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Why Are We Buddhists? Korean-American Perspectives

By Jin Y. Park


Scholars of American Buddhism generally categorize Buddhism in America into two groups: “Asian immigrant Buddhism” and “American convert Buddhism.” The former refers to the Buddhism that immigrants from Asian nations brought with them and continue to practice in the new land, whereas the latter indicates Buddhism practiced by westerners.

On a surface level, the difference between immigrant and convert Buddhism lies in the respective languages spoken by each group. On a deeper level, however, the list of factors that divide these two groups of Buddhists runs longer: there are differences in the way each group understands Buddhism as well as differences in their mode of practice. The relative volume of available scholarly research on these groups also reflects significant differences. Material on American convert Buddhism has steadily increased for the past 25 years or so, whereas the dearth of material on Asian immigrant Buddhism has yet to be paid serious attention.

In light of virtual lack of research on Korean immigrant Buddhism in the United States, Sharon A. Suh’s anthropological study based on her field research at a Korean Buddhist temple in Los Angeles is more than welcome. Korean Buddhism in America has come to be known mostly through the activities and publications centered around Zen Master Seung Sahn (1927-2004) and his organization. However, whether Seung Sahn’s Buddhism can be characterized as being representative of Korean Buddhism in the United States is highly questionable, and the situation becomes more problematic when we consider Korean immigrant Buddhism in the way that it is practiced among Korean Americans. Suh’s book is, in this sense, the first book-length research on Korean American ethnic Buddhism in America.

In Being Buddhist in a Christian World: Gender and Community in a Korean American Temple (2004), Suh explores the meaning of the practice of Buddhism by immigrants in a land whose religious traditions are still largely dominated by the influence of Christianity. Her book is based on her interviews with 25 female lay practitioners and 25 male practitioners – 23 lay practitioners and two monks – at a Korean temple in Los Angeles (for which the author uses the pseudonym Sa Chal Temple).

Gender and Community in Immigrant Korean Buddhism

Suh develops her discussion in the context of the two major themes of the book: gender and community. Her research shows a clear distinction in the ways male and female practitioners perceive the meaning and the function of Buddhism in their lives. It also reveals that the communal context in which these practitioners live as immigrants, largely separated from mainstream society, has a significant impact on their view of Buddhism.

Professor Sharon A. Suh – Photo: Seattleu.edu

Professor Sharon A. Suh – Photo: Seattleu.edu

The book is composed in eight chapters. In the introduction (chapter 1), the author states: “religion is a highly gendered phenomenon that results in distinctly male and female forms of worship and constructions of identity.” In three chapters – 4 and 5 on female members’ views of Buddhism and 6 on that of male members – Suh provides a detailed articulation of the gendered practice of Buddhism by directly offering the words of her interviewees, while consciously restraining herself from making authorial interpretations of the material. This shows the author’s methodological preference of capturing the “lived experience” over the totalizing view of cultural abstraction. Instead of constructing a “metanarrative” of Korean ethnic Buddhism in America, the author presents individual case studies.

The author finds that for women, the Buddhist concept of karma and its emphasis on self-knowledge become a strong source of power in helping them overcome the hardships they face in life. By employing the Buddhist concept of karmic retribution, the author claims, these women come to the understanding that the tragedies in their lives are of their own making, and hence they are responsible for their own suffering. For these women, practicing Buddhism is a process of “psychological healing” – of finding and knowing their own selves – which brings them self-renewal.

The Buddhism of psychological healing for female practitioners at Sa Chal Temple stands in stark contrast with the Buddhism understood by male practitioners. Dismissing women’s Buddhism as an emotional and fortune-seeking religion, male practitioners at Sa Chal show more interest in intellectual and political approaches to Buddhism, such as the temple’s efforts toward the reunification of North and South Koreas and the temple’s college program. By participating in the functions of a Korean Buddhist temple, not only do male members establish “a strong connection with the place of origin,” but they construct “a distinctly male space for [themselves] in response to the vicissitudes of immigration to the new country.” To male practitioners at Sa Chal, the Buddhist temple provides a transnational space in which they regain the same social status and recognition they received in their home land. The extension of this is the notion that “to be Buddhist is to be Korean.”

Double-Minority Status

In chapter 7, Suh discusses the double-minority status of ethnic Korean Buddhism in the United States. This means that (1) Buddhism is a minority religion in the United States in which the majority of the indigenous populace is Christian; and (2) these Buddhists also represent a minority among the Korean Americans, especially as compared to the number of Christians, who reached a record of more than 70 percent of Korean Americans, compared to the 5 percent representation by Korean Buddhists in the United States.

One point of tension between Korean American Buddhists and Korean American Christians can be seen in the religious orientation of the second-generation Korean Americans. In many cases, the children of the members of Sa Chal stop attending the temple and begin attending Korean Christian churches. One reason for their conversion is the minority position of Buddhism among Korean Americans. Most Korean American associates of second-generation immigrants are Christians, and in order to keep up with their friendships, members of the second generation attend churches.

To conclude her discussion, Suh asks why Buddhists at Sa Chal remain Buddhists when they are aware of the double minority positions in which they will be placed. Her interviewees’ responses show that Buddhists are proud of their self-reliance and independence. They believe that Buddhism is more advanced form of religiosity than Christianity, since the Buddhist tradition does not need to rely upon a God.

The book does an excellent job of portraying why Korean Americans practice Buddhism, how Buddhist teachings help them regain their personal and public identities, and what function a Buddhist temple plays in the milieu of the immigrants’ lives. While the author was successful in providing “lived experiences” of the members of Sa Chal, because of her methodological approach of restraining from offering critical interpretations on her material, some important questions are left unasked.

A Buddhist temple in South Korea – Photo: Wikispaces

A Buddhist temple in South Korea – Photo: Wikispaces

One is the issue of the role of the temple as a community center. As the author well describes, this function surely benefits the life of Korean immigrants for the time being. However, the author could have asked whether or not in the long run it might impose limitations on the wider spread of influence of Korean American Buddhist temples among the general populace.

The failure on the part of Korean immigrant temples to keep the second-generation Korean Americans within the fold is another issue that requires a critical evaluation in order to consider the future of Korean immigrant Buddhism and its role for young generation Korean Americans, and this matter is not adequately addressed in this book.

Additionally, some of the author’s interpretations of the Buddhist doctrine require further elaboration. For example, at the beginning of the book, the author argues that, unlike the overemphasis on selflessness as the core of Buddhism seen in western introductory courses on the religion, “discourse on selflessness was historically aimed at the most highly trained of monastic Buddhist scholars interested in questions of ontology and was not a concern of the ordinary lay Buddhist.” This is a strong claim which requires some scholarly buttressing, which the book does not provide.

The author’s portrayal of gender equality in a Buddhist temple seems idealistic. The author claims that unlike Korean Christian churches where Confucian gender hierarchy is still maintained, in Buddhist temples, women are recognized “first and foremost as pious laywomen rather than dutiful wives and mothers at the temple.” However, the readily observable reality of many Korean American Buddhist temples is that women practitioners are still responsible for preparing food and handling household chores for the temple whereas male practitioners are concerned with managerial-type work and usually occupy the leadership positions.

Though these technical lapses can be distracting, the book as a whole does a superb job in describing what it means to be a Buddhist at a Korean ethnic temple in the United States as an immigrant. It surely captures the “lived experience” of these practitioners by expanding on the meaning of Buddhism in their lives and the influence of gender and community on their views of Buddhism. The book will be helpful in courses on Buddhism, gender studies, and Asian American studies, among others.

This review was originally published by H-Buddhism in September 2004.