Sotaesan was in the head dharma master’s room when a group curious about Won Buddhism came to pay a visit. They bowed and asked, “Where is your esteemed religion’s buddha enshrined?” The founding master said, “Our buddha has just gone out, so if you would like to see him, please wait a moment.” The group was puzzled. A little later, when it was lunchtime, a group of workers returned from the fields carrying their farm tools. The founding master pointed to them and said,“They are all the buddhas of our house.” The group was even more puzzled.

This story comes from one of the primary books of a Buddhist canon you’ve probably never heard of: that of Won Buddhism, a 100-year-old Korean Buddhist order that sprang from the individual enlightenment of a modern-day Siddhartha. This was Sotaesan [Chung-bin Park, 1891–1943], who is said to have reached enlightenment in 1916, at the age of 26 and after years of ascetic practice. It was only after his enlightenment that he read the Diamond Sutra, found that many aspects of his own insights aligned with those of the Buddha’s, and declared Shakyamuni to be his “original guide” and the “antecedent of my dharma.” Sotaesan went on to create Won Buddhism (Won means “circle”), which has variously been described as a reformed, renovated, or revitalized buddhadharma. Its purpose is to update Buddhist teachings to make them more relevant to contemporary society and more understandable to contemporary people.

It’s unclear whether Won Buddhism, whose following has been increasing worldwide, is really a new tradition of Buddhism or an entirely new religion. Won Buddhists describe their tradition in both ways, and scholars seem equally undecided about the matter. Certainly, Won Buddhism contains many elements that would be familiar to Mahayana Buddhists, but it also includes core teachings that would not be found in any other Buddhist scripture. Won Buddhism puts heavy emphasis on the integration of spiritual practice into daily life. Unlike other Buddhist traditions, Won does not place a high value on lengthy retreat time. Rather, sustained engagement with the external world is paramount: Won Buddhists are known for their interfaith work as well as for their commitment to social issues. This is not to say that Won focuses on the macro to the exclusion of the micro. Their texts include detailed directives on propriety—from shaking hands to eating to hosting guests—and on all parts of a daily routine.

There were a lot of formalities and unnecessary, superstitious rituals. He wanted to get rid of those and to make the buddha-dharma very practical and realistic.

This emphasis on the average person, daily life, and pragmatism especially may help clarify the story that heads our interview. It was told to me on a sunny day last September by Reverend Dosung Yoo, the retreat director of the Won Dharma Center in Claverack, New York, when I visited on the occasion of Won’s centennial celebration. It was here, in the modern minimalist setting of the center, that I spoke with Venerable Chwasan, the fourth head dharma master of the order. There is no dharma transmission in Won Buddhism; its leaders are elected by a council composed of lay ministers and senior ministers, who are also elected. Ven. Chwasan retired in 2006 after nine years of holding the position. He is now Head Dharma Master Emeritus and lives in Iksan, South Korea. Rev. Yoo served as our translator.

–Emma Varvaloucas, Managing Editor

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