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Hyon Gak sunim: I have deep respect for Buddha Dharma and the Jogye Order, denies severing ties with Korean Buddhism

by Emi Hayakawa, Buddhist True Network (BTN), August 2, 2016

Seoul, South Korea -- On July 28 2016, Harvard-educated American Zen Buddhist monk Hyon Gak sunim, the current abbot of Bulyee Seon Center in Germany, uploaded a strong message on his Facebook account outlining various problems besetting Korean Buddhism.

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The message caused controversy within Korean society as various media highlighted and further analyzed the issues raised, on top of his purported announcement that he will “sever ties” with Korean Buddhism.

During an exclusive phone interview with BTN (Buddhist True Network) on August 1st 2016, Hyon Gak sunim explained that his comment regarding “severing ties” with Korean Buddhism have been misinterpreted by the Korean media.  The venerable is currently residing outside of Korea, working in Germany and Greece to create a sangha to further propagate Korean Buddhism across the globe.

He further explained that as an American, and Korean being his second language, his use of Korean expressions could have factored into the misinterpretation. During his phone interview, Hyon Gak stated (in Korean), “How can I leave Korea? I cannot leave Korean Buddhism. I will not be able to sever ties with my works in helping the sattva. I express myself in English, and in my head I also express myself in English, and in that manner I express myself using the Korean language.”

Hyon Gak mentioned that while he has deep affection and respect for Korean Buddhism, he felt disheartened by the difficulty in globalizing Korean Buddhism in his outreach effort. In this instance, he turned to Facebook to write out his thoughts, which incidentally caused a stir.

The actual posting in the facebook states (in Korean) “I have seen and experienced the difficulties in spreading Korean Buddhism. However, out of the deep affection of Buddhism and the Buddha Dharma, I thought to myself ‘Ah, if we are able to raise these issues, then perhaps it can be reformed…’”

The posting have since then been deleted.

Hyon Gak explained that he had deleted the message because reasonable discussions had not been carried out both on and offline. Contrary to his own intentions, it caused pain and sufferings to many (Korean) Buddhists.

He spoke out firmly that he feels much regret that even though foreigners encounter and learn Buddhism quite easily, Koreans, on the other hand, especially the younger generation, do not.

Hyon Gak also revealed that he will strive harder and work with the four-fold assembly to further propagate Korean Buddhism according to the teachings of his master, Seung San Sunim.

He states that “the culture of the four-fold assembly is our future. Even before I was ordained as a monk, I studied with other monks. I want to make it possible so that lay people and ordained monks are able to study together in the same space.”

The main point of Hyon Gak sunim's Facebook posting was this: the education system of Korean Buddhism must change with the times. Although the tradition of Korean Buddhism is filled with great wisdom, it's outreach method does not match with current needs, especially for foreigners.

He stressed that, “for graduates from universities and schools, the old system (of teaching Buddhism) is inadequate for them. The Buddhist education system must change as society have changed, and if I didn’t express myself on this issue then Korean Buddhism will just remain as it is (detached from society).”

Hyon Gak expressed his concern of foreign monks who have come to Korea to study Korean Buddhism and were put under duress of an inflexible culture. He stressed the need of a "Jeong Jin" (Sanskrit, "Virya", great striving or effort) culture.

He mentions that “Shakyamuni Buddha’s education started with Jeong Jin, and that He also propagated Jeong jin to his first bhikkhu disciples. (My master) Seung San sunim also stressed jeong Jin when I first met him. His mantra was always Jeong jin, Jeong Jin, Jeong Jin...”

Hyon Gak pointed out that the monk-centered culture of Korean Buddhism must be reformed as well. He says that it is not only the monks who need to study but the four-fold assembly must also study side by side, and collectively correct problems hand-in-hand.

Although Hyon Gak facebook postings have caused controversy, he takes it as a learning process and maintains his deep affections for Korean Buddhism and the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism.

Seol Jeong Sunim, the Spiritual Head of Deoksoong Comprehensive Temple, Sudoeksa Temple says that “we should not blame Hyon Gak sunim for this controversy but we need to embrace him and to sort the issues raised together.”

As ground hardens after the rain, Hyon gak sunim’s message is timely and important. It is high time for the four-fold assembly to think about how and why Korean Buddhism needs to change to meet the demands of  modern, scientific mindsets.

Read also: Article from The Seoul Times

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