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Korean Catholics Misrepresent Korea’s Buddhist Heritage

By Emi Hayakawa

SEOUL (IDN) — The celebrated “birthplace” of contemporary Korean Catholicism was originally a Buddhist hermitage and temple, the history of which is being ruthlessly erased from modern Korean narrative, with an information plate on the site today misrepresenting an important part of the country’s religious history.

Currently at the Cheonjinam memorial site located in Toechon-myeon Village in Gwangju, Gyeonggi-do (Gyeonggi Province) a large statue of the Virgin Mary stands at the entrance, with the inscription “The Statue of Virgin Mary for World Peace,” unveiled by Pope John Paul II in 1984, and the grand tombs of five Catholic “martyrs” exalted where the Buddhist dharma hall of Cheonjinam hermitage once stood.

The information board that explains the origin and history of Cheonjinam to the public only states that this is the birthplace of Catholicism in Korea, that great Confucian scholars extensively studied Catholicism at this site.

This information board that explains the origin and history of Cheonjinam to the public only states that this is the birthplace of Catholicism in Korea, that great Confucian scholars extensively studied Catholicism at this site. Photo Credit: BTN (Photo on left)

There is no mention of the fact that Buddhist monks have been ruthlessly executed for treason to protect the group of young Catholic scholars, nor the mention of the Buddhist temple complex, which was burnt down as it was labelled as an illegal site of anti-governmental ideologies.

Even the original Chinese character of Cheonjinam Hermitage, which portrays “hermitage” (庵) has been misrecorded to (菴), which means “shrine.”

Cheonjinam Hermitage and Jueosa Temple, the ancient Buddhist hermitage and temple now exist only in historical documents and ancient maps of the mid-Joseon Dynasty.

Buddhism was first introduced to the Korean peninsula in the 4th century CE from China, and it remained the dominant religion of the country until the late 20th century.

Sowing the Seeds of Korean Catholicism in the Joseon Dynasty

From the early Joseon Dynasty (14th to 19th century CE), long before Catholicism arrived in Korea, the Joseon government exercised “Sungyooukbul,” literally the thrive of Confucianism and suppression of Buddhism. Neo-Confucianists who established the Joseon Dynasty believed that one of the reasons for the fall of the earlier Goryeo Dynasty was the excessive growth of Buddhist orders. They exerted harsh pressure on Buddhist orders and implemented policies to restrict the number of Buddhist monks and temples.

The stone inscription(see photo on left) depicting a Buddhist stupa which remained at the Jueosa temple site until recently, was moved to the Jeoldusan Memorial Hall managed by the Korean Catholic community. Photo Credit: BTN

Catholicism was first introduced in the 17th century during the turbulent religious environment and was often referred to as Western Studies, “Seohak.” However, it was not until the late 18th century that Catholicism or “Seohak” had a great impact on young and progressive scholars.

Joseon intellectuals and scholars debated Catholic doctrines and propagated Catholicism in Buddhist temples and associated hermitages under a conference called the Kanghakhoe (academic seminar group). They gathered secretly, avoiding the eyes of the government, and Cheonjinam Hermitage and Jueosa Temple were popular sites for meetings.

The Seed of Korean Catholicism is Sowed within the Rich Soil of Korean Buddhism

In virtue of the Buddha Dharma, the monks of Cheonjinam Hermitage and Jueosa Temple shared their place of practice with the Kanghakhoe. Despite the grave danger and great risk to their own lives and the temple itself, the monks opened their hearts and embraced these devoted and faithful Seohak intellectuals.

Dasan Jeong Yakyong (1762-1836), one of the great intellects of the late Joseon Dynasty, also attended the Kanghakhoe groups at Cheonjinam Hermitage in 1779 and composed various poems of himself and his brothers frequenting Cheonjinam Hermitage, that reflected its Buddhist atmosphere.

These poems serve as refute to the recent Catholic claim that "Cheonjinam Hermitage had already been in ruins by 1779," and at the same time shows the friendship between Catholic missionary Dasan and the Buddhist monks of Cheonjinam Hermitage.

Cheonjinam Hermitage and Jueosa Temple became a place of practice for meditation, debates, and exploration in search of the truth for both the Buddhist monks and the Catholic intellectuals.

There was a clear historic unity between the Catholics and Buddhists, where two different faiths came to practice in one place. It was an interfaith union by both the Catholics, who passionately wanted to preserve their faith, and the Buddhists, who compassionately embraced them with the wisdom of altruism, or Bodhicitta—a core concept of Mahayana Buddhism, meaning the compassionate aspiration to reach enlightenment for the benefit of others.

In 1801, King Sunjo, the 23rd king of the Joseon Dynasty, implemented a policy where Catholicism was conceptualized as evil learning, or “sahak” (邪學), and prohibited Catholic religious practices. The government pushed ahead with the nationwide persecution of Catholicism. Dasan and many Joseon intellects who accepted the Catholic faith were sent into exile into the very remote areas of the province.

The Cheonjinam Hermitage and the Jueosa Temple monks, who have compassionately embraced and protected the Catholic scholars during the nationwide persecution, were taken in as prisoners for treason and presumably executed alongside the captured Catholics. Cheonjinam hermitage and Jueosa temple were set on fire.

The Shinyu Persecution was not only the persecution of Catholics but consequently the persecution of Cheonjinam Hermitage and Jueosa Temple that protected the Catholic community.

The Forgotten Buddhist Roots of Korean Catholicism

The Buddhist temple complex of Cheonjinam Hermitage and Jueosa Temple, where the essence of Bodicitta was practiced, had been burnt to ashes and blown away completely by the winds of time. And now, in contemporary Korea, the very existence of this Buddhist heritage site and the sacrificed lives of monks that protected the Catholic scholars is completely disregarded, distorted, and being hidden by the Catholic community that the Buddhists protected.

All mentions of the monks and remains of the site almost wiped away from history, but fortunately, a small fragment remains in Dasan Jeong Yakyon’s compilations of Analects of Dasan (Dasanmunjib), the Journal of the Royal Secretariat (Seungjeongwon ilgi), written by the Royal Secretariats of the Joseon Dynasty, and ancient maps of the mid-Joseon era.

In 1818, Dasan returned to his hometown of Gwangju after 18 years of exile. In 1827, at the age of 66, he composed a poem about Cheonjinam Hermitage, where he descriptively narrates his return to the site after 30 years, where the hermitage has been burned down and destroyed.

The poem is sincerely grateful to the monks of Cheonjinam Hermitage and Jueosa Temple for hiding them. This epic text reflects the pure intentions of the young Catholic scholars that pursued their search of truth for a society that is comfortable for all people of Joseon and the compassionate and altruistic spirit of Korean Buddhism.

A Site of Religious Harmony Ignored

In August 2021, Gwangju, Gyeonggi-do signed an agreement with the Catholic Diocese of Suwon to create a Catholic pilgrimage route from Cheonjinam Hermitage to Namhansanseong Fortress. The purpose of this project was expressed to honor the Korean Catholic martyrs along with the regional characteristics as the birthplace of Korean Catholicism.

Unfortunately, there were no mentions regarding the sacrifices of the Buddhist monks of Cheonjinam Hermitage. Furthermore, the historical value of Namhansanseong Fortress, built and defended by Buddhist soldier monks and a symbol of the National Protection of Buddhism was also disregarded.

Moreover, the Catholic Diocese of Suwon announced a new grand cathedral that will represent Korean Catholicism, set to be constructed at the Cheonjinam hermitage site aimed to be completed by 2079 in celebration of the 300th anniversary of Catholicism in Korea. Even the Buddhist stupa, which remained at the Jueosa temple site until recently, was moved to the Jeoldusan Memorial Hall managed by the Korean Catholic community.

After receiving strong criticism from the Korean Buddhist community, the Korean Catholic community formally apologized and has declared a re-examination of the project.

The Korean Catholics are to coexist with Korean Buddhism they need to acknowledge and honor the sacrifices of the monks that made it possible to preserve Catholicism in Korea. To do so, they should help to restore and preserve Cheonjinam Hermitage and Jueosa Temple in their original form. It should be clarified to the World that Cheonjinam Hermitage is the cornerstone of religious harmony between Korean Buddhism and Korean Catholicism.

* Originally transmitted on IDN-InDepthNews on 16 December 2021 as a joint IDN-Lotus News feature

Emi Hayakawa is Head of Global Operations, BTN (Buddhist Television Network) World, South Korea.

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