Korean Buddhism in American Buddhism and American Buddhist Scholarship

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Korean Buddhism in American Buddhism and American Buddhist Scholarship

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by Jin Y. Park(American University)-(Kwan Um Temple Symposium on Korean Buddhism in America /// March 23, 2003 Kwan Um Temple, Los Angeles, CA


In the past twenty five hundred years, Buddhism has spread all over the world. During its eventful journey, Buddhism's encounter with Chinese culture, and the subsequent birth of what we now know as East Asian Buddhism, has been regarded as one of the most influential events that changed the course of Buddhist history, Recently, something similar to such a grand scale encounter between two cultures has been expected by Buddhist scholars and those who are interested in Buddhism as they witness the development of Buddhism in America. Today's event, which marks the thirtieth anniversary of Kwan Um temple, proves that such an expectation was not wrong. In this temple, Koreans and Korean Americans learn and practice Buddhism, continuing ther religious life in a society which is far different from the one they came from. By marking this anniversary, we are witnessing and participating the formation of a new direction in Buddhism in the twenty-first century.
When Buddhism was first introduced in China, it went through various and difficult situations : Buddhist scriptures needed be translated from Sanskrit to Chinese ; Buddhist teachings had to confront criticisms raised by Confucianism ; Buddhist teachings needed to compromise with existing religio-philosophical traditions. But eventually the amalgamation of the two cultures created a new form of Buddhism, which has had an influence on numerous people. Buddhism in America is still in its formative stage. There have been promises, criticisms, and hopes. How is Buddhism in America at this stage different from the Buddhism we know, and what will be the role of Korean Buddhism, the Korean Buddhist Community and Korean Buddhist scholarship in the making of Buddhism in America? I will briefly discuss the status of Buddhism in America by reviewing some characteristics of Buddhism in America. A review of research on Korean Buddhism in America will follow. I will close with a question about the responsibilities of Korean American Buddhism of Korean Buddhist scholarship.

•1. Buddhism in America
Buddhism in America can be divided into two groups : the first is Buddhism which immigrants from Asian nations brought with them and continue to practice in America ; the second is Buddhism practiced by non-immigrant English speaking Americans. The former is usually referred to as ethnic Buddhism, or sometimes immigrant Buddhism, or Asian-American Buddhism, whereas the latter has various titles, such as elite Buddhism(Nattier), Missionary Buddhism convert Buddhism Euro-American Buddhism Western Buddhism, or white Buddhism(Fields 1988,197).
The beginning of Buddhism in America can be traced to the mid nineteenth century when the well known poet-thinker, Henry David Thoreau, published an English translation of the Lotus Sutra from its French version. It is not easy to imagine how the American audience responded to this translation, especially considering that Buddhist terms like annihilation, no-self were not familiar fo them. The most important event for the future of Buddhism in America in the nineteenth century took place in 1893, when religious leaders of the world gathered together in Chicago to participate in the World parliament of Religion. In that meeting, a Japanese Zen master, Shaku Seon attended, marking an official entry of Zen Buddhism into America. As important as that initial entry of Buddhism was works by D.T. Suzuki, who came to the United States with Shaku Seon as his interpreter. After that event, for the decades to come published translations of various Buddhist texts, preparing the foundation for American Buddhism.
However, the first half of the twentieth century was a relatively quiet period in American Buddhism. During the mid twentieth century, at least two events changed the fate of Buddhism in America ; the first is civil rights movement in 1960s ; the second, the change of the Immigration Acts of 1965. As the former prepared the road for American Buddhism among English speaking Americans, the latter opened a door for the emergency of various ethnic Buddhist groups with a dramatic increase of numbers of immigrants from Asia.
Superficially, the difference between ethnic Buddhism and English speaking American Buddhism lies in the language they speak. In ethnic Buddhist temples, dharma talks are given in their ethnic languages. However, differences between the two groups go beyond the linguistic barrier. If we compare images and major concerns of each group, we notice that these two groups differ from each other in their approach to Buddhism. Here are some images of American Buddhism. A couple of years ago, I asked my students in an Asian Religious course : who practice Buddhism in America? Students immediately responded : Yuppies. Their logic was that Yuppies go to a meditation center as they would go to a health club and become a vegetarian as a part of their cultural privilege. For my American students, to be a vegetarian and practice meditation is a fashionable thing to do, where as Asian immigrants, there is no cultural privilege in eating vegetables. Korean dished are usually naturally vegetarian, unless there is a special occasion in which we spend extra money to prepare pulgogi.(The situation obviously is somewhat different here in the States, where Kimchi is as expensive as pulgogi) My students also identified Buddhists with celebrities, knowing that a movie star like Richard Gere, or the rock group, The Beastie Boys, claim to be Buddhist. The impression my students had on Buddhist practitioners in America was not completely correct. However, it was not completely their fantasy either.
Actually, the association of Buddhism and cultural privilege my students expressed in my class tells us something significant in the development of Buddhism in this nation. In an article entitled Americans Need Something to Sit On, or Zen Meditation Materials and Buddhist Diversity in North America, the author, Douglas M. Padgett, explores how American Buddhism connected with consumption culture of capitalist materialism in the society (padgett,2000). According to the author, Buddhism industries, such as sales of zafu(cushions Buddhist practitioners use for meditation) and zafuton(a supporter for the zafu) and various items including incense and Buddha status which sometimes are imported from Asia are an inseparable part of development of Buddhism in America. In order to purchase these materials, one should have a certain financial capability. Also in order to get an exposure to Buddhism, which is still a foreign culture in the American society, one should be in position to appreciate such an exposure. Such a pre-condition to be a Buddhist partially explains my students association with Buddhism and social privilege. Thus Padgett claims : consumption is an integral aspect of Buddhism in America and that Buddhist Americans consumption practices (have) a profound influence on the various ways that Buddhism in America is developing, how ti is being perceived, imagined, and contested(Padgett.63)
The commercialism and social privilege, however, provides a only partial vision of American Buddhism. Significant differences between ethnic Buddhism and non-immigrant American Buddhism lies in that each group expects from their religious community. The ethnic Buddhist group is not only a religious but a cultural group that defends specific ethnic interests in American society. For immigrant ethnic Buddhists, as important as religious-spiritual life is the survival in a new land. The religious community is not only a place for spiritual comfort, but a place in which immigrants group can socialize, exchange information, and learn the new culture. Hence social and cultural function becomes an important aspect of one's participation in Buddhist temples. For that purpose, ethnic Buddhist temples have made intentional efforts to learn from the Christian church about providing various social services in conjunction with religious rituals. The irony of this situation is that for English speaking non-immigrant American Buddhists, the rituals and social bonds which play an important role at the ethnic Buddhist temples remind them of Christian churches in their childhood from which they wanted to stay away and find Buddhism(Fields 1998, 203). Because of such differences, even when the ethnic Buddhist temples speak English, non-immigrant America Buddhist practitioners more often than mot do not feel comfortable at the ethnic Buddhist meetings, Buddhism, to them, means among others, spirituality.
Once at Buddhist symposium held in one of the Buddhist temples in New York, I met a couple who drove all the way from Virginia Beach to New York just to attend a three hour conference. At the reception I asked the couple what drove them to make such a long journey for a three hour conference and they told me that it was the spirituality Buddhism provided them, which they could not find in traditional western religious because of its secularization. The wife added : for the spirituality she experienced by practicing Buddhism, driving four hundred miles was nothing. By the same token, my American students always claim that Asian people are more religious and spiritual. The ground of this logic, in many cases, comes from their understanding of Buddhism as a more spiritual religion compared to secularized western religious traditions. Hence, spirituality is the core of western Buddhist practitioners vision of Buddhism. We should be careful when defining Buddhism in this manner. The general identification of Buddhism with spirituality and western traditional religions with secularization in American society does not necessarily mean that a certain religious tradition, Buddhism in this case, is more religious than other religious, such as Christianity or Catholicism. Instead, it tells us the importance of context in which a religion is practiced. Perhaps because of the different contexts in which American Buddhists and Korean immigrants meet Buddhism, it is more for mutual benefit that these two groups communicate and learn from each other.
In the importance of immigration to American Buddhism cannot be overstated writes Richard Seager in his Buddhism in America(1999). The mutual fertilization between immigrant and convert Buddhisms does not always take place in a predicable manner. One example Seager cites gives us some idea about how this unexpectedness takes place in the cultural crossroad : several years ago, in a Zen center in the mountains of Southern California, young students asked their American teachers to allow them to construct a weight room and fitness center, expressing their need for more strenuous activities than sitting zazen or doing t'ai chi,. After due consideration, the teachers turned down their request, thinking that StairMasters and Nautilus machines were not appropriate to a contemplative setting. Shortly thereafter however, the center was visited by a group of young Korean monks who had recently arrived in this country. They spent an hour or more each morning engaged in a rigorous practice regime that involved the repeated performance of full-body prostrations. Their prostration regime was soon incorporated by the Zen students into their daily practice as a way to vent energy and get physical stimulation while cultivating discipline.(Seager 1999, p45).
One might think that this is not exactly what is meant by Korean Buddhism\'s contribution to American Buddhism. And one might think that we want to transmit the traditional and authentic Korean Buddhism to American Buddhist practitioner. However, tradition is not something that is fixed but something that is always being made. Only when we are willing to open ourselves up to a new possibility, can we make a contribution to the formation of American Buddhism.
•2. Korean Buddhism in American Buddhist Scholarship
Korean Buddhism in American Buddhist Scholarship
How is Korean Buddhism both the one at home and among the Korean immigrants, understood by American Buddhist community? There has been a change, though slow, in the interest in Korean Buddhism in the teaching of Buddhism in American academia. If we compare different versions of text books on Buddhism, we notice that as new versions or new publications appear, the section on Korean Buddhism has been noticeably enhanced. For an example, in the case of The Buddhist Religion : A Historical Introduction by Richard Robinson and Williard Johnson, which I have been using a textbook for my Buddhism course, in its 3rd edition, which was published in 1970, the section on Korean Buddhism contained only 3 pages,(pp.195-197) In its 4th edition, published in 1997, Korean Buddhism has more detailed description I 16 pages(pp.221-236). Donald W. Mitchell's Buddhism : Introducing the Buddhist Experience, another textbook style publication, published in 2002, has a separate chapter on Korean Buddhism(pp.218-240). Still, the number of scholars who are expertise in Korean Buddhism is small and volumes on Korean Buddhism leave much to be desired. One negative impact of this lack of material on Korean Buddhism is people's assumption that Korean Buddhism must be similar to Japanese Buddhism, or Chinese Buddhism. We do not want to overplay the national and ethnic distinction in identifying different Buddhist traditions. But at the same time we do not want to ignore the differences that specific socio-historico-cultural context played in the construction of different Buddhist traditions. For example, I have been wondering what facilitated such different approaches to Buddhism between Chinul(1158-1210) and Dogen (1200-1253). They were contemporaries ; both of them played a major role in the introduction of kongan(koan) tradition to Korean and Japanese Buddhisms respectively. Chinul's Kanhwa gyolui ron is very different from Dogen's Schobogenzo. Some might say that the difference is only natural. Natural as it may be, it also raises a curiosity of a Buddhist scholar like myself. The curiosity is raised not only because Chinul is a Korean and Dogen is a Japanese, but because it tells us various different ways to understand and incorporate Buddhism in our life and in our mode of thinking, Perhaps, this seeming detour is one way of identifying Korean Buddhism without overplaying the national and ethnic identity. When we approach the issue from the general perspective of Buddhism, we can eventually return to the topic of what Korean Buddhism is and how it is different from other Buddhist traditions. The example of Korean monks' prostrations which influenced American Zen practitioner is one such example.
Unlike the information on Korean Buddhism in Korea, scholarship on Korean Buddhism in America does not seem to have changed much in the past two decades. A comparison of two books on Buddhism in America published twenty years apart show that they contain similar information on Korean Buddhism in America. The situation was caused by the lack of available materials in the English language. As we consider the situation, we must ask ourselves whether this dearth of materials on Korean American Buddhism is caused by the lack of activities of Korean Buddhism in America or whether there are other reasons.
---------Korean Buddhism in American Buddhism and American Buddhist Scholarship by Jin Y. Park(American University)-(Kwan Um Temple Symposium on Korean Buddhism in America /// March 23, 2003 Kwan Um Temple, Los Angeles, CA

•3. Toward the World of Buddhayana
Toward the World of Buddhayana
As Charles Prebish correctly pointed out, one important aspect of Buddhism in America is the fact that almost all of different Buddhist schools are simultaneously presented in North America (Prebish 1999,2-3). Never before in the history of Buddhism did such a melting pot-like gathering of different Buddhist traditions take place in one society. The synchronic and diachronic existence of different Buddhist schools in Buddhism in America enhances our understanding of Buddhist teachings and urges us to move beyond the sectarian, ethnic, and national boundaries in our understanding and practice of Buddhist teachers. More and more Buddhist schools in America make efforts to work together, learn from other schools, and create Buddhism which is not limited by sectarian vision.
In one of the most influential books on Buddhism in America, How the swans came to the lake : a Narrative History of Buddhism in America, the author, Rick Fields, concludes his section on Korean Buddhism in America with the following remarks : Koreans may be the most recent arrivals on the scene, but because of the continuing vigor and strength of their monastic sangha, as well as the devotion and support of the lay community, they promise to play an important part in the unfolding of American Buddhism(353). Several pages later, in a concluding remark of this section on Vietnamese Buddhism in America, the author states : No one can say what will happen in a hundred years. But at this moment it does indeed seem that Vietnamese Buddhism will have a great impact on American Buddhism (358). I hope Korean Buddhist will not be disappointed to learn that the author provides such a promising statement to many different Buddhist groups that he discusses in his book. As now people began to use the expression, Buddhaya, which transcends the boundaries of Mahayana, Hinayana, Theravada, Vajrayana and all the Buddhist paths, the fact that all the different ethnic, national Buddhism can make contributions for the creation of Buddhayana is the very hope, beauty, and strength of Buddhism in America. And here lies the responsibilities of Korean Buddhism, Korean-American Buddhist community, and Korean-American Buddhist scholarship. If there is Korean-ness that we can identify in our Buddhist tradition, the Korean-ness will function not as a demarcator to separate us from other Buddhist groups but to bind us with them by making Buddhism richer and more diverse with our participation. Rick Fields' book was first published in 1981, more than twenty years ago. During the past two decades many things have happened in Korean-American Buddhist community. In early 1980s, there were not many Korean ethnic Buddhist temples, whereas now there are more than a hundred Korean Buddhist temples all over the United States. Furthermore we have Buddhist magazines in both Korean and English languages.
In a panel on Korean American Christianity I participated in several years ago, one scholar revealed his research on why Korean Americans, especially young Korean Americans, want to be considered Christians. He says that most of young Korean Americans want to be categorized as Christians instead of Korean-or Asian-Americans, because whereas the latter reflects a minority position of Korean-American identity, the former, Christians, provides them an opportunity to be included in the category majority. The finding reflects the complicated situation between religion, ethnicity, and social spectrum of American society. However, if we overcome a negative aspects involved in this psychology of wanting to be a Christian instead of a Korean-American, it will help us to understand the function of our religion and religious community in the broader boundary of our society.
As a Korean and Korean-American Buddhist community, in this temple we continue our religious life which we inherited from our culture and history. Korean-Buddhism in this sense constitutes one element of our identity as Koreans. At the same, Buddhism, or any religion in that sense, also helps us expand our identity from a Korean Buddhist to a Buddhist. Buddhism in this case is like a hinge in our identity, it marks our Koreanness and at the same time, it marks our belonging-togetherness with the community which is bigger and larger than our ethnic boundary.
Emigrant Korean Buddhists re like bridges between Buddhism in Asia and Buddhism in America. Korean ethnic temples like Kwan Um temple provides a living proof that Buddhist tradition in Korea is still alive. Even though ethnic Buddhism is part of Asian Buddhism, its existence in the United States has a totally different meaning by the simple fact that ethnic Buddhism is Buddhism practiced in America. It shows the possibility pf the new religion to survive in American soil.
As we mark the thirtieth anniversary of the Kwan Um Temple, let's once again remind us of the importance pf being a bridge-maker between our tradition from Korea and the American society. And also let\'s appreciate that the newly emerging American Buddhism facilitates us the opportunity to expand our understanding of Buddhism beyond whatever limitations we had before.
---Korean Buddhism in American Buddhism and American Buddhist Scholarship by Jin Y. Park(American University) - (Kwan Um Temple Symposium on Korean Buddhism in America /// March 23, 2003 Kwan Um Temple, Los Angeles, CA
(*이 글은 관음사 30년사 총연감에 실린 글이다.)
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