CH'ONDOGYO (Religion of the Heavenly Way. Formerly Tonghak: Eastern Leaning)

Founder: Cho’oe Che-u (b. 1824; d. 1864)

Ch’ondogyo (Religion of the Heavenly Way) was founded in Korea as Tonghak (Eastern Learning) by Ch’oe Che-u (1824-64) in 1860, son of a well known Confucian scholar but regarded, none the less, as lower class on account of his mother’s position as a concubine. Having despaired of finding an answer to society’s ills in the traditional teachings of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Christianity, and Folk Religions, Ch’oe Che-u sought a remedy for society’s ills in a new form of Eastern Learning.

The movement was particularly critical of the Christian concept of a transcendent God who stood apart from humanity and the natural world. God, Ch’oe Che-u believed, was the Great Totality innate in human beings, the ‘Great I’ to which everyone could aspire. And importantly, in terms of its millenarian belief, Tonghak taught that heaven and hell were not places that souls departed to after death but states that could be realized on earth, depending on behaviour. Chongdoryong (the one with God’s truth) would, it was believed, proclaim from his position on Mount Kyerong, the chongdo or right way for the new heaven on earth in which all nations, laws, and teachings would be united. Unification was a constant theme in most nineteenth-century Korean new religion and is at the centre of Unification Church (UC) theology.

Tonghak’s description of paradise on earth also displays a deep concern for the plight of the poorest, with the inconveniences and even intractable problems created by climate, and the forces of Nature generally, factors which fuel a desire to escape from disease and attain immortality. Also evident is a deep concern with the profound disruption to social and economic life and culture resulting from the introduction of a new form of exchange based on money, a new system of taxation and the threat to the Korean language posed by the opening up of the country to the West.

Though its teachings were contrasted with Western Learning/Christianity (Sohak) this new religion, like the Vietnamese movement Caodaism, contained ideas and practices derived from Catholicism, and from Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism and Folk Religion. Claiming that he had been commissioned by the Lord of Heaven, the Great Totality, the ultimate energy (chigi) to save humanity from destruction Ch’oe Ch-eu devised the following mantra which encapsulated the movement’s basic teachings:

Infinite Energy being now within me, I yearn that it may pour into all living beings and all created things. Since this Energy abides in me, I am identified with God, and of one nature with all existence. Should I ever forget these things all existing things will know of it.

Tonghak was organized into branches or units (ops) of between thirty to fifty believers. The foundation date of the movement, 5 April, and the dates of the ordination of the leaders are kept as holy days. Services, as in Catholicism and other Christian denominations, were held on Sundays.

Amid strong opposition, at first from Confucian scholars and later from the government, the founder began spreading his message of the Eastern or Heavenly Way as opposed to the Western (Catholic Way), and predicting with the help of the Ch’amwisol—The Theory of Interpretation of Divinations—that the ruling Yi dynasty, after 500 years in power, would fall, and this happened to be in 1892. The government became increasingly hostile to what it considered to be ‘subversive’ teachings and in 1864 Ch’oe Che-u was executed and his followers either exiled or imprisoned.

Tonghak’s core idea that all individuals possessed a God-like nature—or the doctrine that humans and God are one but different (In Nae Chon)—and were, therefore, equal in dignity and worth, had obvious revolutionary implications. It developed in followers the strong belief that injustice and inequality could and would be eradicated and that those responsible—in this case the ruling Yi dynasty—for the oppression that existed in Korea would be overthrown and punished. An invading force, it was predicted would destroy the oppressive old order and Tonghak members by the use of incantations and magical means would escape and as immortal beings would enjoy everlasting bliss in an earthly paradise (Chisang Chonguk).

A militant millenarian movement Tonghak, under the leadership of Chou Pong-jun, successor to Ch’oe Che-u, who enjoyed widespread support among the heavily taxed peasants, itself mounted a rebellion against the government to eradicate injustice and inequality. This was quashed but only with the assistance of Japanese and Chinese forces.

Though greatly reduced in numbers and forced to work underground Tonghak continued its campaigns against corruption and injustice and against foreign influence, and this resulted in further arrests, executions, and the exiling of leaders and members.

The outcome of such forceful repression was a change of name from Tonghak to Ch’ondogyo in 1904, principally for the purpose of convincing the government that it was now a nonpolitical, purely religious body. Its revised list of core beliefs, eight in all, included the belief that God and humanity were one, that mind and matter form a unity and the belief in the transmigration of the spirit. This new found religious orientation lasted for only a short time as political activities recommenced with the occupation of Korea by the Japanese in 1910. Tonghak/Ch’ondogyo became a resistance movement working for Korean independence underground against the Japanese occupation (191047). Though its headquarters are in Seoul, capital of South Korea, where it is estimated to have over one million members, Tonghak/Ch’ondogyo also has an estimated two million members in North Korea.

There are several interesting parallels between Tonghak/Ch’ondogyo beliefs and the Unification Church, and Won Buddhism.

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