The other week my wife and I were walking through an older neighborhood of Gyeongju on our way downtown to grab a burger at McDonalds (Yeah, yeah. I know, but she’s pregnant. I’m not going to argue.) About a block from the courthouse, we turned the corner and stumbled on something we’d not seen since our last trip to Kyoto: the sweeping rooftop of a Japanese Buddhist temple.
Thinking this a bit odd, we went in for a closer look. Turns out this temple, Seogyeongsa (서경사), was originally built back in 1932 during the Japanese occupation and was recently declared a historical site by the Gyeongju City government. Seogyeongsa was constructed as a missionary temple by the Japanese Soto Sect of Zen Buddhism. After the war, it landed in the hands of the local government, who have since used it to house various municipal offices. It seems they’ve finally decided to restore it as a park and historical site. It’s currently being renovated, but looks like it should be finished soon.
Seogyeongsa piqued my curiosity for some reason, and it wasn’t just its austere beauty of architecture. In Korea it’s unusual to find buildings dating from the Japanese Colonial era, as most have been lost to the ravages of war and modernity. And if you find one, they aren’t usually the subject of government restoration projects. No to mention, most historical temples around Gyeongju are at least 1,200 years old and were more likely to have been burned down by the Japanese than built by them. Seogyeongsa is definitely a bit of a novelty around here.
Then there’s the bit about Seogyeongsa being a “Soto Zen missionary temple.” Ummmmm…. huh? Korea already has a rich tradition of Seon or 선 (Jap. Zen) Buddhism, going back a thousand years. So what was the deal here? Well, it’s a pretty well-known fact (among Koreans anyway) that the Japanese Buddhist establishment colluded with the Imperialist ambitions of the Japanese government in its efforts to annex the Korean peninsula. Not only that, various sects of Japanese Buddhism aggressively worked to take over Korean Buddhist orders during the occupation and absorb them into their own organizational structures.
Not exactly the picture of the Japanese Zen hermit meditating in his thatched hut and writing haiku about frogs, is it? People forget sometimes that, in Japan, Zen Buddhism was popular with the Samurai Warrior class. The idea of taking the life of another and serving one’s master dutifully without question was not necessarily at odds with the samurai practicing Zen.
But having a deep respect for both the Korean Seon and Japanese Zen traditions, I wasn’t going to let it go at just that and started digging around a bit deeper. I didn’t find any further explanation until I stumbled across and article by Pankaj Mohan from the E-Library of the Korean Jogye Order of Buddhism (조계종). At the risk of oversimplifying a very thorny and emotional subject, he pointed out a few key factors that lead to this Zen-on-Seon conflict in Korea.
During the rise of Japanese nationalism at the end of the 19th century, Buddhism in Japan came under attack by the Shinto Priests as being a foreign poison to Japan and incompatible with the Japanese character. Japanese Buddhism responded with the idea of Buddhism as a “Nation Protecting” force for Japan (much like in Korea, actually). Unfortunately, under this banner, a lot of Zen Buddhists and Buddhists in general became progressively militant in their support of Japanese nationalism and its imperialist ventures abroad.
It should also be mentioned that, prior to the Japanese Occupation, Korean Buddhism suffered 500 years of suppression under the Joseon Dynasty (조선 시대) and its Neo-Confucian ideology. Under the rise of the Joseon Dynasty, Buddhist temples had been torn down or even turned into brothels, monks were banned from entering cities, forcibly disrobed, or chased into the mountains (sometimes literally). It wasn’t until Japan forced the “Treaty of Ganghwa” (강화도조약) on the Joseon Dynasty in 1876 that Buddhist temples were allowed to be built again in cities, a decision applauded by Korean Buddhists. When the Soto order and other Japanese sects began building temples in Korean cities, they weren’t really supplanting or competing with Korean Buddhist temples, because there really weren’t any in the cites at that time.
Of course these are reasons but not excuses. I’ve tried to tread lightly around this subject as the Japanese Occupation is still a very emotional and controversial subject both in Korean and Japan (for vastly different reasons obviously). For what it’s worth, in the early 1990’s the Soto Zen Sect of Japan made a series of formal apologies for its collusion with Japan’s imperialist aggression of the early part of the 20th century, from which I quote:
“…. The Soto Zen school as a religious organization supported Japan’s acts of aggression in China. Under the pretext of ‘overseas missionary activities’ it supported Japanese militarism and even participated actively in that militarism. This is extremely regrettable from the standpoint of religious persons. Unless this negative legacy of the School becomes the object of clear self-criticism, it will remain impossible to take the stance of opening our hearts toward other peoples in a spirit of true exchange.”
“Especially in Korea and the Korean peninsula, Japan first committed the outrage of assassinating the Korean queen, then forced the Korea of the Lee Dynasty into dependency status, and finally through the annexation of Korea, obliterated a people and a nation. Our sect acted as an advance guard in this, contriving to assimilate the Korean people into this country and promoting the policy of turning Koreans into loyal Imperial subjects.”
It’s amazing what you’ll come up with you think you’re just going to grab a burger. Anyhow, if you’re interested in reading more on the topic, check out the article: Beyond the “Nation-Protecting” Paradigm… by Pankaj Mohan, or the book he cites: Zen at War by Daizen Victoria. And if you’d like to stop by and visit Seogyeongsa, it’s on a back street in a residential area of Jungbu-dong, just a block or two west of the Gyeongju Court House.