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Special Interview with Most Ven. Wonhaeng

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Writer Jogye Date13 Oct 2020 Read367 Comment0

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 Special Interview with Most Ven. Wonhaeng

- Marking the 2nd anniversary of his inauguration as President of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism




Most Ven. Wonhaeng, the 36th President of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism had a special interview with Buddhist Daily. The interview was published on September 28 to mark the 2ndanniversary of his inauguration. In the interview, Most Ven. Wonhaeng shared with Buddhist Daily the details about his two years as the president of the largest Buddhist sect in Korea and his plans for the future. The whole country was shaken to the core because of the COVID-19 pandemic this year, but Most Ven. Wonhaeng unerringly steered the Jogye Order through troubled waters with a steady hand, dedicated only to the growth of the order and the revival of Buddhism.

There has been no confirmed coronavirus infection case in the Buddhist community, which has been applauded for its proactive and far-seeing response to the epidemic. But Most Ven. Wonhaeng gave the credit to the four-fold community, telling Buddhist Daily that the only thing he did was listening to the voice of Buddhist leadership and laity and having it reflected truthfully in setting up policies and making decisions. He said the important role Korean Buddhism should play in the post- COVID-19 era is to help Korean people heal the trauma the nation has suffered due to this unprecedented epidemic.


The slogan of the 36th administration of the Jogye Order was ‘unity and open communication.’ He explained the status of the order’s projects that have been carried out under this banner and the key policy drives for the future on; the Million Vows Assembly; securing of funding for the welfare of the monastics; promoting the South-North exchanges in civilian sectors, and; surviving the crisis of the climate change.


Most Ven. Wonhaeng ended the interview by expressing his unwavering resolve saying, “The people of Korea are having a hard time due to the COVID-19, but we Buddhists are practicing the Great Compassionin the spirit of national unity and helping people from all walks of life. We monastics are duty-bound to devote ourselves further to the spiritual practice and prayers to uphold the kind and noble hearts of the Korean Buddhists.”


The special interview with the President of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism took place on September 15at his office located in the Korean Buddhist History and Culture Memorial Hall, with Ven. Jeongho, the CEO of Buddhist Daily as the interviewer.


1. This is already your second anniversary as the president of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, past the half-way point for your term. Many people see your inauguration as a catalyst that kick-started the healing of sectarian conflicts, a decisively stabilizing influence that has culminated in the Million Vows Assembly campaign. Please share with the readers of Buddhist Daily how your two years as the president have been like and what are the projects the Jogye Order will focus on for the rest of your term?


“The COVID-19 epidemic was a disaster that no one saw coming. It is a crisis on a national scale that severely affects Korean Buddhism too. I believe the top priority for my remaining term is to make surethat the Korean Buddhist community as a whole, as well as the Jogye Order, would stay on the right course amid the difficulties imposed by this national crisis.

“The Million Vow Assembly campaign, which has served as a focal point of the ardent aspiration and faith of the Buddhists, is also crucial to ensure a bright future for Korean Buddhism. I will continue to try my best to keep my ears and heart open to the four-fold community to facilitate the successful outcome of the campaign.”


2.I must ask you a question regarding COVID-19. The Buddhist community has been applauded for its effective handling of the epidemic, unlike other religions that were criticized for causing mass infections. Many attribute the success to the proactive and far-seeing approach you have taken in addressing the epidemic.


“The undisputed top priority of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism is the health and safety of the public. That is why we have issued a series of guidelines since February to the temples across the country and strongly recommended that major religious assemblies and events such as Buddha’s Birthday Celebration and the All Soul’s Day be scaled down or canceled altogether to prevent the spread of COVID-19. As the result, the Lotus Lantern Festival was called off, and the precept receiving ceremony for full ordination was rescheduled this year.


“The Jogye Order Headquarters also donated bottled water as well as money to Daegu and Gyeonsangbuk Province when there was a mass outbreak of coronavirus cases in the region, while the regional headquarter temples served as the aid centers for the areas they are located. We also supplied meal boxes to the medical workers on the frontline of handling this deadly disease and invited them to free-of-charge templestay programs tailor-made to ease their hardship.


“But these were not my personal actions or decisions. All I ever did, and ever will, is to listen carefully to what other Buddhist leaders and lay faithfuls are telling me and make sure their opinions are well reflected in the measures we have been acting upon. It was the abbots of the temples across the country and their congregations who willingly and heroically endure the sacrifice and hardship I would like to take this opportunity to thank them one more time.”


3.But the COVID-19 pandemic is delaying or derailing the key policy drives the Jogye Order planned to pursue.

“It is true that the pandemic has affected the implementation of several important projects. And there is no predicting how we will proceed in the second half of this year since the situation is far from being over. Most experts agree that we will never be able to go back to the time before coronavirus, that all areas of society have permanently changed, which we must factor in when we plan for the next year’s business plan and budget. One of the approaches we should adopt is going “un-tact,” switching our way of work to a non-face-to-face mode as much as possible.”


4.How should we prepare forthe post-COVID-19 era? How should the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism be ready for it?

“We need an order-wide strategic approach, for whichthe inputs from the experts and specialists from the relevant fields will be sought after. Most of all, we must become adept at the new “un-tact” culture and adjust the Jogye Order’s projects to this new trend. Another hwadu we need to investigate and solve in the post-COVID-19 era is how Buddhism can be applied to heal people’s minds and hearts.


“Korean Seon Buddhism, with its the contemplative tradition, will be particularly relevant in dealing with psychological and emotional stress, and we will keep developing new ways to bring this ancient content closer to the modern population. The Order is also well aware that one of the challengesthe temples are facing is financial difficulties, and we will actively seek measures to address this issue.”


5. The Million Vows Assembly campaign has been one of the key projects launched by the 36th Administration and it has been very well received by the Buddhist community. In fact, the enthusiasm about the campaign continues, with more and more people participating in it. Please tell the readers more about it.


“The Million Vows Assembly was launched to serve as the main engine driving the revival of Korean Buddhism. The campaign is proceeding successfully according to the original plan, and some of the projects now start to bear fruit.


“The groundwork for Bunhwang-sa Temple will commence in November this year in Bodh Gaya, India, the holy site of Buddha’s enlightenment. The architectural plan for Hongje-sa Temple in Gyeryong-dae, Korea, wherethe Joint Chiefs of Staff is headquartered,was already completed in July, and the construction is scheduled to be finished in November. The foundation work for enshrining the rock-face Buddha image in Yolam Valley at Mt. Nam in Gyeongju, the city of Buddha, is well underway.


“The Order is discussing with Dongguk University Medical Center to establish a nursing home to treat and care for the aging monastics and come up with a concrete roadmap, which will be announced soon. The construction of Gwangje-sa Temple and the Korean Buddhist Culture Experience Center is proceeding as planned in Sejong City and will open their doors in December next year to welcome the Buddhist in the central region of Korea.”


6. What does the Million Vows Assembly movement mean to you personally?


“At the core of the Buddha-dharma is the practice of Bodhisattva act to benefit all beings including myself, and the dana paramita, or the perfection of generosity, is one of the six paramita practices through which the Bodhisattva act is perfected. The Million Vows Assembly is a campaign where millions of Buddhists follow the paramita of generous giving, and my life-time aspiration to heal all suffering on this land through the Buddha’s teaching finds expression in this campaign.


“Making vows is the essential part of Buddha-dharma, and all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas ardently practiced it, as manifest in 500 Great Vows of Sakyamuni Buddha, 48 Great Vows of Amitabha Buddha, and 10 Great Vows of Manjusri,Samantabhadra, and Avalokitesvara Bodhisattvas. By participating in the Million Vows Assembly movement, the members of the four-fold community are all making a vow to be reborn as a Mahayana bodhisattva, to affirm that we are already Buddha who is the lamp of hope showing the Path to the ultimate freedom. I pray that all Buddhists will take advantage of this opportunity to accumulate untold wholesome merits.”


7. There is a growing consensus in the sangha on the necessity of the welfare system for the ordained monks and nuns, which requires most of all a stable and secure source of funding.


“Securing financial resources is indeed the prerequisite for the welfare system for the monastics. The Jogye Order has launched the Monastic Welfare Fund in July, and already 83% of all ordained members of the sangha have joined the Fund by making co-payment. This is a positive sign that the Monastic Welfare Fund gets off on the right track because there were concerns that the monastics’ participation in the Fund would be low.


“It appears the ordained sangha now has confidence in the Order’s leadership, which in turn led to the unexpectedly high turn-out. The Central Council took the initiative to amend the regulations related to the monastic welfare, and the abbots of the regional headquarter temples also enthusiastically encouraged monks and nuns to participate. The Jogye Order administration will do its best to firmly establish the monastic welfare system so that the ordained monks and nuns will devote themselves only to practice and propagation without worrying about the old age.”

8. You have shown a great interest in inter-religious peace and harmony as evidentby your appointment as Chairman of the Korean Conference of Religion and Peace and the Korean Council for Religious Leaders, which is the representative body for the seven major religions in Korea.

“We now live in a world where the boundaries that used to separate us are no longer binding us. Time, space, or culture do not define people as much as they once did. The religion and the philosophy were the most dominant forms of intellectual pursuit when the means of telecommunication were not available and the science was still at its infancy, but they are gradually being pushed off from the center stage. As such, the number of people who follow no religion is on a steady increase.


“But the advance of modern science and civilization brought with themmany negative side effects, and now humanity is wasting way more energy than what is necessary. The religion may appear to have less influence on people’s lives, but it is only temporary. People will soon seek refuge in religions again, to find solace away from the materialism that eats away at their soul.


“All religions now have a sacred role of preserving and developing the spiritual values threatened by the Western modernity and pass them onto the posterity in the spirit of peaceful and harmonious co-existence so that we can provide a refuge for humanity when they need us most. If the religions today fail to find a way to work together in unity, it will be a catastrophic disaster for all humankind.


“As Chairman of the Korean Conference of Religion and Peace and the Korean Council for Religious Leaders, I did my best to present to the Korean society a united front. We joined up forces to participate in the inter-Korean event together in February 2019, and also assembled and dispatched a joint delegation tothe World Conference on Religion and Peace heldin August 2019.


“We also made a joint visit to the Ministry of Health and Welfare and Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency, two government organizations responsible for the quarantine measures implemented to control the COVID-19 epidemic and discussed how the wider religious community can assist the government’s efforts. The Korean Conference of Religion and Peace has been hosting various events to facilitate active inter-religious exchanges, including seminars on different religions including Islam to better understand each other. Soon, all world major religions getting along with each other as good neighbors will become a norm.”


9. You met with In-young Lee, the Minister of Unification last month, and emphasized the importance of the inter-Korean exchanges in the civilian sector, such as a joint templestay program in Singye-sa Temple in Mt. Geumgang. The South-North relations are rather strained at this point, and what do you think could be a breakthrough?


“Inter-Korean relationship is indeed a very complicated issue because the parties involved in the process often have conflicts of interests. Korea was forced to be divided after the independence from the Japanese rule because of the power dynamics among the superpowers surrounding the Korean peninsula. When he was still a minister nominee, In-young Lee said during his congressional hearing that the peace on the Korean peninsula needs a train track with two rails; one is the South-North relationship and the other is the US-North Korea relationship. No train can ever run on a track made of a single rail.


“I may add a third rail to the track the minister mentioned, which is the rail made of the exchanges in the civilian sector, including those in the religious communities of the two countries. So far, all contacts and communications between two Koreans are carried out exclusively between the governments. Therefore, if the dialogue between relevant authorities is halted, all cooperation projects, including all humanitarian aids come to a full stop too. If we have a third rail of civilian engagement, which will includethe cooperation of religious nature, it will have a stabilizing effect on the train of peace and lessen the risk of its derailment.


“The religious community in particular is well suited to spearhead civilian exchanges because of the relationship of goodwill and trust it has built with North Korea through humanitarian aids. North Korea is suffering from not only the COVID-19 pandemic but also the aftermath of the massive floods and typhoons, and KCRP is ready to step in and provide immediate reliefs related to public health and quarantine.

“Korean Buddhism has been at the forefront of the various inter-Korean initiatives. We met with Su-rin Gang, the head of North Korea’s Korean Buddhist Federation in last February and proposed to have a joint templestay program at Singye-sa Temple in Mt. Geumgang, sending the signal to the North that the Jogye Order is eager to continue the cooperative relations as the next step to the Singye-sa restoration project. There is a Korean saying that slow but steady steps cover a thousand miles. The inter-Korean exchanges should never be rushed; but at the same time, we should persist and stay on track with patience.”


10. Recently, the drive to legislate the Anti-Discrimination Law is gaining momentum. Korean Buddhists in particular strongly support the movement, based on Buddha’s teaching.


“All lives are equally valuable. This is one of the central tenets of Sakyamuni Buddha’s teaching, and therefore the Buddhist community supports the Anti-Discrimination Law on principle. It does not mean that we condone or encourage the behavior of the sexual minorities which some religions condemn. But we as Buddhists are very firm on the belief that no discrimination should ever be allowed no matter the ground.”


11. Practicing compassion for the less fortunate neighbors is one of the essential functions of religion. What are the major social engagement projects the Jogye Order will focus on in the future?


“The Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism has been doing its utmost to stand side by side with the socially weak and alienated, especially in workplaces. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Social Affairs and Labor Committee that leads the Order’s efforts to help the more vulnerable members of society.


“One of the most pressing issues the Korean society currently faces is economic inequality. We must findwise and compassionate solutions as soon possible to alleviate the mounting tension resulting from the polarization of wealth. The corruption and unfair social conventions should be eliminated, and the increasing poverty in the aging population should be addressed. The rising unemployment among the young, housing and educational issues are now causing serious friction in society. Also, coronavirus is forcing us to rethink how we exercise some of the rights we take for granted in a democratic society, such as the freedom of assembly and association. Now more than ever the spirit of unity, harmony, and reconciliation is called for.


“Perhaps the most immediate and serious threat the world has to overcome is climate change. In a few months in January 2021, the Paris Agreement will go into effect. Unfortunately, Korea is at the global stage considered as one of the climate villains. We can exist only as part of the Indra’s Net, the interconnected and interdependent web of causes and conditions. There is nothing in this world that does not affect our very survival, not to mention our wellbeing and happiness. If you fail to find a way to curb our unbridled consumption, the end of humankind would be our gruesome inheritance to the next generation.


“To prevent the destruction of humanity and facilitate sustainable survival, the religious community as a whole is now planning small actions that can be practiced in everyday life. As Buddhists, if we follow the five precepts and ‘Buddhist Environmental Agenda 21’ adopted by the Environmental Committee at all walks of life, we can set an excellent example.”


12. One of the most auspicious news for the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism this year was the return of the sacred Buddhist artifacts that had been illegally shipped out of the country, including Songgwang-sa’s Chiseonggwangyeoraedo (Tejaprabha Buddhas)and Sinheung-sa’sYeongsanhoesangdo (Preaching Shakyamuni Buddha). But there are still many more treasures not restored to their rightful seats. What is the Jogye Order’s policy to solve this issue?


“The Order is monitoring the whereabouts of the holy Buddhist treasures shipped out of the country on an on-going basis. We have been working organically with the Cultural Heritage Administration, the police, and the Overseas Korean Cultural Heritage Foundation on this issue. Once a stolen artifact is located and confirmed, we immediately set out to start the repatriation process in close cooperation with these organizations.


“Furthermore, the Jogye Order is making plans to expand the Buddhist Treasure Repatriation Fund. Of course, there are obstacles in the way, but we will spare no expense or effort until all holy Buddhist relics are restoredto their places as objects of worship and veneration.”


13. Do you have anything you would like to say to the four-fold community?

“It has been already two years since I was sworn in as the President of the Jogye Order. My priority was to stabilize the Order through the spirit of unity and harmony and bring about the renaissance of Korean Buddhism through the Million Vows Assembly movement, which now starts to bear fruit.


“We must keep the flame of Mahayana Bodhisattva’s vow burning bright in our hearts, especially when the going gets tough. It is each and every drop of water that will eventually come together as the great river that flows into the vast ocean. If each and every one of you has the same aspiration, it will have unlimited power to achieve virtually anything. The future of Korean Buddhism is in your hands.


“Korea is going through unprecedented difficult times because of coronavirus. But we Buddhists prove one more time that deeply ingrained in our very cells is the impetus to protect the nation and benefitits people, which stems from the Bodhisattva vow in your hearts. I will practice even harder to be a worthy steward of your sacred aspiration.”

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