Korean Buddhism and Culture as Seen by Non-Koreans Filming Engaged Buddhism in South Korea __ Andrew Wyatt Arnold

Engaged Buddhism
in South Korea

Andrew Wyatt Arnold | Documentary Filmmaker through the Fulbright Program



▲ A pavilion at Bongjeong-sa Temple keeping the art of ancient wooden structures alive


 “If you’re studying Buddhism, why did you come to Korea?” This was the question I would often hear when I first arrived in Seoul, from both foreigners and Koreans alike. “Why not study Japanese Buddhism instead?”

At first, this question was even difficult for me to answer. Most people don’t immediately picture Korea when they think about Buddhism. Instead they think of other Buddhist traditions like Japanese Zen or Tibetan Buddhism. But indeed there were a number of reasons that attracted me to Korean Seon (Zen) for my research and documentary work.

During my undergraduate studies at the University of Georgia, my professor, Dr. Yi Hyangsoon, told me the fascinating story of a Korean nun who almost single-handedly stalled the construction of the KTX train in the name of protecting an endangered salamander. Dr. Yi has helped pave the studies of women in Korean Buddhism, and as she continued to tell me about Ven. Jiyul, the nun whose environmental activism had drawn so much attention from the media, I began to realize how just deeply embedded Buddhism was in Korean culture and society.

Last March, I received a grant through the Fulbright Program to come to Korea and fulfill my research project that looked at environmental and social activism in the Buddhist community through documentary. I wanted to meet Ven. Jiyul, and other monastics like her, who have become a part of a new wave of “engaged Buddhism” in South Korea. This shift is not unique to Korea alone; in fact, the term “engaged Buddhism” was coined by Thich Nhat Hanh, an iconic Vietnamese monk and peace activist.

Along with Martin Luther King Jr., Thich Nhat Hanh helped spiritual leaders from all religions and backgrounds move towards non-violent activism and demonstration during the 1960s, when both the US civil rights movement and the Vietnam War were underway.

When I arrived in Korea, I came equipped with my sketchpad and camera, the mediums I am most familiar with expressing myself through, and began to track down these monks and nuns in order to find out more about their activities. The Fulbright Program had given me a creative research grant, and so I filmed every chance I got as I traveled to do Templestays all over Korea, from Unmun-sa, to Seounsa, and from Hongbeop-sa to Silsang-sa, etc.

As I’ve been working on this documentary for the past ten months, it has been quite a learning process for me. Coming to Korea has been my first real interaction with Buddhism, and there is only so much I can understand while I’m busy behind the camera lens. There have been many times where I’ve had to learn how to put the camera down and appreciate the experience with my own eyes and ears.

What first struck me about the Buddhist temples in Korea was the interesting relationship between structure and environment. When I had traveled to Japan, I had noticed that the Japanese Buddhist aesthetics aim for symmetry and alignment, and often, all the pillars will be cut to the same dimensions to create a perfect shape. But Korean Buddhist aesthetics aim for something different; temple structures are often built using entire tree trunks in their original organic shape. And a majority of Korean temples have been built without using nails, so if it’s necessary to move a temple site, the structures can be disassembled more easily. As I learned these things, I began to realize an innate practice of Korean Buddhism, the ingrained care and respect it has for the environment.

Despite the centuries of repression Buddhism endured in Korea during the Joseon Dynasty, the Korean Seon tradition has been a particularly resilient and steady element of Korean identity. Seon finds its strength in being conservative in its teachings and practice, yet simultaneously progressive in ethics and social interaction. This progressive nature has provided Korea the foundation for engaged Buddhism.

Last month, I met with Ven. Dobeop who has become a major player in Korean engaged Buddhism. As he poured us tea, he introduced me to an interesting symbol he had conceived with the help of symbologist Ang Sang-su. He called it “Peace of Life.” The symbol is comprised of the recognizable elements of man, animal, bird, fish, plants, sun and moon, all connected at the center to create a harmonious image. Ven. Dobeop explained that subtracting any one element from this symbol would create an imbalance, just as in life; if you take away any one element, all the other elements would not be able to survive. This symbol does not simply describe interdependence, it also illustrates interconnectivity.

Although we often look at ourselves as individuals, each livelihood is dependent on the existence of all other livelihoods. Thus, Ven. Dobeop says that we must respect these relationships that are fundamental to our own  existence if we want to find happiness.

Korean Buddhism embodies these values in a distinct and explicit way. Despite whatever struggles monks and nuns face today, they continue to embody their Buddhist principles in a steadfast manner, pushing society to respect itself and nature. Its practice and structure are sincere and unpolished.

That’s why I’m studying Buddhism in Korea.


Andrew Wyatt Arnold received his B.A. degrees in International Affairs and in Japanese Language and Literature from the University of Georgia in 2011. For the past nine months he has been working on a documentary research project in South Korea through the Fulbright Program. Andrew plans to continue working as a new filmmaker who explores cross-cultural issues in both Asia and the West.

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