Korean Buddhism Orders and Sects

Won Buddhism – 원불교

The Symbol of Won Buddhism.

History of Won Buddhism

Won Buddhism is a modern religion founded in the 20th century. And it’s either a new syncretic religion or a reformed Buddhism. Won Buddhism means “circle” in English. Or more precisely and literally, “Round Buddhism.” The stated goal of Won Buddhism is for people to realize the innate Buddha nature in all of us and to help save other sentient beings by serving them. That’s why an emphasis is placed on the interactions we have in our daily lives.

Won Buddhism was first founded by Pak Chung-bin (1891-1943). He was known as Great Master Sotaesan. And he attained enlightenment in 1916. Initially, Sotaesan didn’t specifically set out to embrace Buddhism. Instead, he examined various religions in an attempt to identify which religion would be the best vehicle to convey his new enlightened message. His new found thoughts had elements of Confucianism, Daoism, Shamanism, and Buddhism in them. This, not so surprising, is also the multi-religious heritage that all Koreans are born into on the Korean peninsula. However, upon reading the Buddhist Diamond Sutra, Sotaesan decided that these Buddhist teachings best coincided with his new enlightened message. So it was through Buddhism that he would present his vision.

Purportedly, Sotaesan had a premonition that our world would be entering into an “advanced material civilization.” As a result, humans would be enslaved by this materialism. So the only way to save people from this was to expand an individual’s spiritual power through faith. This could and would be achieved through a genuine religion and training that was grounded in a sound morality. So with the dual goal of saving sentient beings and the ills of the world, Sotaesan started his religious mission found in Won Buddhism.

Sotaesan then attracted a small group of followers. From this small group, he selected nine disciples. The early guiding principles of Won Buddhism included diligence, frugality, rituals, and abstinence from alcohol and smoking. Another guiding element was the blurring between the distinction made between laity and monastics. This still remains central to this day. Sotaesan also sought to improve the daily life of his followers, so he established savings institution and the reclamation of twenty acres of land for future development.

The central doctrine of Won Buddhism was founded on the Buddha-dharma. This was done by establishing the “Society of the Study of the Buddha-dharma” in Iksan, Jeollabuk-do in 1924. And Sotaesan continued to expand his new religion through his teachings up until his death in 1943. Coincidentally, the “Bulgyo Cheongjeon,” or “The Correct Canon of Buddhism,” which memorialized the central doctrine of Won Buddhism, was published in 1943, as well.

The Society would remain a small rural order in Iksan, Jeollabuk-do until the Japanese Occupation of Korea came to an end in 1945. It was also at this time that Sotaesan’s successor, Cheongsan, renamed the Society to Won-bulgyo (Won Buddhism) in 1947. And since the end of Japanese Occupation, Won Buddhism continues to grow steadily in support.

Characteristics of Won Buddhism

The central doctrine of Won Buddhism lies in the belief of Ilwonsang. This central tenet states that Ilwon, which means “One Circle” in English, is the source of all sentient and non-sentient beings in the universe. This also includes the original nature of all Buddhas and patriarchs. Included in this, as well, is the Buddha-nature that resides in all sentient beings. Won Buddhism begins with this belief in Ilwonsang as an all-encompassing source. This is the centre for all things. There is no distinctions like big and small, self and others, being and non-being. And the worship of Ilwon lies in the belief that we are indebted to the Fourfold Grace and the elements of the universe. And the teachings of Won Buddhism are summed up in a Doctrinal Chart included at the front of the “Scriptures of Won Buddhism.” Cheongsan published the “Scriptures of Won Buddhism” in 1962.

Won Buddhism Now

Won Buddhism has formed several schools and social welfare centres in Korea, which coincides with their guiding principle of relieving the suffering of other sentient beings. Won Buddhism also conducts medical missions to other parts of the world in need of this assistance. And the supporting of education is also an important goal of Won Buddhism because it allows people to be independent and free of suffering.

Won Buddhism temples offer weekly services which are typically held on Sundays. These services can include meditation, chanting, dharma talks, hymns, and sermons.

In Korea, and as of 2005, there were roughly 130,000 practitioners of Won Buddhism. However, the precise number of international practitioners is unknown. Also, the exact number of Korean practitioners might be under-represented as people might identify as being Buddhist on the census, when they in fact are of the more non-traditional Won Buddhism. With this in mind, the Won Buddhist headquarters estimates that there are over one million practitioners of Won Buddhism in the world.

Also of interesting within Won Buddhism, both men and women are referred to as “gyomunim,” which means “someone devoted to teaching” in English. And unlike other Buddhist monks and nuns, the gyomunim don’t shave their heads. Gender equality in Won Buddhism is one of the core doctrines. Both male and female gyomunim have equal status. In fact, women can be elected as “masters” and sit on the Supreme Dharma Council, which is the highest decision making body in Won Buddhism.

Prominent Won Buddhist Temples

Won Buddhism has a total of 350 temples in Korea. Like the Jogye Order, they are divided into sixteen organizing districts. Won Buddhism is headquartered out of Iksan, Jeollabuk-do. And unlike the majority of Jogye Order and Taego Order temples, Won Buddhism temples are found in urban areas. This is done so that more people can easily access these temples. Also of interest, there are some seventy Won Buddhist temples in Europe, Asia, Africa, and North and South America. More specifically, there are thirty-three temples in the U.S. and two in Canada. Won Buddhism also has twenty Buddhist-affiliated middle schools, high schools, and colleges with a graduate school in the U.S.

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