Buddhists Question Ancient Ascetic Practice

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Buddhists Question Ancient Ascetic Practice

Look at the following book titles and guess what they are about: "None," "What's This?" and "Mountain as a Mountain, River as a River."

Confused? That's the way it is if you study Korean Buddhism. Hwadu, or special teachings to understand the principles of the real world, is ambiguous and obscure, which is why people who wish to be enlightened spend their lives in a temple hoping to grasp its secrets. The tradition has been practiced for more than 1,000 years, but it is coming under criticism and scrutiny now.

At a recent debate that drew more than 300 monks and followers to the main hall of Chogye Temple - which is regarded as the heart of Korean Buddhism - many participants challenged the old ascetic practices.

The fiercest criticism came from Han Hyung-jo, a Buddhism scholar who questioned ganhwasun, the practice of deep meditation about hwadu to reach an enlightened stage.

"The true power of Buddhism lies in pragmatism and flexibility toward the values of reality," Mr. Han said. "That's what enabled the survival of the religion for thousands of years. If Buddhism is to survive the new millennium age, it must update its old ways to fit the future. Hwadu and its meditation process is just one way of reaching enlightenment. The Buddhist authorities are making a grave mistake by stressing the one and absolute way."

Mr. Han also criticized don-o, an enlightenment stage of ganhwasun. With don-o, a person can become suddenly enlightened as if struck by thunder. That sounds attractive for those hungering for "the truth," but Mr. Han said this was unrealistic. He said that the lone training that called for a person to let go of everything was difficult enough, let alone being struck with such "luck." As an alternative, he stressed the importance of teaching and education within the religion.

"Instead of building a bigger temple, we should exert our energy on studying the history and translating more original texts on Buddhism," he said.

But another speaker, the Reverend Sungbon, a Zen Buddhism scholar, supported ganhwasun as "the best practice in Mahayanist Buddhism." He agreed, however, that profound meditation could be combined with practical research centering on mu, the nothing and voidness of the world.

He criticized "monks who misunderstand Zen Buddhism" and "fail to deliver the contents of text and analects to their pupils, thus starting a vicious cycle that produces Buddhist monks who lack understanding of their faith."

Yet another speaker, the Reverend Myungjin, objected strongly to all criticism of Zen Buddhism. "Who cares if Zen meditation didn't have some great origin and actually started from a certain Chinese monk thousands of years ago?" he asked. "This attitude is an insult to the whole meditation system."

He said the true hwadu or special teaching started with Buddha as a way of dealing with life's four main agonies - sorrow, age, illness and death. He said even the admonition of Socrates to "know thyself" could be one's hwadu.

"Zen practice may look a bit strange, but it isn't impossible," he said. "This should not be a subject of controversy."



by Oh Byung-sang

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