Won Buddhism: My First Encounter With A New Buddhist Religion
A gathering with other practitioners in a Won Buddhist Temple can be broken up into four parts — and in the following order: stretching, breathing exercises, meditation, and a Dharma talk.
As stated above, practitioners start with stretching. A young and flexible intern guided us. Upon seeing my poor state in attempting to touch my toes while seated with my outstretched legs, she readily accommodated my inability to perform the exercise by slightly modifying the move. This was a warm-up for breathing exercises and meditation.
Next, we started breathing exercises. Under the lead of our instructor again, we were told to breathe in and breathe out while performing various moves. For example, I stretched out my arm and hand to follow the path of an imaginary arc, kept eye contact with my hand, and breathed in as instructed. A deep, slow inhale; a deep, slow exhale. In combination they helped me focus on the present moment.
We then began meditation. I sat up straight on my mat and lowered my eyes halfway. As I understand it the purpose of meditation is to be the observer of my thoughts, which are like clouds drifting overhead, and not to think I am this or that thought. One long-term student of Zen explains meditation as simply “waking up” or “to be here, now” (Hagen, 74). Hagen illustrates this. This moment of waking up is sort of like seeing a black and white image you can’t quite make out at first. People might imagine a false notion (“I think it might be a man lying down”), but in reality the image is something else (27). Waking up is the aha moment in realizing what it really is, realizing your false imagining wasn’t real. A crude example for seeing the real world with all its complexity, yet an interesting one nonetheless. I was sitting there aware of my breathing and observing my thoughts. Sitting in a cross-legged position the entire time, my leg was starting to fall asleep on me. Near the end we chanted nah mu ah mee tah bool, meaning “may I take refuge in the infinite light of my true nature.” The melody of the chant was beautiful and felt cleansing, much like a morning shower. I will definitely use chants in my own spiritual practice in the future, for Baha’is say Alláh-u-Abhá every day.
The Dharma talk was given by an elderly female cleric. This isn’t surprising because women play a strong role in Won Buddhism — with female clerics outnumbering male clerics (Pye, 128). She wore glasses and smiled a lot. When we first met she didn’t give a regular American handshake. Instead, she firmly cupped my hand with her small hands and looked into my eyes, giving me all of her attention. During the Dharma talk she read from typed paper, but didn’t follow it line for line. She was skilled at public speaking. She spoke slowly and made eye contact with her audience as she talked about duhkha (doo-ka), which is often translated as suffering (Hagen, 25). Hagen says the English language doesn’t have a word that adequately conveys the full meaning of the Sanskrit word duhkha. As she spoke I admired the fact this Dharma sermon was delivered while we sat in a circle on the floor. It was the ideal seating arrangement for the question and answer format near the end, when she asked others what they thought about this or that idea. After each speaker’s turn speaking we gave a silent bow. I enjoyed the silence.
As an interesting note, Won Buddhism shares some similarities with the Baha’i Faith. According to Venerable Chwasan, the motto of Won Buddhism is this: “As material civilization develops, cultivate spiritual civilization accordingly” (Varvaloucas, “The Grace in this World”). Similar sayings can be found in the Baha’i Writings. Also, Won Buddhists teach the unity of all religions. They believe we must become engaged in society, not retreat from it. These beliefs are also in the Baha’i Faith. Varvaloucas’ interview in the link below provides a nice introduction to Won Buddhism.
Hagen, Steve. Buddhism: Plain and Simple. New York: Harmony Books, 1997. Print.
Pye, Michael. “Won Buddhism as a Korean New Religion.” Numen: International Review for the History of Religions. 2002, Vol. 49.2, 131–141. Print.
Varvaloucas, Emma. “The Grace in this World.” Tricycle. Summer 2016. Web. June 11, 2016. http://tricycle.org/magazine/the-grace-in-this-world/