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Why Won Buddhists in South Korea oppose THAAD deployment

By Ock Hyun-ju, Korea Herald, Oct 23, 2016

Seoul, South Korea -- One Saturday morning, passers-by curiously turned their heads as a group of people in white robes began to collectively pray, strike a gong and sound a wooden percussion instrument in central Seoul.

<< Won Buddhists join their hands in prayer, opposing the government’s plan to deploy the US anti-missile system in Seongju, North Gyeongsang Province, during a press conference in front of the building of the Defense Ministry in central Seoul on Sept. 30. (Yonhap)

Signs and placards that read “THAAD to the US, Peace to Korea” and “No War, No THAAD” were seen at the scene as they prayed and practiced meditation in front of the country’s Defense Ministry building.

They were believers of Won Buddhism -- a simplified and modernized form of Buddhism indigenous to South Korea -- staging a sit-in and prayer sessions in protest against the government’s contentious plan to deploy a US missile defense system.

Founded a century ago by founding master Sotaesan, Won Buddhism pursues the Buddha’s teachings in the contemporary context to lead its followers to be enlightened by the truth. Their symbol is a “circle” which signifies an infinite connection of a never-ending cycle of being in the universe.

It has some 1 million followers, 500 temples in Korea and 55 abroad, but has typically not been as vocal on social and political issues as the Catholic and Protestant churches.

So what drove the Won Buddhists known for their love of peace to the streets? The government’s announcement last month to station the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense battery in Seongju, North Gyeongsang Province, which happens to be very near one of their pilgrimage sites.

“Seongju is a sacred site where Jeongsan, our second master of Won Buddhism, was born and where Won Buddhists go on pilgrimage once every few years,” Kang Hea-yoon, a Won Buddhist minister, told The Korea Herald at the scene of the protest.

“We can move our temples for the sake of the country. But we cannot move our sacred grounds,” he added.

The government announced on Sept. 30 that it will deploy the US anti-missile system at a golf course owned by Lotte Group in Seongju by the end of 2017 to counter nuclear and missile provocations by North Korea.

The sacred ground for Won Buddhism is located only 500 meters from the golf club.

Since then, Won Buddhists have joined residents of Seongju and Gimcheon in North Gyeongsang Province, who have resisted the deployment of THAAD in their neighborhood over concerns about health and environmental risks from electromagnetic waves emitted by its AN/TPY-2 radar system.

But what began as a fight to protect their sacred site has evolved into a bigger movement to bring peace to the Korean Peninsula at the height of ever-growing military tension, Kang said.

“On the back of materialism, we now have advanced things and tools, but they are often used in a wrong way to kill living things,” he said, referring to weapons. “Peace brings security to the world, not weapons.”

The religion first drew the world’s attention in 2003 by blocking the government’s plan to establish nuclear waste dumpsites in Yeonggwang, South Jeolla Province, over 250 kilometers southeast of Seoul. Yeonggwang is where their founding master Sotaesan was born. 

Kang, who also walks 22 kilometers from the country office to nuclear plants in Yeonggwang every Monday as part of an anti-nuclear movement, called it the “destiny” of Won Buddhists to fight for the environment and peace.

“We are not going to withdraw our objection to the deployment of THAAD even after the government selects an alternate place to station the anti-missile system,” he said.

The Won Buddhism followers plan to hold sit-ins and candlelight vigils for an indefinite period in front of the Defense Ministry and in Seongju until the government scraps the plan to station the US anti-missile system.

Marking 100 years of their foundation this year, Won Buddhists also began a project to build solar panels on the rooftops of 100 of their temples, which can produce 20 kilowatts of electricity a day and allow them to be self-sufficient.

“It is a grassroots movement to send messages of peace to the whole society,” he said. “What drives us further is not power or money, but our belief in peace. Peace comes when all the sentient beings have their values appreciated and coexist.”

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