Throughout the history of Korean Buddhism, monastics have traditionally assumed the role of spiritual teachers to their lay patrons. However, the idea that religious instruction should be systematized into a uniform curriculum is a modern concept that did not arise within the Jogye Order until recent decades as the order sought to more clearly define the roles of its laity. As surveyed in detail by scholar Gwantae Kim, the development of systematic lay Buddhist education in Korea has evolved through several phases.30
With the rapid industrialization of South Korea and the spread of Evangelical Christianity in the 1960s and 1970s, forward-thinking Buddhists recognized the need for deeper religious instruction among the Buddhist laity. In 1973, the Daewon Bulgyo Gyoyang Dae Hak
, the nation’s first private Buddhist college for lay practitioners, was opened by a lay Buddhist organization independent of the JO.31
This instigated a national trend as more private Buddhist colleges opened around the country in the 1970s and 1980s, in turn increasing the demand for in-depth religious education among the laity. The Jogye Order responded in 1984 with its first attempt at an organized lay educational system, which was revised several times over the following decades. By the 2000s, lay education had emerged as a major priority for the order, which finalized its current system of lay education in 2011. In accordance with this system, the JO categorized five specialized institutions responsible for educating its lay followers.32
The first of these are Buddhist private colleges (K. Bulgyogyoyangdaehak) managed by temples or educational institutions authorized by the Jogye Order to educate the laity about Buddhism, as well as an equivalent online program run through the Jogye Order’s Digital College (K. Dijiteoldaehak). The JO additionally established a College of Buddhist Counseling (K. Bulgyosangdamdaehak
) as a training institute for authorized Buddhist counselors, in addition to a Korean Buddhist Teachers’ College (K. Daehanbulgyogyosadaehak
), and the order’s Educational Institute (K. Pogyowon jijeong gyoyukgigwan)
which runs specialized educational programs.33
The Jogye Order’s establishment and financial support of these institutions clearly demonstrates the importance that the order now places on lay education. However, a minority of monastics within the order feel threatened by the increase in education for lay practitioners, fearing that an educated laity with lose faith in the order’s monastics. Furthermore, all JO educational institutions remain directly or indirectly in the control of the order’s monastic leadership and, thus, are not likely to tolerate teachings that challenge their authority. Echoing Ven. Heojeong’s comments (see above), critics have additionally questioned whether it is possible for senior monastics, who have spent the majority of their adult lives within the order’s temples, to design a religious educational program that is relevant to the laity and adequately addresses the concerns of those living in the secular world. Other critics, such as Korea University professor Sungdaeg Jo (Sungtaek Cho) (see below), suggest that these laity’s needs were irrelevant to the design of this lay education program. Rather, Jo charges that its primary function is to train model lay supporters who fund and protect the order’s monastics while working to recruit more members.34
Such criticisms are not only validated by the statements of Ven. Hyuneung in 2015, head of the order’s Education Department (see above), but also by a series of special reports on the order’s laity published in 2018 in the Bulgyo Sinmun
, an official newspaper published by the Jogye Order. This report states that the goal of the order’s lay education program is to foster “sincere devotees” who feel obliged to serve monastics as physical embodiments of the Buddha, himself.35
3.1. The Jogye Order’s Lay Education Program Curriculum
Given these criticisms, this section will further examine both the current curriculum utilized by the order’s lay education system as well as two introductory textbooks used in this system to assess the attitudes they express towards the concerns of the order’s lay membership. As established in 2011, the Jogye Order’s lay education program is divided into four progressive stages.36
The first stage introduces new lay members of the order to the history and basic teachings of Buddhism as well as Korean temple life. Titled Balsim
(“Arousing Buddhist Faith”) this stage introduces new members to basic etiquette, ceremonies, and lay duties practiced within the order’s temples and, as noted by Scholar Uri Kaplan, is primarily intended to “construct and unified system of lay Buddhist etiquette.”37
After this introduction, new members are required to complete the Haengdo
(“Practicing the Buddhist Way”) program consisting of 12 further hours of religious education over the course of a year. This second stage utilizes the textbook “An Introduction to Buddhism” (K. Bulgyogaeron
) published by the JO which addresses the basic teachings and doctrines of the order, including the life of Shakyamuni Buddha and the nature of Enlightenment (see Section 3.2
below for further discussion). The Haengdo
course is conducted either through Jogye Order temples or the Jogye Order Digital University, which offers 25 online lectures to be studied over a three-month period.
Within the third stage of the order’s lay education, lay members are required to participate in regular Dharma talks, religious activities and educational training organized by the JO. The curriculum for this stage covers more in-depth topics such as Buddhist history, Korean Buddhist culture, and the Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (K. Geumganggyeong, a.k.a. The Diamond Sutra) and other scriptures valued in Korean Buddhist tradition. In order to complete this stage, lay members are required to attend at least 96 hours of registered educational activities organized by the order over a one-year period. The fourth and final stage of lay education consists of leadership training which qualifies lay members to teach other laity within the order. This advanced course is itself divided into two stages, the Budong (“Unperturbed”) course and the Seonhye (“Wholesome Wisdom”) course. After completion, the lay practitioner receives a special designation from the order granting them the title of “special Buddhist propagator.”
A recent development, this four-stage curriculum is intended to maximize its effectiveness through step-by-step education that teaches lay believers about Buddhist tradition while establishing Buddhism’s connection to contemporary Korean culture through a curriculum relevant to modern society. The program additionally employs modern educational methods, such as learning through online lectures available through the order’s Digital University program—an innovation deviating from traditional Buddhist education in Korea. The stated aims of this educational program are not only to educate recent converts, but also existing laity within the order, guiding them to become “sincere members” of the JO.
This raises the question as to how the JO defines a “sincere member” of the order. Critics such as scholar Byungjol Go (Byungchol Ko) claim that this four-stage educational system has little actual relevance to the lives of the laity and ignores their emotional needs, practical concerns, and spiritual development.38
Go further charges that the JO lay education system was designed to mold the laity into obedient monastic attendants who serve as subordinate members of the order. In Go’s opinion, the order continues to regard the education of its laity as a secondary to that of its monastics, and that its facilitation of lay education is insufficient. Furthermore, Go notes that the order defines the status of its lay members only vaguely, in practice equating a “sincere member” with a “skillful propagator of Buddhism.” As a result, lay education over-emphasizes the recruitment of new converts, in order to bring financial benefits to the order’s monastics through their patronage. Go’s criticisms are echoed by Sungdaeg Jo who notes that the JO has failed to state ultimate goals of the lay education program or clarify the ideology behind its curriculum.39
Jo further observes that the JO’s four-stage education system was modeled after professional education programs aimed at earning certifications and thus shows little concern with cultivating the spiritual development of the laity or guiding individual practitioners along the path to awakening. In Jo’s opinion, the practical purpose of JO’s lay education program is, instead, to create a sense of religious identity and belonging within the order’s lay membership. As examined in the following section, this lack of clear purpose or ideology has produced textbooks for the laity which contain little more than history and doctrine.
3.2. Introductory Textbooks for the Laity
First published in 1972 by the JO-affiliated Dongguk University, the Bulgyoseongjeon
, or Sacred Texts of Buddhism
(a.k.a. “Buddhist Bible
,” hereafter “Sacred Texts
”), was one of the first attempts by the JO to make Buddhism accessible to the laity by translating texts written in Classical Chinese into Korean script.40
One of the most popular textbooks for lay Buddhists in Korea, the preface of Sacred Texts
states that it was compiled both as an introduction to various scriptures valued by Korean Buddhist tradition as well as a practical guide to meditation and devotion for lay practitioners. The first chapter of Sacred Texts
addresses the biography of Shakyamuni Buddha, presenting various stories of his life and those of his disciples while the second surveys basic teachings about wisdom, mercy and Buddhist practice with excerpts from early Buddhist texts in the Āgamas
The third chapter introduces Mahāyāna Buddhism with passages from various scriptures important to East-Asian Mahāyāna traditions, such as the Diamond Sūtra
, while the fourth chapter, in turn, surveys the Vinaya
—the rules followed by Buddhist monastics. The fifth and final chapter of Sacred Texts
contains selections of famous stories and quotations from Chinese and Korean Zen (K. Seon
As an introductory textbook for lay Buddhist, Sacred Texts is problematic for a variety of reasons. While the scriptural passages included in the first three chapters are relevant, the text fails to include any citations of its sources or commentary explaining why these passages are important or even relevant to the lives of modern Buddhists. Furthermore, the inclusion of a lengthy chapter devoted to monastic precepts in a practical guide for lay Buddhists is questionable and reflects the priorities of the JO’s monastic establishment, not those of the laity. As the JO identifies itself as a continuation of the Imje Seon (J. Linchi Zen) meditation tradition, the subject of the last chapter of Sacred Texts is appropriate. However, the book again fails to include any explanation or commentary. Considering that even advanced Seon meditators struggle with interpreting these parables, this oversight could cause serious misunderstandings among lay converts. Furthermore, very few lay practitioners even engage in Seon meditation practice, reflecting the authors’ failure to consider the priorities of their audience.
In an effort to address the issues, an editorial committee was formed in May 2019 in order to revise and update the Sacred Texts.
Focusing the revised edition on Early Buddhist texts, the Vinaya
, and the quotations of famous Zen masters, the committee has also decided to include commentary addressing the contemporary lay concerns, such as family relationships and respect for life, in order to better relate Buddhist teachings to modern life and present Buddhist perspectives on contemporary social problems.41
While the committee’s aims are a positive development, the majority of committee members are senior monastics within the JO leadership42
so it remains to be seen how effective these revisions will be in adequately addressing the concerns of the laity. Regardless, the JO’s efforts to update and revise one of its central textbooks for the laity denotes the seriousness which the order now regards lay education.
A second textbook prescribed by the JO for Buddhist neophytes is Bulgyogaeron, or “Introduction to Buddhism,” which is required reading for completing the Haengdo stage within the order’s lay education program (see above). As such, Introduction to Buddhism was written in order to familiarize lay practitioners with doctrines and practices valued within Korean Buddhist tradition. The book’s first chapter introduces the general features of Buddhism as a religion, while the second presents the sacred biography of the Buddha. Broadly following Japanese scholar Akira Hirakawa’s The History of Indian Buddhism, chapters three through six then guide the reader through Buddhism’s historical development, beginning with Early Buddhism followed by the emergence and maturation of Mahāyāna Buddhism in India and East-Asia. The sixth chapter covers the emergence of the Seon tradition and Ganhwa Seon meditation as practiced within the Jogye Order, while the final chapter addresses the role of Korean Buddhism in modern society. As a text intended for lay converts, the Introduction to Buddhism is clear and easy-to-read. However, as with the Sacred Texts, it is questionable whether the historical and doctrinal content of the book’s core chapters is relevant to the lives of the laity. While the final chapter of Introduction to Buddhism does attempt to relate Buddhism to modern life, the actual contents of this chapter are superficial and fail to present effective Buddhist solutions for problems faced by lay practitioners.
The problems with Sacred Texts and Introduction to Buddhism become more apparent when compared with Gendai bukkyō seiten, or “Modern Buddhist Scripture,” published by the Young Men’s Buddhist Association of Tokyo University (2016). Written specifically as a guidebook for lay Buddhists, the Modern Buddhist Scripture introduces Buddhist approaches to the problems of modern society, such as social isolation, depression, environmental destruction, and pollution. The book’s contents additionally assist readers in accessing and interpreting often arcane Buddhist texts, aiding them in pursuing further studies of these texts, if they so choose, with an extensive bibliography. In contrast with the largely historical progression of the Sacred Texts and Introduction to Buddhism, the Modern Buddhist Scripture surveys the psychological, social and philosophical applications of Buddhism, with the first chapter discussing identity and the differences between wholesome and unwholesome desires, while the second examines personal issues, such as social isolation and alienation, with selected passages from various Buddhist scriptures. The third introduces Buddhist perspectives on human society, presenting practical Buddhist approaches to various social problems, while the fourth and fifth chapters survey Buddhist philosophy and its exploration of human existence. The final chapter of Modern Buddhist Scripture considers what it means to truly live as a lay Buddhist following the teachings of the Buddha in modern secular society.
As with the Korean Sacred Texts
and Introduction to Buddhism,
the Modern Buddhist Scripture
was written as an introductory text for lay practitioners. However, its choice of topics and overall approach is radically different. Unlike Sacred Texts
and Introduction to Buddhism
, Modern Buddhist Scripture
was commissioned, authored, and updated by lay Buddhist scholars and graduate students at Tokyo University.43
Intended specifically to address the concerns and problems of fellow lay practitioners, the authors of Modern Buddhist Scripture
explain in the preface that the book fulfills a personal duty to provide Buddhist solutions to the problems of modern society.44
In contrast, Sacred Texts
and Introduction to Buddhism
primarily adopt a historical approach to their presentation of Buddhism, often focusing on complex doctrines and devoting little attention to the needs of the laity. As both texts were commissioned and edited by the JO’s monastic leadership, their selection as introductory texts for lay practitioners clearly reflect the priorities of the order’s monastic establishment, not those of lay practitioners themselves. Echoing the criticisms of Byungjol Go and Sungdaeg Jo above, the contents of Sacred Texts
and Introduction to Buddhism
largely show an indifference to the needs of the laity, but appear to have been selected for the purpose of indoctrinating the laity into a specific religious identity promoted by the order’s monastic leadership.