January-June 2021
The "Tripitaka Koreana" at Heiansa, South Korea
Auspicious Encounters
With Catholic-Buddhist Relations in Korea
In June 2018, I spent four weeks in South Korea, combining a visit to relatives with research on religion in Korea, particularly Buddhism and Christianity, and the relations between them. The previous academic year had been tremendously busy and ultimately I did far less to prepare for the trip than I had hoped to. I had some knowledge of  Buddhism and of Catholicism in Korea, but very little knowledge about Buddhism in Korea, or of Buddhist-Christian relations in that country. These lacunae and a sense of uncertainty about what I was specifically hoping to study made me hesitant to contact scholars and representatives of Korean religions beforehand. Although I had gathered a number of articles on religion in Korea, I was only able to start reading them on the plane across the Pacific.
What success I had in learning about Buddhist-Catholic relations in Korea I owe to my parents, Michael and Maija Devine. They spent the academic year in residence at Seoul’s Sogang University where my father was teaching history as a Fulbright Scholar. Sogang is a Jesuit university established in the 1960s by the Wisconsin Province of Jesuits. My mother was in the second graduating class of Sogang and converted to Catholicism as an undergraduate. It was there that she would later meet my father when he served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Seoul. They married in Seoul in 1970 and returned to the U.S. to raise a family and to embark on their careers.
I was curious about the role this Jesuit university might have played in Buddhist-Christian relations given its excellent academic reputation and its location in the rapidly modernizing Seoul of the late twentieth century. I discovered that Sogang is now indeed one of the major centers of Buddhist-Christian dialogue in Korea, though this dialogue seems to have emerged at the beginning of the twenty-first century rather than in the immediate post-World War II decades as it did in many Western nations. Sogang University is currently poised to be the leading academic institution for dialogue between religions in Korea.
I did not find much information about a department of theology or religious studies for lay undergraduate or graduate students at Sogang in its early decades. It seems that theological studies at Sogang were exclusively for the training of Jesuits for the priesthood. In the early 1980s, Sogang established a Religious Studies Department that has grown and diversified and recently included faculty members in the areas of Buddhism, Confucianism, Shamanism, Chinese Religions, and Christianity. Sogang is also home to the Institute for the Study of Religion, founded in 1984. It hosts conferences and, since 2010, has published the Journal of Korean Religions, a peer-reviewed journal published twice yearly by the University of Hawai’i Press. It is the only English-language academic journal dedicated to the study of Korean religions. The April 2014 issue, edited by Jin Y. Park and Kyeonghil Jung, is particularly relevant in that its theme is “Envisioning a Buddhist-Christian Dialogue in Korea.”
My father is the kind of person who can easily strike up a conversation while waiting for an elevator. While participating in a conference, he spoke about me and my interests to someone at a conference who recommended that I contact Dr. Jae Young Kim in the Religious Studies Department. Dr. Kim’s areas of interest are the theory and method of religious studies and the psychology of religion, particularly as developed by William James, whose Varieties of Religious Experience he has translated into Korean. We shared common interests as my dissertation dealt with creativity studies, a sub-field of psychology. Dr. Kim soon arranged for me to give a presentation on “Studying the Relationship between Creativity and Spirituality” and gathered an impressive number of students to attend.
Dr. Kim became a key contact and connected me with several representatives of Buddhist-Christian dialogue. He arranged for me to meet with Sr. Hyunmin Choi, a Sister of Charity and a scholar of Dōgen (1200-1253), founder of the Sōtō school of Japanese Zen Buddhism. She is also director of the Seton Interreligious Research and Spirituality Center. The center is a ministry of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill, an American religious order historically based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who sent four sisters to South
Sogang University
Sogang University
Korea in 1960. The center provides educational programs for Christians on traditional Korean religions, including a lecture series that dates back to 1994. For over a decade, this center has been committed to the promotion of ecology as a central issue for interreligious dialogue. Choi’s article, “A Religious Theological View of Interreligious Dialogue: Focusing on Dialogue between Buddhism and Christianity” (Catholic Theology and Thought, Vol. 79, July 2017) emphasizes emptiness as articulated by Nāgārjuna and the Heart Sutra, and also the Mahayana concept of the bodhisattva as strong topics for Buddhist-Christian dialogue in Korea.
I was also fortunate to meet another leading figure in the area of Buddhist-Christian dialogue, Bernard Senécal (Seo Myeongweon), a Jesuit teaching in the Religious Studies Department at Sogang University who was also the regular presider at the Sogang students’ Sunday evening English mass. After one of the masses I attended, I met with Fr. Bernard for tea and conversation. He is originally from Montreal, Quebec, Canada, and went to medical school in France before discerning his vocation to the Society of Jesus. He earned a doctorate in Korean Buddhism at the Université Paris Diderot (Paris 7)—now the University of Paris—in 2004 with a dissertation on the Korean Seong (Zen) Master Seongcheol (1912-1993).
Fr. Bernard has written extensively on Korean Buddhism and Buddhist-Christian relations in Korea in English, French, and Korean. In “Jesus Christ Encountering Gautama Buddha: Buddhist-Christian Relations in South Korea” (Journal of Korean Religions, Vol. 5, No. 1, April 2014), he provides background for Buddhist-Christian relations in South Korea and addresses the question of whether such relations can be considered interreligious dialogue. He highlights the 2011 Aṡoka Declaration of the Jogye Order, named after the fourth-century Indian Buddhist emperor, as a significant step toward the increasing development of Buddhist-Christian dialogue.
When I met Fr. Bernard, he was looking forward to his final year of teaching at Sogang before moving to the countryside to dedicate his energies to the Way’s End Stone Field Community, an interreligious community he founded in 2014 that includes married and celibate men and women who are dedicated to meditation and organic farming. Later, I found further description of this project in his article, “From a Farming Dream to an Embodied Spirituality” (Practical Theology, Vol. 12, 2019).
I had packed my Benedictine habit for this trip, anticipating a three-day visit to St. Maurus and Placidus Abbey, often referred to as Waegwan Abbey, a Benedictine monastery near Daegu, about an hour and a half high-speed train ride from Seoul. My visit to Waegwan was mainly to connect with my Korean Benedictine brothers and to make a short retreat. I was not planning to seek out or discover anything in particular about Buddhist-Christian dialogue or about Korean Buddhism. I would have enjoyed meeting Fr. Jaechan Anselmo Park, author of Thomas Merton’s Encounter with Buddhism and Beyond: His Interreligious Dialogue, Inter-monastic Exchanges, and Their Legacy and presenter of “A Christian Contemplative Approach to the Ten Ox-Herding Pictures of Zen Buddhism: Interreligious Dialogue as Mutual Self-Meditation,” at the Gethsemani Encounter of 2015, but he was still in Toronto at the time of my visit. He referred me to the prior, Fr. Romualdo Ho (Song-Sok), who was a most gracious host.
Waegwan Abbey has a fascinating history that can be traced back to the first Benedictines in Korea, Germans of the missionary Congregation of St. Ottilien who founded St. Benedictus Monastery in Seoul in 1909. In 1927, the Benedictines relocated to Tokwon, in the part of Korea above the 38th Parallel that would divide North and South Korea at the end of World War II. When the communist regime in North Korea began to suppress religious communities, the Benedictine monks at Tokwon were either executed or exiled. Those who survived founded Waegwan at its present location in 1952. The monastery now has about 130 monks who are engaged in a retreat center, middle and high schools, book publishing and printing operations, and numerous other projects. My Korean language skills were just enough to be able to read along as the Psalms were recited,
though not enough to join in at the pace of the monks nor to understand.
I was not aware of what Buddhist temples there might be near Waegwan or if any of them would be worthwhile to visit. Fr. Romualdo invited me on an excursion to Haeinsa, a Buddhist temple a fairly short drive away. The temple’s forested and rocky surroundings, with rivers and waterfalls streaming down the mountainside, draws a steady stream of visitors. My excitement grew as I realized this temple was home to the Tripitaka Koreana, which I knew was one of the great human achievements in the history of woodblock printing. The 81,350 wooden printing blocks are held in a set of four buildings arranged in a rectangle with a simple courtyard in the center. When looking through an entryway to one of the buildings, one can see rows of stacks holding the thousands of wooden printing blocks. The building housing these block are not particularly prominently among the multitude of various temple buildings nestled in clusters on the mountainside, nor do they have the brilliant visual impact of the main temple with its intricately painted support beams, colorful paintings of the life of the Buddha and historical figures of Buddhism, and a gleaming seated  figure of Vairocana in the meditation hall, but I felt a sense of awe being in the presence of one of the most significant national treasures of Korea.
Later, I would learn that Haein Temple is one of the three highly revered Korean Buddhist Temples that represent the Three Jewels of Buddhism. Tongdo Temple represents the Buddha, and Songgwang Temple represents the Sangha. Haein Temple represents the Dharma, precisely because of its holding of the woodblocks containing the text of the Buddhist canon of scriptures in Chinese characters, carved before the existence of the written Korean language, hangul. As we left the temple grounds, I noticed a set of stone columns in a field under the shade of trees. These columns were the Stupas of Haeinsa Patriarchs, monuments honoring prominent monks who had resided at Haeinsa. Upon closer examination, one of the names inscribed on one of the monuments, Seongcheol, seemed familiar.
Later, as I read articles published by Bernard Senécal, I realized that the Seongcheol whose monument I saw at Haeinsa was the Seongcheol about whom Fr. Senécal had written his dissertation and several articles. In “Philosophy of Son Master T’oeong Seongecheol (1912-1993)” (Journal of Korean Religions, Vol. 7, No. 1, April 2016), biographical details of Seongcheol’s life, set against the backdrop of the major events of twentieth-century Korean history and of the Korean Jogye Buddhist Order, intertwine with the development of Seongcheol’s thoughts and writings. Most notably and controversially, Seongcheol adamantly opposed the position of Chinul, the twelfth-century founder of the Jogye Order, who taught a doctrine of sudden awakening and gradual practice. Seongcheol’s position of sudden awakening and sudden practice implied that one achieves Buddhahood immediately upon awakening and initiated the sudden/gradual debate within late twentieth-century Korean Buddhism. He strongly defended his position when he was the influential Supreme Patriarch of the Jogye Order from 1981 to his death in 1993.
Senécal’s article, “A Critical Reflection on the Chogye Order’s Campaign for the Worldwide Propagation of Kanhwa Sŏn” (Journal of Korean Religions, Vol. 2, No. 1, March 2011), elaborates the implications of the sudden/gradual debate for the Jogye Order, one of them being its promotion of a particular form of keyword meditation (KWM) that is intended to induce sudden awakening and sudden Buddhahood. Ultimately, Senécal concludes that the teachings and practices of the Jogye Order reflect the uncompromising otherworldliness of Seongcheol, limiting possibilities for interreligious dialogue and inhibiting the largest order of Korean Buddhism from following the examples of Buddhists of other traditions such as the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh in their engagements with Christianity and the West.
I look back with gratitude at what seems to be rather coincidental, or at least unplanned, encounters with Buddhist-Christian dialogue and Korean Buddhism. From these experiences and subsequent reading, I look forward to being better prepared for a future visit to continue to explore Buddhist-Christian dialogue in Korea.
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