What is Won Buddhism?

Buddhism (佛敎) is the pathway to enlightenment. The word Won (圓) literally means ‘circle’ and symbolizes ultimate reality or our true nature. Therefore, the name Won Buddhism means the path to the enlightenment to our true nature.

Sotaesan, the founding master of Won Buddhism, attained enlightenment in 1916 in Korea at the age of 26, after many years of searching for the truth and doing many ascetic practices. Master Sotaesan, after his enlightenment, observed the modern world where the human spirit had become weakened and enslaved by the rapidly developing material civilization. He therefore established a communal life setting with the founding motto, “With this Great Unfolding of material civilization, Let there be a Great Unfolding of spirituality.” This was the beginning of Won Buddhism.

Won Buddhism, as a reformed Buddhism and as a new religion, transforms the traditional Buddhist teaching. It makes the Buddhadharma more practical, more relevant, and more suitable to contemporary society so that the many people in the secular world can utilize it to enrich their actual lives.

Won Buddhism, although embracing the Buddha’s teachings, revitalizes and modernizes traditional Buddhadharma in order to realize Sotaesan’s ideal: ‘Buddhadharma is daily life and daily life is Buddhadharma.’ According to Sotaesan, a living religion is one where spiritual practice is not separate from real life. To one student’s question, “What is the great way?” The Master replied, “What all people can follow is the great way. What only a few can follow is the small way.” 

The goal of Won Buddhism is to lead all sentient beings to be free from suffering and distress. Won Buddhism embraces and accepts those of other faiths, and seeks to work together to create One World Community. With its open teaching, Won Buddhism has worked to realize a vision of a United Religions (UR), a counterpart of the United Nations (UN), because in these modern times all problems are fundamentally world problems and the cooperation of all religions and religious leaders is vital to build a lasting peace in the world. 

Won Buddhism leads a movement for inter-religious dialogue and cooperation. Won Buddhists have participated in and promoted local, national, regional and international inter-religious dialogue since 1970 and have been actively engaged in the World Conference of Religions for Peace (WCRP), the World Fellowship of Buddhists (WFB), and the Asian Conference of Religions for Peace (ACRP).

In Won Buddhist temples, Buddha statues are replaced by the Il Won Sang image. The circular Won is not an object of worship but rather a symbol that points to the Dharmakaya Buddha, the truth that all Buddha, Bodhisattvas and sages enlighten to and the original nature of all sentient beings.

What does 'Il Won Sang' mean?

This Il Won Sang can literally be translated as, 'One circle image'.

 Il = one    Won = circle     Sang = image.

“Before the buddhas of antiquity appeared, there was a perfectly round shape.”

— Ancient Koan

Won literally means circle and symbolizes the ultimate reality. From ancient times many spiritual traditions have expressed the universal truth through the image of a circle. In early Christianity, God was depicted by a circle and in the Zen tradition, Buddha nature or our original mind has been symbolized by a circular image.
In Won Buddhist temples, the Buddha image is replaced by the Il Won Sang image. The western philosopher Descartes said, "I think, therefore I am." One Zen master asked, "If you do not think, who are you?" There is a koan or spiritual question in Zen that states, "Before the buddhas of antiquity appeared, there was a perfectly round shape." 
When our minds are without any defilements, desires, or attachments, we are as clear as space and as clean and purely reflective as a perfect mirror. This is the realm before any thought arises. This is beginner’s mind. This is who we really are.
In this pure space, all religions, all traditions, all philosophies can join together. This is our true home to which we all may return.

The current Head Dharma Master

Venerable Kyungsan (Jang Eung-cheol, b.1940) is the fifth Head Dharma Master of Won-Buddhism.

Venerable Kyungsan entered the Won-Buddhist faith at the age of twenty and graduated from the Department of Won-Buddhist Studies at Wonkwang University in 1968. He served as President of the Youngsan College of Zen Studies, Executive Director of Administration for Won-Buddhism, and Director of the Jung-ang Retreat Center before being inaugurated as the fifth Head Dharma Master in 2006.

Today, his vision includes:

1. The Great Buddha offering of spreading the dharma

2. Embodiment of the Won Buddhist dharma

3. Widely spreading Grace

4. Functioning of all aspects of Won-Buddhism according to regulations

5. Sowing blessings for the coming centuries.

In addition, Venerable Kyungsan continues with his efforts to realize the ideals of his predecessor Venerable Daesan, the Third Head Dharma Master, whose Three Proposals for World Peace are the development of moral discipline for cultivating the mind, the opening up a common market, and the establishment of United Religions. Venerable Kyongsan’s particular devotion is the realization of world peace through inter-religious cooperation, uniting people of all religious faiths to work toward the establishment of a worldwide organization of United Religions, counterpart to the United Nations.