CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne
German scholars elaborated the idea of an “Axial Age,” from about 8th to 3rd century BC, when in both East and West the first great religions appeared. But perhaps today we are in a second “Axial Age,” with several new world religions emerging since the 19th century.
From 1860, when Donghak was established, Korea had an impressive flourishing of new religions, including Ch’ŏndogyo, Won Buddhism, Taejonggyo, and the different branches of Jeungsanism. In the first half of the 20th century Korean new religions had more members than traditional religions, and their membership today is still in the millions.
At the origins of the flourishing of Korean new religions is Choi Je-Wu (1824-1864), who in 1860 claimed to have received a revelation from Sangje (the Supreme God). He founded a new religion called Donghak (“Eastern Learning,” as opposed to “Western Learning,” i.e. Christianity). Choi was executed in 1864, but Donghak continued and played a major role in the peasant rebellion of 1894, finally defeated by the government with the help of Japanese troops. A bloody repression followed, which together with the war left 300,000 dead. Donghak was later reorganized as Ch’ŏndogyo.
Kang Jeungsan (1871-1909) was born in Sinsong on September 19, 1871 (lunar calendar) and started gathering disciples as a schoolteacher. He predicted that the 1894 Donghak rebellion would fail, and persuaded his followers not to participate in it. Between 1897 and 1900, Kang wandered around Korea for three years. His disciples believe that, after his return back home, he opened the Great Dao of Heaven and Earth through a forty-nine days retreat, and proceeded to his “Reordering Works of Heaven and Earth.”
On December 25, 1907, Kang and his followers were arrested by the Japanese police on charges that they were raising an army of rebels. They were later cleared of all charges and released from prison around February 4, 1908. Kang passed away on June 24, 1909. His disciples split into many rival branches.
In 1911, Goh Pan-Lye (Subu, literally “Head Lady,”1880-1935, although in Kang’s circle there was more than one Subu), a female disciple of Kang Jeungsan, gathered around her a number of his followers. Goh’s male cousin, Cha Gyeong-Seok (1880-1936), eventually became the dominant force in her religious order. In 1919, Cha separated from Goh and established Bocheonism. This was just one of several schisms that eventually fragmented Jeungsanism in more than 120 organizations.
Jo Jeongsan (1895-1958) was not a direct disciple of Kang Jeungsan but claimed to have received a revelation from him. He was recognized by Kang’s family as the future leader Kang had announced in his prophecies. Jo incorporated a new religious order in 1925 in Jeongup, with the name Mugeukdo but dissolved it in 1941 under Japanese pressure. After the war, Jo reconstituted the movement and in 1950 gave it the name Tageukdo.
Jo designated Park Wudang (1917-1995, or 1918-1996 according to the solar calendar), as his successor, and passed away on March 6, 1958. Jo’s followers remained united for ten years after his death (1958-1968). In 1968, controversies erupted. Some followed one of Jo’s sons, who kept the name Tageukdo and the headquarters near Busan, while a number of followers sided with Park, who reorganized the movement in Seoul under the name of Daesoon Jinrihoe in 1969.
The movement experienced a rapid expansion and became the largest new religion of Korea. In 1986, a large-scale temple complex was inaugurated in Yeoju, where headquarters were moved in 1993. In 1991, Daejin University was founded in Pocheon.
Park Wudang passed away on December 4, 1995, and conflicts developed between a minority advocating, and a majority rejecting, his deification. The larger group, headquartered in Yeoju, organized in 2013 a council where it agreed to a joint administration of Daejin University and Jesaeng Hospital with two smaller factions, headquartered respectively in Seoul and Pocheon. Two further factions remained outside of this agreement.
These problems did not stop the expansion of the movement. In 1997, a giant Maitreya Buddha statue was enshrined in the Geumgangsan Temple, which had been completed in 1996, where Park Wudang was also buried. At the same time, the educational and charitable activities of Daesoon Jinrihoe greatly benefited the public image of the movement.
At the core of Daesoon Jinrihoe’s doctrine, a sacred history teaches that, while the world was in a miserable situation, the Catholic Jesuit priest, Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), tried to construct an earthly paradise through his missionary work in China. He failed, due to the deplorable customs of the Confucianism of his time. Ricci, however, opened the border between Heaven and Earth, and allowed the Gods of the East to travel to the West. This favored the flourishing of the advanced Western cultures, which were however corrupted by materialism. The general crisis of the Former World (Seoncheon) also extended to the spirit world. All the divine spirits, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas petitioned the Supreme God, Sangje, to intervene. Accepting their requests, he started a “Great Itineration” visiting the three realms of the universe, aimed at solving all grievances and ushering in the advent of a glorious Later World (Hucheon).
Sangje then descended to the West and finally came to Korea and entered the golden statue of Maitreya Buddha in the Geumsansa Temple. There, Sangje revealed his teachings to Choi Je-Wu, the founder of Donghak. Cho, however, was unable to overcome the system of Confucianism, and was executed in 1864. Sangje then incarnated in 1871 as Kang Jeungsan and opened the road to the Later World through his nine-years Reordering of the Universe from 1901 to 1909. However, in order to fully realize this world, the mission of Jo Jeongsan and Park Wudang and the establishment of an organization were also necessary.
The Jeon-gyeong is the canonical scripture of Daesoon Jinrihoe and records Kang Jeungsan’s life and teachings as well as the tenets, creeds, and objectives of Daesoon Jinrihoe, which can be summarized in four principles. The first is “Virtuous Concordance of Yin and Yang” (Eumyang hapdeok). The second is “the harmonious union between divine beings and human beings” (Sinin johwa), which are not conceived as entirely separated between each other. The third is “the resolution of grievances for mutual beneficence” (Haewon sangsaeng). Sangje prepared this resolution, but humans shall now cooperate by cultivating and propagating the truth, and avoiding the creation of new grievances. The fourth principle is “the perfected unification with Dao” (Dotong jin’gyeong), or the realization of earthly immortality in an earthly paradise.
The “cultivation” of Daesoon Jinrihoe involves the practice of moral virtues, revering Sangje, and performing certain rituals, including incantations and devotional offerings. Besides cultivation, the three major activities of Daesoon Jinrihoe include relief and charity, social welfare, and education and training. The movement insists that 70% of the money it raises is devoted to these social activities.
In addition to the temples, Daesoon Jinrihoe maintains 200 Fellowship Buildings, and more than 2,000 smaller Centers for the Propagation of Virtue, all over South Korea. The Korean census in 1995 found 62,000 Koreans who indicated Daesoon Jinrihoe as their religious affiliation, and they were even less in the census of 2005. As Don Baker clarified, the census question is structured in a way inducing members of new religions not to declare their affiliation. The movement’s own figure of six million may include also sympathizers, but seems closer to reality than the census.
Daesoon Jinrihoe now faces the same challenge of other Eastern Asian new religions. Both its size and doctrine call for international expansion, but the fact that only a few texts are translated into Western languages, and only a handful of leaders speak English, remains a significant obstacle.