Temples in Flames

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I wrote the following article with the assistance of my wife Jenny Lim in the the spring of 1996 shortly after arson attacks on Buddhist temples in Suyuri section of northern Seoul. I presented it at a panel entitled "Buddhist and Christian Cooperation for Social Action in Korea" which I organized and moderated for the 1996 Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies Conference "Socially Engaged Buddhism and Christianity" hosted by Depaul University in Chicago.

The panel was composed of Venerable Shin Bop Ta, abbot of Eunhaesa Monastery and chairman of the One Korea Movement; Venerable Pomnyun, leader of the Join Together Society and the Buddhist Academy for Ecological Awakening; Professor Kim Kyong Jae of Hanshin University, an ordained minister of the Korean Presbyterian Church and author of Christianity and the Encounter of Asian Religions (Bockencentrum, 1994); and Professor Chung Hyun-Kyung, a eco-feminist liberation theologian who teaches at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Frank M. Tedesco presented the focal paper reproduced below.

The Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies was so moved by the revelation of fire bombings of Buddhist temples and tensions between the faiths in Korea that officially issued a Statement of Concern and Support for Korean Buddhists at the end of the meeting which was endorsed with signatures by hundreds of the participants at the conference. The SBCS has set up a fund to redress the destruction.

Unfortunately attacks on Buddhist sanctuaries have continued to be perpetrated throughout the country (1998). Protests and demands for justice within the Buddhist community seem to have inspired reflection among some liberal Protestant leaders in Korea who have apologized publicly for the acts of extremists who call themselves "Christians".


Frank M. Tedesco

1. Introduction: Religious Freedom in Korea 

The Korean peninsula is known throughout the world for the stark bifurcation between the communist North and the capitalist South. North Korea (DPRK) is one of the most closed societies in the world where the public is prohibited access to international communication. Reports tell us that the North is a starving totalitarian state where the people have no freedom or civil rights and where the thought of the Great Leaders Kim Il Sung and his heir Kim Jong Il dominates all aspects of life like a ultra-nationalist cult.  The major institutionalized religions of the North- Buddhism, Christianity and Chondogyo- have been subject to purges and are strictly subordinated to the state and its all pervasive ideology of Juche (self-reliance). Authentic interreligious dialogue and cooperation is a non-issue except for praise of the Great Leader. Survival of the original religious impulses and authentic traditions of the North is at stake after nearly fifty years of political repression.  What is happening in the South? 

South Korea (ROK), in contrast, is renowned as a economic superstar, an Asian industrial dragon, who rose from the devastation of the Korean War to host the very successful 1988 Olympics and join the club of developed nations in the OECD in record time. South Korea, too, has had its authoritarian leaders we know well (Rhee, Park, Chun, Roh...), but none have been so idolized like the father and son duo in the North. Quite the contrary, retired dictators in the South have been denounced as scoundrels and put behind bars for corruption in a sudden wave of democratic reforms propelled by the freely elected President Kim Young Sam, a  Presbyterian elder and former dissident, despite their reputed leadership through the economic boom of the eighties. 

A tradition of authoritarianism notwithstanding, institutionalized religions have fared much better in South Korea than in the North since the Korean War. Strongly influenced by Western democratic political ideals since the founding of the ROK government in 1948, the present Constitution of the Republic of Korea (Sixth Republic, 1987) guarantees privacy of correspondence and freedom of religion, conscience, speech, press, assembly and equality before the law regardless of religion. Free to follow their religious predilections without serious constraints on their behavior for the most part, the religious world of  Korea is very rich. There is a wide diversity of religious options open to "spiritual seekers" and "society seekers" alike. They may choose from the oldest native and traditional folk and shaman beliefs and practices (nature worship and national foundation myths included) or they may investigate the over 1600 year old Buddhist tradition (and Confucianism if it is considered a religion). They may also opt for the relatively 'new' indigenous religions of Chondogyo and Won Buddhism  and others or they may, as so many have done since the Korean War, embrace the recently introduced Western faiths of Catholicism and Protestantism with their various orders and permutations. 

While South Koreans are free to follow whatever religion they wish, according to government statistics, only 54% of the population (43 million) in 1991 claim religious affiliation. Of this 54%, about 12 million identify themselves as Buddhist (51%), about  8 million as Protestant (34%), 2.5 million as Catholic (11%), roughly 2 % as Confucian and 2% others. The National Statistics Office indicates that Buddhists are the fastest growing segment of the religious population in Korea. Buddhists have grown from 46.9% of the religious population in 1985 to 51.2% in 1991 while the Protestant population has declined 3.3% and Catholics 0.2%. 

The figures cited above vary widely from those published in the Religious Yearbook 1995  of a Protestant research group. This source estimates that Korea has "as many as 18 million Christians, or 41% of the population." Protestant and Methodist denominations  account for the majority of the Christians. Following Shim, Jae Hoon in the Far Eastern Economic Review, the handbook says that the "total number of South Korean Protestants slipped O.4% to 15 million between 1991 and 1994, a sharp contrast to the growth of previous decades. The Roman Catholic Church says it has continued to expand, to 3.5 million adherents, but church officials say the growth rate slowed to 3.4% last year, down from 6.3% in 1991."  We would like to add that the number of believers most commonly claimed on banners during demonstrations by Buddhist activists and in news by the Buddhist press is 20 million. The complex issues of questionnaire design and survey methodology cannot be elaborated on here but we will assume that there is a rough balance between Christians and Buddhists throughout the Korean population with about half the total populace claiming no strong religious affiliation. There is no other country in the world where these two religions are so equally represented in the general population. 

2. Early Protestant Missionary Attitude toward Buddhism in Korea 

Can we not learn something more about the nature of these major traditions in Korea by observing their interactions in close juxtaposition, millions of believers living in the same communities side by side? What may we expect for the future of Eastern and Western interreligious dialogue? No! Interdependent religious dialogue? No! Interdependent religious co-habitation, as our world grows closer and closer?  How do Christians and Buddhists get along in Korea today? And how does their present relationship compare with what we know about Korea at the beginning of this century? What does this mean for the challenges the Korean people will face in the immediate future? And the rest of the world? 

"Except for the religiously exclusivistic attitudes upheld by the vast majority of present day Korean Christians", Koreans were traditionally "generally flexible towards different faiths" states Professor Oh Kangnam in a recent article. He quotes a passage from an American missionary Homer Hulbert who went to Korea in 1886 to describe the Korean "eclectic or pluralistic attitude" which is "now hardly found among many Koreans, especially among Korean Christian leaders and their followers." Hulbert wrote : "...the reader must ever bear in mind that in every Korean mind there is a jumble of the whole, that there is no antagonism between the different cults... As a general thing, we may say that the all-round Korean will be a Confucian when in society, a Buddhist when he philosophises and a spirit worshipper when he is in trouble."

"A jumble of the whole... there is no antagonism between the cults!" Putting this insulting judgment aside, there is an element of surprise at the novelty (to Hulbert the missionary at least) that there is no conflict among the different belief systems in traditional Korea at the time of the advent of his missionary work. The religions seem to have co-existed in peace. Hulbert went to Korea at the end of the Yi Dynasty. The Confucian authorities had long ago driven Buddhist monks from the cities and into the mountains and controlled the government and all positions of influence in education, commerce and the military. The Buddhist sangha was at its nadir in Korean history. Shamanism, folk Buddhism and indigenous beliefs were the domain of the majority of the people - the farmers and women - but they were relatively powerless and also subordinate to Confucian men. Korea was just on the brink of defending itself against the political and cultural assault of  Japanese colonial aggression which was to last until 1945. 

Into this relatively placid, if not somewhat depressed, plural religious milieu entered Western missionaries with their undisguised goal to convert all Koreans to Christ, "forcing its way in after a fight of centuries," according to missionary scholar Charles Allen Clark. One of the most articulate and erudite among the American missionaries, Dr. C. A. Clark, author of the classic Religions of Old Korea, was a missionary in Korea for twenty eight years at the beginning of this century. Clark delivered lectures on Korean religion at a number of theological schools in the United States beginning with the Princeton Theological Lectures of 1921. 

Clark's observations of religious life in Korea were very perceptive and informed with much reading in comparative religion of his day and reflections on religions in other parts of Asia where he traveled. He was convinced that his Christianity was the culmination of all the imperfect faiths "in various stages of mental and spiritual development" which had preceded it in Asia. Reviewing the history of religion in Korea, he saw the "religions of old Korea destined to pass away  to make room for brighter things." 

Clark sounded a death knell for Buddhism in Korea and damned it with mixed praise in the process. His concluding paragraphs on Buddhism from his classic book on Korean religions are worth citing for the attitude toward Buddhism they reveal. This, too, was taught and transmitted to Korean converts of the "modern" Western faith both in Korea and in seminaries in the United States.

Buddha's sun seems to be setting in Korea. Korea owes it a debt of gratitude. it came to Korea in 372 AD, and was vastly superior to the degraded spirit worship and Shamanism which it found. It gave Korea a moral code, more or less defective yet infinitely better than nothing. It has collaborated with Confucianism all down the ages, giving "sanctions" to make even Confucian ethics operative. It gave education of a sort and stood for education always. It has always had faults, glaring ones, but it also had a contribution to make to Korean life and culture in those dim ages of the past. Its sun rose in 372. It reached its zenith in the Koryu Age. It has steadily gone down ever since. Buddhism seems to have no message for the present age. Efforts will be made to keep it alive. It will not die all at once, but 'Ichabod' seems to have been written over it, and it must go. 

As the sun of Buddhism sets, it should be a joy to all lovers of Korea that a greater Sun of Righteousness has arisen to give light suitable to this new day. May the Buddhists themselves soon come to see that a Messiah greater than Miryuck has come, a Savior more real than Amida, a compassionate Friend Who loves more than Kwanseieum or Chijang, and Who has power far all that of Taiseiji! Christianity coming now can thank Buddhism for making all these ideas familiar to the whole people, and for making it easier for them to receive them. May the whole land accept this new, true statement of those ideas as eagerly as it did the Buddhism in the Koryu Age, and may the whole people become one in serving Christ, our King! 
Our revered elder brother, wise and all-knowing thankful teacher, who loves us and our nation more than we do ourselves, Clark intoned the last words at the funeral of  Korean Buddhism, he hopefully assumed! Anachronistic as Clark's  remarks may appear in this age of ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, the self-righteous and anti-Buddhist sentiments he expressed unfortunately still prevail in Korea today. 

3. Contemporary Protestantism in Korea  and Interreligious Dialogue 

A victim of this exclusivistic and imperialistic ideology was Dr. Pyôn Sôn-hwan, the late former president of the Methodist Seminary in Seoul, who was dismissed from the presidency of his school and also deprived of his professorship and ministerial privileges in 1992. He was virtually excommunicated from the church "mainly because of his sympathetic understanding toward other religions, particularly toward Buddhism. When he stated to the effect that there is salvation outside the church, he was severely criticized by his fellow Christians from almost every denomination in Korea." 

Dr. Pyôn was the leading figure in Buddhist-Christian dialogue in Korea until his death in 1995. He was a frequent participant in international Buddhist conferences as well as Buddhist-Christian dialogue meetings such as at the Academy House in Seoul. He demonstrated in his own life the kind of personal honesty, openness, modesty and courage which is needed to make interreligious dialogue more than a pleasant academic exercise but a living interactive reality with others of different faiths. 

The last meetings I had with Dr. Pyôn included an unexpected encounter on the grounds of Chogyesa Temple in Seoul in 1994 during the demonstrations of the reformist sangha to oust the former corrupt administrative head of the Chogye Order headquarters Sô Ûi-hyôn. We took 'refuge' in Venerable Bopta's One Korea Buddhist reunification movement office when the action at the Order's Headquarters seemed at a lull and it began to rain. We were both impressed with Ven. Bopta's North Korean experiences and his insights into Buddhism there. Our last meeting was at the Academy House when the famous Vietnamese peace activist Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh was invited to speak with a group of Christian leaders and demonstrate his form of mindful walking meditation (in the rain!) in April, 1995. 

In an important article published in the spring of 1995 in Tabo, the quarterly journal of the Korean Buddhism Promotion Foundation, Dr. Pyôn addressed the United Nations 1995 announcement of the Year of Tolerance and Understanding. The UN called upon religious followers of the globe to play a decisive role in building a brighter future for the world by denouncing and eliminating any form of intolerance and discrimination caused by differences in religions and doctrines. Why is it, he asked, that while peace seemed to made significant progress in the Middle East with the truce between the Israelis and the Palestinian guerrillas, that while the Cold War between East and West seemed at an end, that even while the Roman Catholic Church had declared the decision of the Inquisition on Galileo was wrong, that while the troubles in Ireland might be over, why was there still no progress in dissolving tensions and making true peace between North and South Korea at the DMZ? And why is Christianity in Korea provoking public condemnation because of the missionary work of  its aggressive, conversion-oriented Christian leaders who are following extremely conservative and fundamentalist theology from the States? Rev. Pyôn quipped "that Korea, once known as 'the land of the morning calm' was quickly becoming the 'land of  the evening noise' or worse yet the 'land of the morning and evening noise' because of fanatical Christians who engage in combative conversion-hungry missionary work. Nothing is wrong with propagation or missionary work itself, only the exclusive and obsolete method that slanders and condemns other religions," he wrote. Dr. Pyôn then went on to cite newspaper and magazine reports to illustrate the breath and magnitude of insults and outright slander perpetrated against Buddhists by zealous Christians. 

A more extensive listing of incidents against Buddhism including over twenty serious arson attacks against temples in the last fifteen years will be enumerated in the next section. Five arson attacks against temples in Suyudong, Seoul just prior to the year's (1996) Buddha's Birthday celebration has been the primary impetus for this compilation. Three assaults were made on the Seoul International Zen Center at Hwagyesa, the home monastery of one of Korea's major Buddhist leaders in interreligious dialogue and practice, world famous Zen Master Seung Sahn. Two closely neighboring temples were even more seriously victimized; a bell tower housing religious instruments was destroyed at Samsông-Am up the mountain from Hwagyesa and two extraordinary traditional Dharma Halls were burnt to the ground at Pônwon Chôngsa, cost: US $5.6 million. The latter two temples were attacked just past midnight the same night (April 20). The International Zen Center at Hwagyesa attacked repeatedly three times within three weeks of the April 20 catastrophes, the first time on April 21st! 
We must be careful to point out that no one has been positively identified, arrested or definitely associated with any of these crimes as of this writing. We have interviewed the chief of police involved who is actively pursuing the cases  and he concurs with general public opinion that it is probable that a fanatical or mentally disturbed religious extremist is connected with the incidents based on the nature of the crimes and the pattern of successful investigations and arrests in other cases of Buddhist temple burnings. These incidents may never be resolved but they have opened the topic of religious violence in Korea which should not be suppressed, slighted or ignored again. 

4. Questions for Buddhists and Christians in Korea 

Occasions of insults and violent assaults against Buddhist teachings and Buddhist images and places of worship, including the homes of  Buddhist clergy in Korea like those cited above, had very little notice in the local or national press or other media in Korea. Why is this? Does someone need to be hurt or killed before it's "news?" They have only been reported in the small, private Buddhist press for the most part but almost ignored by  larger agencies?  Is there a policy to quash reports of incidents of religious conflict or attacks against Buddhists in order to keep a lid on the events?Are the incidents so sensitive that certain authorities fear a backlash from an informed Buddhist constituency? 

Why aren't Korean Buddhists themselves more assertive about rectifying the ill treatment they have been receiving from certain factions within Korea? Why hasn't the Chogye Order Headquarters published a policy statement about this issue? 
Why haven't more liberal Korean Christian leaders and congregations (including Catholics) extended sympathy and support to Buddhists who have been victimized by religious extremists or unknown assailants? If such basic neighborly concern is truly missing in the Korean religious world, isn't it time to actively do something about it and bridge the icy chasm of indifference which has kept Koreans separate and isolated from each other within their own small country? Who can blame the other for their aloof silence? Radical students and professors in South Korea righteously blame the United States and the USSR for the painful division of their country at the end of World  War II. Can they really blame the superpowers for the religious tensions and alienation their own people perpetuate in the South? 

These questions arise from a hope that the Korean Buddhist and Christian communities can help those of us who care about Korea get a clearer sense how inter-religious cooperation for effective social action can be implemented in Korea and other parts of Asia. A good place to begin is at the beginning. Just what is going on in Korea? Christians and Buddhists look at each other suspiciously over stony walls. Like the new tall buildings which have gone up everywhere in Seoul (and have come crashing down like Sampoong Department Store!), they wear a thin veneer of stone that hides a tempest of activity within. Can we not acknowledge this simple fact and recognize that we are all in our own private way trying to make sense of this confusing and ever more crowded and polluted world? Is it "ecologically correct" to pretend that we can really separate ourselves from others? An "ecological awakening" to our interconnectedness is in order. Don't we share the results of our karma and our interdependence with the natural world around us? 

Buddhists and Christians alike need to seriously consider the description of the Christian critique of Buddhism which was written by Venerable Chi Myong in 1990. Dr. Pyôn selected his words as representative of a wise Buddhist response to the widespread Christian challenges and attacks. It can be summarized as follows. 

Many Korean Christians  claim : 

1) Buddhism  is superstition 
2) Buddhism is idol worship 
3) Jesus is God but Shakyamuni is (was) a human being 
4) Buddhism is too difficult to understand. It is a philosophy, not a religion. Belief in Jesus is easy to understand and to do 
5) Buddhism is baseless. It has no substance at its root. It is responsible for the wrongdoings of its monks and nuns. 
6) Buddhism is an evil religion which must be eradicated from the face of the earth. 

In response to these hateful accusations Ven. Chi Myông  encourages people to:

1) Deal with clannish attacks perpetrated by followers of other religions (Face them. Do not ignore them. Engage them). 
2) Set up an organization(s) to dissolve hostility and show bodhisattva action. 
3) Eliminate one's own exclusivistic and aggressive inclinations. Fighting against violence is against Buddha's teachings. Refrain from habitual, nervous reactions.Practice the bodhisattva spirit in silence with friendliness without angry retorts. Avoid fighting provocateurs who want to see Buddhism disappear from earth. And the outraged Dr. Pyôn adds in aggravation: "People who damage and desecrate Buddhism. People who are bound to the letters of bible and church. Christian fanatics who attempt to destroy their own cultural assets and smash their own traditional religion. Puppet-like pseudo-Christians. These people are the enemy of the open democratic society toward which  our nation is striving." 

5. Steps toward Cooperation 

In the face of the strong conservative Christian resistance which we have delineated above, and the caution of Buddhists who suspect a conversion agenda under the guise of dialogue, there yet occurs some very encouraging cooperative activities among religious leaders and their followers in Korea. 

Most recently in the summer 1996  was the Religious Leaders'  Pilgrimage  for National Reunification which marched through eleven cities in  South Korea from June 25 to July 4, 1996 and involved about 3,000 clergy in all. This was the first time that Protestants, Catholics, Buddhists and Won Buddhists actually worked together and walked together for a greater cause beyond mere ceremonial photo opportunities of inter-religious harmony and academic discourse. A very positive result of this pilgrimage was the establishment of nine new city branches of the Religious Council for National Reconciliation and Reunification (Chonggyo-in Hyôp-ûi Hoe) outside of Seoul. 

We must also mention the activities of the Korean Conference on Religion and Peace (KCRP) which was originally initiated in 1965 as the Association of Korean Religionists. The present KCRP is comprised of members from the six major faiths in Korea: Buddhism, Confucianism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Won Buddhism and Chondogyo. The former AKR  includes members from new religions like the Chonrigyo, Taejongyo and the T'ongilgyo (Unification Church) but not the Protestant and Catholic churches. The Christian members withdrew  because they chose not to share in the organization with the Unification Church. 

According to  Dr. Kim Sunggon, a professor at Youngsan Won Buddhist  Seminary, both the AKR and the KCRP "aim at improving mutual understanding and creating a better society by cooperation among religions, but there is no dialogue and cooperation between these two interfaith organizations. What an irony this is!"  Inter-religious organizations must stand for more than theoretical understanding among the religions. Meetings and proclamations and books are not enough. The proof of an organization's effectiveness is in its ability to create new harmony among religious communities who hitherto were disinterested on account of  beliefs in their own supremacy. 

Perhaps Buddhism's great virtue in interreligious dialogue and cooperation is that it already had an acceptance of diversity of opinion and experience about the mental life of man from the inception of the religion with Shakyamuni. From the beginning, it never had to try to bridge differences with other paths since it had already recognized them from the beginning. This is its great  "pangp'yôn" (upaya), expedient means of teaching Buddhist truths. 

There are many serious issues in Korea to unite Christians and Buddhists. National reunification and environmental issues are critical without exception for the entire population of Korea. Resolution of these issues will require more than cosmetic treatment. The lives of all Korean people are at stake. Buddhist and Christian cooperation can provide an atmosphere for more openness and communication at the governmental level. Religious leaders among the Buddhists and Christians in Korea can make a difference in the course of Korean history as they have in the past as during the Independence Movement. But they should come together not just because they face a common enemy but because they realize their mutual interdependence and shared human concerns. Religions need not lose their identity when in dialogue and cooperation. They can demonstrate the greatest wisdom, love and compassion they are capable of when they move closer to their neighbors with whom they live. As the "sleeping wisdom" of  modern Korean Buddhism awakens, it will be in a stronger position to share its virtues with people of all faiths in Korea and lead their mutually cooperative efforts for social concord. 

An English and French version of this article can be viewed at a website constructed by Eric Rommeleure at a Zen Studies site in Paris.

An edited version of this paper including endnotes was published in the scholarly annual Buddhist-Christian Studies V.17, (Honolulu:University of Hawaii Press,1997).

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