Overcoming Tradition and Striving for the Future:
Challenges and Tasks Faced by the Korean Buddhist Community in American Society.
by Eunsu Cho - University of Michigan (Abstract)
To speak of bounded national communities of Buddhists in the United States is to call into question the very meaning of the terms in question. The term American Buddhism, for example, refers to no such national tradition as does such a term as Korean Buddhism. In fact, American Buddhism refers specifically to a plurality of traditions, and beyond that, the process of transformation within all of these traditions.
Still, within that blur, stark contrasts remain in the pigmentation of American Buddhism. This paper will try to analyze two types of Korean Buddhism in America: that which is derived from Korean sources and taught in English primarily within an environment of non-Koreans, and the community of immigrants and their re-creation of their native religious tradition. The goal of this analysis is to identify both the resonance and discord that these communities share, in the hope of establishing an environment that could be mutually stimulating, compensating, and beneficial, in spite of the present distance that separates these two groups.
The most conspicuous difference in the American Buddhist's preference for ministry focused Buddhism over a monastic practice. This preference has a significant impact on the expectations that shape the role of clergy, not only in terms of how they relate with the lay population, but also in regards to the mode of administrative, financial, and operational control of their religious communities. The ever-present issue of acculturation is a significant area of dissonance between ethnic Korean Buddhists and their American counterparts. Common social concerns that American's growing up with in their churches and elsewhere, specifically regarding the role of women and families in religious communities, bring a sort of challenge to traditional ways of practice in Korean communities. This challenge has been direct in some cases, as ethnic Korean Buddhists have been criticized for their lack of social and moral concerns.
These are some of the areas of difference that have prevented a greater intermingling of the Korean Buddhisms in America. This separation has been a key element in preventing Korean Buddhism from taking its place as a full-fledged member of American Buddhism and in being a more active participant in the diversity not only of Buddhist traditions, but of the myriad religions practiced in this country. Nevertheless, even after acknowledging the differences between Korean and American Buddhists, with the right effort, ethnic Korean Buddhists can seek to meet the interest of those Americans practicing Korean Buddhism in America, directing them towards the abundant opportunities for contact with Korean cultural and spiritual resources that exist within the ethnic Korean tradition in America. At the same time, these groups can also take a more active role in introducing Korean culture and traditional religious value as a means of adding to the richness of American central pluralism.
However, with this in mind I am not proposing for the communities to be merged or bridged into one, nor do I advocate a solitary or ideal means of Korean Buddhist advancement in the West. I rather propose that change should come about through ethnic Korean Buddhists becoming a part of the greater American Buddhist community and that two communities sustain that own identities and ways of practice. The point made here is for groups to become open and made available for other and to utilize their resources in a naturally complementary way. I would predict that when the younger generation eventfully takes its place of responsibility in the affairs of the ethnic Korean Buddhist community there will be evolutionary changes in the ways Korean Buddhism is practiced in America such that the structural and cultural gaps existing between the non-Korean and Korean communities will be narrowed, This narrowing will bring a shift in the cultural and spiritual focus of ethnic Korean Buddhism from a purely Korean tradition towards an American direction.
However, the transformation of American Korean Buddhism could complicate this process. Should interaction between American Korean Buddhists and ethnic Korean Buddhism increase, this may create a continued demand for traditional or real Korean Buddhism in America, which will have the effect of stimulating the recreation of traditional Korean Buddhism in America.
---------(Kwan Um Temple Symposium on Korean Buddhism in America /// March 23, 2003 Kwan Um Temple, Los Angeles, CA
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