Friday,December 2,2022
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A Dastardly Deed

The indelible stain on our Buddha statue is a grim reminder of religious intolerance that surfaces when some cowardly zealots want to impose their twisted religious beliefs on the rest of us --even though we may be quite happy with what we already have.
My initial sighting of a scarlet cross spray painted on the statue was all the more shocking to me because I was on campus the Sunday evening the dastardly deed was done, and had walked past the Buddha, barely  noticing his benign stare.  Now it is nigh on impossible for me not to look at the statue and, more specifically, see the sooty stain.
Something we had cherished, but took for granted, has been damaged irrevocably, and no amount of stain removal can change that.
It is disheartening as well to see our intimate campus become a campus under siege, with security guards on patrol (one permanently guarding the quadrangle) and a surveillance camera focused on Sungjong-jon.
Perhaps the zealots responsible for the sacrilege routinely pass by the Buddha and take a perverse satisfaction in what they did.  Let us hope that the enormity of the sacrilege has sunk in and they, like everyone else, are sickened by its depravity.
Who but despicable little cowards would, in the dead of night, creep onto this campus and defile our Buddha, the very raison detre of Dongguk University.
I believe that action was a feeding of the monster of hate that resides in the tormented psyche of too many sanctimonious fundamentalists, whose intolerant self-righteousness discredits their own religions and  holds them personally up to ridicule.
This monster must be fed or else it bedevils the people it possesses relentlessly until they satiate its cravings.  The burning of our Buddha's birthday white elephant float was one such feeding, and the acts of arson perpetrated against Buddhist temples around Korea are a testament to its monstrous appetite.             
The tranquility that Buddhist culture is famous for flavors Dongguk's distinct ambience.  I like everything about this ambience: the sheen on monks?shaved heads and their rustic grey robes; the morning chanting that greets me when I arrive for class and the resonating campus bell -- and, of course, the omnipresent Buddha.
The warm welcome awaiting any visitor to a Buddhist community has always impressed me and  made me feel like I belonged.  Perhaps my spiritual tourism is an affirmation of the sacred deeply rooted in my Roman Catholic soul.  But I believe the agnostics and atheists among us have a warm spot in their hearts for a Buddhist community as well.  How couldn't they!
Implicit in a Catholic education is respect for the sacred and for church property, one in the same.  Thus, church burnings in the American South,  desecration of Jewish cemeteries or similar profane acts are mortally sinful and damnable.  Recall that in Shakespeare's "Henry V" the young English king executes his own loyal soldiers for plundering a French church after the English victory at Agincourt (1415) in the Hundred Years?War with France.
Korea's Christian fundamentalism is the legacy of those late 19th-century American missionaries who arrived on the Korean peninsula full of a religious zeal inspired by American Manifest Destiny and the Christian mission of spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Those Protestant missionaries gave short shrift to any "indigenous" religion, no matter how deeply rooted.  After all, souls are the prize in the zero-sum game of conversion to Christianity. Moreover, they were from a long line of Catholic haters who were contemptuous of Catholic ritual and idols?and both feared and despised the Pope.
When confronted with Korean Buddhism and its ritual and "idols," those Protestant missionaries were simply  waging the same old religious war, only this time against Asia"s brand of Catholicism; that is, Buddhism. Ecumenicism was out of the question.
One plausible explanation, divine intervention aside, for the appeal and phenomenal success of Christianity in Korea, is that along with introducing American education and medicine those missionaries were active in the independence movement against Japan.  Another, I believe, is that Korean Confucians, contemptuous of Buddhism as well, were struck by the spiritual element of salvation in the Gospel, absent in Confucianism, and converted. In fact, the Protestant Ethic, the driving force behind both the triumph of Manifest Destiny and the success of the American Way, is America's brand of Confucianism.
A strict, fundamentalist interpretation of the Gospel by Koreans, via the Christian missionaries, would be in keeping with a Korean ethic formed from a strict interpretation of Confucius.  (Koreans do take credit for neo-Confucianism, a strict interpretation of the philosophy.)  Koreans were therefore ripe for conversion to a Protestant ethic not unlike their own ethic (minus, of course, the kingdom of heaven) when those  missionaries landed.
The aversion that Christian fundamentalists have to the dictates of a centralized authority (too popish for them) has encouraged the growth of marginal congregations beholding to no one and that interpret the Gospel as they see fit.  That, in turn, has spawned zealotry and messianism and leads to sects that can splinter into cults attracting desperate, unstable minds.
The fire-and-brimstone intolerance that those cults are notorious for possesses their members until a cathartic action by them becomes necessary to satiate the monster of hate.  The scarlet cross spray painted on our Buddha statue was one such catharsis.

The writer is a professor in the Dept. of English Lang. & Lit. at DU.

Sherbo  serendipity@dongguk.edu

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