The Grace in This World
An interview with Venerable Chwasan, former head dharma master of the Won Buddhist Order
By Emma Varvaloucas, Photography by Jean Chung
Sotaesan was in the head dharma master’s room when a group curious about Won Buddhism came to pay a visit. They bowed and asked, “Where is your esteemed religion’s buddha enshrined?” The founding master said, “Our buddha has just gone out, so if you would like to see him, please wait a moment.” The group was puzzled. A little later, when it was lunchtime, a group of workers returned from the fields carrying their farm tools. The founding master pointed to them and said,“They are all the buddhas of our house.” The group was even more puzzled.
This story comes from one of the primary books of a Buddhist canon you’ve probably never heard of: that of Won Buddhism, a 100-year-old Korean Buddhist order that sprang from the individual enlightenment of a modern-day Siddhartha. This was Sotaesan [Chung-bin Park, 1891–1943], who is said to have reached enlightenment in 1916, at the age of 26 and after years of ascetic practice. It was only after his enlightenment that he read the Diamond Sutra, found that many aspects of his own insights aligned with those of the Buddha’s, and declared Shakyamuni to be his “original guide” and the “antecedent of my dharma.” Sotaesan went on to create Won Buddhism (Won means “circle”), which has variously been described as a reformed, renovated, or revitalized buddhadharma. Its purpose is to update Buddhist teachings to make them more relevant to contemporary society and more understandable to contemporary people.
It’s unclear whether Won Buddhism, whose following has been increasing worldwide, is really a new tradition of Buddhism or an entirely new religion. Won Buddhists describe their tradition in both ways, and scholars seem equally undecided about the matter. Certainly, Won Buddhism contains many elements that would be familiar to Mahayana Buddhists, but it also includes core teachings that would not be found in any other Buddhist scripture. Won Buddhism puts heavy emphasis on the integration of spiritual practice into daily life. Unlike other Buddhist traditions, Won does not place a high value on lengthy retreat time. Rather, sustained engagement with the external world is paramount: Won Buddhists are known for their interfaith work as well as for their commitment to social issues. This is not to say that Won focuses on the macro to the exclusion of the micro. Their texts include detailed directives on propriety—from shaking hands to eating to hosting guests—and on all parts of a daily routine.
There were a lot of formalities and unnecessary, superstitious rituals. He wanted to get rid of those and to make the buddha-dharma very practical and realistic.
This emphasis on the average person, daily life, and pragmatism especially may help clarify the story that heads our interview. It was told to me on a sunny day last September by Reverend Dosung Yoo, the retreat director of the Won Dharma Center in Claverack, New York, when I visited on the occasion of Won’s centennial celebration. It was here, in the modern minimalist setting of the center, that I spoke with Venerable Chwasan, the fourth head dharma master of the order. There is no dharma transmission in Won Buddhism; its leaders are elected by a council composed of lay ministers and senior ministers, who are also elected. Ven. Chwasan retired in 2006 after nine years of holding the position. He is now Head Dharma Master Emeritus and lives in Iksan, South Korea. Rev. Yoo served as our translator.
–Emma Varvaloucas, Managing Editor
What sort of “reformations and renovations” did Sotaesan apply to the Buddha’s teachings? In the days when Sotaesan attained great enlightenment, Korean society was dominated by confused ideology. One of the characteristics of this confusion, for example, was the discrimination between men and women. Our founding master, very boldly for that time, abolished that discrimination. Also, especially in Korean Buddhism, different schools have their own emphasis and their own way of practice—a chanting school or a meditation school, for instance. Sotaesan wanted to gather that together to make a more balanced and complete practice. There were also a lot of formalities and unnecessary, superstitious rituals. He wanted to get rid of those and to make the buddhadharma very practical and realistic.
You mentioned “confused ideology.” Religious leaders don’t exist in a vacuum—they are always reacting to the culture of their time. Certainly Shakyamuni Buddha was reacting to the culture of his time. Could you talk a little bit about the culture that Sotaesan was reacting to? The founding motto of Won Buddhism—“As material civilization develops, cultivate spiritual civilization accordingly”—started from our founding master observing not just Korea but the whole world as technological and scientific development was advancing exponentially. Consequently, we modern people have lost our original nature, and have become completely enslaved by material things. Our mind is no longer the master of itself; instead, external things are dominating and directing our life.
Sotaesan thought this was a very sorry situation and wanted to emphasize what should be a priority and what should be secondary. He said, “Priority is our mind and the spirit. What comes next is the material civilization.”
I would like to ask about that kind of mind that is enslaved by dazzling external materials—do you also feel here in America as though you have this mind?
Yes. [Laughs.] I’m here to interview you for a Buddhist magazine, and look at me—I have my laptop, my phone, my recorder. I’m surrounded by so many electronic things that I would be upset to lose. So yes, we feel this way too. Material in and of itself is not bad. Feeble, weak mind is the problem; it’s the source of all our suffering.
The basic way to solve this problem in our contemporary society is to brighten and empower the mind. Sotaesan used the analogy of a knife. A knife is neither a wholesome nor an unwholesome thing on its own. When a knife is used by a thief, it’s a dangerous weapon. But when a knife is used by a great chef, it’s a tool that transforms ingredients into wonderful food. So everything completely depends on a person’s mind.
To intelligently utilize our material civilization is the direction of our Won Buddhist practice. It starts from working with our mind, making our mind calm and peaceful and quieting it in order to hone our innate wisdom. His Holiness really emphasized practice, not just a daily practice or going for a certain period of time to some retreat center, but to become wholly devoted to training our mind so that our life itself becomes the grace in this world.