Won Buddhism: Material Civilization

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“As material civilization develops, cultivate spiritual civilization accordingly” --So’taesan

The words of the spiritual architect of Won Buddhism, Sot’aesan, suggest that the growth of Won Buddhism is inherently intertwined with the emergence of an increasingly modern Korea. This is for several reasons, the first being that Won Buddhism is essentially a new religion birthed in the context of a new world, one vastly different than the world the original Buddha walked all those years ago. Won Buddhism is a response to the rapidly industrializing new world of the 20th century; a world of advanced technology carrying with it the mass destruction of war and the mass spiritual decadence of an obsession with materialism. Bongkil Chung says of
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his vision of a humanity enslaved and destroyed by the material power proved to be all-too prophetic given the state of the world by the time of his death in 1943. Pye says on page 123, “Sot’aesan’s enlightenment was said to be autonomous without any external influence, thus Won Buddhism stands firmly in the trend for Korean self-determination”. So, in a sense, it can be said that Won Buddhism was born with the struggle for liberation not only from Japan, but from the ever-expanding powers that were beginning to reign over humanity. But, despite its seeming novelty, and the independence through which Sot’aesan’s enlightenment came about, it cannot be denied the striking similarities it shares to traditional Buddhism. Sot’aesan himself speaks of the influence of not only Buddhism on his new religion, but also of other Eastern religions. In his essay, Bongkil Chung explains that Sot’aesan began to see the relationship between his new religion and Buddhism only after his enlightenment, “upon perusing the basic scriptures of other religions to check his enlightenment, he thought that his search for truth and essence agreed with that of the Buddha, and he declared that Sakyamuni Buddha is the sage of all sages” (64). In his essay “Dialogue and Synthesis: Sot’aesan’s Perspective and Examples”, Bokin Kim only further gives credence to the idea that Sot’aesan’s “awakening to the Truth after his long search was formulated as Won Buddhist teaching in the context of multi-religious faiths and practices” (90). Kim also notes on the same page that Sot’aesan was unique in his emphasis on dialogue rather than conversion. Sot’aesan saw the Truth permeate all religions in general, and he did not seek to convert people, but to make them aware of their common spiritual beliefs. It is this very aspect of the multidimensionality of Sot’aesan’s character that allowed for the

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