Buddhism under Siege 1982-1996:
A Chronology of Fifteen Years of Incidents Against Buddhism in South Korea
The following is an incomplete listing of defamations, acts of vandalism and arson attacks against Buddhist temples and facilities in South Korea which have occurred since 1982 and which have earned the attention of the news media and the dismay of the Buddhist population in the country.
Buddhism under Siege 1982-1996 : Fifteen Years of Incidents Against Buddhism in South Korea including at least twenty temples or Buddhist shrines seriously damaged or totally destroyed by arson since 1986.
Dong A Ilbo daily newspaper (Seoul), May 2, 1990, p. 1
Pulgyo Shinmun weekly newspaper (Seoul), May 28, 1996, p. 4
Pôp Po Shinmun weekly newspaper (Seoul), May 15, 1996
Hyôndae Pulgyo weekly newspaper (Seoul), May 22, 1996
Kitokkyo Shinmun weekly newspaper (Seoul), July, 1996 advertisement
(Other major dailies and such weeklies as the Haedong Pulgyo and regional papers have not been consulted at this time.)
We have also corroborated and compared reports of incidents with records maintained in the headquarters of the Chogye Order in Seoul and the official written police report on the incidents at Hwagyesa, Pônwôn Chôngsa and Samsông Am (Hermitage).
A cable TV report (BTN) of the Pônwôn Chôngsa and Samsông Am incidents was also consulted.
(The modified McCune-Reischauer system of transliteration as appears in the Korea Journal of the Korean National Commission for Unesco is utilized for Korean names)
1982 May.A man by the name of Myông Chinhong organizes religious gatherings in Seoul to publicly denounce Buddhism. He erects a banner "Jesus Heaven, Buddhism Hell!" He claims to have once been a Buddhist monk who has "repented," though no records can be found to support the claim of his ordination. Using this claim, he puts up posters claiming: "A Dharma Hall is a hall of demons."
1983 March 1. During a Christian revival meeting held on the occasion of Korean Independence Day observations, a woman falsely claims to have been the daughter of a famous Zen master and revered national independence hero, Paek Yongsông. She makes statements denouncing Buddhism.
1984 February. Red crucifixes are painted on priceless temple wall paintings at Muryangsa Temple and Ilsônsa on Samgaksan Mountain outside Seoul. Dirt is smeared on the paintings and on a statue of the Buddha located outside one of the temples. A large ancient carving of the Buddha chiselled into stone is damaged with axe-like instruments.
May. Ignoring the pleas of Buddhist leaders, the Roman Catholic Church invites Pope John Paul II to visit South Korea to celebrate the bicentennial of the church in Korea. This event happens to fall during the annual national Buddha's Birthday holiday celebrations. Because it is the first ever visit of a Roman pontiff to South Korea, and because the Vatican announces that 93 Koreans and 10 French missionary martyrs will be beatified as saints during the visit, the visit becomes a major national event. It is the first time that a canonization ceremony is held outside of Rome and the largest number ever canonized at one time. This ceremony gives Korea the fourth largest number of Catholic saints in the world. When the Pope tours the country, in the days immediately preceding and during Buddha's Birthday, there are immense traffic jams which diminish attendance at Buddhist events in several key cities. Buddhist leaders protest the timing of the event as "disrespectful" and "in bad taste" because the Korean and Roman Catholic Churches schedule the mass beatification ceremonies to take place during Buddha's Birthday celebrations, a day sacred to Buddhists and a national holiday.
November. In an official Korean textbook, Buddhism is called " a fading religion."
1985 April. Four major daily newspapers accept and publish advertisements which assert that the content of the Buddhist scriptures are "selfish" in intent.
May. A Protestant minister named Kim Jingyu publicly claims to have once been an ordained monk in the Chogye Order. Though there is no record of his ever having been a Buddhist monk, he hangs up banners which read "Why I Became a Protestant Minister," and organizes meetings to denounce the Buddhist faith.
September. An individual by the name of Kim Sônghwa organizes a series of mass gatherings to denounce Buddhism in the cities of Pusan, Taegu, Kwangju, and Taejon. (This individual and his wife Kim Mija regularly advertise their mission to convert the "25 million Buddhists of Korea" in the Christian Newspaper Kitokkyo Shinmun, July 1996).
October. An unidentified man disrupts a Dharma talk at the Nûngin Zen Center by driving nails into the tires of believers' automobiles parked outside. The perpetrator also pours corrosive chemicals into various car engines. An accomplice meanwhile uses portable amplification equipment to sing Gospel songs up at the Buddhist gathering, located on the third and fourth floors.
1986 December 6. Several days before the annual Buddha's Enlightenment celebrations, the Taejôkkwangjôn, the main Dharma Hall, a large building of ancient origin at Kûmsansa Temple is completely burned to the ground in an event which makes top news throughout the nation. The Hall is listed as National Treasure Number 476, and is the central hall in a temple which is a regional headquarters and major monastic training center for the Chogye Order. A man active in a local church is apprehended at the scene, but is released because the police claim that, since the fire consumed everything, there is "no evidence." Although he admitted to the crime, he is released without being charged. Discounting widespread opinion and belief, local police claim that "religious heretics" are not suspected. However, in an unprecedented move, the Korean government pays to have the building quickly rebuilt. It is widely believed that this unusual action was undertaken to preempt the possibility of interreligious strife.
1987 December. A fundamentalist Christian by the name of Yang Shinha from the Tamna Church on Chejudo Island is apprehended after setting fire to two temples - Kwanûmjôngsa and Taegaksa - completely burning them to the ground.
1988 September 25. In the early morning hours, a fire is set at Pômôsa Temple in Pusan, a major monastic training center of the Chogye Order and regional headquarters. The fire completely destroys the Myôngbujôn (Chijang Bodhisattva Hall- a funeral hall), taking with it 16 priceless altar paintings of the Buddha. The paintings were considered treasures and the hall a registered Cultural Asset. The cause of the fire is unknown but deemed "highly suspicious" by Pusan city authorities.
December 8. Several days before the annual Buddha's Enlightenment celebrations, the Chônggagwôn, the main Dharma Hall on the Kyôngju campus of Dongguk University is completely burned to the ground. Arson is suspected but no one is apprehended.
1989 January. A stone lantern and pagoda is destroyed and statements attacking Buddhism are painted on the temple's gates Okch'ôn Am Hermitage located in the Sôdaemun (Hongûndong), Seoul.
March. Several individuals enter Kupok Am Hermitageon Samgaksan Mountain on the outskirts of Seoul and destroy a stone lantern and stone pagoda, seriously damage a Ch'ilsônggak (Big Dipper Hall), and paint red crucifixes on a large gilded Buddha statue.
April. Five to six individuals destroy a Buddha statue and paint red crucifixes on a large outdoor Ma-ae Buddha figure carved into the rock on Samgaksan Mountain on the outskirts of Seoul. In all, some 10 temples are severely damaged or desecrated in the days immediately before and after the national Buddha's Birthday holidays.
April. The Hyangmok Committee of the Seoul City Government gathers military reserve forces under its control for a (taesônghoe) church service. Some of the members are compelled to attend even though they are not Christian.
July 29. The huge main Dharma Hall and a temple dormitory at Potasa Temple, Oksudong, Sôngdonggu, Seoul are completely burned to the ground. A 23-year old follower of the Taesônjillihoe (Great Conversion Truth Church) is arrested at the scene. Damage is estimated at $1.1 million according to the Chogye Order report.
October 27. The huge Taeunjôn, the main Dharma Hall, and a temple dormitory at Pohyônsa Temple in Taegu are completely burned to the ground. Though the modern buildings were erected in 1985, the police determine that each building must have suffered an "electrical short circuit," and no further investigations are conducted.
1990 May 2. Two men break into the Buddhist Broadcasting System (BBS, the first Buddhist radio station in Korea) in Seoul, two days before it is due to begin broadcasting a combination of popular music and Buddhist teaching and cultural programs. They tie up two guards, and proceed to destroy all of the radio station's recording and transmission equipment. They smash expensive electronic gear and tear up several state-of-the-art recording booths. At one point, they use a statue of the Buddha as a battering ram to break through several plate-glass recording booth windows and use the Buddha's head to damage computer equipment, sound boards, reel-to-reel decks, and screens. Damage is estimated in the millions of dollars, and delays the opening of the station by several months. No arrests are ever made.
November. A man by the name of Myông Chinhong falsely claims to have been a Buddhist monk some 20 years before, and organizes mass spiritual revivals under the heading, "Why I Became a Minister." In the course of his "revivals," this purported "ex-monk-turned minister" makes inflammatory and abusive statements about the Buddhism. There is no record of his ever having been ordained a monk, or living in any temple. (See May 1982)
Students and parishioners at a Christian theological school in Pusan misinterpret an ancient, traditional Buddhist death ceremony as being "slanderous" of Jesus Christ. The name of the ceremony, for many centuries called "Yesu-jae," sounds similar to the Korean pronunciation and Korean spelling of "Jesus" (Yesu), though the Chinese characters are unrelated to Christian vocabulary or sacraments. (It is a traditional merit-making ceremony in anticipation of death). The students and parishioners mail a letter of "warning" to Buddhist leaders at several area temples, schools, and organizations. The letters slander Buddhist teachings, and are plastered on the walls of Buddhist temples and organizations throughout the city of Pusan.
1991 April. Yun Ch'anggyu and Shim Yôngch'o, teachers at the Taesông High School in Kôch'ang, direct their students (many of them Buddhist) to recite Biblical passages and sing Christian hymns in class. In the same month, the Buddha statue of the Buddhist student club at Ch'ôngju University is vandalized.
Sept. 23. Pudo Am Hermitage at Tonghwasa Temple is destroyed by fire.
Oct. 15. Haeundae Buddhist Mission Bldg in Pusan is destroyed by fire.
October. The huge main Dharma Hall (Taeunjôn) at Pongwônsa Temple in the Shinch'on district of Seoul is totally destroyed by fire. The hall was registered as Seoul city Cultural Asset Number 68. This temple was the headquarters of the T'aego Order, the second-largest Buddhist sect in Korea at the time of the incident. A guard at the temple testified to seeing two men flee into the mountains behind the temple as the building burst into flames. Local police conclude that there is no evidence, that there was probably an "electrical short circuit," and the fire was quickly declared "an accident." Three large Buddha statues and altar portraits considered treasures are destroyed.
November. Military reserves stationed in Kyôngnam Province (many of them Buddhist) are forced to attend a Protestant revival meeting, presumably by a superior officer.
The Kwanûmjôn, the Kwanûm Bodhisattva Hall and a large Dharma Teaching Hall (Sôlpôpchôn) at Sôngjusa in Changwôn city are completely burned to the ground.
P'yo Ch'ajong, a member of the Pedel Church in Pusan, publicly declares that the world-famous Sôkkuram Buddha statue is a subject of "idol-worship" and the product of "a heretical religion". He attempts to damage the priceless statue, but is stopped. The Sokkuram Buddha was declared a "World Cultural Treasure" by Unesco in 1995, and has twice been renovated and preserved with Unesco financial and technical involvement.
1992 April. The Main Dharma Hall on the Kyôngju campus of Dongguk University is completely burned to the ground a second time. The event makes national news. No arrests are made.
December. An unknown assailant cuts the two arms off a statue of Maitreya Buddha at Puljosa Temple in Wonju. Various temple artifacts are burned and over 100 threatening phone calls are made to the temple office.
1993 February. Colonel (battalion commander) Cho Pyôngshik of the 17th Tank Battalion, claiming a lack of warehouse space, has the Dharma Hall on his base dismantled. The gilded statue of the Buddha is taken from the Hall, burned, and openly discarded behind the mountain. Taejon. The event makes national news.
April. Within two months of Cho's actions, the Dharma Hall and stone lantern are damaged at Kimhae Air Base.
The Yôngdo Church in Pusan organizes to prevent a temple from being built beside them, claiming that they "cannot accept the construction of a place of idol worship" near them.
May. At Hyundai High School, all students are required to attend church services, and their attendance at these services is reflected in their school records.
Lee Yun-sun, a teacher at the Paegun Primary School in Uidong, Seoul, teaches the Christian Bible in his class and declares that any Buddhist children in the class are "followers of the Satan," and excludes them from certain class activities.
Professor Im In-hûi rejects the admission application of a Buddhist student. He claims he was only following the orders of the board chairman of Taejôn Junior College Lee Pyông-ik.
Lotus lanterns prepared for Buddha's Birthday celebrations are destroyed at Pongguksa Temple and Chonjôngsa Temple in the Chôngnûng district of Seoul.
July. An assailant severely damages the Buddha statue and other Buddhist artifacts in a Buddhist meeting room at Sônggyungwan University in Seoul. Valuable religious objects are not stolen but thrown into a garbage basket.
1994 May. Before and after Buddha's Birthday, various acts of vandalism and desecration are inflicted upon the properties (especially the richly painted gates) of Daesôngsa Temple and Kwanûmsa Temple in the Saegômjông and Shinch'on districts of Seoul. Approximately 30 acts of vandalism against Buddhist temples in Seoul are recorded during this period.
The Rev. Yu Sûng-hwan of Yuchongni Church declares that Buddhism is "idol worship." He forcibly attempts to "convert" the abbot of Sudosa Temple to Christianity, even mentioning Korean President Kim Young-sam, a Presbyterian.
According to Dr. Pyôn Sôn-hwan, "the thoughtless speech and behavior of this minister who understood that the government was protecting Christianity simply because Kim Young Sam is an elder and the alleged remark by the President that he would make 'hymn songs reverberate throughout the Blue House' at the time of the presidential election damaged confidence in the government that was supposedly based on the principle of religion and state (politics).
June. A fundamentalist Christian enters Mirûk Chôngsa Temple in Kwangju and damages the Buddha statue and Dharma Hall.
1995 September. A fundamentalist Christian by the name of Pak Oh-Sun is apprehended after entering and causing serious damage to five temples on Chejudo. He burns Buddha statues at the temples, in addition to other damage.
A Protestant minister is apprehended after painting a large red cross onto the altar painting behind the Buddha at Mu-ûi sa Temple in Kangjin, Chollanamdo. He is released without charges. Later an unknown person carves a crucifix below the same Buddha image.
1995-96. Students belonging to a fundamentalist Christian group begin an aggressive campaign of proselytizing on the campus of Dongguk University (Seoul), Korea's main Buddhist university. The students proselytize directly in front of a large statue of the Buddha - the campus symbol and central meeting-point - making anti-Buddhist statements and handing out Christian literature to ordained sangha members.
1996. President Kim Young Sam attends services at a Protestant church located on the nation's central military base at Kyeryôngsan Mountain. In an event which sends shock waves throughout Buddhist and Catholic circles in Korea, many troops based there are compelled to attend the service in order to create the appearance of a larger number of Protestant troops. (Many of the troops are not Protestant Christians, and many are not even Christian.) Moreover, people attending services at a nearby temple and Catholic church are placed under virtual "house arrest," their religious sanctuaries being encircled with troops while the President makes what is deemed a "preferential" visit to the Protestant chapel. Those inside the Buddhist temple and Catholic church were made to remain inside for several hours while President Kim completed his visit. Buddhist and Catholic leaders lodge strong protests. Some Buddhist leaders perceive the President's actions as a license, a virtual "green light" for abusive actions to be taken against them, citing the centuries-old tradition in Korea of leaders signalling, through thinly-veiled actions, the unstated "allowances" that the government will make for actions which coincide with "non-legislateable" policies.
1996. The long-awaited tentative plans related to the new Education Law are announced by the government's Education Reform Committee. The plans are based on the educational system of the Renewal Church of Christ, and include plans to establish (with government money) a special graduate school for the education and training of Christian ministers. Buddhists lodge strong protests, which are initially ignored. Eventually the Committee agrees to restate their objectives at a later date.
TheWônmi ward office of Puch'on city near Seoul sends official letters to several Buddhist kindergartens, primary schools, and other Buddhist organizations and temples. Language in the letters beseeches them to find "the peace of God and the comfort of Jesus Christ.
The swastika - for centuries a symbol of good fortune throughout Asia, and also a Buddhist symbol of the same - is replaced on many flagpoles in Seoul with crucifixes.
A large red crucifix is painted in a concrete shelter used by Buddhist monks for meditation, located one hundred meters above Hwagyesa Temple on Samgaksan Mountain on the outskirts of Seoul.
A school teacher by the name of "Lee" at Songwu Primary School in P'och'ôn, Kyônggi Province, urges students to attend church services as part of their lessons. She forces them to sing certain Christian hymns in class to confirm their attendance, and does other "missionary work" in her capacity as schoolteacher.
April 6. Fires are set to the Abbot's quarters, the lawn (dried from the recent spell) and nine other places (out-buildings) at Pulguksa Temple in Kyôngju, the most famous Buddhist temple in Korea, seen on travel posters everywhere.
According to the report filed with the headquarters of the Chogye Order, a Mr. Kim Yông-shik was caught on the spot and reported to the police. The police transferred him to a Taegu city mental hospital. Although he admitted to the crime as "a follower of another religion," he was released without being charged because there was no material evidence.
April 19. Two temples on Samgaksan Mountain on the outskirts of Seoul are severely damaged by fires which are set within an hour of each other. The two-year-old large bell platform at Samsông Am Hermitage is burned to its foundation. The assailant(s) also cause damage to the Main Dharma Hall, burning holes in the locked doors while trying to gain access to the sanctuary containing the temple's main Buddha statue. Damage to the ruined bell platform is estimated at $250,000 according to police.
April 20. Two recently-constructed Dharma Halls at Pônwôn Chôngsa Temple are burnt to the ground, and another is severely damaged by flames, just after midnight. The Nahanjôn enshrined 519 wood statues of arhats and bodhisattvas, each of which was painstakingly hand-carved and hand-painted over a period of seven years. Damage at Pônwôn Chôngsa Temple is estimated at $5.6 million according to the local police. The unfinished buildings were not insured.
April 21. The next day, fire is set to the Taejôkkwangjôn, the main Dharma Hall at Hwagyesa Temple, also located on Samgaksan Mountain, within a short walk of Samsông Am Hermitage and Pônwôn Chôngsa Temple. Damage is minimal. Two police guarding the temple fail to catch the assailant, who is interrupted in his task when a monk spots him while walking to the outhouse. (1st attack on Hwagyesa, home of the Seoul International Zen Center and living quarters of more than twenty North American and European monks and disciples of most successful Korean Buddhist international teacher, Master Seung Sahn (Haengwôn Sûngsan sônsa).
May 12. Arsonists attack the main Buddha statue in the Taejôkkwangjôn at Hwagyesa Temple in Seoul for the second time. A lit candle is placed in a box of papers and wisk brooms under the main altar. The fire is quickly extinguished by a passing monk. At the time, more than 30 police and army are patrolling the temple in plainclothes in broad daylight, but fail to apprehend the assailant. (2rd attack on Hwagyesa)
May 14. Two days later, again with over 30 police and military patrolling the temple, a massive fire is set beneath the main Buddha statue in the Taejôkkwangjôn at Hwagyesa Temple in Seoul for the third time. Superb altar paintings, ornate woodcarvings and traditional wall paintings are lost. Damage estimated at about $775,000 according to the police.
(3rd attack, 1 building seriously damaged).
May. Rev. Pae Sông-ho, a Protestant minister, enters the main Buddha Hall at Ch'ôngryongsa Temple in Chinhae on the southern coast of the peninsula. He swings a microphone over his head like a bolo, smashing the main Buddha statue and damaging beyond repair the altar paintings hanging behind the main altar. Witnesses who apprehend him hear him shouting abusive statements about "idol worship" and that "now [he] will go to heaven for destroying these craven images." Though taken into custody by police, the minister is released within hours with no charges filed by the local authorities. Damage to the Dharma Hall is extensive.
May 22. Two days before Buddha's Birthday, the main Dharma Hall at Mangyông Am Hermitage in Sôngnam, a city bordering Seoul, is burned to the ground. Christian fundamentalists active in the area are suspected but not investigated.
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