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A Future Task for Won Buddhism in America


Tradition and innovation have always been at the heart of Wŏn Buddhist history and practice. Wŏn Buddhism was founded during a period of great transformation. Previously known as the hermit kingdom, Korea opened its doors to foreign influence in the middle of the nineteenth century. It introduced and spread Catholicism, Western learning, scientific technology, and the Western political and economic system. This new perspective on the world resulted in a tremendous desire on the part of Korean Buddhists to overturn the persecution of Buddhism which took place during the Chŏson Dynasty. Wŏn Buddhism grew out of the movement to reform and renovate Buddhism for the contemporary secular world.

As Wŏn Buddhism establishes a foothold in America, we have to ask how can Wŏn Buddhism remain rooted in tradition while delivering their teachings in innovative, culturally relevant ways? Fortunately, the reformed aspects of Wŏn Buddhism that began in Korea share critical factors with the development of American Buddhism, such as a lay-oriented sangha, gender equality, a simplified tradition, an inquiry-based tradition, and a socially informed and engaged tradition. As time passes, however, Wŏn Buddhism will have to reckon with how it honors its Korean roots while creatively finding ways to convey its teachings.

Until now, Wŏn Buddhism has maintained strong ties to its Korean roots. This is due to most kyomus (clerics) hailing from Korea, resulting in closer cultural and linguistic ties. In its 50-year history in the US, Wŏn Buddhism has experienced slow and steady growth. Wŏn Buddhism’s entry into the West can be divided into stages, beginning with the 1972 establishment of the Los Angeles Wŏn Buddhist temple under the leadership of Lee Je Sŏng (1935–2009) and Paek Sang Wŏn (1941–2015). Lee and Paek started the process of incorporating the temple. In April 1973, the state of California permitted the formation of a corporation, and a religious corporation was founded. This enabled assigned clergy to obtain permanent residency.


In January 1973, Chŏng Ja-Sŏn (1922–74), an ordained Wŏn Buddhist devotee with a strong desire to support edification in the West, helped to establish the Chicago Wŏn Buddhist temple. (Pak 2005, p. 137) The headquarters assigned the first Wŏn Buddhist clergy, who entered the US to establish temples in populated or accessible locations. These were primarily clerics with limited English proficiency who had made a strong spiritual commitment to creating the financial foundations for future generations.

Pak Chang Sik (1911–2011) was one of the first ordained Wŏn Buddhist devotees to be assigned abroad. Pak’s memoir describes his early years in America during the 1970s. His encounter with unfamiliar Western customs forced him to learn new forms of communication and to reflect on the hurdles of acculturating a religion in another country. He writes: “When modifying the teachings, the core message should remain unchanged. However, purveyors of the teaching need to attain a deep understanding of the region, its traditional culture, and subtle and peculiar usages of language. . . . To do so, the order must actively engage in society and reach out to other religions through the United Religions movement.” He later adds: “Developing the arts as a means of edification is just as urgent as modifying the teachings. Humans are rational as well as emotional beings. Therefore, the emotional side should not be ignored.” (Pak 2005, pp. 158–59)

At this initial stage, Wŏn Buddhism in America can be characterized as an ethnic Korean religious movement. For the first 15 years, Wŏn Buddhist temples focused their energy and resources on attracting Korean immigrants who were struggling to adjust to a new environment. Wŏn Buddhist temples provided immigrants with religious ideas and practices. More importantly, they helped them preserve a sense of cultural identity.

The next stage starts in the mid-1980s. Wŏn Buddhist services in English were held first in Miami and later in Philadelphia, San Diego, Manhattan, and San Francisco. (Kim 2000, p. 42) English services and programs were created for second-generation Koreans born in the US. (Adams, p. 21) As the need for English-led services grew, many Wŏn Buddhist clergies pursued higher education to enhance their English and knowledge of Western discourse and culture. In 2000, the Won Institute of Graduate Studies was founded, preparing students for Wŏn Buddhist service in the English-speaking world. With the opening of the Won Institute, Won Buddhism has moved beyond the ethnic Korean community.


Fast-forward 30 years, and the face of Wŏn Buddhism in America has changed dramatically. Wŏn Buddhism’s steady growth in the West is attributable to its shift from a strictly ethnically related context to a focus on its universal nature. (Kim 2000, p. 42) The reformations Sot’aesan espoused when establishing Wŏn Buddhism—practicality, inclusiveness, equality, and social engagement—are still relevant in the contemporary Western context.

However, we must examine Wŏn Buddhism in the landscape of American Buddhism and the history of Asian Buddhism in the West. In mainstream Western Buddhism, there has been a long history of erasure of Asian cultures and Asian and Asian American people. Over the decades in America, Asian and Asian American Buddhist practices have been regarded as superstitious or inauthentic forms of Buddhism, (Hsu, 2021) undermining these traditions’ legitimacy and extensive history.

Wŏn Buddhism’s short history in America already shows significant progress in terms of increasing leadership for laity, translations of major Wŏn Buddhist texts, the prominent role of women, and erecting temples and retreat centers in populated and accessible locations. A religion that started as an imported tradition is slowly acclimating to its new environment. Wŏn Buddhist clergy, who have dedicated their lives to sharing the teachings to a Western audience, are learning new ways to adapt and innovate the practice and teachings to suit their audience. In a process of trial and error, Wŏn Buddhist teachers are learning that repackaging, re-contextualizing, and even recreating the tradition is necessary if it is to suit the domestic market. Yet, how can Wŏn Buddhism move forward in creative and innovative ways while honoring the Korean origins? This conversation becomes especially crucial considering the long history of Asian Buddhist erasure in American Buddhism.

These are just a few of the predicaments American Wŏn Buddhists face and will need to ponder as it continues to grow deeper roots in the US. In the end, what we all learn, whether we are from East or West, is that we have shared vulnerabilities and shared yearnings. If we feel truly called to impart a teaching to help humanity, we need to work together. If the goal of this religion is to deliver beings in an expedient way, it is through that lens that things have to be ultimately critically looked at to determine which Korean aspects should be preserved and which ones should not.


Adams, Daniel J. 2009. “Wŏn Buddhism in Korea: A New Religious Movement Comes of Age.” Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society, Korea Branch 84: 1–35.

Hsu, Funie. 2021. “We’ve Been Here All Along.” Lions Roar, March 2017:

Kim, Bokin. 2000. Concerns and Issues in Won Buddhism. Philadelphia: Won Publications.

Pak, Chang Sik. 2005. P’yŏnghwaŭi Yŏmwŏn. Iksan, Korea: Wŏnbulgyo Ch’ulp’ansa.

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