Don Baker

Won Buddhism


1891:  Park Chungbin, founder of Won Buddhism, was born.

1916:  Park Chungbin, known as Sot’aesan, was a farmer with very little formal education who had been searching for the meaning of the universe when he had an enlightenment experience on April 28 that he later found out, when he read the Diamond Sutra, gave him the same insight into the nature of reality that Sakyamuni Buddha had had centuries earlier He therefore decided that Buddhism was the answer to the world’s problems.

1918:  The first joint project he and his small group of follower undertook was to reclaim from the sea some land along the coast in front of his village. After one year, they succeeded in reclaiming twenty-five acres.

1919:  When that project was completed, Park and nine disciples vowed to create a new spiritual order, which they called the “Society for the Study of the Buddhist Dharma.” This is considered the date of the formal founding of Won Buddhism as a religious order (the twenty-sixth day of the seventh month according to the lunar calendar).

1920:  Park and his disciples moved to a remote Buddhist temple, where he spent five years developing his religious ideas. While there he exchanged ideas conversations with Buddhist monks and wrote Chosŏn pulgyo hyŏksillon (On the renovation of Korean Buddhism ) and Suyang yŏn’gu yoron [ Essentials of Spiritual Cultivation and Inquiry into Facts and Principles ] (They were not published until 1935 and 1927, respectively).

1924:  The headquarters for Park’s group was established in Iri (now called Iksan), a town in North Chŏlla province.

1935:  The Taegakchŏn (Great Enlightenment Hall) was opened in Iri, and the Ilwonsang (depiction of a circle) was enshrined there.

1935:  The first temple outside of Korea was established in Osaka, Japan.

1943:  Park Chungbin died.

1943:  Pulgyo chŏngjŏn (Correct Canon of Buddhism) was published two months after Park passed away on June 1 of that year.

1943:  After Park passed away, Chŏngsan (Song Kyu 1900-1962) succeeded him as the head of the order.

1947:  The Name Won Buddhism replaced the name “Society for the Study of the Buddhist Dharma.”

1953:  Wonkwang College, the predecessor of Wonkwang University, opened its doors in Iri.

1960:  Won Buddhism began translating its scriptures into foreign languages in preparation for proselytizing overseas.

1961:  Chŏngsan proclaimed the Ethics of Triple Identity as a cardinal principle of Won Buddhism.

1962:  A revised scripture, the Wonbulgyo (Scriptures of Won Buddhism) was published. This new edition of the scriptures added sayings of the founder to the original texts composed by the founder.

1962:  Chŏngsan passed away and was replaced by Taesan (Kim Tae-gŏ, 1914-1998).

1971:  Wonkwang College became Wonkwang University, a comprehensive university.

1971:  The first full English translation of the scriptures was published.

1972:  Won Buddhism established a presence in the U.S. by establishing a temple of Korean-American in Los Angeles.

1973:  Wonkwang University added a medical college focusing on traditional Korean medicine.

1977:  A traditional medicine hospital affiliated with WonKwang University was opened in Kwangju.

1982:  A medical college for bio-medicine was opened by WonKwang University.

1990:  Yŏngsan College of Sŏn Studies opened in Yŏngsan, South Chŏlla province.

1994:  Taesan stepped from the head of Won Buddhism and was replaced by Chwasan Yi Kwangjŏng (1936-).

2001:  Won Institute of Graduate Studies was established in Glenside, Pennsylvania.

2006:  Chwasan stepped down and was replaced by Kyŏngsan Chŏng Ŭngch’ŏl (1940-) as Prime Dharma Master.

2016:  More than 50,000 people streamed into the Seoul World Cup Stadium to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the enlightenment of Sot’aesan.


Won Buddhists date the origin of their religious movement not to the legal recognition of “Won Buddhism” in 1947 as a separate and distinct religious order nor even to the formation of its predecessor “The Society for the Study of the Buddhist Dharma” in 1919. Instead, they cite April 28, 1916, the day their founder became enlightened, as the beginning of Won Buddhism, which they proudly proclaim to a Buddhist religion but nonetheless a new religion.

That founder was Park Chungbin (朴重彬, 1 891-1943), better known by his sobriquet Sot’aesan ( 少太山 ). He lived at a time ofdramatic political, economic, social and religious change on the Korean peninsula. In 1891, the year he was born into a peasant family in a village [Image at right] named Yŏngsan in Korea’s southwestern Chŏlla province, the five centuries life-span of the Chosŏn dynasty was drawing to an end. A major reason it was drawing to an end is that Korea’s long isolation from most of the rest of the world was drawing to an end as well, as Japanese and Westerners began moving onto the peninsula to use the lure of trade to draw Korea into the modern world.

When Sot’aesan was only four years old, the largest peasant rebellion in Korean history erupted in his corner of Korea. Possibly stimulated by the incursions of foreign commerce, the Tonghak (東學) rebellion, as it was known, almost overthrew the government. It was defeated but, in the process, China, to which Korea had been aligned for most of its recorded history, was forced to end its traditional big brother relationship with Korea and let Japan take its place. Not only was this a radical shift in Korea’s international environment, it also brought about a significant change internally. The growing presence of Japanese merchants began what would be a decades-long process of unraveling Korea’s overwhelmingly agrarian economy. And the entrance of Buddhist monks from Japan also undermined the Confucian Chosŏn government’s policy of marginalizing Buddhism. For most of the Chosŏn dynasty, since early in the fifteenth century, monks in clerical robes had been barred from entering the capital city. That policy ended in 1895, putting Buddhism back on the long road to respectability on the peninsula.

The Tonghak rebellion of 1894-1895 signaled another significant shift in Korea’s religious culture. That rebellion took its name from Korea’s first indigenous organized religion, which had emerged in 1860. Known then as “Eastern Learning” (Tonghak) (early in the twentieth century, it changed its name to Ch’ŏndogyo (the Religion of the Heavenly Way 天道敎 ), it was neither Buddhist nor Confucian. It originated instead from the religious experiences of its founder, Ch’oe Cheu (崔濟愚 1824-1864), who had a personal encounter with God in 1860. God, who appeared to him under the Catholic name of “the Lord of Heaven” ( 天主 ) as well as the ancient Chinese name of Sangje (C. Shangdi 上帝 ), told him that the old world was about to end and a new better world was open to open up, and his mission was to prepare humanity for that new world. Even though Ch’oe reported that he had held a conversation with Sangje, he also taught that God was not a transcendent being but could be found within the hearts-and-minds of every human being, a radical challenge to the Confucian hierarchical social order. Ch’oe was executed in 1864 for preaching what the Confucian government judged to be dangerous new ideas but his ideas continue to gain followers (Chung 2003:3-18).

Three decades after Ch’oe’s death, Tonghak rebels (not all of whom were actual believers in the Tonghak religion) used Ch’oe’s promise of a better world to come as a battle cry. Kaebyŏk ( 開闢 the Great Transformation) was supposed to bring an end to social and economic inequality and they wanted to hasten its arrival. In the aftermath of the defeat of the Tonghak political movement (the religion continued to spread underground), another charismatic religious figure emerged and proposed a different approach to bringing about that Great Transformation. Kang Ilsun ( 姜一淳 1871-1909), better known as Chŭngsan ( 甑山 ), taught a ritual for the “reconstruction of heaven and earth” which he said was the most effective way to accelerate the arrival of that new age. Moreover, he taught that the problems of the old age could all be traced to its competitive spirit. When everyone tried to get ahead of everyone else, everyone suffered. Not only did this cause people to suffer, that suffering led to resentment, which then caused more competition and therefore more suffering. Kaepyŏk, he promised, would replace the world of constant competition with a world of universal cooperation (Chung 2003:18-26).

Though Chŭngsan left this earth in 1909 (his followers in the decades that followed believe that he returned to Heaven, where he had reigned before he incarnation on earth), his ideas, like the ideas of Ch’oe Cheu continued to spread. Sot’aesan was clearly influenced by both of them. However, he put his own spin on those ideas and created an entirely different religious tradition. For example, he took the idea of Kaepyŏk and re-defined it, saying that the scientific and technological advances of the modern world were already bringing about a great material transformation but humanity was not keeping up spiritually. A spiritual transformation, therefore, was needed as well, and that was the goal toward which he intended to work. He invited his followers to join him in that process. He also agreed that the problems of the current world were exacerbated by resentment but, instead of a ritual for the reconstruction of heaven and earth, he proposed instead replacing resentment with gratitude to everyone and everything that make our life possible (Choi 2011:82-85; Chung 2003:29).

Sot’aesan [Image at right] formulated these new religious ideas after his enlightenment experience at the age of twenty-five. Hespent fifteen years before his enlightenment searching for spiritual guidance. During that time, he encountered the ideas of both the Tonghak community and the followers of Chŭngsan, but they were not his primary focus. From the age of ten until he was fifteen, he thought a mountain god could give him answers he needed. Every day he climbed a hill near his home to pray to the god of that mountain and leave offerings for him in the hope he would descend to meet him and teach him what he needed to know. When that didn’t happen, he became looking for a human being who could serve as a spiritual master. That question also failed to bring him the result he was looking for. On top of that, the loss of both his father, who died in 1910, and of his country, which was taken over by the Japanese that same year, made him even more eager to find a solution to the problems of life. He then turned inward and began meditating on his own, without any guidance from Buddhist monks or any other spiritual adepts. He exerted so much effort at meditating that he actually became physically ill. However, after four years, on April 28, 1916, he finally achieved the enlightenment he was looking for (Chung 2003:33-38).

Sot’aesan reports that once he was enlightened he could see that “all things are of a single body and nature; all dharmas are of a single root source” (see p. 105 of The Doctrinal Books of Won Buddhism). He could also see that this undifferentiated noumenal nature has neither arising nor ceasing and that it is intertwined with the principle of karmic retribution. This sounds very Buddhist in tone but Sot’aesan says he came to this realization on his own and did not know that the Buddha had taught the same thing until a few months later when, after reading the scriptures of many other religions, including the Christian, Buddhist and Daoist writings, he happened to read the Diamond Sutra. It was only then that he realized that Sakyamuni Buddha was the greatest sage of all.

As he began sharing his new insight with other people in his village, he began to gain disciples, people who looked to him for guidance in their lives. However, in a sign of the direction Won Buddhist would take later, rather than immediately found a religious community, he asked his disciples to join with him in a practical project of an economic nature. He organized an effort to reclaim as farmland about twenty-five acres of land of tidal land that the sea had claimed in front of his village. They completed that project in March, 1919, after a year of hard work. However, just at that time, Korea was thrown into turmoil by the rapid spread from Seoul into the countryside of demonstrations demanding the Japan leave Korea and give it back its independence (Choi 2011:27-31).

Rather than lead his disciples into participation in that anti-Japanese movement, Sot’aetsan decided instead that the time had come to focus on spiritual activities. He told his nine closest disciples that they needed to go to a specific mountain in the vicinity three times every month (he assigned each one a different mountain) and ask Heaven and Earth to hasten the emergence of paradise of earth. When nothing had changed after five months of such fervent prayers, he called them together again and told them that Heaven and Earth would not realize how sincere their prayers were until they had shown they willing to give their lives for the sake of a better world for all humanity. He then ordered them to place their bare thumbs on a white piece of paper confirming their vow to sacrifice their own lives for the greater good. [Image at right] He then told them to go back into their mountains and kill themselves as proof of their sincerity. As they left to do so, he called them back and said they had shown their sincerity and no further sacrifice as necessary. The evidence of their sincerity, we are told, is that their thumb prints had left a blood-like imprint on that piece of paper, even though they had put no ink on their thumbs. This miracle is called by Won Buddhists the “Dharma Authentication” (Chung 2003:44-47; Kwangsoo Park:38-42).

Soon afterwards Sot’aesan left his home village for an isolated temple in a mountain several kilometers away. During the five years he stayed in that temple, he began writing down those ideas which became the foundational principles of his new religious order. Those writings make clear that he was not creating a new branch of traditional Korean Buddhism but instead was developing an entirely different approach to Buddhist thought and practice. He both criticized Buddhism as it was practiced in the Korea of his day and proposed news ways of addressing the core Buddhist problem of overcoming the suffering that life entails (Kwangsoo Park 1997:42-44).

His criticism of so strident that he did not publish it until 1935. His main argument in C hosŏn pulgyo hyŏksillon (Essays on the Renovation of Buddhism) was that traditional Buddhism had become in Korea nothing more than monks seeking their own salvation in mountain monasteries and had nothing to offer the suffering masses. He insisted the Buddhism should come out of the mountains and become a Buddhism of the many, not of the few. He said to do that it had to become Koreanized. That meant the core texts had to be in Korean, so the general public could read them, instead of in Classical Chinese. He also said that Buddhists should stop making offering to statues and instead concentrate on serving the people, recognizing that those people are the real Buddhas (Kwangsoo Park 1997:292-302).

As an alternative, put forward in Suyang yŏn’gu yoron (Essentials of Spiritual Cultivation and Inquiry into Facts and Principles), he proposed, first of all, that Buddhists should keep in mind two things in order to be the best possible person they could be and bring the best possible benefit to those around them. First of all, they should cultivate an attitude of gratitude to nature, their parents, their society, and the law for making it possible for them to live a healthy and safe life. Second, they should allow both men and women to be self-reliant, distinguish the wise from the foolish, dedicate themselves to educating others, and show respect toward those who are devoted to the public good.

In addition, he also proposed three essential practices for developing the ability to act appropriately, and specified the attitudes needed for those practices to be effective. Those three essential practices are the cultivation of a calm and clear mind through meditation, the study of the facts and principles found in Won Buddhist texts, and mindful choice in actions with karmic consequences. Those three practices, he argued, need to be supported by proper attitudes. It is important for a practitioner to cultivate faith, by which he meant confidence in his or her own ability to become a better person. That confidence must be accompanied by zeal in working toward that goal, a determination to learn more of is needed to achieve that goal, and dedication toward achieving that goal. At the same time, he insisted, practitioners must eliminate disbelief, overcoming any doubt that they really can become better persons through their own efforts. They also have to eradicate greed, laziness, and foolishness, attitudes which will hold them back from doing all they can do to improve themselves and, in the process, improve the lives of those around us. Only then can they become enlightened in both thought and action (Chung 2003:48-49).

Sot’aesan’s insistence on the need to cultivate gratitude shows his response to Chŭngsan’s assertion that human suffering is caused by resentments. However, his other proposals are a reflection of his own unique take on Buddhism, rooting it in the daily life of ordinary human beings rather than in the discipline of monastics. His form of Buddhism is so different from how Koreans at that time conceived of Buddhist thought and practice that he did not affiliate with any of the existing Korean or Japanese Buddhist order on the peninsula at that time. Instead, in 1924. he announced that he had organized a “Society for the Study of the Buddhist Dharma” (佛法硏究會) and, leaving his mountain retreat, established the headquarters for that society in the agricultural lands of Iksan, in north Chŏlla province (Chung 2003:50-51).

Iksan remains the headquarters of Won Buddhism, the order which grew out of Sot’aesan’s Society for the Study of BuddhistDharma.” It was in Iksan, in 1935, that Sot’aesan formally enshrined a circle, which he called the Ilwŏnsang (一圓 相), as the symbol of the Dharmakāya Buddha (法身佛). [Image at right] He announced that the Ilwŏnsang, hung on a wall above an altar, should be the only object toward which he and his followers would direct their spiritual gaze. The statues of various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas found in traditional temples were excluded from Won Buddhist ritual halls. The Ilwŏnsang also replaced Buddhist statues in the homes of his followers as well. It has become the symbol by which Won Buddhism is known (and later gave Sot’aesan’s community that name). Its prominence, along with the absence of Buddhist statues, identifies Won Buddhism as different from all other forms of Buddhism in Korea.

To sustain his new community, and show his commitment to a Buddhism that was part of the world rather than apart from it as he believed traditional Buddhism has become, he established several business enterprises managed by members of his religious community. Building on the tradition of practicality he set earlier when he established a credit union and reclaimed mudflats for farming, Sot’aesan and his followers managed rice paddies, peach and persimmon orchards, and chicken coops to produce goods for markets. Later they also branched out into the manufacture and selling of traditional (Chinese-style) medicines.

In 1943, at only fifty-two years of age, Sot’aesan passed away. But the order he founded continued to grow under the leadership of his successor Song Kyu ( 宋奎 1900-1962), one of Sot’aesan’s original disciples. Song Kyu, better known as Chŏngsan (鼎山) , steered the religious community through the tumultuous years of the collapse of Japanese rule and the partition of Korea into north and south, and the Korean War that followed. Over the course of the two decades he served as Prime Dharma Master, the title given to the head of the order, he contributed so much to putting the community on a firmer foundation that he almost deserves to be called a co-founder.

His first contribution was to formally establish the community he led as a separate and distinct religious community in its own right. First of all, he changed its name. In 1947, the “Society for the Study of the Buddhist Dharma” gained legal recognition as Won Buddhism from the ruling authorities of South Korea at that time (it was still under US occupation in the aftermath of the Japanese surrender in 1945). At the same time Chŏngsan took steps to enhance the the visibility and respectability of his order by building the educational institutions Japanese colonial authorities had kept it from building.

In Korea, thanks to the example set by Protestant missionaries from North America at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, religious organizations have felt compelled to establish their own schools, including a university if possible, in order to be seen as modern and as contributing to the larger society. Chŏngsan did not have the resources to open a university at first, so he began in 1946 with a junior high and high school called the Yuil Academy. By 1951, that academy had added two more years of instruction and called itself Wonkwang Junior College. Two years later it became a full four-year institution of higher education. It continued to expand after Chŏngsan passed away in 1962 and now is a comprehensive university. Wonkwang University is well-respected in South Korea today, especially for its medical school complex, in particular its school of traditional Chinese-style medicine.

Wonkwang University is open to everyone, not just believers. In fact, most of the students on its campus are not Won Buddhists. Men or women who want to become Won Buddhist clerics can study in the Department of Won Buddhist studies but that is just one of many departments spread out among fifteen undergraduate colleges and eight post-graduate schools on campus. Students who prefer a campus dedicated solely to Won Buddhist studies can instead enroll in the Yŏngsan University of Sŏn (meditation) Studies established farther south, near the site where Sot’aesan experienced his original enlightenment. A Won Buddhist school for the training of clerics had opened there in 1935, but it had closed down due to the Korean War. Chŏngsan planned to reopen it after the war but his plans were not realized until 1964, two years after his death.

A third step Chŏngsan took to enhance the separate and distinct identity of Won Buddhism was the compilation and publication of the scriptures of Won Buddhism. A n earlier collection of Sot’aesan’s writings had been published just after his death but the publication in 1962, just after Chŏngsan himself died, of this definitive collection of not just Sot’aesan’s writings but his sayings as recorded by his disciples as well solidified the doctrinal basis of this young religious organization (Chung 2012:13-15).

Another major contribution Chŏngsan made to the strengthening of the identity, and respectability, of Won Buddhism was to elaborate on Sot’aesan’s policy of religious tolerance and cooperation by formulating his own policy of what he called “the ethics of triple identity.” This term refers to his assertion that, first of all, all religions, though they may appear quite different from one another today, share the same origin, which is the desire to promote harmony and cooperation within the human community. Second, he proclaimed that all human beings, wherever they are on earth, are formed from the same basic matter and energy (he is referring to ki/ Q (氣). Ki, the stuff which traditional Chinese and Korean thought assumed coagulated into, and then animated, all things in the universe) and therefore we are all members of the same family. That means all races are equal and there should be no racial discrimination. Third, and here we see the distinctive Won Buddhism orientation that embraces both the spiritual and the mundane, including the world of business, he declared that all enterprises should the same laudable goal, which is to produce more of the things human beings need, and therefore they should cooperate more than compete with each other. This ethics of triple identity remains a core element of Won Buddhist belief and practice, stimulating Won Buddhism’s outreach to other religious communities, its efforts at attracting non-Korean members and establishing temples overseas, and its continued embrace of commercial enterprises as part of its religious mission (Chung 2012:44-46).

When Chŏngsan died in 1972, another member of the first generation of Won Buddhists (he had become a Won Buddhist in 1929, when he was only fifteen years-old) became the Prime Dharma Master. Under the guiding hand of Kim Taegŏ (大擧, 1914-1998), better known as Taesan (大山) , the order further enhanced its visibility in Korea’s religious landscape. Taesan stepped down in 1995, feeling that his advanced age made it difficult for him to adequately fulfill his responsibilities, and was replaced by Yi Kwangjŏng ( 李廣淨 1936-), known to Won Buddhists as Chwasan (左山). The tradition of abdication before infirmity set in having been established by Taesan, Chwasan also abdicated while he was still healthy. He was replaced in 2006 by the current (2016) head Kyŏngsan (耕山) Chang Ŭngch’ŏl (張應哲 1940-).

The Won Buddhist order was still quite small in the middle of the twentieth century. It survived the Korean War, which ended in 1953, but only had seventy temples then. Almost two decades later, in 1970, the number of temples had almost tripled, to 190. By 1995 that number had again more than doubled, reaching 454 temples in Korea alone plus thirty overseas. Growth has recently slowed somewhat but, by the beginning of the second decade of the twenty-first century, Won Buddhism reported it had nevertheless added almost another 100 temples, for a total of 550 served by almost 2,000 clerics.

As for as the size of the lay Won Buddhist community, the order claims to have around one million members, a substantial increase from the 284,195 it claimed in 1960 but not all that different from the figure it reported to the South Korean government in 1982. In 1985, the government started including religious affiliation on the questionnaire it distributed for the official census every ten years. The figures it collected do not support the numbers claimed by the order. In 1985, the census found only 92,302 Koreans who called themselves Won Buddhists. The census found more in 2005 but, even then, the government found less than 130,000 people who said they were Won Buddhists. (At the time of this writing, the 2015 census figures for religion were not yet available.) It is possible that many Won Buddhists simply checked “Buddhist” on the government form rather than going farther down the page to check “Won Buddhist,” but nevertheless the claim of 1,000,000 Won Buddhists should be taken with a dose of skepticism. It is possible that number includes everyone who has ever considered himself or herself a Won Buddhist, even if he or she no longer frequents Won Buddhist temples, and it may also include all the family members of practicing Won Buddhists, since many Koreans still see religion a family identity rather than an individual choice.

Won Buddhism has also begun advancing toward its goal of becoming a global religion rather than a religion for Koreans alone. The first Won Buddhist temple in North America opened in 1973. That temple serves mostly Korean-Americans living in southern California. However, there are now temples across North America, including a temple in Manhattan with a primarily non-Korean membership. Won Buddhist temples can also be found in Japan, China, Australia, Germany, France, Brazil, South Africa, Moscow, Cambodia, and Nepal, totaling fifty-five Won Buddhist temples outside of Korea. Moreover, outside of Philadelphia in the eastern U.S., there is a Won Institute of Graduate Studies which offers accredited MA programs in Won Buddhist Studies, Applied Meditation Studies, and Acupuncture Studies (that last one draws on Wonkwang University’s reputation for training doctors of traditional medicine). Though the number of non-Korean Won Buddhists is still quite small, Won Buddhism has clearly established a presence overseas and is making progress towards transcending its peninsular origin and joining the ranks of world religions (Department of International Affairs of Won Buddhism 2010:85-136; Adams 2009:20-31).  


Though it prides itself on being a new religion, Won Buddhism, at its core, is Buddhist. There are three main features of its doctrines which identify it as Buddhist.

First of all, it is anthropocentric rather than theistic. Like Theravada Buddhists and Zen Buddhists (but unlike Pure Land Buddhists), Won Buddhists do not focus their spiritual gaze on powerful supernatural personalities. Nor do they consider even the historical Buddha, Sākyamuni, a god. Rather, they see Sākyamuni as an exemplary teacher who shows us that we all have the ability within ourselves to overcome our frailties and deficiencies and achieve spiritual perfection through our own efforts. This inward focus, and inner self-confidence, combined with the absence of devotion to external deities, gives Won Buddhist part of its Buddhist coloring.

In a second Buddhist feature of Won Buddhists thought, the anthropocentrism of Won Buddhism does not mean that Won Buddhists believe that human beings are the source of all there is in the world of everyday experience. Instead, like Buddhist philosophers in other Buddhist traditions, Won Buddhists believe that there is an underlying unchanging and undifferentiated reality that lies behind, and is the origin of, the phenomenal world, and the essential nature of human beings is nothing other than that ultimate reality. Won Buddhists call that ultimate reality “Ilwon (一圓),” symbolized by a circle ( 一圓 相 ) and defined as both complete perfection and the interconnectedness of all things (Chung 2003:69-84; Kwangsoo Park 1997:88-95).

Ilwon as ultimate reality is not unique to Won Buddhism. A circle has been used by Buddhist thinkers for centuries to show both that everything is connected to everything else and that that which connects everything to everything else is ultimately undifferentiated and therefore perfect. Won Buddhists, however, give that circle added emphasis by enshrining it, and it alone, as the focus of their spiritual gaze in their temples and on their home altars.

In another nod to its Buddhist roots, Won Buddhists also describe ultimate reality as the Dharmakāya Buddha (法身佛). To Won Buddhists Dharmakāya Buddha, the “Buddha body,” does not mean a particular supernatural being. Rather, it refers to the Buddha nature that underlies all reality. It is that which is manifest as the myriad things in the universe but is also the unseen source of the myriad things and therefore is that which connects them all to each other (Chung 1987).

In the concrete language of Sot’aesan, “All things in heaven and earth mature in one womb.” (“Prospects,” Doctrinal Books of Won-Buddhism, p. 451) In the more philosophical language Won Buddhists recite in “Vow to the Truth of Irwonsang,” Ilwon “is the gateway of birth and death which transcends being and non-being, the original source of heaven and earth, parents, ordinary human, and sentient beings. It can form both the permanent and the impermanent. Viewed as the permanent, it has unfolded into an infinite world that is ever abiding and unextinguished, just as it is and spontaneous. Viewed as the impermanent, it has unfolded into an infinite world…by effecting transformations through the formation, subsistence, decay, and extinction of the university, the birth, old age, sickness, and death of all things…” (Doctrinal Books of Won Buddhism, pp. 22-23).

This depiction through words of what, Sot’aesan admits, cannot be fully described with words is rather abstract and would appear to not provide much practical guidance for Won Buddhists. To give his followers a more concrete focus for their spiritual endeavors, Sot’aesan proclaimed that Ilwon would be represented in their temples and home altars in the form of a physical representation of Ilwon, which is why their identifying symbol is called Ilwonsang, “the symbol of Ilwon.” [Image at right] But that plain circle, as visible as it is, still doesn’t tell Won Buddhists what Ilwon means for their everyday life. After all, Won Buddhists, like Buddhists everywhere, are more concerned about practice, about what they should do, than about doctrine, what they should believe in the abstract.

That concern for practice is the third Buddhist characteristic of Won Buddhist doctrine. Mainstream Buddhists refer more often to their practice than to their beliefs. They will ask each other “how is your practice going?” rather than “is your faith still strong?” Though Won Buddhists have been influenced enough by the strength of Christianity in South Korea to make frequent references to belief in their teachings, it is clear in both their writings and their services that their primary concern is with the behavioral implications of their teachings.

For example, the doctrinal chart of Won Buddhism, a one-page graphic presentation of Won Buddhist core teachings, tells

Sot’aesan’s followers as much what they should do as what they should believe. [Image above] The Ilwonsang (the circle) can be seen at the top center of that page. Directly below it is the statement that Ilwon means the Dharmakāya Buddha, “the original sources of all things in the universe, the mind-seal of all the buddhas and sages, and the original nature of all sentient beings.” But immediately to the left of that philosophical definition is another definition: what Won Buddhist call the Fourfold Grace, in Korean the Saŭn. Saŭn refers to the concrete ways Ilwon is manifest to humans: as the parents who gave us life, as heaven and earth that give us air to breathe and water to drink, as our fellow human beings who do things for us we cannot do for ourselves, and as laws, the rules and regulations that provide stability and security in society. Won Buddhists are told that the way to show their belief in, and devotion to, Ilwon/ Dharmakāya Buddha, to to cultivate gratitude toward their parents, nature, their fellow human beings, and the institutions of society that provide guidance and stability.

Won Buddhists insist that they do not believe in an anthropomorphic deity. That is why there are no statues in the sanctuaries of Won Buddhist temples. Yet when they use the term “Saŭn,” they often add the syllable “nim,” which is a suffix used in the Korean language after a personal name or a title to show respect for the person to whom that name or title is affixed (“Sŏngga,” Wŏnbulgyo chŏnsŏ 2002:14-15). “Nim” is not usually added after the names of inanimate objects or concepts, yet they add “nim” to Saŭn in both hymns and chants. (That honorific suffix doesn’t appear in English translations of Won Buddhist texts, since it has no simple English equivalent.) They do not add “nim” to the term Ilwonsang or to the name Dharmakāya Buddha, but they sometimes chant “Dharmakāya Buddha-Saŭnnim,” reinforcing their belief that the Fourfold Grace is nothing other Dharmakāya Buddha, which itself is nothing other than Ilwon. Won Buddhists appear to feel the need to use anthropomorphic language in addressing the Saŭn (they pray to Dharmakāya Buddha-Saŭnnim to continue to provide them things they need) in order to help them cultivate an attitude of gratitude toward the people through whom they have received that Fourfold Grace.

Yet Won Buddhists are also told that there are no specific individuals to whom alone they owe gratitude. Rather, at the bottom left of their doctrinal chart, they are told “everywhere a Buddha Image” and “every Act a Buddha Offering.” This is more of an injunction than a description. It is telling Won Buddhists that worshipping and serving the Dharmakāya Buddha should not be confined to any specific place, not even a temple. Rather, they should keep in mind that all the world around them, including all the people in it, are manifestations of the Dharmakāya Buddha and therefore they should treat everyone and everything with respect and act outside of a temple with the same propriety and sincerity they display in ritual services inside the temple.

It is important to note that Won Buddhists consider Sot’aesan, the founder of their order, to be “a new Buddha for a new age”

(Hymns of Won Buddhism 2003:188– hymn 175, “New Buddha in a New World). That does not mean he is a God or an incarnation of Sākyamuni. They do not pray to Sot’aesan. They show respect to portraits of him, just as they show respect to portraits of national heroes and to their own ancestors. [Image at right] But, just as they consider Sākyamuni to be a great teacher rather than a god, they view Sot’aesan as a teacher, an exceptionally enlightened one but nevertheless still a human being. And they also believe, as other Buddhists do, that other human beings as well can, if they acquire a correct understanding of ultimate reality, and are determined to act in accordance with that knowledge, they, too, can become buddhas. He told his disciples that “a person who grasps the truth of the universe and applies it to the functioning of the six sense organs of human beings is, in fact a heavenly being, a sage, and a buddha.” (“Buddhahood,” Doctrinal Books of Won Buddhism, p. 124).

Won Buddhists are, of course, aware that few people become Buddhas in one lifetime. However, unlike Pure Land Buddhists, they do not believe in heaven or hell after death. Instead, they believe people get another chance (and another chance, and another) at becoming fully enlightened and achieving buddhahood. Won Buddhists share the mainstream Buddhist belief in karma and reincarnation. Rather than ascending to heaven or descending to hell, they believe we instead are reincarnated to live again on this earth, and that how we are reincarnated is determined by how we lived our previous life. That is why one of the core injunctions in Won Buddhism doctrine, appearing to the right of the Ilwonsang in the doctrinal chart, is “making the right choices in action.”

Sot’aesan taught, as Buddhists before him did as well, that since everything is connected to everything else, every action has consequences, either in this life or later. For example, he said “even though a person may not see or hear you, do not hate or disparage that person. Since energy is being mutually transmitted through heaven and earth, though you may hate a person without his knowledge and may have disparaged him just once, that energy is already transmitted and a seed of mutual harm is planted.” (“Cause and Effect,” Doctrinal Books of Won Buddhism, p. 256)

He also taught told his disciples that sometimes, when we behave badly in this life, we may not experience negative consequences right away. In such cases, though, we will experience them in the next life. Won Buddhism doesn’t talk about evil human beings being reborn as lower forms of life. Instead, it talks about human problems in this life being the result of human misbehavior in a previous life. “A person who upsets someone deeply by making false insinuations will suffer from heartburn in his next life. A person who enjoys furtively probing into and eavesdropping on others’ secrets will suffer humiliation and embarrassment in his next life by being born out of wedlock. A person who readily exposes other’s secrets and readily embarrasses them in front of other people so that they blush with shame will, in his next life, have some ugly marks or scars on his face that will hamper him all his life.” (“Cause and Effect,” Doctrinal Books of Won Buddhism, p. 261)

The Won Buddhism doctrines that everything is connected to everything else since everything originates from the same undifferentiated universal Buddha nature that underlies all transitoryphenomena, that we all can become buddhas through our own efforts and don’t need to rely on assistance from a supernatural personality to do so, and that we are responsible for our fate both in this life and afterward are doctrines it shares with other Buddhists. Why, then, does Won Buddhism call itself a new religion?

The equation of the Dharmakāya Buddha and the Fourfold Grace is unique to Won Buddhism. No other major Buddhist tradition equates the Buddha nature with such concrete human everyday interactions. It is this emphasis on daily life, sometimes expressed in the mantra “Buddhadharma is daily life. Daily life is Buddhadharma,” that distinguishes Won Buddhism from other approaches to Buddhism and gives it its identity as a new religion.


Since Won Buddhism insists that Buddhist images are everywhere and all acts can be Buddha offerings, it would be easy to assume that there is not much room for worship halls and elaborate rituals in Won Buddhism. But such is not the case. The second Prime Dharma Master, Chŏngsan, published a guide to Won Buddhist ritual practice in 1961 and it has been maintained, and updated regularly, since then. The Guide to Propriety and Ceremony includes advice on how to go about our daily lives, including an admonition to “wash one’s face and brush one’s teeth every day” (p. 2) and a suggestion that we “not speak until one’s conversational partner finishes speaking and should not monopolize the conversation (p. 12) as well as instructions for performing formal Won Buddhist rituals such as funerals

There are three parts to this Won Buddhist guide to appropriate behavior. Revealing the influence of the heavily Confucian culture from which Won Buddhism emerged, the longest part has to do with manners rather than religious ritual. The discussions of the etiquette of interpersonal interactions, for example, of how to receive guests in your home and how to act when you are someone else’s guest, of how to engage in a conversation with someone older than you and with someone younger than you, and of how to act at a dinner table, take up almost half of the book. The rest of the book is dedicated to explaining the procedures for religious rituals at home, and for public religious rituals.

Family rituals include a ritual for giving a name to a new-born as well as a ritual for celebrating a young man or woman becoming an adult. It includes ritual instructions for marriage ceremonies, something absent in traditional Korean Buddhism, and it also has ritual instructions for celebrating someone’s sixtieth birthday. The section on family rituals continues with directions for proper funerals, and for rituals every seventh day for forty-nine days after the death of a family member to pray that the deceased will be granted admission into nirvana. Those rituals over the course of those forty-nine days, which is believed to be how long the dead have to wait before reincarnation, are supposed to include chanting the name of Amitābha Buddha (believed in Pure Land Buddhism to preside over paradise but seen in Won Buddhism as the term for Buddha when thought of as limitless light and life) as well as reading aloud, and chanting, Buddhist scriptures and Won Buddhist incantations.

In Confucianism, which dominated Korean ritual life from the fourteenth through the nineteenth centuries, ritual veneration of ancestors was the most important family ritual. It is not surprising, therefore, that Won Buddhism has its own Confucian-style ancestral rites in addition to the Buddhist-style rituals carried out in the immediate aftermath of a death. Those Confucian-style rites are held on the anniversary of the death of the parent, teacher, or elder being honored. The bereaved are encouraged to host such a ritual in a Won Buddhist temple but may instead follow the traditional practice of doing so at home.

Even though it is clear that the Won Buddhist notion of which turning points in life should be marked by rituals is strongly influenced by Confucianism (the sixtieth birthday celebration, for example, reflects the respect for elders that is a hallmark of Confucianism), Won Buddhist rituals are different from traditional Confucian rituals. There is an emphasis in Won Buddhist family rituals on simplicity and frugality, a break with Confucian tradition in which how much one spent on a ceremony, and how elaborate a ceremony was, often was seen as an indication of how well-educated, how Confucianized, the person hosting the ritual was.

The third section of this etiquette and ritual guide deals with what it calls “Rites and Rituals of the Order,” in other words, with religious ceremonies for the broader Won Buddhist community. This section begins with instructions for the enshrining of Ilwonsang in a temple or a home. The guide notes “ Since all things in the universe are the manifestation of the Dharmakāya Buddha, there is no need to enshrine Il-Won-Sang separately. However, humanity in general needs a visible manifestation of the object of faith, without which they find it difficult to maintain spiritual devotion and understand the standard of practice.” (Guide to Propriety and Ceremony, p. 60). Won Buddhist are enjoined to bow before the enshrined Ilwonsang, both in temples and at their home. (They bow in the traditional Buddhist manner of clashing their hands together in front of their chest and bowing from their waist.)

Won Buddhist temples hold regular Dharma Services, which are usually held on Sunday mornings, just as Christian worship services are. Moreover, passers-by who peek into a typical Won Buddhist temple in Korea might at first mistake that temple for a church since they would see pews for the congregation, a podium for the minister to preach a sermon, a piano to accompany the congregation when it signs hymns, and an altar at the front. However, they would quickly notice the large circle, the Ilwonsang, above the altar and that would let them know that they are looking at a Won Buddhist temple rather than a Christian hall of worship

A typical Sunday morning service [Image at right] begins with a moment of silent reflection to calm and concentrate the mind. That is followed by prayer, which normally refers to communal chanting of certain Won Buddhist incantations. Prayer, in Won Buddhism, is not seen as asking a powerful supernatural personality for assistance but rather as re-orienting our mind so that we are attuned to the working of the Ilwon and therefore will receive the grace the Ilwon provides so that we can play our proper role in human society and the universe. For example, one common prayer is Yŏngju (the Spiritual Chant): “The spiritual energy of Heaven and Earth permeates my mind. My pure consciousness touches all things in the universe. Heaven and Earth and I become one. I join with Heaven and Earth in striving to create righteousness.” The short chant may be repeated twenty-one times.

Prayer in this fashion is usually followed by the congregation singing a Won Buddhist hymn. (The Won Buddhist hymnal (Hymns of Won-Buddhism 2003) contains hymns such as “Song of Dharmakāya Buddha,” “The Four Graces,” “Song in Praise of Sakyumuni Buddha,” and “Daejongsa [Sot’aesan] is our Redeeming Buddha.”) After that there will be a reading from the Won Buddhist scriptures, a chanting of “The Essential Dharmas of Daily Practice” ( Doctrinal Books of Won-Buddhism 2016:56-57) more hymns, a sermon, and one more hymn. Except for the words of the incantations, the hymns, the sermons, and the scriptural readings, a Won Buddhist Sunday service could be a Christian worship service. It is organized more like a Protestant service than like a traditional Buddhist ritual.

Won Buddhists are also encouraged to meditate, either through the quiet sitting characteristic of Japan’s Zen Buddhism and Korea’s mainstream monastic Buddhism, or through chanting. Meditation is not normally a part of a regular worship service. Instead the temple will often open its doors early in the morning for those who want to meditate. Larger temples may have a separate room, apart from the main worship hall with its pews, in which those wishing to meditate can sit cross-legged on cushions on the floor to meditate in the traditional Buddhist fashion.

Won Buddhist meditation may look like mainstream Buddhist meditation but Won Buddhists have their own distinctive approach. The purpose of meditation in the Won Buddhist tradition is not to empty the mind but to calm the mind so that it is not disturbed by self-centered thoughts and emotions. The focus is not on the state of mind we achieve while quietly meditating but on cultivating a calm and focused mind that will inform our thoughts and actions as we go about our daily lives. The goal is what Won Buddhism describes as “timeless Zen and placeless Zen,” remaining composed and concentrated on the task at hand at all times wherever you are and whatever you are doing.

Though Won Buddhism recognizes the merits of meditation through repetitive chanting of the name of the Buddhism, it also recommends quiet-sitting in which we focus on our breathing. [Image at right] This is an approach to meditation often associated with Daoism. Daoist meditation consists of focusing on one’s breathing while concentrating on one’s “tanjeon,” the invisible cinnabar field in the abdomen, below the navel, which was seen by Daoists as the organ that collects and processes energy inhaled from outside so that it can provide animating energy for our body and our mind (Chwasan 1997). Moreover, Won Buddhism echoes the Daoist notion that proper cinnabar field meditation will result in our watery energy within our body ascending and our fiery energy descending. “As the watery energy ascends, the deluded thoughts will be calmed. Consequently, one’s body and mind will remain serene in perfect harmony, and both the spirit and energy will be refreshed. However, if deluded thoughts are not calmed in one’s mind, the fiery energy will constantly ascend, burning up the watery energy in the entire body and obscuring the light of the spirit.” (Doctrinal Books of Won Buddhism, pp. 66-67). Daoists believed that reversing the natural upward movement of fire and downward movement of water would also reverse the natural process of aging and lead to immortality. Won Buddhists have more limited aims. Their experience taught them that focusing their attention on their breathing would help them cultivate the calm and settled mind which, for them, was the appropriate goal to pursue through meditation.

In addition to family rituals, Sunday services, and meditation, Won Buddhism has a few other rituals. There is a formal initiation ceremony in which someone is accepted into the Won Buddhist community. And there are ceremonies for recognizing spiritual progress, which is expressed in Won Buddhism as advancing through specific dharma ranks. When someone becomes a Won Buddhist, they are given an ordinary Buddhist name, much as Christians take a Christian name when they are baptized. However, those who are judged to have made substantial spiritual progress and to have contributed over a period of time to the Won Buddhist community are granted an additional Buddhist name. For men, that honorable name ends in “san,” as we saw in the names of the Prime Dharma Masters. Women instead are given a name with the suffix “t’awŏn.”

Won Buddhists also celebrate with rituals the anniversary of Sot’aesan’s enlightenment, the birthday of Sakyamuni, and the Day of Dharma Authentication (commemorating the miracle of bloody fingers on a signed profession of determination to follow the Dharma by the original disciples of Sot’aesan) as important religious holidays.

Won Buddhist ministers wear distinctive ritual garb when presiding over a ritual. They don’t dress like mainstream Buddhist monks. Instead, they wear a vestment with a large Ilwonsang on their chest. However, some of their ritual instruments are inherited from mainstream Buddhism. They use a small wooden drum (mokt’ak), a wooden clapper, and a brass bell to mark various stages of a ritual. In addition, Won Buddhists often use a yŏmjoo (a Buddhist rosary) to count their recitations when they are intoning a sacred chant.


In his call for a Buddhism more appropriate for the modern age, Sot’aesan insisted that the gap between monks in mountain monasteries and laypeople in villages, towns, and cities had to be closed. He also called for an end to discrimination against women, insisting that women should be allowed the same access to education and occupations men enjoyed under Confucianism. Won Buddhism has come a long way toward achieving that goal. There is still a difference between clerics and laity, though that difference is not nearly as great in Won Buddhism as it was, and still is, in traditional Buddhism. Moreover, women are not treated exactly the same as men in Won Buddhism, though women exercise a lot more power in the Won Buddhist hierarchy than women do in mainstream Korean Buddhism.

There have been four leaders of the Won Buddhist order since Sot’aesan. All have been men, even though the leader is elected by the Supreme Dharma Council which is composed of equal numbers of men and women. However, twice since 2003 women had been elected the chief administrator of the order, only one step below the Prime Dharma Master. Moreover, women clerics greatly outnumber male clerics. In 2015 there were over 1,100 female clerics but fewer than 900 male clerics. That may change in the years ahead since, in recent years, more men than women have been ordained.

Both male and female Won Buddhist clerics are called “kyomu,” which means “those who are dedicated to the teachings.” There is no distinction in their titles, or their duties, between male and female clerics. However, one major difference does remain. Most male kyomu are married and live with their families in the community they serve. Female kyomu, by custom but not by formal regulations of the order, are celibate and live either in their temple or in communities with other female kyomu (Bokin Kim 2000:156-71). (Many Won Buddhists believe that the duties of motherhood would interfere with clerical work but that male clerics can count on their wives to take care of family matters.) Moreover, though both male and female clerics wear the vestment with the Ilwonsang on their chest when they preside over rituals, as they go about their daily life they dress differently. Male kyomu do not look very different from an ordinary Korean businessman, except for the collar on their shirt which resembles a roman collar seen on Catholic priests. They do not shave their heads, unlike mainstream Buddhist monks, nor do they have a distinctive haircut. When not in ritual clothing, they often wear a white shirt with dark pants, sometimes with a suit coat. Women kyomu, on the other hand, have a distinctive appearance. They were their hair pulled tight in the back to form a bun resembling the traditional hair style of upper-class women in traditional Korea. And their everyday clothing is a modified version of the hanbok, traditional Korean clothing. However, whereas a hanbok can be quite colorful, the female kyomu version is limited to black and white, with the skirt being black and the blouse being white in summer and black in winter.

As is the case with any large organization, Won Buddhism has an administrative hierarchy, with power exercised over the Won Buddhist organization worldwide from headquarters in Iksan, in north Chŏlla province. The Prime Dharma Master and the chief administrator both work out of the headquarters in Iksan. However, they are both elected by the Supreme Dharma Council, and have limited terms of office. Much of their power is shared with the supreme legislative body, the Supreme Dharma Council, which not only has equal numbers of male and female members but also has a substantial number of lay members, though clerics outnumber the laity on that body (Adams 2009:15-16).

If the Supreme Dharma Council can be seen as the upper house of the Won Buddhist legislative body, then the Central Council of Ministers and the Laity can be seen as the lower house. It provides a venue for both clerical and lay leaders of various Won Buddhist organizations to have some input into important decisions which affect the entire order.

Beneath those two legislative organs are a number of administrative organizations, tasked respectively with managing international affairs, education, financial and business matters, welfare and philanthropic activities, and culture and media affairs. Worldwide, Won Buddhist temples are divided into fifteen regional districts, much like the Catholic systems of dioceses overseeing parishes. In addition to managing the affairs of over 550 temples in Korea and over fifty more abroad, the Won Buddhist order has an extensive educational network, ranging from kindergartens to a comprehensive university. It also has an extensive medical network, composed of hospitals for traditional Chinese-style medicine and hospitals for modern biomedicine. In addition, it runs several social welfare centers in Korea. To support these charitable endeavors, Won Buddhism operates farms (focusing on organic agriculture), a pharmaceutical corporation, and a credit union.


Won Buddhism is not a world-denying Buddhism. The statement for which Sot’aesan is best known, “with the great opening of matter, let there be a great opening of spirit” (Doctrinal Books of Won-Buddhism 2016:xix) shows that he, and his followers, accept the phenomenal world and the many changes it is going through today not as something to be detached from but as something to be engaged with. Sot’aesan recognized that the world around him was rapidly changing economically, politically, technologically, and socially, and that most of those changes were for the better. His goal was not to flee from those changes but to embrace them while promoting new approaches to spirituality that allow people to keep their inner life on an even keel in the midst of all those changes. That is why Won Buddhist clerics live in middle of secular communities rather than in remote monasteries. That is why Won Buddhism was the first Korean Buddhist organization to engage with the broader society through schools, medical facilities, and even businesses. And that is why it was the first Korean new religion to have its own radio and TV stations and to dispatch chaplains to serve devotees in Korea’s armed forces.

That doesn’t mean, however, that Won Buddhism is not encountering problems navigating the modern world. The number of ministers has actually declined in recent decades, even though the number of devotees has grown. In 2002 Won Buddhism reported to the government that it had 2,455 clerics. By 2008 that number had dropped to 1,886. It rose again to 1,979 by 2011 but was still below 2,000 in 2015. Moreover, according to numbers supplied by Won Buddhist headquarters, the size of its membership has not grown as fast as its religious competitors over the last few decades. Won Buddhism claimed to have slightly over 1,000,000 adherents in the 1980s. Two and a half decades later, it claimed its membership had grown to around 1,700,000, an impressive figure, though mainstream Buddhism, Protestantism, and Roman Catholicism all reported that they had gained many more members over the same period of time. The government census in 2005 found 10,700,000 Buddhists, almost 3,000,000 more than the 8,600,000 it found in 1985. The 6,500,000 Protestants the census found in 1985 grew to more than 8,600,000 by 2005. The Catholic community had only 1,800,000 million members in 1985 but by 2005 it had over 5,000,000. Of those three major religions in Korea, only the Catholic church grew at a faster pace than the Won Buddhist claim to have grown. However, they still lag far those other religions in the number of adherents they claim.

The government census has found far fewer Won Buddhists that the 1,700,000 Won Buddhism claims. The 2005 figure of 104,574 people who identified as Won Buddhists was the largest number census takers have ever found. That was twenty percent more than the 86,832 the census found in 1995, which was slightly less than the 92,302 the government found in the 1985 census. At no time has the government found that Won Buddhists constituted even one percent of the South Korean population. In contrast, around twenty-three percent of Koreans call themselves Buddhists (which, in the vast majority of cases, means mainstream Buddhists, not Won Buddhists), around nineteen percent call themselves Protestants and almost eleven percent say they are Catholics.

Whatever the actual figures for practicing Won Buddhists, it appears that it has not grown as much as it has claimed. The number of temples in Korea has grown slowly over the last three decades, from 436 in 1990 to 624 in 2016. On the other hand, mainstream Buddhism reports that it had almost 27,000 ritual halls in 2011 compared to less than 10,000 in 1990. The number of Protestant churches grew at a smaller pace but nonetheless more than doubled, from around 35,000 in 1990 to almost 80,000 today. Even the Catholic church has almost 1,700 churches today compared to 844 in 1990. Of those four major Korean religion, only Won Buddhism has failed to at least double the number of its ritual halls (Han’guk ŭi chonggyo hyŏnhwang 2012).

Why has the number of clerics stalled? As Korea has modernized, new occupational opportunities have opened up for both men and women, and that has meant that prospective ministers often find another career that is both more rewarding financially and less demanding of their time and energy. Of course, the slow increase in the number of practicing Won Buddhists could also be a factor in the relative slow increase in the number of clerics available to serve them. But that raises another question: why has Won Buddhism itself not grown nearly as fast at mainstream Buddhism and Christianity have?

The main problem facing Won Buddhism is that it has failed to carve out a distinctive brand. Many Koreans may be confused about what Won Buddhism is because it calls itself Buddhist but holds its weekly services in buildings that look more like churches than traditional temples, and its worship halls have only a circle behind an altar instead of the three or five Buddhist statues usually seen in that location in a traditional Buddhist temple. [Image at right] Moreover, their hymns, aside from their Won Buddhist lyrics, sound like Christian hymns. Those who want the comfort of traditional Korean religion usually prefer to go to a temple that looks and sounds traditional. Those who like the modern appearance of a Christian church usually prefer to go to a church. Won Buddhism has yet to establish itself as a third alternative in the eyes of most Koreans. In other to flourish in a competitive market, including a religious market, it is important to have a clear identity that distinguishes you from possible competitors. Won Buddhism has failed to do that (Choi 2011:153-55).

In addition, much of the growth in Christianity over the last few decades in Korea has been due to the spread of the prosperity gospel. Churches that promise believers that their faith will be rewarded with higher incomes and healthier families are in the forefront of that growth. Mainstream Buddhism has tried to keep up by inviting people into their temples to pray for such worldly rewards as having their child admitted to one of Korea’s most competitive universities. Won Buddhism doesn’t do that. Though it teaches that living lives attuned to the Ilwon will make devotees happier and even more productive, since they will be acting in harmony with the world around them rather than going against the flow of the currents of life, it doesn’t highlight specific material rewards the way many Christian churches do. As a result, Won Buddhist does not draw as many people into its temples as prosperity gospel churches do into their pews.

There are other problems as well. The competition has grown more savvy. For several decades Won Buddhism was the only urban-based modern form of Korean Buddhism. That changed in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Though there are still many traditional monasteries in remote mountain valleys, new temples have opened up in urban centers as well. Those urban temples provide Sunday services, which are much more participatory than traditional rituals were. Their congregations sing hymns, accompanied by a piano, and those hymns are in Korean rather than chanted in the traditional Korean version of Sanskrit. The presiding monks now give sermons on Buddhist teachings to the lay participants in those services rather than turning their back to the congregation and praying on their own before the altar. And those urban temples offer instruction in Buddhist doctrines and practice for the laity. Won Buddhism may have been the first Korean Buddhism community to bridge the gap between clerics and laity but mainstream Buddhism is trying to catch up with it.

Appearing to recognize that people expect a religion that calls itself Buddhist to look Buddhist, in recent years Won Buddhism has been presenting a more conventional Buddhist face. The 2016 English edition of Won Buddhist scriptures, The Doctrinal Books of Won Buddhism, included some familiar Buddhist sutras for the first time, though Won Buddhists have been chanting the Heart Sutra and Diamond Sutra for years and those mainstream Buddhist texts have been included in the Korean-language version of the scriptures for quite a while. Among those mainstream Buddhist texts is a short collection of verses to accompany the famous Ten Ox-herding pictures found in many traditional temples though those pictures are not found in Won Buddhist worship halls (Doctrinal Books of Won-Buddhism 2016:881-1003) .

Since people familiar with East Asian Buddhism expect Buddhists to meditate, some Won Buddhist temples have replaced pews with cushions on the floor since that is seen as more suitable for sitting meditation. I even found one Won Buddhist temple near the center of Seoul that had pushed the pews to the sides of the main worship hall and then had placed cushions in the center of the room. A Won Buddhist temple recently erected in the wealthy Kangnam district of southern Seoul has only pews in the large hall it uses for Sunday services but also has a smaller room with cushions on the floor for meditation. Most Won Buddhist temples offer early morning meditation sessions, though the number of people who come to the temple to engage in quiet-sitting is much smaller than the number who come on Sunday for more active services.

Another possible barrier to Won Buddhism growing as fast as it would like to, especially in Korea, is that, despite the fact that it is an urban-based Buddhism, with temples in towns and cities rather than mountain valleys, it is nonetheless seen as provincial. It emerged in the countryside and it maintains its headquarters, and its university, in a small town far from large urban centers such as Seoul, Pusan, and Daegu. Moreover, the largest concentration of members is near its headquarters, in a province in the southwestern corner of the Korean peninsula. Modern Koreans identify modernity with large cities such as Seoul. The many Won Buddhist temples in Seoul do little to undermine the image many non-Won Buddhists have that Won Buddhism is for people living far from the hyper-modern city of Seoul.

Aside from trying to decide which side of Won Buddhist practices it wants to emphasize, traditional quiet meditation or modern participatory worship services, trying to overcome its countrified image earned from its rural origins, and trying to create a distinctive identity apart from Korea’s Christian and Buddhist communities, Won Buddhism has another issue it has to address. It intends to become a global religion, with non-Korean practitioners spread all over the globe. However, the clothing the female clerics wear (and most Won Buddhist missionaries are women) is distinctively Korean and would look strange on a non-Korean female cleric. In addition, some of the core doctrines of Won Buddhism, such as reincarnation, are difficult for people not raised in Asia traditions to accept.

Despite all these problems, Won Buddhism remains the most respected of the new religions of South Korea, the only one of the new religions invited in recent years to officiate in state funerals for former presidents of the Republic of Korea and the only new religion that regularly dispatches chaplains to the South Korean military. It is often ranked alongside mainstream Buddhism, Protestant Christianity, and Roman Catholicism as one of the four major organized religions in South Korea today. Though it is only 100 years old, Won Buddhism has arrived.


Image #1: Photograph of the birthplace of Sot’aesan Park Chungbin.

Image #2: Photograph of Sot’aesan Park Chungbin, founder of Won Buddhism.

Image #3: Photograph of sculpture of nine fingers holding the Ilwonsang (the focus of the spiritual gaze of Won Buddhists), symbolizing the nine disciples of Sot’aesan who formed the original nucleus of his religious movement.

Image #4: Photograph of the Ilwonsang, the circle that represents the Dharmakāya Buddha, the focus of Won Buddhist devotion.

Image #5: Photograph of a Won Buddhist bowing in devotion to Ilwonsang. Notice the photo of Sot’aesan to the right of the altar.

Image #6: A one-page graphic presentation of Won Buddhist core teachings.

Image #7: Photograph of the stupa erected at Won Buddhist headquarters as a memorial to Sot’aesan.

Image #8: Photograph of a typical Won Buddhist Sunday service.

Image #9: Photograph of a Won Buddhist meditation session for clerics.

Image #10: Photograph of the main worship hall in a new Won Buddhist temple in southern Seoul.


Adams, Daniel J. 2009. “Won Buddhism in Korea: A New Religious Movement Comes of Age.” Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society, Korea Branch 84:1-35.

Choi, Joon-sik. 2011.Won-Buddhism: The Birth of Korean Buddhism. Paju, Korea: Jimoondang.

Chung, Bong-kil. 2012. The Dharma Master Chongsan of Won Buddhism: Analects and Writings. Albany, New York: State University of New York.

Chung, Bong-kilx. 1987. “The Concept of Dharmakaya in Won Buddhism: Metaphysical and Religious Dimensions.” Korea Journal 27:4-15

Chung, Bong-kil. 1984. “What is Won Buddhism?” Korea Journal 24:8-31.

Chwasan (Kwang-jung Lee). 1997. Commentary on the Method of Sitting Meditation in Chungjeon. WonKwang Publishing Company.

Committee for the Authorized Translation of Won-Buddhist Scriptures, ed. 2016. The Doctrinal Books of Won-Buddhism. Iksan: Department of International Affairs, Headquarters of Won Buddhism.

Cozin, Mark. 1987. “Won Buddhism: The Origin and Growth of a Korean New Religion.” Pp. 171-84 in Religion and Ritual in Korean Society, edited by Laurel Kendall and Griffin Dix. Berkeley: Institute of Asian Studies. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Department of International Affairs of Won Buddhism, editor. 2003. Hymns of Won Buddhism. Iksan, Korea: WonKwang Publishing Company.

Department of International Affairs of Won Buddhism. 2006. Guide to Propriety and Ceremony. Accessed from on 12 June 2016.

Department of International Affairs of Won Buddhism. 2010. History of Won Buddhism. Accessed from href=”” on 1 January 2012.

Kim, Bokin. 2000. Concerns and Issues in Won Buddhism. Philadelphia: Won Publications.

Korea: Ministry of Sports, Culture and Tourism. 2012. Han’guk ŭi chonggyo hyŏnhwang  [The situation of religion in Korea today].

Park, Kwangsoo. 1997. The Won Buddhism (Wŏnbulgyo) of Sot’aesan: A Twentieth-century Religious Movement in Korea. San Francisco: International Scholars Press.


Ch’a Oksung Chŭngsan’gyo. 2003. Wŏnbulgyo: Han’gugin ŭi chonggyo kyŏnghŏm [Chŭngsan’gyo and Wŏnbulgyo: The Religious Experiences of Koreans]. Seoul: Seokwangsa.

Chong, Key Ray. 1997. Won Buddhism: A History and Theology of Korea’s New Religion. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press.

The Scriptures of Won-Buddhism. 2006. Iksan, Korea: Wonkwang Publishing.

The Doctrinal Books of Won-Buddhism. 2016. Iksan: Department of International Affairs, Headquarters of Won Buddhism.

Chung, Bong-kil. 2003. The Scriptures of Won Buddhism: A Translation of the Wŏnbulgyo Kyojŏn with Introduction. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Chung, Bong-kil. 2003. “Won Buddhism: The Historical Context of Sot’aesan’s Reformation of Buddhism for the Modern World.” Pp; 143-67 in Buddhism in the Modern World, edited by Steven Heine and Charles S. Prebish. New York: Oxford University Press.

Chung, Bong-kil. 1994. Won Buddhism: An Introduction to Won Buddhism. Iri, Korea: Won Buddhist Press.

Chung, Bong-kil. 1988. “Won Buddhism: A Synthesis of The Moral Systems of Confucianism And Buddhism.” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 15:425-48.

Chŏng Ŭngch’ŏl, Kyŏngsan. 2011. Freedom from Transgressive Karma. Seoul: Seoul Selection.

Chŏng Ŭngch’ŏl, Kyŏngsan. 2011. The Moon of the Mind Rises in Empty Space. Seoul: Seoul Selection.

Headquarters of Wonbulgyo, editor. 2002. Wonbulgyo chŏnsŏ [The complete Collection of Won Buddhist Works]. Iksan, Korea: Wonbulgyo Publishing.

Heine, Steven and Charles S. Prebish, editors. 2003. Buddhism in the Modern World: Adaptations of an Ancient Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kim, Dogong. 2010. “The Relation between Buddhism and Won Buddhism.” Journal of the Korean Academy of New Religions, Special Edition, August 2010:166-98.

Kim Tae-gŏ, Taesan. 2014. [Daesan] Esssentials of Self-Cultivation. Seoul: Seoul Selection.

Kim Tae-gŏ, Taesan. 2005. “The Necessity of the Establishment of the United Religions,” Living Buddha: The Won-Buddhist Review 1:18-21.

Lee Kwang-jung (Yi Kwangjŏng), Chwasan. 2014. Commentary on the Method of Sitting Meditation in Chungjeon. Iksan, Korea: Wonkwang Publishing.

McCormick, Ryuei Michael. 1997. “The Four Graces According to Sot’aesan and Nichren.” Won Buddhist Studies II. Accessed from on 14 June 2011.

Park, Jin. 2014. “Won Buddhism, Christianity, and Interreligious Dialogue” Journal of Korean Religions 5:109-31.

Park, Jin. 2006. “The Won Buddhist Practice of the Buddha-Nature.” Pp. 476-86 in Religions of Korea in Practice, edited by Robert E. Buswell, Jr. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Park, Kwangsoo. 2003. “Sot’aesan’s Essays on the Reformation of Korean Buddhism.” International Journal of Buddhist Thought and Culture 3:169-94.

Pye, Michael. 2003. “Won Buddhism as a Korean New Religion.” Numen 49:113-41.

Ryu, JungDo, compiler and translator. 2015. Traditional Zen and Il-Won Sŏn: A collection of Dharma discourses by Ven. Zinsan. Iksan, Korea: Won Buddhist Publishing.

Sørensen, Henrik H. 1999. “Buddhism and Secular Power in Twentieth-Century Korea” Pp. 127-52 in Buddhism and Politics in Twentieth-century Asia, edited by Ian Harris. London: Continuum.

Yang, Eun-yong. 2008. “The History, Basic Beliefs, Rituals, and Structure of Won-Buddhism.” Pp. 73-93 in Encounters: The New Religions of Korea and Christianity, edited by Kim Sunghae and James Heisig. Seoul: Royal Asiatic Society.

Yoon Yee-heum, Kim Sang-yil, Yook Suk-san, and Park Kwang-soo, editors. 2005. Korean Native Religions. Seoul, Korea: Association of Korean New Religions.

Post Date:
7 July 2016