Bongkil Chung. The Scriptures of Won Buddhism: A Translation of the WOnbulgyo kyojOn with Introduction. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2003. xviii + 413 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8248-2185-2.
Reviewed by Jin Y. Park (Department of Philosophy and Religion, American University)
Published on H-Buddhism (January, 2004)
The Pride and the Agony of New Religion
The Pride and the Agony of New Religion
The Scriptures of Won Buddhism is a challenging work both in the claims it makes and in the translation it offers. The book consists of two parts: (1) an extensive introduction (pp. 3-109), which discusses the history of Won Buddhism and its doctrines, and (2) a translation section which includes a translation of The Canon, the text that outlines the major tenets of Won Buddhist teaching (pp. 110-160), and The Scripture of Sot'aesan, a collection of teachings of the school's founder (pp. 165-351). Having grown to be one of the five largest religious groups in contemporary Korea, Won Buddhism, which was founded in 1916 by Sot'aesan Pak Chungbin (1891-1943), also has a sizable number of adherents outside of Korea.
In chapter 1 of part 1 of the introduction, Chung compares the teachings of Won Buddhism with two other new religions that emerged in Korea during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: Tonghak (Eastern Learning) established in 1860 by Su'un Ch'oe Che'u (1824-1864) and ChUngsan'gyo (Teaching of ChUngsan) introduced in 1902 by ChUngsan Kang Ilsun (1871-1909). The founders of all three religions viewed the world in their time as spiritually degenerate and asserted that nothing less than a radical change by a messianic figure would save the world. Incorporated in the doctrine of these schools was the founders' strong aspiration to renovate the current society. All three relied heavily on existing religio-philosophical systems and the end result was the development of three religions, each characterized by ecumenical synthesis. In the case of Won Buddhism, within its system are included Daoism, Confucianism, and the newly introduced Christianity, as well as Buddhist teachings.
While Buddhism played a special role in the creation of Won Buddhism, as is explained in chapters 2 and 3 of part 1 of the introduction, Sot'aesan's awakening experience was not influenced by any religion--including Buddhism. After his awakening, Sot'aesan reviewed the scriptures of various religious traditions and realized that "Ancient sages had known what I have come to know" (p. 39), and among the teachings of ancient sages, Sot'aesan found that the "Buddha-dharma was the best." He thus declared: "When I open a religious order in the future, therefore, I will take Buddha-dharma as the central tenet of the doctrine and incorporate other religious doctrines into it if they are proper, and establish a perfect religious order" (p. 40).
Chapters 4, 5, and 6 describe Sot'aesan's activities in the process of creating a new religious organization. It is notable that the first project Sot'aesan involved himself with after his awakening experience was the establishment of a Savings Union in an attempt to improve the condition of the peasants. For the members of the Union, Sot'aesan emphasized "such precepts as diligence and frugality, abolition of empty formalities, doing away with superstitions, abstinence from alcoholic drink and smoking" (p. 43). Sot'aesan also supervised an embankment project through which the members of the Union created farmlands out of tidelands. With the funds raised through the Savings Union and the Embankment Projects, Sot'aesan began a new religious order which he named PulbOp yOn'guhoe (Society for the Study of the Buddha Dharma, pp. 50-51) in 1924, eight years after his awakening experience.
Chapters 7 and 8 discuss the development of the new religious order after the establishment of the Society until the death of Sot'aesan. During this period, the major scriptures of the school, including Pulgyo ChOngjOn (The Correct Canon of Buddhism, 1943), were published and basic structures of the institution were completed.
Part 2 of the introduction discusses Sot'aesan's religious thought, which is also well articulated in the Canon and The Scripture of Sot'aesan. In various ways, So'taesan's religious order demonstrates the characteristics of new Buddhism and its renovation-oriented spirit which is also visible in some branches of Buddhism in other Asian nations as a result of those societies' encounter with western culture and modernization. Nationalism, secularization, and the blurring of the demarcation between the priesthood and laity all became a part of Sot'aesan's vision for a new religious order in which Sot'aesan hoped to realize the core teachings of the Buddha and overcome the malfunctioning monastic Buddhism in his time.
At the beginning of the Canon, Sot'aesan criticizes monastic life as not "suitable for people living in the secular world" (p. 117). Under that system, Sot'aesan argues, "the Buddha-grace, no matter how good Buddha-dharma may be, cannot reach the numberless sentient beings of the world" (p. 117). To make Buddhist teachings available to all people, wherever they are and whatever they do, a renovation of Buddhist practice was seen to be inevitable.
The idea of creating a down-to-earth approach to Buddhism is concretized in several aspects of Sot'aesan's Buddhism. The first is the replacement of the Buddha statue with the image of a circle (wOn in the Korean language), which Sot'aesan deems as a representation of the dharmakaaya Buddha (pp. 118, 120-123); the second is the interpretation of the Buddhist concept of dependent co-arising through the "fourfold beneficence" (K. "saUn") of heaven and earth, parents, brethren, and laws; the third, the traditional practice of precepts, meditation, and wisdom, is reinterpreted into the "threefold practice" (K. samhak) of "mindful karmic action (`siila), spiritual cultivation (samaadhi), and inquiry into facts and principles (praj~naa)" (p. 116). In summary, Sot'aesan's goal was "to reform some part of the doctrine and the system without altering the central tenets of Buddha-dharma so that the Buddhism of the few should be that of the general populace, and so that partial practice should become complete practice" (p. 174).
The Scriptures of Won Buddhism provides scholars and practitioners a rare opportunity to read a primary Korean Buddhist text in English. The Korean language used in two scriptures of Won Buddhism translated by Chung contains expressions derived from Classical Chinese whose meaning is not always clear even to readers of the Korean language. Employing his decades-long familiarity with Won Buddhist literature combined with his scholarship in Buddhist philosophy, Chung has brought clarity to his English rendering of the Won scriptures.
The value of this book, however, is not limited to the making available of this translation. In the introduction and the appendix (pp. 353-356) Chung makes a strong argument on the issue that has long been controversial among the scholars of Won Buddhism. The issue is deceptively simple: Is Won Buddhism really "Buddhism," or a new folk religion? Chung directly confronts this issue, claiming that Won Buddhism should be understood as a new Buddhism and that two changes in the history of Won Buddhism have caused confusion about the identity of the school.
The first is the change of the school's name from PulbOp yOn'guhoe (The Society for the Study of Buddha-dharma) to Won Buddhism in 1947 (pp. 3, 4, 70). The second is the redaction of the 1943 edition of the Pulgyo chOngjOn (The Correct Canon of Buddhism) in the 1962 edition of ChOngjOn (the Canon) in which the Buddhist color in the original Canon was diluted and the relation between the school and Buddhism became obscure. Chung identifies five places where revisions were made when the 1962 version of the Canon was created and restores them in his translation, which he claims as "absolutely necessary for the soundness of its doctrine" (p. 356).
In support of his claim that Won Buddhism is a new Buddhism, Chung foregrounds the Mahaayaana elements visible in Won Buddhist doctrines such as the concept of the dharmakaaya Buddha (pp. 71-72), and the mind in the Awakening of Faith as the foundation of the "noumenal nature of IrwOn" (pp. 75-76), and discusses the truth of IrwOnsang in the context of the Zen discourse of emptiness (pp. 77-78).
Following this line of argument I wonder to what extent Chung has taken into consideration Sot'aesan's vision of Buddhism in the context of Buddhist reform movements in Korea during the first half of the twentieth century, which could further support his claim. Sot'aesan was not the only figure who gave voice to the necessity for Buddhist reforms in his time. His reformist ideas are very much in line with those of other Buddhist intellectuals of the period, including Han Yongun (1879-1944), KwOn Sangno (1879-1965), and Pak HanyOng (1870-1948), all of whom voiced the necessity for a radical change in Korean Buddhism. Yi NUnghwa's lay Buddhist movement, Paek YongsOng's emphasis on the translation of Buddhist scriptures in Chinese characters into vernacular Korean, and Pak HanyOng's effort for mass proselytizing share such a spirit as well.
What distinguishes Sot'aesan's reform from others was that he created a new religious order, whereas the attempts at reform carried out by others were done within the parameters of the traditional order of Korean Buddhism. This constitutes a major difference. For some reason, Chung does not touch upon this issue and limits the context of Buddhism at the time of the establishment of Sot'aesan's new religion to the encounter between Korean Buddhism and Japanese colonialism (p. 9-10).
Also, questions may be raised regarding the scope of the restoration Chung made in this book. This is because revisions made in the 1962 version were not limited to the five sections Chung restored in his translation. One major revision entailed the almost complete removal of the first chapter of the 1943 edition, in which Sot'aesan critically diagnoses the situation of Buddhism in Korea and offers his vision for the reform of Korean Buddhism. By highlighting this aspect of redaction, Chung could have clarified the nature of Buddhism in Sot'aesan's new religion. In the 1962 version, messages from this redacted chapter are scattered in the Canon and The Scriptures of Sot'aesan. Since Chung's translation is not a complete restoration of the 1943 edition, to some readers it could be understood as yet an another hermeneutic endeavor, which locates his translation in between the 1943 and 1962 editions.
That said, by identifying the source of confusion on the identity of the school, Chung has shed much new light on the discussion of Won Buddhism. Regardless of one's position on this issue, Chung's claim brings our attention to the complexity that is involved in the identity formation of a new religion. If the renovation of the tradition is one major feature of Won Buddhism, and at the same time--as Chung shows in his book--the school is a visible descendant of Mahaayaana Buddhism, these problems concerning the school's identity seem to be part and parcel of its life as a new religion, rather than being matters that can, or should, be neatly resolved.
The significant degree of success that Won Buddhism has experienced within less than a hundred years, together with its renovative spirit, has provided scholars a model case of a new Buddhism. For Buddhist practitioners, it has provided an alternative to the traditional forms of Buddhism. Bongkil Chung demonstrates solid scholarship in The Scriptures of Won Buddhism, provoking diverse issues involved in new religion. The publication of this book is also timely, considering the increasing interest in the transformation of Buddhism in modern and contemporary Asia. The Scriptures of Won Buddhism will be invaluable material to Buddhist scholars interested in modern Korean Buddhism, new Buddhist movements, Buddhism and modernity, and Buddhism and gender, among others.
. Regarding diacritics: Following the strategy used on the Korean Studies listserv, we have encoded the o-breve and u-breve used in the McCune-Reischauer romanization system with uppercase O and U. There are still too many subscribers--along with the H-Net web publication system itself--who are not yet capable of dealing with Unicode.
. For a discussion on this issue see Kim KyOngjip, Han'guk pulgyo kyehyOkron yOn'gu [Studies on the Reformation of Korean Buddhism] (Seoul: Chin'gakjong jonghak yOn'gusil, 2001).
. See for example Steven Heine and Charles S. Prebish, eds., Buddhism in the Modern World: Adaptations of an Ancient Tradition (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), which contains a chapter on Won Buddhism contributed by Bongkil Chung with a title, "Won Buddhism: The Historical Context of Sot'aesan's Reformation of Buddhism for the Modern World," pp. 143-167.
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Jin Y. Park. Review of Chung, Bongkil, The Scriptures of Won Buddhism: A Translation of the WOnbulgyo kyojOn with Introduction.
H-Buddhism, H-Net Reviews.
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