Reformer and independence fighter
Korean religious groups, whether Christians, Buddhists or followers of Chondo-gyo, irrespective of doctrinal differences, have devoted themselves to unity, harmony and peace.
They led the way with consistent and non-violent struggles against the oppressive Japanese colonial rule in Korea, from 1910 to 1945. After serious discussions about independence, 33 leaders were elected to represent the people of Korea.
Among the 33 representatives who signed the Korean Declaration of Independence on March 1, 1919, were 15 Chondo-gyo adherents, 16 Christians and two Buddhists. The two Buddhists were Han Yong-un (1879-1944), with the pen name Manhae, and Baik Yongseong (1864-1940).
While Manhae is well-known for his devotion to the struggle for Korean liberation from Japanese rule, Baik is not widely acknowledged as a significant independence fighter. Rather he is acknowledged for his extensive research in the study of Pure Land Buddhism.
In 1879, at age 15, Baik entered Haein Temple in Hapcheon, South Gyeongsang Province, where he was ordained a Buddhist monk by the Ven. Hwanwol. He then traveled throughout Korea, staying at many temples. Having an extensive ascetic practice he eventually experienced enlightenment, or the ``Great Awakening.”
Although he was oriented toward the Zen tradition, he was also interested in Pure Land Buddhism which is characterized by complete reliance on Amitabha (Buddha of Infinite Light). This tradition of Buddhism emphasizes those aspects of Mahayana Buddhism which stress faith in Amitabha, spiritual cultivation, and the religious goal of being reborn in the ``Pure Land,”
Furthermore, he undertook a wide range of studies to help with translating the Buddhist scripture into the modern Korean alphabet, thus allowing Buddhist believers who were not familiar with Chinese characters to study Buddhism more easily.
The new interest awakened in Baik a willingness to restore the essential tradition of Buddhist teaching and to advocate Buddhist reformation, modernization and popularization. He began to spread the new belief of a ``Great Awakening“ in Buddhism to others. He did this based on the character of Buddhist tradition and the modernized practical educational background at Daegak (Great Awakening) Temple in Seoul, which he built 1911.
The following year, he met Kim Gu, who later became president of the Korean Provisional Government operating from Shanghai. Kim stayed at Daegak Temple whenever he came to Seoul from his home in Haeju, Hwanghae Province. Having been greatly inspired by Baik’s patriotism, Kim Gu and his colleagues decided to devote themselves to Korea’s independence movement.
As a result of active participation in the Independence Movement in 1919, Baik was imprisoned for two years. He escaped from prison in 1921 and later was again ordained a Buddhist monk at Magok Temple, Gongju.
During Kim’s exile period (1919-1945), Baik provided substantial funds to support Korea’s independence movement to Shanghai and Manchuria until his death in 1940. When Kim returned to Korea soon after the nation’s liberation in 1945, he paid respect to the portrait of Baik at Daekak Temple for his philanthropy during Korea’s independence movement.
The tradition of Baik’s Great Awakening Buddhism was inherited by Venerable Im Do-moon, who recently established Jookrim-Jeongsa at Baik’s birthplace in Jang-soo, North Jeolla Province.
Currently, the tradition has been inherited by Ven. Han Bo-kwang and Ven. Bomnyun. Han is a professor at Dongkook University and also the abbot at Jeongto Temple, Cheonggye Mountain, Seoul. Bomnyun is founder of the religious society of Jeongto (Pure Land). Both studied Buddhism under Ven. Do-moon at Bunhwang Temple, Gyeongju, when they were in high school in the late 1960s.
Walking around Daekak Temple in Jongno, Seoul, on March 1, where Baik studied and, taught Buddhism and also prepared for Korea's independence movement, I was inspired and felt close to his legacy of Great Awakening and his patriotic sense of inspiration.
Choe Chong-dae is a guest columnist of The Korea Times and the president of Dea-kwang International, as well as a director of the Korean-Swedish Association. His email address is email@example.com.