Korean Buddhism at the Crossroads (Interview)

by Dr Frank M. Tedesco

In conjunction with Wesak 2001, BGF invited Dr Frank M. Tedesco, a well-known social activist and expert on Korean Buddhism, to Malaysia for a series of dharma talks. He gave talks at the Kota Kemuning Buddhist Center in Shah Alam, Buddhist Maha Vihara in Kuala Lumpur, BGF Center in Petaling Jaya, Than Hsiang Temple in Penang, and Jitra Buddhist Association in Jitra, Kedah. Loh Kea Yu spoke to Frank about the challenges facing modern Korean Buddhism just before a pot-luck dinner and talk at the Kota Kemuning Buddhist Center in Shah Alam on the evening of May 6, 2001 which was also Wesak eve. Those interested to know more about Buddhism in Korea can access the web-site www.buddhapia.com/eng.

1. You are an authority on Korean Buddhism. What started you on this journey into Buddhism, and specifically Korean Buddhism?

My journey into Buddhism started in 1962 when I was in high school. I was attracted to Buddhist teachings because it provided an answer to many questions I had as a young man, especially the impermanence of life when I witnessed the death of my grandparents in my own home and my beloved pets at short intervals. I read all I could about existentialism, mysticism and altered states of consciousness and practiced meditation independently. I discovered the First Zen Institute in Manhattan in 1962 and in 1964 met the great Kalmyk Mongolian lama Geshe Wangyal in New Jersey. I was also very fortunate to be able to meet Master Hsuan Hua when he taught in Chinatown, San Francisco in the late sixties. At the same time I studied Buddhism academically as an undergrad at the University of California at Berkeley. One of my professors was Lewis Lancaster, an authority on Korean Buddhism. So I more or less trod parallel paths of Buddhist scholarship and more formal lay dharma practice. About a decade later after many intellectual and cultural wanderings, I went to Korea as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in leprosy control and eventually completed a Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies at Dongguk University in Seoul in 1998. Dongguk is affiliated with the Korean Buddhist Chogye Order.

2. Many people are familiar with Japanese Buddhism and Chinese Buddhism. Could you tell us briefly what is Korean Buddhism?

Well, Korean Buddhism is Chinese scripture-based Mahayana Buddhism. Buddhism came to Korea from north China in the latter half of the fourth century C.E. Each of the three kingdoms into which the Korean peninsula was divided embraced the new religion. All the major doctrinal systems of Mahayana Buddhism of 5th - 7th century India and China flowed into Korea and were eagerly studied by Korean monks. With the consolidation of the three kingdoms of Koguryo, Paekche and Shilla in 680 CE, Unified Shilla Buddhist thought reached its apogee as the integrating paradigm and ideology, producing such eminent Korean monks such as Wonhyo (617-686), Uisang (625-702),), and Wonch'uk (613-696).

All the major transformations of Chinese Buddhism (and subsequently Japanese Buddhism) are also found in Korea in textual form if not practice. Just as in Chinese Mahayana Buddhism, there is Hua-yen (Avatamsaka sutra) teachings, in Korea it is called Hwaom which was introduced by Uisang upon his return to Korea after studying under Zhiyan, the second Chinese Hua-yen patriarch, in China. Ch'an Buddhism (Zen in Japanese) was introduced into Korea from Tang China towards the end of the 8th century CE, and became known as Son Buddhism. Tian-t'ai Buddhism in China became Ch'ont'ae Buddhism and was strongly promoted in Korea by Uich'on of the Koryo Dynasty (918-1392) after he had visited Song China and returned to Korea with a large number of Buddhist scriptures. Common practices in Korean Buddhism today derive from mainstream Ch'an and Pure Land as well as esoteric traditions. There are also new orders that emphasize one aspect or another of Buddha's teachings and most emphasize lay practice.

3. As a Buddhist scholar and also a dharma practitioner, what do you find most unique about Korean Buddhism?

My love of Korean Buddhism is the rugged vitality and energy of its monastic practitioners and lay believers. However, this does not diminish the vigor I see in other traditions, too. Cultures that develop in different geographical regions have their own character and strengths. This is why the dharma has been able to survive for well over 2500 years despite many misfortunes from both from within and without. I can feel a natural energy very clearly in Korean Buddhist culture. I have been following it for about two decades now. Like Buddhists everywhere today, the Buddhists of Korea have great potential for growth as they open to the insights and practices of the other yanas and dialogue with followers of other religions. Traditions can nurture spiritual development or seriously impede it if outer form becomes an end in itself.

4. What is Won Buddhism?

Won Buddhism can not be considered traditional Korean Buddhism. Won Buddhists do not take refuge in the Three Jewels or support the traditional teachings, customs and sangha in Korea. Followers of Won Buddhism themselves call their faith "a new religion" which began in 1916 and they disassociate themselves with old, out-dated forms of traditional practice. They do, however, cooperate closely with mainstream Buddhist organizations in Korea and abroad like the WFB and peace efforts at the U.N. The founder of the Won Buddhism embraced the Diamond Cutter Sutra (Vajracchedika Sutra) which appeared to match his personal revelation. The religion emphasizes regular lay Son meditation practice and commitment to social welfare, religious freedom and world peace.

5. Who are the great dharma masters of Korean Buddhism?

Well, there are many of them, too many to mention here. I have spoken about the Shilla teachers Wonhyo, Uisang, Wonch'uk, Chajang and others in my talks. Then there is Chinul Pojo (1158-1210) of Koryo whose reform movement led to the formation of the Chogye Order, which is today the largest Buddhist monastic organization in Korea. Greatly influenced by the writings of Chinese Buddhist masters, Chinul established a unique, comprehensive approach to Son (Zen) Buddhism that sequences the ideal of an initial sudden enlightenment experience (tono) with the gradual process of mental and moral cultivation.

Jumping to the modern period, two well-known Korean Son (Zen) Masters are Kyongho (1849-1913) and the living elder Master Seung Sahn. Master Kyongho is best known for training many disciples, among them Man'gong, Hyewol, Hanam, Suwol, and Songwol. They influenced the Korean Buddhist community greatly and at least half of the present-day Korean Buddhist sangha consists of descendents of Master Kyongho. Venerable Seung Sahn is well-known not only for the Seoul International Zen Centers at Hwagyesa Temple and the first autonomous Western sangha monastery in Korea called Musangsa in the Kyeryong Mountains. He and his disciples have established more than 120 Zen centers in 30 countries. It is claimed that Master Seung Sahn has taught over 50,000 students over more than 30 years. He is renowned for his energetic and expressive approach to Zen, distinctly different in feeling tone and approach from Japanese Zen, vipassana or Tibetan Vajrayana teachers. One can elect to do one week to two 90 day monastic retreats a year in his Kwanum Zen School in Korea or in the U.S.

6. Buddhism used to be the dominant religion in Korea. Today it is marginalized with a little over 50% of Koreans being Christian. When and how did this happen?

Korean Buddhism is about 1700 years old. During the first 1000 years Buddhism was the state religion. But in 1392 with the establishment of the Yi Dynasty the neo-Confucian literati influenced the court and transformed Korea into a legalistic Confucian state. Buddhism was ridiculed and suppressed. Monks were eventually banned from the cities and were regarded as the lowest class of society. As a result the number of monks dwindled and they were obliged to remain in the mountains. Korean Buddhism became a "mountain religion" in this period. At the end of the Yi in 1910 the Japanese annexed Korea and attempted to "Japanize" Korean Buddhism and incorporate it into different Japanese sects. They compelled celibate Korean sangha members to marry like their counterparts in Japan by passing regulations favoring married priests.

With the defeat of Japan in August 1945, Korea was divided into North and South. Then came the Korean War (1950-1953). The entire country was in ruins and the people were demoralized. The country needed foreign aid and the United States poured in money to rebuild South Korea as a bulwark against communism. In the process the US government used Christian missionaries to administer aid because they had been in the country for nearly a hundred years and understood the local customs and language. The missionaries became to be seen as saviors of the Korean people. The local people began to associate Christianity with development, self-help, advanced Western technology and medicine. They also provided scholarships and empowered women and the poor. At the same time the Buddhist monastic community was largely uneducated and fragmented, and there was no strong and organized lay Buddhist leadership. Buddhism began to lose followers to the Christian missionaries who were able to capitalize on these weaknesses and offer rice and hope for the future.

7. When you visis Seoul today, you see churches everywhere. Is this a reflection of the weakness of Buddhism in Korea?

Yes and no. If you arrive in Seoul at night you will see neon lights of red crosses all over the city. One reason Christian churches proliferate is because it is easy to establish churches with lay leadership in relatively inexpensive commercial space. The conservative mind-set requires monks who must be supported to perform ceremonies in a traditional way, not to mention expensive architecture and statues, etc. There is an overabundance of young Protestant ministers who compete for church members, too. Nevertheless there are active and growing dharma centers in Seoul and many other major cities in the country. You have to search harder for Buddhists in Seoul, though- they do not evangelize like Protestants do. A recent Gallup poll indicates there are more ex-Christians than church members in Korea. I meet former Christians all the time in temples in Korea. Simple practicality plays a major role in religious affiliation in Korean communities- Koreans in the US are overwhelmingly Christian, often for lack of a relevant and fulfilling Buddhist alternative.

8. Aren't there reform movements to revive Buddhism either among the clergy or the lay organizations?

Like all religions, Korean Buddhism has experienced reform movements throughout history to restore the original core values of the faith when leadership and institutions have fallen into decay. I already mentioned the National Preceptor Chinul Pojo who initiated a sincere practice movement at Songgwangsa Monastery near the end of the Koryo. Various individuals like Master Kyongho and the poet Han Yong-un attempted to revitalize the spirit of Korean Buddhism through education, translation and literature at the end of the Yi Dynasty and during the Japanese colonial period. There were many others. Today we have the active Buddhist Solidarity for Reform movement established by about 30 Korean lay Buddhist organizations. These groups decided to cooperate in order to counter the many scandals that have plagued Korean Chogye Order, including the much reported fighting among monks for control of temple fortunes, gambling monk-officials, etc. I do not want to omit mentioning the BCEJ or Buddhist Coalition for Economic Justice that has been struggling to defend the rights of Buddhist foreign workers and others in Korea. The strong moral stance of a few Buddhist leaders can awaken the conscience of the majority by their good example. The Join Together Society or JTS is a truly idealistic group of young lay people who work communally on many social projects. How better can we teach the dharma to our children than by good models?

9. What do you think needs to be done for Buddhism to regain the glory it once had among Koreans and other Asian Buddhist cultures?

I am not sure what you mean by the word "glory." Some say Korean Buddhism had its "glory" days during the Koryo Dynasty where the monks owned large tracts of land and properties. They were supported by the king and were part of the royal court. The monasteries even had distilleries and kept slaves to work the fields. The monasteries were rich and powerful. If this is the type of worldly "glory" you have in mind, I think we can do without it.

To me Buddhism will regain its true value for humanity when the four-fold sangha- monks, nuns, laymen and lay women- study and practice the dharma with humility. Monks must behave like monks and spent their time studying widely, practicing deeply and teaching dharma effectively. The dharma must be made relevant to all our specific, modern problems. Buddhism will regain the honor it deserves when the sangha and the laity support each other to relieve both inner and outer suffering. Our world is not simple and we are all interconnected. We face issues of ethnic conflict, economic inequities and exploitation, and degradation of the environment, for instance. We are mutually interdependent and each of us must take responsibility for our own actions and their results without self-deception and without hiding behind traditional customs and non-Buddhist criteria and standards. Isn't the dharma all about developing personal character through right attitude and behavior? The "middle way" and "the way of the middle class" does not equate. Let's think about our lifestyles more deeply.

10. You wrote about militant Christians disturbing Buddhist devotees and sometimes attacking Buddhist temples before festivals such as Buddha's Birthday. Are these rampant or isolated incidents?

Some Korean Christians are very zealous and use every opportunity to bring others to their faith, be it elementary school teachers ridiculing non-Christian children in classrooms or Christian officers ordering of baptism for new military draftees as "moral education," for instance. There have been a number of attacks on Buddhist temples all over the country by extremist Christians over the years. I was galvanized to deal with this issue shortly before Buddha's Birthday in 1996, when five incidents of arson took place in my immediate neighborhood. Three assaults were made on Venerable Seung Sahn's Seoul International Zen Center at Hwagyesa. Nearby, two buildings of Ponwan Chongsa Temple were totally destroyed by flames, including the Main Dharma Hall and a Hall of Arahants that housed 516 hand-carved and hand-painted wooden statues. Samsong Am Mountain Hermitage was also attacked and its wooden bronze bell and drum tower was destroyed. However, it is encouraging to know that this year's Buddha Day celebrations went on smoothly without any reports of vandalism or rudeness so far. You may wish to read more about religious tensions in Korea by accessing information on www.iarf-religiousfreedom.net

11. You have been outspoken against such attacks. How effective has your work been?

I think my activities have brought international attention to the fact that Christian missionary success in Korea is not without blemish. In fact I assert it has been a cultural trauma for Korea that will take generations to heal. Some Korean Christians have been violent aggressors against Buddhism (and other religions) in Korea, and their actions go against the spirit of Christ and the universal ideal of religious harmony and tolerance. I organized a panel of prominent Korean Protestant theologians and Buddhist monks for a major international inter-religious conference in Chicago in the summer of 1996 to deal with this unpleasant news and published articles to highlight these attacks and the narrow-mindedness that engenders them. The Society of Buddhist-Christian Studies considered this an issue of major concern and wrote letters to the World Council of Churches, President Kim Dae-jung, relevant ministries in the Korean Government, and even to then President Bill Clinton. I helped various foreign journalists as well as BBC Radio and TV stations investigate these attacks on Buddhist places of worship in Korea and gave them extensive interviews. Religion comes under the Ministry of Culture in Korea. Public servants from there organized a meeting with religious leaders to discuss these disturbances but they were ostracized for interfering with matters that did not concern the government and were condemned by extremists who justified destroying idols as part of their belief! Generally speaking, sincere efforts for inter-religious dialogue have been weak and sporadic and give the impression of superficial, public relations events.

Christian groups in the West have always decried that they are persecuted in different parts of the world but now I am telling the Christian world to their face that their own extremist brethren are persecuting the Buddhists in Korea! Buddhist groups have not fought back or taken revenge against these attacks by crazed extremists. However, I believe that not all Christians in Korea are fanatics; in fact, many Korean Christians are embarrassed, even mortified, by these barbaric acts. I hope that Christian evangelists in Asia set aside their pride and examine their conscience for what they are doing to the psyches and cultures of the peoples they wish to convert. They are creating seeds of deep and lasting unhappiness by inducing people to reject their own cultural roots and heritage. Buddhists, too, need to accept the aggressive Christian movement as a meaningful wake-up call! We need to sharpen our understanding of Buddha's teachings, practice harder and open our hearts to new ways of expressing metta and karuna creatively. It seems that healing naturally follows acceptance of our suffering.

Loh Kea Yu graduated from Universiti Sains Malaysia in 1981 with a B.Sc. Education in physics. A Buddhist student leader in his college days, Kea Yu continues to be involved in dharma activities through talks and meditation. He is currently a high school physics teacher in Klang where he resides with his family.

Korean Buddhism at the Crossroads by Dr Frank Tedesco

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