WON BUDDHISM (Religious Movement)

Founder: Pak Chungbin (b. 1891; d. 1943)

Won Buddhism is strongly millenarian (see Millenarianism) in outlook though the version of paradise on earth which it offers is less ambitious than most millenarian movements in terms of the transformation it believes will come about, and more pragmatic, utilitarian and small scale than that envisaged by other Korean movements including Ch’ondogyo or the Unification Church.

With the collapse of the Yi dynasty in the late nineteenth century Korean Buddhism started to undergo a revival and one of the new forms to emerge was Won Buddhism founded in 1916 by Pak Chungbin (1891-1943), also known by his literary name, Sot’aesan. The position adopted by Sot’aesan regarding his own enlightened vision of the nature of ultimate reality was ambiguous in the sense that he claimed that it was both original and independent of any other religious tradition and at the same time that all the ancient sages and religious thinkers had been aware of its content. He also made the point that the best guide to a clear understanding of the nature of his enlightenment was Buddhism and in particular the Diamond Sutra.

While it derives much from the past, Won Buddhism is new in rejecting the traditional understanding of liberation as nihilistic and in replacing it with the idea of creating paradise on earth by enabling people to develop their talents and abilities. In conventional Buddhism the way to understand the nature of ultimate reality, it is taught, is through the Threefold Learning, samadhi (meditation), prajna (wisdom) and sila (morality). In Won Buddhism these are expressed in modern terms as ‘the cultivation of spirit’, ‘the study of facts and principles’, and ‘choice of conduct’. Also, Won Buddhism’s paradise on earth is unusual in that it promises nothing truly spectacular or idyllic but simply the basic facilities that will help to offset some of the more serious emotional, social and economic consequences of modern living. The provision of such relatively widely available facilities could, of course, lead to some people’s world being completely transformed. The promise is of more employment agencies to serve those looking for jobs, and marriage bureaux to assist those wishing to marry, day nurseries in many more places to enable mothers to go out to work and not worry about their children. Old people without a protector will live comfortable lives without anxiety, homes for the aged established by the government or by charitable organizations. Life in even the remotest place will be surrounded by such convenience facilities as fast food restaurants that there will be no need to always cook at home. There also will be many tailors, dressmakers, and laundries to make life easier for families and in particular women.

While many of these facilities are taken for granted in much of the Western world the widepread appeal of Won Buddhism suggests that for many they are hard to come by elsewhere. These promises also suggest that Won Buddhism, a much simplified version of Buddhism, has been greatly influenced by Western culture.

The main sacred texts of Won Buddhism are those written by Sot’aesan, and the transcriptions of his words and of those of his successor Son Kyu (1900-62). Practice consists essentially in reciting, as in the Pure Land Tradition, the name of the Buddha Amitabha, when venerating the One-Circle-Figure and/or Black Circle. This One-Circle-Figure represents the Dharma-body and replaces the widespread veneration of the countless images of the Buddha. In this it resembles the Santi Asoke movement in Thailand which also prohibits the installation and veneration of images of the Buddha in its monasteries, shrines and temples. In recent times resources have been put into higher education and the training of leaders and monks who attend the movement’s Wonkwang University which houses a College of Won Buddhist Studies.

Mainly an urban phenomenon Won Buddhism attaches great importance not only to inner calm and peace but also to social service. It has enjoyed considerable success especially since the 1950s not only in Korea where it has built many schools and has been activily engaged in various kinds of charitable work but also beyond. In 2000 the membership of the movement was estimated to be over one and a quarter million, and the number of temples around 450 served by more than 1,500 monks, and over 10,000 religious specialists. Won Buddhism, now an international movement, has established branches in, among other countries, Japan and the United States.

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