Now and zen


Before creating one of the world’s most prestigious skin care companies, Erica Chung worked in the fashion world, first as a model as a college student after leaving Korea, later as a designer and then textiles. Shortly after marrying her husband, David, the couple opened a beauty boutique in New Jersey, which opened a window to a new world for Erica.

Though she once considered cosmetics and skin care superficial, her conversations with customers led her on a path of discovery that changed her life. She recently published a book, “Beauty and the Buddhist,” ($24.95) about her journey from businesswoman to believer, excerpted below.

I neglected my skin until I was in my mid- twenties. I didn’t even focus on getting the right products till I was in my thirties. To me, skincare was a chore — it was boring and time-consuming and I couldn’t be bothered with it. Who would have thought that decades later, I would be presiding over my own skincare brand, exhorting everyone to look after their complexions by using the best products they could afford.

In skincare, there is just one question to ask: does it work? If you use something for at least 28 days, resolutely and religiously, and it is the right product for you, it can absolutely change your skin. Twenty-eight days marks a full cycle in the life of the skin. Give it the nutrients it needs, and that radiance can come back.

There is something about being in the beauty business that brings with it a whole host of obligations and responsibilities. We are dealing with how someone looks, which impacts how they feel. Yes, it’s not the same as having to care for someone’s heart or lungs or kidney.

But making a product that is designed to make someone feel good about themselves, that impacts the way they step forth into the world — that’s quite a duty. Even now, I am the first person to put a new product of mine on my own skin as it is being developed, and to make sure that there are no adverse reactions.

The year 2003 was pivotal for me personally and professionally.

I started 3LAB and simultaneously also embraced Buddhism. It was not by design. But as it turned out, aligning myself with Buddhism and its attendant philosophies and practices would give me the clarity and confidence that I would need to launch a prestige skincare brand in an industry that already had too many of them.

My son Peter also embraced Buddhism. He attended meditation classes while at Bard College, which seemed to spur something profound in him. After transferring to and graduating from New York University, Peter moved to Korea to study the language, and lived at a Buddhist temple. He eventually began studying Buddhist theology and became a monk.

People often ask me how I feel about my only child, born in the United States of America, renouncing all worldly pleasures and preoccupations, devoting himself to a spiritual life. When he told me of his decision to join the monastery, I wasn’t sure how to react. I wanted him to be happy, and knew that he would find peace on that path.

I visit Peter in Korea twice a year, and bring him cashmere pants from Barneys, which he wears under his robes. He loves the best for his basic necessities, and that happens to be cashmere as you can imagine a winter session of meditation in the temple on top of the mountain in the highest, coldest altitude in Korea! He has handled four years and four brutally cold winters.

I am especially grateful to be where I am because of the stereotypes I had to circumvent to get here. I was a female immigrant. There were times, early on, when I know I wasn’t taken seriously. Today, I support foundations that assist the disabled, and fund temples that encourage the practice of Korean (Son) Buddhism and meditation.

My own charitable foundation supports numerous causes to benefit women and children of any faith. My Buddhist practices helped sharpen the skills I needed to be a success; they have helped me think clearly, make solid decisions, honed my intuition. I think it’s only fitting that the material gains I have witnessed in my life be used to further the cause of Buddhism, to help expand its reach to the people whose lives can be enhanced by it. Perhaps that will be my legacy.