomatoes , and Asian plums from the lush garden, which Kim designed and built. Trees sit along side rosebushes and colorful perennials, giving the church the feel of a spiritual urban oasis.

At night and on weekends, the students sit in the kitchen and discuss training and cooking schedules. They are allowed to have TVs in their room s and they can come and go as they please, as long as they make the 6 a.m. bowing and chanting, and the evening training classes.

Focused activity
During a recent Thursday night sword fighting class, 13 students swing their wood swords above their heads, behind their backs , and up toward the stained glass windows in swift, fluid motions. They glide according to the move that an instructor announces. In all there are 330 sword forms and 330 others in Shin Boep to learn in Shim Gum Do.

The students resemble ballet dancers as they leap in place or straddle back and forth, as if dueling with an invisible opponent. The squeaks of barefoot flesh against the floors echo in the main sanctuary under a giant Buddha figure in a chair high above the students. Classes are a mix of live-in students and non resident students, who number about 100.

``It's like going to the gym," says Andrea Zweibel , watching her husband, Mitchell, a black belt in Shim Gum Do and former live-in student, and their son Zach, 12, train with the sword forms. ``It helps them get out any aggression," she says.

As soon as the training ends that night, Palmer puts away his wood sword and heads to the kitchen. It is his turn to cook, something he's learned to do since moving into the center last January. The Southie native thought the classes and the living arrangements at the school would teach him discipline and organization. This is his first time living on his own.

``Martial arts has always interested me," says Palmer, 19, taking a break from cooking stir-fry of onions, potatoes, green beans, and celery. During the day he works as a cashier at Best Buy. ``I am always able to train whenever I need to."

He signed on for a one-year residency but hopes to stay a few months longer so he can earn his black belt. ``This has been helping me a lot," he adds. ``I've been a lot more active and focused."

As Palmer returns to his cooking, Rizzon gives a visitor a tour of his bedroom, for which he pays $1,000 a month, since it's the biggest of the rooms for the students. His room is adjacent to one of the two ``dharma" rooms used for training. Inside, he has a futon, a small wall of CDs, a row of baseball caps, and a poster of Bob Marley. He's been here since August 2005 and hopes to stay a little longer too.

``We are being taught how to generate great power and energy from our bodies, and at the same time we are learning to live our lives with love and exhibit compassion," he says, before joining his housemates for home-cooked stir-fry. ``After I train, I feel pretty peaceful and relaxed. It's a peaceful corner of this bustling busy city, and I am happy to be part of it."

Johnny Diaz can be reached at