THE FOUNDER OF WON-BUDDHISM
Unlike Gautama Buddha (or Siddhartha) in India, Sot’aesan#1 was not a rich nobleman. Unlike Jesus of Nazareth, Sot’aesan was not declared the Savior of all mankind by an angel the moment he was born. In fact, his birth on May 5, 1891, in one of the poorest villages in Korea did not stir up any fanfare. A man from such an ordinary background, however, would gradually become an extraordinary person after his deep, persistent pursuit to, understand the Truth of the universe and humanity.
The historical circumstances into, which Sot’aesan was born were troubling. When Japan conquered Korea in 1910, he suffered along with fellow Koreans as they were forced to give up their Korean names, religions, language, schools, and other traditions so that they could adopt the Japanese ways. Sot’aesan lived to see World War l and World II as well. Yet even in the midst of such hardships, Sot’aesan could not help wondering and asking questions about the meaning and truth of existence.
At the age of seven, Sot’aesan, like most children, was curious about the world around him. Why were there four seasons? Why did flowers bloom? His curiosity, however, was more focused and deeper than an ordinary child’s idle inquisitiveness. This made him an exceptional child. A few years later, at the age of ten, he began to contemplate questions some adults do not even confront: Why is there birth and death? What is happiness and misery? Why do people suffer? One day, someone told him that an omniscient mountain spirit could answer such questions. This mountain spirit, however, could only be seen by those whose wish was sincere. Sot’aesan’s dedication to the pursuit for truth was so deep that he climbed to the top of Mount Samnyong every single day for five years and prayed for the mountain spirit to appear. The attempt failed though. He never saw the alleged mountain spirit. When he turned twenty-two, Sot’aesan got married and had children. He continued, however, to meditate and wonder about his questions.
At this point in his life, Sot’aesan began to slip into longer periods of silence. Once he spent a whole day standing by a river with an empty look on his face, thinking nothing and seeing nothing. On another day, his wife left a bowl of barley rice for her husband’s breakfast. After plowing the fields, she came back and found Sot’aesan still sitting in the same room, in the same position, his hand still holding the spoon. He had not budged. Flies were feasting on the bowl of barley rice. The very questions that he had originally posed disappeared. He now simply lived in a state of no thought or empty mind. As he spent weeks in a state of total oblivion, Sot’aesan developed a tumor in his abdomen and blotches all over his body. The villagers pitied him as a useless invalid.
On April 28, 1916, however, Sot’aesan became overwhelmed by a sense of physical and spiritual freshness. He went out of his room and saw a clear dawn sky still sparkling with stars. It was the morning of his Great Enlightenment. He now understood the truth of all human relationships and natural phenomena. The blotches on his body disappeared as did the tumor. Sot’aesan himself never had a teacher or a religion that helped him attain enlightenment. He would become the great teacher he never found and establish the religion he never had in order to help others on a path towards enlightenment. April 28 is thus celebrated as the Won-Buddhist Founding Year and 1916 is the first year of the Won-Buddhist era.
THE CIRCLE SYMBOL
Symbols are representations or expressions of a higher truth, going beyond individual or personal ideas. It communicates to a lot of people realities that might be difficult to express in language. Symbols in religions have always been important. In Judaism, we find the six-pointed Star of David and in Christianity, We find the cross. In Won-Buddhism we find the Il-Won-Sang, or “unitary circle symbol.” The Il-Won-Sang represents the Truth of Il-Won; Sot’aesan said that just as a finger used to point to the moon is not the moon itself, the Il-Won-Sang that points to Truth is not Truth itself. The Il-Won-Sang simply symbolizes Truth.
The Il-Won-Sang is not worshipped in the same way that a Buddha statue is worshipped in traditional Buddhism. Sot’aesan said that I [- Wm, or unitary circle, is the original source of all Buddhas and other human beings. It is our common realm of origin. 80 praying to and believing in the Truth of Il-Won is tantamount to praying to and believing in one’s own original nature. Original nature is Buddha-nature. All people have the heart and mind of a Buddha, but they have lost their way or have become distracted.
For the purposes of introducing the Truth of Il-Won in an easy-to-understand format, let us say that it has the following components; empty mind, impermanence, and law of cause and effect. First, one should strive to have an “empty mind.” The idea of an “empty mind” can be misleading. An “empty” mind does not imply ignorance and it is not thought-free. It is simply nonjudgmental. It refuses to think in stereotypes and it does not harbor prejudices. For example, an “empty mind” does not categorize some people as dumb and others as smart. It does not consider some emotions as good and others as bad.
The second component of the Truth of Il-Won is the impermanence of all phenomena and things. For example, once a person is born, he or she will eventually die. Understanding this truth can help people prepare for and cope with loss. Emotions are impermanent, too. Happiness cannot last forever. Neither can depression. A sense of flux and change permeates everything. Something that seems like bad luck can turn into good luck. A young man paralyzed his left leg in a car accident. Everyone started to pity him saying, “I’m so sorry you can’t walk anymore, what bad luck.” The young man replied, “How can you say whether it’s good or bad luck? We’ll have to see.” Seven years later, when his country went to war, the man Was one of the very few men who was not drafted due to his handicap. While his friends died in the war, the man survived because of what others had called his “bad luck” back then-his paralyzed leg.
A young man paralyzed his left leg in a car accident. Everyone started to pity him saying, “I’m so sorry you can’t walk anymore, what bad luck.” The young man replied, “How can you say whether it’s good or bad luck? We’ll have to see.”
The third component of the Truth of Il-Won is the law of cause and effect. Sot’aesan stated the principle quite simply: “What you give to others out of kindness will return to you in kindly terms; what you snatch away from others in malice will be taken away from you in malice.” The effect of past actions and thoughts influences the present. A person receives what he or she has caused. Sot’aesan said, “Do not hate or speak ill of a person, even when he or she cannot see or hear you.” The seeds of reciprocal harm will be buried in the force and energy of the Fourfold Grace.#2
From these examples, we can see that although the circle symbol represents the abstract concept of Truth, we can apply the abstract in very concrete ways. This is the most important teaching of Won-Buddhism. We can put the Truth of Il-Won to use and see it in action. In our everyday life, we can constantly check and question ourselves: Am I thinking with prejudiced opinions? I feel depressed right now, but do I recognize that this depression could eventually turn into happiness? Should I gossip about my enemy? The Il-Won-Sang reminds us to question our thoughts and actions as we go about our daily lives.
“WON” AND “BUDDHISM”
“Isn’t Won-Buddhism just another kind of Buddhism?” The question is often asked. But Won-Buddhism is not a sect or branch of Buddhism. The name can be misleading. In Korean, Won-Buddhism is expressed as Won-Bul-Gyo. The Wonliterally means “circle” in Korean. The circle symbolizes our original Buddha nature. Won is thus a realm or space of Truth. Bul in Korean means “enlightenment andGyo means “religion” So Won-Buddhism or Won-Bul-Gyo means “a religion of enlightenment to the Truth of Won.” The key phrase is “enlightenment to the Truth.” Won-Buddhists do not simply believe the Truth. Won-Buddhists do not simply worship the Truth. The whole point is to try to become enlightened to the Truth.
Sot’aesan attained enlightenment without really knowing anything about the three dominant religions in East Asia: Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. After his enlightenment, he surveyed religious texts to check his spiritual enlightenment against them. After studying these texts, Sot’aeSan realized that there were important coincidences between his and Gautama Buddha’s ways of seeking thetruth. Sot’aesan decided to take the Buddha-dharma (teachings) as the main body of the doctrine of the religion he was about to open. He decided to incorporate other religious doctrines with the main body when necessary.
At the same time, however, Sot’aesan drew a clear line between traditional Buddhism and the one he planned to teach. He qualified the term “Buddhism” by saying that the reformed Buddhism would be practiced not just by monks, but by people of all occupations. Temples would not be located in mountain valleys, far away from people, but in the middle of towns and cities. The worship of the Buddha Would not be limited to Buddha statues. All things in the universe would be realized as living Buddhas. The Buddha-dharma should be realized in daily life and daily life should be the Buddha-dharma itself. In Won-Buddhism and in Sot’aesan’s ideas, we find an energetic spirit of reformation.
Notes #1) Chungbin Pak is Sot’aesan’s birth name. Sot’aesan is a Dharma name. #2) In Sot’aesan Taejongsa’s View, there are four sources of human life: Heaven and Earth (nature), Parents, Brethren (fellow creatures), and Law (religious, moral, and civil). These by mutual agreement make human life possible. Here, the concept of grace comes in. For Sot’aesan, “grace” means that without which our lives would be impossible. We cannot live without the “graces.” A human being cannot exist without the graces of Heaven and Earth, Parents, Brethren, and law.