The toughness of Korean Buddhism

Buddhist organisations both in the north and in the south of Korea planned to hold the annual day of remembrance for Han Yong-un (1879-1944), dubbed a Buddhist reformer and nationalist.
On June 20, 2014 the South-Korean government had yet to approve the meeting planned at the Buddhist monastery on Mt Kumgang, a South-Korean enclave on North-Korean soil.


Han Yongun is in western countries remembered as a Buddhist monk ánd a composer of love poetry. When we search online the first thing we encounter are his love poems. His “Love’s Silence” was completed in 1925. It is said to be an anthology of not only poems about love in the romantic sense of the word, but also about the universal love that Buddhism presents under names such as maitri and metta in Sanskrit and Pali, and pagae in Korean.

In 1955 the Korean Jogye Order restructured itself as a staunchly celibate school of Buddhism. But earlier, under Japan’s colonial rule all Buddhist schools were under the obligation to follow Japan’s example both in religious outlook and practice as in married priesthood — if the priest so wished.

There are no sources in western languages that indicate Yongun’s affiliation to a specific Buddhist school. The only thing we know of him today is that especially the Jogye Order honours Han Yongun as a reformer of Korean Buddhism.

According to Jung-Shim Lee (Korean Histories 3.1 2012) “recently scholars have begun to express deep concerns about the hero-worship of Han Yongun …” Yongun, in his capacity of editor of a Buddhist newspaper published an article in 1930 that according to some could be interpreted as at best not opposed to Japanese colonial rule.

It’s not this particular article and a few subsequent paragraphs in Yongun’s newspaper that draws the attention but his interpretation or rather misinterpretation of “Buddhist heroïsm” and Sakyamuni Buddha as a valiant warrior who defended the right cause. Jung Shim-Lee specifically mentions Yongun’s 1924 “The Buddhism I Believe In” (Nae-ga minnun Pulgyo). This article emphasises self-reliance as a feature of Buddhism. Yongun maintained that no matter what the situation is, one’s mind is most important. “The point is,” Lee subsumes, “that if one has a strong mind and spiritual strength one does not feel the suffering, whereas being weak and poor in spirit intensifies the suffering.” Yongun threw this weapon in the arena not to fight the colonialism and cultural
imperialism of the Japanese, but as a means by which the Korean population could define itself as physically, mentally and morally totally reliant on itself and independent and quite apart from claims and exigences by others. And he tried, wrote Pori Park, to establish a “Buddhist reformation (as a) national identity” with this self-reliance as the centre-pole inside the stupa.
We cannot say that Han Yongun’s view belied the core of Buddhism. We might however say that it lead to an exaggerated and principally unwholesome Korean Buddhist veneration of the monk-warrior. To this day webshops offer clay figurines such as the “Choson era (1392-1897) monk and guerilla commander”.

choson monk

This veneration of the readiness to actually fight arms in hand rests on a misinterpretation of the events during the night in which Buddha attained enlightenment by succesfully fighting “Mara’s army”. Han Yongun and others misrepresented this canonical texts, or commentaries on canonical texts, in which Mara is presented as an actual fighter, a demon leading not one but ten armies of fighter-demons. In reality of course, Mara is none other than our longing for a permanent and perpetually refreshed enjoyment of the senses, peace of mind and ease in life.

Mara’s “armies” consist of the most prominent factors that keep us busy: sensual pleasures, discontent, hunger and thirst, craving, sloth and torpor, fear, doubt, conceit and ingratitude, gain, renown, honor and whatever fame is falsely received, and “whoever both extols himself and disparages others”.
This last and tenth of Mara’s armies, by the way, that of being invited not to disparage others, is to this day the most misunderstood and most misused tool in the hands of those who tend to deviate from the path: you’re not allowed to criticise me because then you belong to Mara’s army — you’re doomed.

Jung Shim-Lee points to Han’s earlier (1913) “A treatise on the reformation of Korean Buddhism” (Choson Pulgyo yusillon). “Self-reliance, self-blame, and self-esteem”, writes Lee, are argued by Yongun to be the guiding principles to reform Korean Buddhism. His main concern is that of reformation of Korean Buddhism in a blameless, faultless and therefore invincible corpus: “Whoever makes you poor is not the rich but you yourself.
Whoever makes you weak is not the strong but you yourself. Whoever makes you distressed is neither society, nor heaven or earth, nor the times but you yourself. Thus, while it is your right to make yourself happy, you ought to take responsibility for your unhappiness.” (Self-reflection, ca. 1933)

This is the heroic spirit that Han Yongun tried to instill in his compatriots who went through very difficult times. But we must admit that here he severely deviates from the spirit of any of the canonical texts in which Buddha points out that it is not only we ourselves that can make us poor, weak, distressed, but that we’re allowed to look around and spot others who spoil the party. In order to see light, the Huayen school of Buddhism would say, there necessarily is darkness. The Chinese Huayen School is called Hwa’om in South Korea and is the Korean Buddhist school of thought represented by the Jogye Order.
Had Buddha not pointed out these simple fact of life, he would never have invited his entourage to show compassion, helpfulness, and co-operation in order to establish other beings into a life and mindset in which they feel free to strive for the contentedness of nirvana.

The Jogye Order that sports Buddha’s saying “Hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love; this is the eternal rule” on its website, will in its north-south meeting certainly not have given too much attention to those writings of Han Yongun that could instill different deviations from the Middle Way. This annual remembrance day is one of the few occasions where Buddhists from north and south can meet, in a spirit of mutual Koreanness, nurtured and promoted by the said Han Yongun.

Between June 9 and 12, 2014 a delegation of the Jogye Order took part in the 35th Japan-Korean Buddhist Cultural Exchange Conference in Gyushu Kurumishi Jhendouji. It’s one of the initiatives that surely but not hastely tries to heal the wounds between both nations.

As if to belie the opinion that Korean Buddhism, at least in the Jogye Order, is overly tough, European newspapers on July 18, 2014 showed a video with rapping nuns, (sunim) cheared on by an enthousiastic crowd.

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