Korea’s isolated Buddhism opening doors
By Do Je-hae
In the last decade or so, a rise in the popularity of Buddhism-related practices has brought the formerly isolated Korean Buddhism much closer to everyday life, even for non-Buddhists and non-Koreans.
Meditation retreats, recreational yoga or templestay programs are now a familiar routine in the lives of many people within and outside Korea.
In this backdrop, the Jogye Order, the largest Buddhist sect under the leadership of Ven. Jaseung, has placed domestic and overseas missionary work as one of its main goals. One of the key policies of the Jogye Order, running many of Korea’s oldest and most prominent Buddhist temples, is to globalize the nation’s Buddhism which was first introduced here through China.
The representative order of traditional Korean Buddhism has roots that date back 1,200 years to Unified Silla (668 — 935), when the Korean meditation practice of “Seon” (known as Zen in the West) was adopted from China around 820.
Ven. Jaseung has been passionate about spreading Korean Buddhism, through overseas visits and the establishment of new administrative networks to manage Korean Buddhist temples outside the nation.
A U.S. chapter of the Jogye Order was established in New York in September for the first time, overseeing the administration of 30 Korean temples in the New York and New Jersey areas.
Ven. Jaseung visited Paris in October, stressing the need for a long-term plan to globalize Korean Buddhism to raise its lack of international status despite the 1,200-year history.
Compared to other Asian countries like Tibet, Japan or China, Korean Buddhism has largely remained inside the country.
“If Korean Buddhism was known to the world, the national brand and status could be spontaneously uplifted together,” Ven. Jaseung said during a press conference held during his Paris visit.
Ven. Jaseung said that the order will support students majoring in Korean studies at the University of Columbia in the United States every year with grants totaling $100,000 and strengthen overseas campaigns by increasing assistance to foreign monks practicing Korean Buddhism.
The 57-year-old also stressed the importance of the Buddhist cultural experience programs such as templestays to boost domestic tourism along with the globalization of temple cuisine, known for its nutritious benefits.
“I admit Korean Buddhism has been focused on settling internal struggles within the orders over the last 10 to 20 years and consequently unable to look forward to the future,” he said, noting the order’s lack of activity to globalize the religion.
“Now as the orders are in harmony, we will concentrate on promoting Korean Buddhism to the world through a long-term plan to come to fruition 10 to 20 years or 40 to 50 years later.”
As Ven. Jaseung said, the Jogye Order has belatedly kicked off an official campaign to globalize Korean Buddhism, after ardent missionary initiatives by the late Great Zen Master Seung Sahn (1927-2004) in the 1980s through the 1990s particularly in the United States.
Ven. Seung Sahn felt it difficult to carry on the mission within the boundaries of the Jogye Order, so he founded the international “Kwan Um School of Zen.” The monk is a towering figure in the history of Korean Buddhism who disseminated Seon to the Western world in the 1980s and ‘90s by establishing more than 120 temples and Seon centers in around 30 countries.
Despite such efforts, certain characteristics of Korean Buddhism, namely a strong hierarchy, still remain a hindrance to its dissemination, according to a prominent Dharma heir of Ven. Seung Sahn.
He explained this in comparison to the features of Tibetan Buddhism, which focuses on compassion rather than enlightenment as in Korea Buddhism.
“Tibetan Buddhism is very organized and systematic. It has many practices in many steps and the monks are very humble,” Ven. Daebong, spiritual leader of the Musang Temple in South Chungcheong Province said during a previous Korea Times interview in September.
“Another thing is that Tibetan Buddhism respects lay teachers of ‘zen practice.’ In Tibetan Buddhism, most important is the teacher, not whether you are a monk or not,” he said, pointing out that there is strong hierarchy that places monks and nuns before lay people. “If that continues, they won’t spread very far around the world.”
A new task the Jogye Order faces in its globalization drive is to assimilate the increasing number of foreign-born monks like Ven. Daebong, who is from the United States.
For the first time, Korea’s largest Buddhist sect opened in August a school for training foreign-born monks at the Hwagye Temple innorthern Seoul with a six-month course on the history of Jogye Order, Korean culture and language. Certain temples like Bubryun Temple near Gyeongbok Palace inSeoul run programs just for nuns or “bikuni.” Some have settled in Korea to become monks but others have returned to their native countries, due to language and cultural barriers.
Spreading Buddhism in Korea
While the overseas promotion of Korean Buddhism has made certain noticeable headway under the leadership of Ven. Jaseung, efforts have been underway to spread Buddhism among Koreans as well.
Despite such a long history, Buddhism is not the dominant religion in modern Korea. Almost half of the nation follows no religion and 12 million are Protestants or Roman Catholics, making Christianity the most popular religion.
The 57-year-old leader of the Jogye Order is relatively young compared to his predecessors and has sought to make Buddhism more relevant, particularly to young people in schools, universities and the military.
“The promotion of Buddhism depends on education and missionary activities. These two activities are the driving force of Korean Buddhism for the next 100 years,” Ven. Jaseng said upon becoming the head of the Jogye Order in late 2009.
For the Buddhist community, there were some important landmarks this year for spreading the long-isolated Korean Buddhism, like the millennial anniversary of the Tripitaka Koreana housed at the Haein Temple in South Gyeongsang Province.
The region hosted a major 45-day festival from Sept. 23 to Nov. 1 to celebrate the special occasion for the Tripitaka Koreana, the world’s oldest Buddhist canons in Chinese script carved onto 81,258 wooden printing blocks in the 13th century.
There have been cultural efforts to spread Buddhism, like the musical “Wonhyo” tracing the life of the renowned monk Wonhyo (617-686) from the Silla Kingdom (57 B.C.-935).