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New Christian President Rattles Korea's Buddhist Nerves

by Peter Schurmann and Aruna Lee, New America Media, Mar 13, 2008

SEOUL, South Korea -- The anonymous monk makes his way through downtown Seoul towards the presidential palace, prostrating face down in supplication with each step.

<< South Korea's newly elected president, Lee Myung Bak is a devout Christian

His shaven head and tattered appearance are in marked contrast to the crisp suits of the onlookers. But his silent protest combines a profound humility with an iron will aimed at preventing South Korea's newly elected president, Lee Myung Bak, from building a new canal linking the nation's capital with its southernmost port.

The monk's protest and others like it signal a growing rift between a Christian president, nicknamed "the Bulldozer," and a Buddhist community fearful not just of the costs of such growth but of rising antagonism against Buddhism.

Supporters claim the canal, dubbed the Grand Korean Waterway, will add thousands of new jobs, increase the nation's international trade, and reduce pollution on Korea's overcrowded highways. Opponents argue it is an environmental disaster in the making that will cause severe flooding while polluting rivers and streams which provide drinking water for several large cities.

Buddhists add the canal will cause irreparable damage to a significant portion of Korea's cultural legacy, cutting through several major temples and destroying Buddhist sites that have stood for centuries.

Guarding the main entrance to Dragon Gate Temple, an hour outside of Seoul, stands a living repository of Korean history, a 170-foot tall ginkgo tree planted by the last crown prince of Korea's first dynasty more than 1000 years ago. The head monk here, Ho-San Sunim, acts as both priest and counselor to families and individuals seeking a respite from the pressures of modern city life.

Young for his forty plus years, Ho-San is an avid snowboarder, having just hosted the sixth annual Dharma Snowboarding Competition, held in the mountains above the temple and drawing competitors from around the world.

Together with a fellow monk they discuss rumors of a tax to be levied on the temple lands by the new administration, as well as plans to develop lands adjacent to the temples for use as golf courses and other more profitable ventures. Such steps, he says, would be "ruinous both for our temples and the environment."

While administration officials could not be reached for comment, the monk's remarks point to a widely held suspicion that the new administration takes a callous attitude towards the concerns of Korean Buddhists, a suspicion fueled by Lee's self proclaimed and much publicized Christian faith.

Recent media reports claim the president rescheduled daily briefings to allow time to pray. While mayor of Seoul, Lee referred to the city as a holy place for Christians, and during his presidential campaign he attended a fiery sermon in which the minister called for the eradication of Buddhism from Korea. Lee reportedly applauded.

It's enough to rattle the nerves of the country's Buddhists, who make up roughly half of the population, yet it's not the first time that Korean Buddhists have come under fire.

For nearly 500 years Buddhism served as the state religion of the ruling Koryo Dynasty, before being supplanted in the 14th Century by a Confucian theocracy in the form of the Chosun Dynasty which systematically suppressed Buddhism as a heterodox faith. By the 16th century Buddhism had been banned from the capital, its temples and monastic community exiled into the mountains, where they remain today.

"For centuries Buddhism gradually turned inward," said Taejeon Sunim, a monk who helps manage the nation's numerous temples for the Jogye Order, Korea's largest Buddhist sect. "While Christianity was making inroads into society, Buddhism was moving away from it." Christianity has in fact played a central role in political developments here, from the labor movement of the 80's to present day human rights activities involving North Korea. In the past decade or so, however, he says Buddhists in Korea and throughout Asia have woken up to the need to reengage.

Joo-Shin Kim is a devout Buddhist and one time host for a television program focused on environmental issues in Korea. She divides her time between Seoul and the mountains of Gyeongsang province, where she studies traditional medicine. She is opposed to Lee's planned canal, saying it would "erase an important part of Korea's past," a past that is intimately bound to the land.

Like the ancient Ginkgo in front of Dragon Gate Temple, Korean Buddhism reflects deep roots in both history and the rugged landscape upon which that history has played out. It is a relationship that has produced a powerful undercurrent of environmentalism that is now stirring strong opposition to President Lee's project.

A spokewoman for the Jogye Office told New America Media a petition was being circulated by the group calling on petitioners to denounce the canal. And in the mountains above Mungyeong, a town in the center of the canal's proposed path, monks ahve opened the doors to a temple sealed off from the lay community for six decades to conduct protest rallies.

In more dramatic fashion, an environmental group called Save River led by several prominent Buddhist monks, has launched a month long march to protest the canal. Their numbers include a Christian pastor named Yi-Pil Won, who described the canal as a "death knell for Korea."

As the crowd passes, the prostrating monk continues his slow march through Seoul's political and financial center. His path, ironically, takes him past the flowing waters of the restored Cheonggyecheon River, Lee Myung Bak's crowning achievement as mayor of Seoul and a blueprint for his grand canal.

While the river has proven a boon to residents, environmentalists claim Lee ignored their warnings that the mechanism used to divert the water was damaging to the environment. Similarly, while the canal holds the promise of renewed vigor for a nation struggling to compete on the international stage, for Buddhists it strikes at the very heart of their faith, threatening to destroy both the environmental and cultural legacy of this nation.

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