A Lifelong Fascination with Korean Buddhism

Robert Buswell
Robert Buswell

An American university student full of existent questions took off and got on a plane to Bangkok in 1972. He studied Hinayana Buddhism for a year in Thailand, met Korean Buddhist monks there and was attracted to Korean Buddhism. In 1974, he finally visited Korea, was given the Buddhist name of Hyemyeong at the Songgwang Temple in Suncheon, South Jeolla Province and trained and meditated for five years.

Now a 56-year-old professor of Asian languages and cultures, Robert Buswell is director of the Center for Buddhist Studies at University of California, Los Angeles and one of the foremost Western scholars on Korean Buddhism.

Last month, Buswell was appointed as the head of the Academy of Buddhist Studies at Dongguk University for one year. “I received the appointment certificate from Dongguk University on June 15. I agreed to come during the summer and winter vacations to Korea because I also teach at UCLA,” he says.

Buswell won PhD from UC Berkeley in 1985 with a dissertation titled, “The Korean Origin of the Vajrasamadhi-Sutra: A Case Study in Determining the Dating, Provenance, and Authorship of a Buddhist Apocryphal Scripture.” He established himself as a leading scholar on Korean Buddhism by translating Wonhyo’s Vajrasamadhi-Sutra and the writings of Jinul.

“I think it is a good opportunity for me as well as for Dongguk University to make Korean Buddhism globally known,” he says in his succinct Korean, “The biggest advantage of this appointment is that it lets me stay in Seoul longer. I can meet with many scholars and learn the latest research trends.” When asked if he believes in karma, Buswell says yes. “I think I would be doing the same thing in the next life as well.”

Priest teaches lessons from many faiths

joongangdaily   June 20, 2009

Every religion has a unique philosophy and instills its own distinct methods for seeking the meaning of life. But most don’t teach followers about other religious beliefs, meaning many believers think only of their own faith, neglecting others.

In the words of Father Bernard Senecal, 56, a professor in the department of religious studies at Sogang University in Mapo, northwestern Seoul, focusing on one’s own religion without attempting to understand others carries the risk of a narrow worldview.

Father Senecal, who also goes by the Korean name Seo Myeong-won, is a Catholic priest with the Society of Jesus, but he also studied Buddhism, ultimately becoming a scholar in that field.

He was born in Quebec, Canada, and lived there until he moved to France at the age of 19. Senecal studied medicine for six years and earned his bachelor’s degree at the Universite de Bordeaux in Paris in 1979. But he grew disappointed that medicine did not attempt to explain why human beings get sick and why they die, focusing instead only on treatment.

So he decided to become a priest and religious scholar. Senecal’s monastic life began during his study of theology at the Centre Sevres in Paris in early 1984. In the summer of that year, Father Senecal had the chance to visit Korea for the first time, touring the country for seven weeks.

During that period, he was impressed with Korea’s natural beauty, the kindness of the Korean people and the Buddhist temples. His interest grew, and he eventually considered moving to the country.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in theology in 1985, he was dispatched to Korea as a missionary. In Korea, Senecal took three years of Korean language courses at Yonsei University’s Korean Language Institute. He returned to France in 1990 and earned master’s degrees in theology and literature in 1993 and 1995, respectively.

Fascinated by Buddhist meditation, Senecal flew back to Korea to conduct research on Korean Buddhism. In 2004, the priest earned a doctorate in Korean Buddhism at the Universite Paris.

He says his ancestors were Vikings, and that their frontier spirit endures in him, leading him to push himself to attain a broad and balanced view. Senecal was interested in what people do not know about life, and wanted to challenge human nature.

One of his conclusions is that we can learn more about the meaning of life by bridging understanding between Christianity and Buddhism. But for that to happen, and for these two very different faiths to share disciplines and teachings, a great deal of dialogue must take place.

“Recently, several Korean monks stayed in an abbey in France for two years to learn about Christianity. Both priests and monks have to know and understand each other. Each ought to view the other side in an earnest manner,” the priest says. “Both Christianity and Buddhism are religions that have long traditions. Both have contributed much to humanity. So both still have to exist throughout human life,” said the professor. “Jesus and Buddha did not live in the same age. But they both can exist within our minds and hearts and manage our way of life. There are a lot of characteristics that can be exchanged and shared.”

According to Senecal, there are two ways in which Buddhism and Christianity can come together. First, Christians can learn from Buddhist spiritual training. Buddhist meditation can also find applications in Christianity as a way to explore one’s faith.

On the other hand, Buddhists should take lessons from Christianity’s involvement with society. Korean Buddhism, the priest says, has maintained a tradition of isolation from the outside world for hundreds of years and is therefore not accustomed to communicating with human society.

“It is inappropriate to think that one’s own religion is superior to others,” Senecal says. “Everyone’s efforts to seek the authentic truth of life have to be pushed forward at the same time. Communication with another religious group with even a small hidden agenda of conversion is improper.”

For this scholar-priest, religion plays a crucial role in forging a connection with God, awakening one to enlightenment by helping one learn the purpose of life. It is only upon reaching that status that people can enjoy true freedom.

One of the unique characteristics of Buddhism is its radical quest for the truth. Such efforts lead humans to overcome their hardships, Senecal says. In order to do so, three behavioral elements – morality, meditation and wisdom – are necessary, and among them, the priest singles out meditation as the most important.

In other words, Senecal says, Buddhism is the medicine of reality, or the medicine of medicines.
By Lee Min-yong [smartpower@joongang.co.kr]

“Best Goryeo Buddhist Painting” returns from Japan for Local Exhibition at Tongdosa Temple

The Korea Times, June 3, 2009
Seoul, South Korea — One of the best Buddhist painting of Suwol-Gwaneum-Do or literally Painting of Water Moon Avalokitevara Bodhisattva in Sanskrit, which had been in a Japanese jinja (??) or a Shinto Shrine for nearly 600 years, came to South Korean for a special exhibition at a Buiddhist temple.

Buddhist painting of Suwol-Gwaneum-Do or literally Painting of Water Moon Avalokitevara Bodhisattva

The Suwol-Gwaneum-Do Buddhist painting is from Kagami Jinja or Kagami Shinto Shrine in Karatsu City, Saga Prefecture, Japan.

The Buddhist painting was created by eight court painters in 1310 on the order of a Queen Kim of Goryeo Dynasty, but was pillaged by the Japanese pirates soon after. Japanese invaders took the painting to Japan and kept it there for nearly 600 years.

Queen Kim was the second wife of King Chungseon,the 26th monarch of Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392).

Dubbed “the largest and most beautiful Suwol-Gwaneum-Do Buddhist painting” by art historians, this Water Moon Avalokitevara Bodhisattva painting on the one silk scroll, started to be on exhibition from April 30, 2009 at Tongdosa Buddhist temple in Yangsan, South Gyeongsang Province.

The special public display of the Suwon-Gwaneum-Do, 4.19 by 2.54 meters, in Tongdosa Museum will continue until June 7, 2009.
Tongdosa Temple announced that it hosted the exhibition of the special Buddhist painting on the occasion of the 10 year anniversary of the opening of its Tongdosa Museum.

It is the second time for this greatest masterpiece Buddhist painting of Goyreo Dynasty to be exhibited in South Korea. In 1995 it was on displayed at Hoam Art Gallery south of Seoul.

Experts say that this Suwol-Gwaneum-Do is one of the world’s 38 Buddhist paintings of Goryeo Dynasty, depicting Suwol-Gwaneum or Water Moon Avalokitevara Bodhisattva.

It was Korea’s Goryeo Dynasty that top-quality Buddhist paintings were produced. There are some 160 Goryeo Buddhist paintings that exist in the world.

But there are no more than 10 of them that remain in South Korea. Japan has them all. There are only 20 Goryo Buddhist paintings scattered in Europe and America.

The rest of the paintings, over 130, were taken by force or sold illegally at best, to Japan long time ago. Most of them were pillaged by the Japanese invaders throughout history.

Experts agree that this Suwol-Gwaneum-Do painting is the most beautiful, the oldest, the largest one that still exists in the world.

Some art critiques compare this Buddhist masterpiece to “Mona Lisa” by Leonardo da Vinci. Others argue that it’s much better than “Mona Lisa.”

In Japan this painting is on public display for only 38 days per year out of concerns for conservation.

The temple souces said that they started contacting the Japanese Shinto shrine one year ago for this exhibition.

In 2003 the Suwol-Gwaneum-Do painting was displayed for 20 days at a San Francisco museum under the tile of “Goryeo Dynasty: Korea’s Age of Enlightenment (918 to 1392).”

But, exhibition period this time is double that of San Francisco exhibition. It is on exhibition at Tongdosa Temple for the full 40 days.

For details or inquiries please visit Tongdosa Museum’s website.



Sujata Linda Klevnick,
(former general secretary of BSCW and editor of Spring Wind)

In August of 1967, Samu Sunim arrived in New York City and founded the Son-Zen Lotus Society in a small apartment near Broadway. In early 1968 his karma brought him to Montreal, Canada, where I first met him when I was a student at McGill University. In 1972 he moved to Toronto. Right from the beginning Sunim wished to establish a Buddhist meditation community. Sunim attracted a few students and they worked hard. Those early years were difficult ones for Sunim marked by hardship, poverty and illness. Sunim lived in a shabby basement apartment in Toronto where he did personal retreat. When a few Korean Buddhist ladies discovered him, the basement became a temple where he conducted services and taught meditation. By1976 artists, musicians, students and dropouts came for meditation instruction in an unorganized way. Sunim encouraged community living and a series of houses were rented, first on St. Clarens, then Osler and Westminster. In 1979 with the combined effort of the Korean ladies and dedicated Canadian meditation students, a decrepit rooming house was purchased in Parkdale. In 1980 the Zen Lotus Society was incorporated as a non-profit religious organization. Over several years, the crumbling Victorian house at 46 Gwynne Avenue was completely renovated by the intense efforts of a lay monastic community of men, women and children living communally under a vow of poverty. Much support was received from the faithful Korean ladies. A regular schedule of services and meditations and retreats was held year round and a full-time training program for priests and dharma teachers was established. In 1981 an offshoot temple was founded in Ann Arbor, Michigan, organized on the same lines. The Ann Arbor temple has gradually developed into a thriving community of practitioners.

In 1983, Sunim made his first trip to Mexico and planted the seeds of a meditation group. It was then that he met some dedicated Mexican students, two of whom came for sustained training in Toronto.

The 1980s were busy years for Sunim. Under Sunim’s vision, the Society began to publish Spring Wind: Buddhist Cultural Forum, a non-sectarian publication for all Buddhists regardless of persuasion. Spring Wind sought articles from distinguished Buddhist teachers, scholars and artists, as well as lay practitioners. Sunim’s emphasis on Buddhist ecumenism was ahead of its time.

Another aspect of Sunim’s conviction of the vital need for Buddhists to know each other better, was his organizing of the first North American Zen Teachers Conference. In 1986, he invited the first generation of western Zen teachers to meet for six days at the Ann Arbor temple. The conference has been held annually at different centres since then.

In 1987 Sunim organized the Conference on World Buddhism in North America, bringing together Theravada, Pure Land, Zen and Tibetan monks, nuns and teachers, both eastern and western trained, to dialogue and learn about each other over eight fully scheduled days. A two-hour documentary video recorded the event.

By 1988, the Toronto temple had outgrown its premises on Gwynne Avenue and relocated to 86 Vaughan Road, another crumbling but much larger building. In November 1989, under a leaky roof and with the temple still under renovation, Sunim organized a Day of Celebration in Honour of the Dalai Lama upon the occasion of his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. The events included an inter-religious service, a forum on non-violent social action and an evening of literary and musical celebrations. The following year, a historic weeklong Conference on Buddhism in Canada was held at the Toronto temple, another first for Sunim who is firmly convinced that Buddhism benefits when Buddhist groups communicate with each other. The Toronto community continued to grow; new members replaced those who had moved on. In an organic process of renewal, the Vaughan Road temple was renovated.

In the early 1990s, Samu Sunim became interested in establishing a temple in Chicago. In 1992, on March 3rd, Sunim’s birthday, we set out from Ann Arbor to look for a temple building in Chicago. After several visits, a large run-down building was purchased and renovations begun. The following year, the centenary Parliament of the World’s Religions was held in Chicago. Samu Sunim organized a panel discussion on New Dharma for the West. While still undergoing renovations, the Chicago temple held several successful exhibitions of Korean Buddhist art, including Kwanjo Sunim’s memorable photographs of Korean Buddhist nuns’ life. Samu Sunim’s considerable energy and wide ranging efforts attracted some dedicated and wonderful helpers and, over the years the Chicago temple has been completely transformed into a beautiful venue for a thriving Buddhist community. Unique to the Chicago temple, the members hold an annual street parade for world peace during the Buddha’s Birthday celebrations in May.

More than anything else, however, Samu Sunim is a meditation master. He firmly believes that meditation and Buddhist wisdom are the right prescription for the salvation of humanity. He teaches that meditation practice based on the threefold discipline of ethical awakening, spiritual awakening and social awakening and the pursuit of the Bodhisattva path, are a self-sufficient regimen for all beings with a view to world peace and happiness for all. To this purpose he urges people to do chanting and prostrations for purification and empowerment along with regular meditation. Sunim sometimes gets impatient with Buddhist indulgence in long retreats and individualism. He points out,” The calm and peace from five years in a mountain retreat can shatter in one day spent in the marketplace. But a mind cultivated in the market place will shine bright in short retreats in quiet and solitude.” Therefore, he recommends retreats in the midst of activities and everyday life. He reminds his students with a chuckle, “It’s easier to become a buddha, than to become a good bodhisattva.” To people who doubt the doctrine of the Wheel of Life and rebirth, Sunim would say, “Life will continue with or without you after you check out. It would be better to include yourself and enjoy voluntary rebirth as a bodhisattva. Stand with Life and support all lives! Above all, just be a good bodhisattva life after life.”

Forty years have passed since Samu Sunim came to North America. During that time, Sunim has carried out dharma work with modest resources but with enormous dedication and determination. In forty years, he has founded remarkable temple communities in Toronto, Ann Arbor, Chicago and Mexico City, Mexico. He single-handedly published a groundbreaking non-sectarian Buddhist journal and organized a series of significant pan-Buddhist conferences both in Ann Arbor, Michigan and in Toronto, Canada. The Buddhist Society for Compassionate Wisdom salutes Samu Sunim for these remarkable achievements.

On July 4th, 2007 at 1 pm, the Buddhist Society and Spring Wind Sangha members of all four temples will celebrate 40 years of Sunim’s dharma work with appreciations, recollections, photo exhibition of the Society’s history, and a musical performance. We invite you all to the Celebration in Toronto.

Sunim feels that he is still young. Let’s give him a big cheer and encourage another forty years of excitement!

ⓒ 2007 Buddhist Society for Compassionate Wisdom


Korean Buddhist Cultural Center is Officially Open

Center for the education and training of Korean Buddhism and Practice

The Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism held the official opening ceremony for the Korean Buddhist Cultural Center near Gongju City on June 11 with over 300 in attendance including Jogye Order head Ven. Jikwan, Chairperson of the Jogye Order Central Council Ven. Boseon, and Yu In-chon, the Minister of Culture, Sports, and Tourism. Ven. Jikwan said, Members of the Jogye Order have worked with one heart to dig the earth, erect the pillar, and raised the crossbeam. Now, we have this wonderful cultural center. This center will provide a place for experiencing Korean culture and individual practice. This center will be place to recharge, rest, and self reflect. This center will help promote the relationship between man and nature, and society and organization.

Ven. Boseon said, I hope that this center would provide a place to figure out the critical needs of humanity. I hope that this center will become a gateway for promulgating Korean Buddhist culture.


The land for the center was selected in August of 2004. The cultural center began construction in July 2007 with a budget of approximately 20 million dollars on 2.5 acres. Located 15 minute walking distance  from Magoksa Temple , the center is deep in the forest. The training area of the cultural center provides diverse halls for various functions. There are classrooms, a large lecture hall, meditation hall, discussion hall, office, lounge, and so forth. These halls can facilitate meditation, chanting, lectures, ceremonies, among other diverse activities. The meditation hall is especially impressive as the walls are made of red clay. It lends to a serene and gentle atmosphere.

The living area has a large dining hall, which is all glass on one side with a view of the stream. The sleeping quarters are modern rooms for one, two, four, six, and twelve persons. Over 300 can sleep at the center. The Jogye Order will use the center for employee training, templestay training, cultural programs, meditation programs, among other functions.


Established in March 2000, Mu Sang Sa is an international Seon temple where anyone from around the world who is interested in meditation can easily learn about and practice Seon in Korea, a country that has maintained a deep-rooted legacy of Seon practice and a strong Buddhist tradition since the 4th century.

At Mu Sang Sa, we support a community of foreign monks, nuns, and laypeople who want to practice Seon following the teachings of Korean Seon Master Seung Sahn. Many students come to practice or train here and later return to help the Seon Centers in their own countries.

Like all Korean Seon temples, Mu Sang Sa hosts two three-month intensive meditation retreats (Kyol Che) a year, in summer and winter. Koyl Che is a time when one can completely devote oneself to meditation practice away from worldly distractions. At other times of the year, we organize short weekend retreats and hold weekly ZEN MEDITATION CLASSES on every Sunday.

Our temple is located on Kye Ryong Sahn, a mountain famed for its strong mystical energy in Korea. Other great temples are also located on this mountain, such as Dong Hak Sa, Kap Sa and Shin Won Sa. Many great Korean Seon Masters, such as Gyeong-Heo Sunim and Mangong Sunim have also practiced on Kye Ryong Sahn. Seon Master Seung Sahn carefully viewed many sites over a period of five years before finally choosing the present location at the end of 1998.

Mu Sang Sa sits directly beneath Kuk Sa Bong (National Teacher’s Peak), where long ago an eminent master predicted that 800 Great Dharma Teachers would appear to help this world.

The temple consists of three buildings, the Main Buddha Hall, a Seon Hall and the Residence building. The Seon building has two floors, the first containing eight residential rooms, and the second a large Seon room in which everyone practices together. The Dormitory building has three stories, the first housing a kitchen and dining room, and the other floors, residents’ rooms.

The Main BUDDHA HALL, or Dae Ung Jon in Korean, sits on a small rise above the Seon building. It is has an inspiring view of the valley of rice fields below and the mountains in the far distance. The Buddha Hall is clearly visible from the valley and bids an impressive welcome to visitors as they approach Mu Sang Sa.

There is the American Zen Master Dae-Bong Sunim, who has stayed at Mu Sang Sa since the very beginning of the construction, practicing and teaching in a run-down prefab house in order to uphold his teacher’s wishes, and who was the pioneer in the history of Mu Sang Sa. Also the American abbot Mu Shim Sunim, who made the most of his more than twenty year’s experience living in Korea, constructing the Main Buddha Hall and meticulously carrying on various projects around the temple. These two monks, who received Dharma transmission from their teacher, Zen Master Seung Sahn, are absorbed in teaching the students who visit Mu Sang Sa.

Founding Date : 2000Address : Chungnam, Kyeryong-shi, Eomsa-myon, Hyangjeoksangil 115, South Korea 321-935Tel : 82-42-841-6084Fax : 82-42-841-1202URL : http://www.musangsa.orgE-Mail : info@musangsa.org

Gangwha International Lotus Lantern Meditation Center

Founded in 1995 by the late Ven. Wonmyong (Director of Lotus Lantern Int’l Buddhist Center in Seoul, founded in 1987), Lotus Lantern Meditation Center on Ganghwa Island is a training and practice site for foreign monks.

Through his activities and studies in numerous nations, Ven. Wonmyong, who passed on in 2003, developed a following of disciples from several nations and established the center for their training and practice.

Lotus Lantern is open to nonmonastics as well, and the center offers plenty of fresh air, and quiet and wooded areas as a great escape from urban life. The center has a number of facilities for all activities and grows many of its own organic food as part of its program forthe health of residents and participants. Foreign monks direct the program and make it as rewarding as possible for participants.

[ Direction ]
* By Bus

  • From Seoul to Ganghwa Bus Terminal: from Shinchon Suburban Bus Terminal, every 20 min. from 06:00-22:00; take taxi from Terminal
  •  From Seoul to Ganghwa Onsuri: from Shinchon Suburban Bus Terminal, every 1 hr. from 06:40-22:40; take taxi from Onsuri

* By Car

  • From Seoul: Take Chayuro or Olympic River Expressway towards Gimpo, then Jaebang Road across Choji Bridge and take left; head towards Ganghwa for 10 min. to Church of Eden and take left for 600 m
  •  From Seoul: Take Olympic River Expressway towards Gimpo, across Ganghwa Bridge, past Ganghwa Terminal, towards Jeondeungsa Temple, Baegabon Motel, and take left at road in front of Church of Eden
Founding Date : 1995Tel : 82-32-937-7033URL : http://www.lotuslantern.net/E-Mail : aeryhm1@yahoo.com

The Seoul International Zen Center

The Seoul International Zen Center was founded by Seon Master Seung Sahn as a place where people from all over the world can practice and find their true nature. The Center is located at beautiful Hwa Gye Sa Temple on Sam Gak Mountain in the North of Seoul.

Residents at the Zen Center practice together mornings and evenings and have various jobs at the temple during the day.

Visitors are welcome to join us for practice during the spring and fall Hae Jae seasons, which is free. It is also possible to participate in the group retreats that take place in the winter and summer Kyol Che seasons.

The Center together with Mu Sang Sa located in the Kye Ryong Mountain near by Daejon is a part of the Kwan Um School of Zen in Korea.

The head temple of the school is the Providence Zen Center, located in Cumberland, Rhode Island, USA. The School sponsors 90-day winter meditation retreats (Kyol Che) at two temples in South Korea, as well as at the Providence Zen Center in the USA and at the Warsaw Zen Center in Poland. A 90-day summer retreat is held at the Seoul International Zen Center, as well as three-week summer retreats at the Providence Zen Center and the Warsaw Zen Center. The School also publishes a quarterly journal, Primary Point.

Founding Date : 1522Address : Seoul International Zen Center, Hwa Gye Sa Temple, 487 Su Yu 1 Dong, Kang Buk Gu, 142-071 Seoul, South KoreaTel : 82-2-900-4326Fax : 82-2-903-5770URL : http://www.seoulzen.orgE-Mail : seoulzen@yahoo.com

Seoul Ahnkook Seon Center

Since 1989, the Ahnkook Seon Center Foundation has opened Seon centers in Busan and Seoul in Korea as well as in Manhattan, New York in the U.S.A. to help as many people as possible realize the true Mind and lead a bright life in daily living.

The Ahnkook Seon Center Statement of Purpose

Everyone desires stable peace and prosperity. However, peace and prosperity are not won only through national wealth, power or an individual’s pursuit of gain. True peace and growth can be possible only if both the nation and its citizens together have insight into the world of Truth and lead their daily lives in accord with a personal realization of such Truth. It is in that way a firm and unshakable world is assured even if it is confronted with disaster and adversity.

Thus, the Ahnkook Seon Center Foundation of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism strives to liberate people of all countries in the world through the practice of Zen(pronounced Seon in the Korean language) which was discovered by Shakyamuni Buddha. Seon helps those who have gone astray due to confusion caused by delusion to find their true selves.

Seon is an inner light that can shatter an ordinary person’s false delusions. Seon offers a power of supreme wisdom with which the full recovery of mankind can be completed. Because Seon was discovered by the Sage’s spiritual insight as a direct method to recover our true human nature, it allows one to sweep away the world of delusion and recover instantaneously the true appearance of great original brightness.

Thus, throughout the East and the West and from ancient times to the present, Seon has always been recognized as an eternal and correct path to the purification and enhancement of mankind’s inner world and a means to follow the Righteous and Noble path. Seon helps one transform his or her internal egoistic separation, reach the original inner reality, and open one’s eyes wide to the Great Vehicle, which enfolds the universe and each of the Karmic circumstances of everyone’s life. Thus, Seon ultimately opens an absolute non-dual world where oneself and others are not considered as two. Seon opens the gate to the world of compassion and brings everyone’s lives into harmony.
Accordingly, the Ahnkook Seon Center Foundation, in conformity with and under the direction and teachings of the Jogye Order of Korean Seon Buddhism, hopes that the sound of this Truth will be heard in the minds of all mankind. It is the wish of Ahnkook Zen Center that a world of universal equality will flourish into oneness through the spreading of Seon throughout the world that will enlighten everyone’s eyes of wisdom.

Address : Ga-hoi Dong 10-3, Jongro Gu, Seoul, KoreaTel : 82-2-3673-0772 (English)Fax : 82-2-744-0779URL : http://www.ahnkookzen.org/EnglishE-Mail : ahnkooksunwon@ahnkookzen.org