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Special Interview with Most Venerable Wonhaeng 1st anniversary of his presidency
September 28 was the first anniversary of Most Venerable Wonhaeng’s administration as the head of the Headquarters of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. Elected as its 36th president, Most Ven. Wonhaeng’s office came at a difficult time when his predecessor stepped down before his term expired. Since the vote, which was won by a landslide, the measures taken by Most Ven. Wonhaeng’s administration have been hailed as having restored the harmony and stability in the order.
For the past year, Most Ven. Wonhaeng, as the president of the biggest Buddhist Order in Korea met and listened to the people from all walks of life on how to ensure prosperous future for the order. As the result, he declared the launch of the Million Vows Assembly, convinced that if the aspiration of millions of Buddhists can be channeled and focused with a proper guidance, there is nothing the Buddhist community cannot achieve. He has been actively involved in initiating government policies and legislations aimed for the preservation of the traditional cultural heritage. He promoted inter-religious exchanges and encouraged more socially engaged approaches to come closer to those less fortunate in the society.
In a special interview with the Buddhist Daily, held to commemorate the 1st anniversary of his taking office, Most Ven. Wonhaeng vowed one more time that he would keep doing his best to build a solid foundation upon which Korean Buddhism can have yet another era of revival, and he will make sure all the Buddhist community would be in this journey together. The interview was held on September 17 at his office at the Headquarters of the Jogye Order in Korean Buddhist History and Culture Memorial Hall.
- What was your first year as the president of the Jogye Order like? Many people believe your administration has put the Jogye Order back on track after the turmoil it had suffered.
“It is all thanks to the hard work of my fellow venerables as well as lay Buddhists. They have been so considerate and understanding. I owe them so much. Working as the president makes me see the weight this office carries. I tried to open up my heart and communicate with as many people as possible, not just the people belonging to the Jogye Order, but also the people from all walks of life. I was able to ascertain the ardent wish of the four-fold community, how much they long for the stability of the order to be restored, but at the same time I see the optimism and hope for the future of Korean Buddhism still very much alive.
“But there is still much to be concerned about. I am trying to be a vessel that upholds the ardent wishes of my community and keeps them burning bright and hot. In that sense, the last year was the time to build a solid foundation upon which the hope for the future of Korean Buddhism will grow and prosper.”
- One of the most notable projects you have launched is the Million Vows Assembly, where one million Buddhists will donate KW 100 a day. I understand this is considered one of the highest priority projects of the Order.
“Yes, it is. If each and every one of us has the same aspiration, shared by a million people, I believe there is nothing we cannot achieve, even making the radiant Buddha land come true in this very world.”
- Why is the project of the Million Vows Assembly one of the priorities?
“The Korean society as a whole is growing less and less interested in religion, but the Buddhism is particularly vulnerable with the trend of increasingly aging and secularized society. We need more than ever to be able to proactively adjust to the fast changing society and circumstances. I admit there is still much to be done in this regard.
“For Buddhism to continues to play a meaningful role in Korea’s society and honor the Buddha’s teaching by propagating it, we must rediscover the Bodhisattva vow of the Mahayana Vehicle in our hearts first. Anyone who has that aspiration is a Bodhisattva, and such a person is the hope for our future. In this regard, I hope that the Million Vows Assembly and its practice of dana paramita (generosity) will be a starting point to spread Buddha’s teaching far and wide.
“The Assembly is also putting into practice the Buddha’s teaching of benefiting myself and others at the same time. Every single drop counts. If enough of them are amassed, it becomes a river, and then an ocean. Likewise, the aspirations of our Buddhist community can change Korean Buddhism, opening a bright future for it.”
- What do you believe the Million Vows Assembly can accomplish?
“For instance, the rock-cliff Buddha image dating back to the United Silla era in Yeolam Valley at Mt. Nam in Gyeongju needs to be restored. We can also establish a temple for the Gyeryong-dae, the military base for the Joint Chief of Staff. And we don’t even have a single nursing home for sick and old Buddhist monks and nuns. And Korea is one of few major Buddhist countries who doesn’t have a temple in Bodha Gaya, the enlightenment site of the Buddha. I just want to do the foundational work. I am not going to hurry things along.
“We will go step by step, slow but steady. Someday, it will all blossom into a flower. It is not just the Million Vows Assembly. There are other important projects the Jogye Order is focusing on. We must have major Buddhist centers for the newly established cities such as Wirye and Sejong, and complete the construction of the memorial hall for 10ㆍ27 Crisis. I am doing my best so that these projects will come to fruition.”
- When do you think the projects at Wirye and Sejong will start producing visible results?
“The plan is to build a Traditional Culture Experience Center in Sejong City and a Buddhist Cultural Heritage Preservation Center in Wirye City. The plan itself has already been confirmed, but implementation is another matter. It is not that simple. Just getting the construction permit from the government, for instance, is not easy. But since they are absolutely essential projects, I am doing my best to have at least ground-breaking phase take place during my tenure.
“As for the memorial hall for 10ㆍ27 Crisis, we are now hopeful there will soon be some visible result. We are continuously working with the Buddhist groups at the National Assembly and the government level to facilitate their understanding and cooperation.”
- I am afraid I must ask you about the pressing issues the Jogye Order is currently facing. There are several issues that require working with the relevant government agencies for solution, such as the entrance fees for the temples located within the National Park, and other issues relate to the traditional temples in order to guarantee the proper conservation of the historical and cultural heritage.
“As for the issue of the entrance fees for the temples located within the National Park, the Jogye Order for the first time issued an official statement in June. We asserted our position very firmly, demanding appropriate measures to be taken promptly. In July, when I met with President Moon at the Blue House, I also urged him to be more interested in the legislations related to Buddhism and its cultural heritage. I also heard from the Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA). The head of the CHA, Jae-suk Jeong came visit me in August and apologized for cutting down on the number of Cultural Heritage Commissioners without any prior consultation. She also promised additional appointments for each sub-committee.
“Important thing is to make sure the dialogue will not stop. We continuously communicate with the government to solve the issues arising from the regulations surrounding the traditional temples. We believe the government is sincerely interested in working with the Buddhist community to solve these issues. But it is my conviction that whatever government policies or legislations there may be, they must reflect the positions of the Buddhist community who are entrusted with the guardianship of such cultural heritage. I will make sure that our position is well understood by the government, which must be included in whatever measures and solutions suggested by the government.”
- You must have a big-picture plan for the education and welfare of the monastic sangha.
“One of our biggest concerns is that there are less and less people who want to be ordained. We must focus our efforts more efficiently, and the priority should be education. We must establish in near future sound education policies that can provide practical training for the monks. It is also important to guarantee that the monks and nuns are well provided for after they finish training so that they can focus on practice and study without worrying too much about survival.
“My firm belief is that all Jogye Order monks and nuns should be able to devote themselves to practice without worrying about getting old or sick from the moment of their ordination to their parinirvana. Currently, the Order is subsidizing all its ordained members to pay for the National Pension Plan and the medical cost for hospitals or convalescent homes. I will also continue to promote the plan to build nursing homes and care homes dedicated to the Buddhist community, both for the monastics and lay people who have dedicated their lives for the development of Korean Buddhism.”
- There are heightened expectations about the role you will play in a broader social context such as inter-Korean relations and exchanges with other countries.
“The relations between South and North Koreas are strained now but we still have a strong hope for Singye-sa Templestay program which we announced early this year during the press conference for the New Year. I met with Kang Su Rin, the chairman of the Central Committee of the Korea Buddhist Federation at Mt. Geumgang last February. We discussed the specifics about this project, and delivered the official letter.
“We have been in a constant contact with the ministers of relevant government agencies such as the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and the Ministry of Unification and other politicians for their continued support and interest in this matter. We are also tapping in various channels to communicate with the North to help them better understand the templestay project.
“Cultural exchanges with other countries will not be left behind either. We had the Korea-Japan Cultural Exchange Conference in Sapporo, Japan held in June this year, meeting some 200 people face to face, and the Korea-China-Japan Buddhist Goodwill Conference is scheduled to be held in China in October. The Jogye Order is also paying an official visit in November to Pakistan, a Muslim country, as part of our effort to facilitate inter-religious harmony and understanding.”
- I understand you are in good terms with the leaders of other religions.
“I truly value harmonious communication. Since I was elected as the chairman of the Korean Council of Religious Leaders in June this year, I try to be more proactive about it. We had a workshop with the religious leaders in August at Ankuk-sa Temple in Muju and I also represented Korea in the 10th Religions for Peace Assembly held in the German town of Lindau where 900 delegates from 125 countries celebrated the efforts made by the religious communities in the North and the South to improve inter-Korean relations. We must work together to go beyond religion, trying to understand each other and live in peace and harmony.”
- While serving for a long time as the director of the House of Sharing, the shelter for the women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II, you took such a good care of the survivors residing in the shelter. It was heartwarming to see you always there by their sides whatever the occasion was. But it is sad that there has been less chance to witness your more human sidesince you were elected as the president of the Jogye Order.
“I must admit I have become more serious. The weight this office carries makes me more cautious in every step I take. I must follow the rules when making decisions on the major issues that will have significant impact on the Order. I have to be cold-headed and focus what is most essential. I apologize if I have seemingly become somewhat more stiff. I hope you would understand.”
- In your acceptance speech, you said “Despite the honor and the privilege conferred by this office, the heavy weight of the responsibilities that come with this position amid the difficulties the Jogye Order and Korean Buddhism currently face exceeds any joy I might have felt when I first won the election. I will show you that Korean Buddhism can start anew.” I can see you still feel the same way. You have three years left of your term. Is there anything you want to say to the Buddhist community?
“Every man has his faults. No one is perfect. I apologize if I made any mistake or offended anyone inadvertently. But I can promise you that I will always try my best. ‘Staring anew’ doesn’t have to be anything grandiose. It is more like actually doing things that we knew about all along but somehow failed to put into action. In that sense I hope that the drive for the Million Vows Assembly will persist. It is always one step at a time. I don’t expect that we will reach a million people’s hearts immediately.
“But I believe I have been given a solemn duty of putting down the foundation for the Jogye Order to prosper for hundreds of years to come. I am soon taking a tour of the Jogye Order Headquarter temples such as Woljeong-sa Temple, starting from Hwaeom-sa Temple on October 5, followed by the Million Vows Assembly event at Donghwa-sa Temple on the 6th. I will be there in person to explain what the Assembly is all about and encourage people to join. I do not mind starting small, but soon more and more people will be with us, and by the time we can really feel the impact, you would know the revival of Korean Buddhism is not far away. I will do my best.”
Source: Buddhist Daily (http://www.ibulgyo.com)