04-22-2009 17:37
150th Anniversary of Tonghak

By Choe Chong-dae

I recently returned to Seoul from a memorable trip to Gyeongju, the ancient capital of the Silla Dynasty.

What distinguished this sojourn from the many I had taken previously to this museum city, that lives and breathes Korean history, was the opportunity to attend a unique cultural festival celebrating the 150th anniversary of the founding of ``Tonghak," Korea's first indigenous religion.

Fittingly, the festival was held on the first weekend of April, for it was on April 5, 1860, at Yongdam-jeong (Dragon Pool Pavilion), on Mt. Gumi, in Gyeongju, that Choe Che-u (1824-1864), more commonly known by his pen name ``Su-un," a disenfranchised and disillusioned aristocrat-scholar, achieved the ``Great Religious Awakening," which he called Tonghak (Eastern Learning).

Yongdam-jeong, nestling sedately amidst the pristine forests and tumbling mountain streams of Mt. Gumi, is close to Su-un's birthplace of Gyeongju. It was to this refuge that Su-un, disillusioned with the rapidly deteriorating political and social situation in his country, retreated with his family to restore his soul and undergo intense spiritual training.

It was at this location that, deeply immersed in prayer, he encountered the Lord of Heaven, was enlightened to the new Way of Truth and was charged by his Heavenly Lord to save the nation and give hope to its oppressed and suffering masses.

Tonghak became Korea's first and most influential indigenous religion, setting philosophical, ethical and spiritual precepts, which guided the many Korean native religions that followed. In 1905, the name of the religion was changed to Cheondo-gyo (Religion of the Heavenly Way). The egalitarian and humanistic ideals of Cheondo-gyo played a formative role in the development of Korean nationalism, the struggle for independence, and eventually, the establishment of the democratic Republic of Korea.

Tonghak's most prominent teaching centers on the belief that divinity resides within each individual, that each person is identified with the divine, and as a result of this exalted status, all human beings are considered equal, irrespective of their social standing, lineage, gender, age or education. This revolutionary religious and social concept imbued a desperate people with a new sense of dignity, and with a corresponding compassion for their fellow humans and respect for all creation.

Su-un was not only the founder of Korea's first indigenous religion. He was also a prominent writer, poet, inspirational social leader and a pioneer of democracy in Korea. He lived a life consistent with his teaching of the innate dignity and equality of all humans. He freed his servants and returned them to their parents, adopted a young servant boy, and arranged for his son to marry the daughter of a former servant.

These actions were truly revolutionary at the time. The humanistic egalitarianism of Tonghak shook the Korean aristocracy to its very foundation when it was first promulgated and implemented by Su-un. It did not do so without dire consequences for the Tonghak founder.

Unfortunately, Su-un was arrested in 1864 by Joseon Dynasty decree for propagating heresy misleading the people. He faced death with great equanimity and dignity, a living testament in his final moments to his belief that, as he was of one heart with his Heavenly Lord, he had nothing to fear from his earthly executioners.

As Su-un knew, and as 19th and 20th century Korean history attests, the religion and the movement that he founded could not be, and was not, silenced by the termination of his life.

Today, one can visit the memorial to Su-un, which was erected at his place of birth, near Yongdam-jong, and the statue, which marks the place of his execution, in Taegu. Yet beyond these physical memorials, Su-un's spirit and teachings pervade the lives and mentality of the Korean people and the modern democratic society in which they live.

One-and-a-half centuries have passed since Su-un's encounter with the Lord of Heaven at Yongdam Pavilion and his establishment of the Tonghak religion. Yet Su-un remains highly respected by many people at home and abroad, irrespective of the fact that their philosophies and religious beliefs may differ. Some people even refer to Su-un as the ``Korean Jesus Christ" and Yongdam-jeong as the ``Korean Jerusalem."

On my return trip to Seoul, I reflected on the suitably eclectic events commemorating the 150th anniversary of the founding of Tonghak. As for myself, the highlight of all these events was a ceremony commemorating the 150th anniversary of Chondo-gyo at Yongdam Pavilion on April 5. More than 5,000 people attended, including many Gyeongju citizens, Cheondo-gyo faithful and distinguished officials such as Kim Kwan-yong, governor of North Gyeongsang Province.

As one would expect, senior figures of Cheondo-gyo attended the ceremony. Additionally, however, in a fitting tribute to Su-un and his religion, leaders from other religions, including Buddhism, and Confucianism, also attended the ceremony and delivered congratulatory speeches honoring the egalitarianism of Tonghak and the seminal role it played in laying the foundation for the Korean democratic movement.

The spirit of Su-un was tangibly present on this occasion, no surprise to those who regularly Yongdam-jeong, for it is always so. And as the name Su-un implies, this spirit cannot be contained by mere earthly boundaries.

Like a ``water cloud" (the meaning Su-un's Chinese characters), his spirit continues to bring sustenance and relief across all physical, social and religious spheres of existence, intimately united with Hanul-Nim, the Lord of Heaven.

And it will continue to do so, ad infinitum, unbound by strictures of time.

Choe Chong-dae is president of Dae-kwang International Co., and the Korean representative for Compagnie Cotonniere of Paris, France. A longtime director of the Korean-Swedish Association, he can be reached at dkic98@chol.com.