The 20th Century was a time of extremes for the Buddhist tradition. It was a Century of destructive wars and of unparalleled development of technology, education, and social change. Buddhism was caught in the throes of these political and military shifts that both tormented and excited humanity. In Europe, late 19th Christianity was faced with the criticisms of the scholarly community who sought to free themselves from the domination of the church and theological barriers to scientific research. One of the most important voices in this rejection of religious power was Karl Marx and it was his influence in the politics of Communism that led to the suppression of Christian and other religious traditions. For Buddhism, the advent of Communism in Asia brought about governmental persecutions and restrictions that for a period of time threatened to destroy its place in the societies of Mongolia, China, North korea, Vietnam, and Eastern Russian provinces. In 1975, the Cultural Revolution in China and the subsequent developments in the Chinese sphere of Influence had brought Buddhist activities to a halt in regions where it has Once thrived. At that time, it appeared that the religious map of the world was being redrawn an Buddhism would be limited to Japan, Korea, the Southern Himalayas, and Southeast Asia.
However, changes have occurred which Transformed the environments of Eurasia. At the end of Cultural Revolution, China allowed religious practice to resume and as a result Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity have found a new generation of Practitioners. Who could have predicted in 1975 ; that within 30 years there Would be hundreds of thousands of Buddhist monks and nuns in China, the Reestablishment of strong Buddhism communities in Mongolia, Western China and Tibet, Buryiat Republic, and Tuva - Korean Buddhism has faced all of the problems of the 20th century and it, like the other groups in Asian Buddhist communities, has undergone rapid growth from the 1970s to the present. After facing the long period of suppression in the Chosen era: when the monks and nuns were forbidden to enter the cities, the hardships of the Japanese colonial period when monks and nuns were forced to change the very fabric of monastic life, the destructiveness of the Korean War when hundreds of ancient Buddhist structures and monasteries were burned, the rapid social changes of the post war era when urbanization absorbed the rural population where support for Buddhism was highest, many predicted the demise of Buddhism.
Today, we find that Buddhism is establishing itself within the cities of Korea and there is no better expression of this than the establishment of radio stations, television programming, educational expansion at all levels including medicine, urban centers for practice, and international outreach. The opening of the Dongguk University hospital, said to be the largest in Korea, is but one indication of the expanding influence of Buddhism on the peninsula. After a long period when Korea was struggling to find a national identity following colonial control and foreign forces fighting over its soil, there is a new sense of pride and acceptance that has replaced the sorrow of defeats and the attempts to copy patterns from America and Japan. Buddhism is now being seen as a part of the culture of Korea in a way that Western religious institutions are not. Korean Buddhism in America has a different pattern of development from that of the homeland. First, the challenges of Western society and values are far greater in this environment. Koreans who have migrated to North America have attempted and succeeded in adapting to the way of life in the new country. One of the ways of expressing this acceptance of the American values has been Joining a Christian church. It must be said that the Korean Christian churches have played a major and important role in helping the emigrants find support community. I do not intent by my comments to criticize the ways in which religion has been practiced by those who came from Korea to the U.S. The churches did and still provide a much needed element of life for many Koreans in this country.
Buddhism has, therefore, found greater difficulty in expanding among the Korean Americans than it has in recent years in cities of Korea. However, the growth of interest in Buddhism has changed opinions among the current generation. As Buddhism emerged from the characterizations of the Chosen dynasty, that is the idea that it is a negative and destructive factor in society, it is now being studies and viewed in a positive light. Even among the professors and the intelligentsia of Korea, it is now permissible to be interested in or even practice Buddhism. The reconstruction of Korean history, art, and philosophy, after the devastations of the war and external influences, has opened a door for people to take a new look at Buddhism and its positive impact on culture and society in the past. As this more positive view has come into vogue, the Buddhist past is now seen as a valuable aspect of Korean life. From this has come a new tolerance for the religion and this is reflected in the increasing number of people who have begun to participate in Buddhist practice, education, and events. To some extent, the activity that we celebrate today is an example of how Buddhist practice has increased and found greater acceptance.
When the first Korean communities came to Hawaii and the West Coast of North American in the 20th century, there were few Buddhist monastic who ever visited them or attempted to establish centers.
Buddhism at that time was a fixed tradition and the monastic community was limited to the confines of Asia with no thought for missionary activity. This was true for the Chinese As well and the Koreans. It was only among the Japanese emigrants that Buddhist priests practiced and set up sites abroad that carried on the rituals And cultural features of Japan. As Korea developed economically and found a Place in the international community as a partner of manufacturing and commerce, it was natural that the religious of Korea should also become more global. One of the signs of this international activity has been arrived of Buddhist teachers in Europe and North America.
The impact of Buddhism in America was apparent during the turbulent years of The late 1960s and early 1970s. Because of the discontent of the younger Generation, who acquired the name of hippies, it was assumed that Buddhism Was finding a home in America because of a spiritual vacuum. It is true that Many of the Americans, who found Buddhism of interest, were seeking for social And spiritual alternatives to their own traditional institutions. However, The power that drove the international outreach of Asian Buddhist groups was Not fully recognized. It was not the situation in America which has changed, As much as it was the developments in Asia which were now allowing the International sphere of activity.
The Asian economy and the recovery from World WarⅡ, the Korean War, and more recently the Vietnamese War created new Wealth and an economic program that included involvement with the markets of The whole world. In order to wage the so called Cold War, America and parts Of western Europe opened their trade doors to Japan, Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan. This spread of mercantile and commercial activity has often been called globalization and it has been attacked by many for causing displacement of jobs. Whatever its flaws, globalization has given nations like South Korea an economic power and productivity that is far beyond what it possessed even five or six decades ago. As business went out around the world cultural and religious ideas followed in its wake. Buddhists from Asia began to travel and to set up centers in the population centers of North America and Western Europe. This has been the economic environment that has allowed Korean Buddhists to send hundreds of monks and nuns around the world to teach and train. It is unprecedented in Korean history, except for the period when the power of Korea in the early centuries of the Common Era, permitted monks to go to Japan to establish Buddhism with the rulers of the emerging central in Nara. All of this is to refute the claim that the reason for the growth of Buddhism in America and Europe is due to some religious vacuum that has been An irresistible magnet that drew to itself the traditions of Asia. Instead, we are witnessing the power of Asian commerce and culture that is expanding around the world, supported by internationally minded groups at home. It is time for Asia to claim for itself the power behind the spread of Buddhism. The power shift from Europe and North America toward the Asian markets is matched step by step with the growth of culture and religious influences Outside of Asia.
Among many of the groups that funded the establishment of centers in the International projects, the main intent was to serve the white American and European populations. The conversion of these westerners to Buddhism was seen as proof of the value of the religion and people in Asia eagerly awaited news of the success of this missionary effort. This view of the reason for having Buddhist centers in America does not fully take into account the nature of this country. America and especially California is made up of many different racial and cultural communities. It is not all Anglo Saxon protestant in either history or practice. We have recently passed a major milestone in the demography of the U.S. No longer are we a nation dominated by a while majority an African American minority. Today, the white majority still stands although with a similar percentage a year by year. The Hispanic populations now exceeds that of African Americans. The Asian population in California now approaches 12% of the population but dominates far beyond its numbers in educational institutions. The student body of the incoming class of freshman at the University of California at Berkley ha 45% Asian background and 30% Caucasian. I am very pleased to say that my grand daughter who is Japanese and American is representative of our nation and its mixtures. She is an example of how we are developing a strength in our nation that relies on the contributions from all over the world.
From this, I think it is important for a group such as this one in Los Angeles to recognize that serving the Korean American community is a vital and important task. If Buddhism is to survive and thrive in this country it will be, in part, because the emigrants communities from Buddhist nations have been able to pass along the religion to the second and third generations. The Japanese American Buddhists deserve much credit for the fact that they have been able to maintain Buddhism among their community for more than a century. While some have wished to have more Americans among the membership, it is a success story that the Japanese Americans have remained Buddhists even as they lived and worked in a minority position. The Los Angeles basis is now filled with Thai, laotian, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Sri lankan, Burmese, Taiwanese, Korean, and Japanese Buddhist centers. Education is also playing a role in the life of these communities, language schools during the weekend for the children, universities such as Soka University and Hsilai University, and social service units such as hospices and prison visitation programs, and all indications of the deep involvement of Buddhism in the life of Los Angeles County. The maintenance of the religious training practices, rituals, and teachings among this vast community of Buddhists is a major task. Here in this monastery supported by the Korean community, we can find the social support needed by people who have grown up with Korean language, culture and values. If in another 70 years when the group celebrates the 100th anniversary, success will be measured in how well the Korean community was served, how well the Korean culture was preserved and shared with the local society, how well Buddhist ideas and practices were kept alive and developed. If the great, great, great, grandchildren of the founders of this monastery are still here and still finding a source of inspiration and solice in the teachings that are represented by Korean Buddhism, that will be success indeed. The inclusion of a wider ethnic group within the activities of this monastery may occur but only if the structure remains in place supported by Koreans who receive benefit in return for the support.
I salute all who have made this a major religious center. We are endebted to those whose vision moved them to create this institution for the benefit of the Korean Americans and all others who are interested in Buddhism. May this monastery continue to serve the people of Los Angeles and enrich the life of this country.
----(Kwan Um Temple Symposium on Korean Buddhism in America /// March 23, 2003 Kwan Um Temple, Los Angeles, CA
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