On/File: A Continuing Record of Movements, Groups, People, and Events Shaping Religion

Described as a charismatic leader and entrepreneur, Venerable Jigwang has founded the most powerful urban Buddhist temple in South Korea while borrowing management, preaching, and proselytizing techniques from Pentecostals. The Nungin Meditation Center (Nungin Sonwon) was founded in Seoul, Korea, in the mid-1980s. Although it started with limited resources, it has now turned into one of the most powerful Buddhist groups in Korea. Besides religious activities, it offers a wide range of services through its affiliates in food, banking, education, health, and real estate, not forgetting a marriage agency and funeral services. In contrast with mountain Buddhism and retreat centers, it propagates Buddhism for the daily life and attempts to reclaim urban spaces currently dominated by other religions. Born a Roman Catholic, the founder claims to have turned to Buddhism while married and working as a journalist after traumatic experiences during the Korean political turmoil of 1980. He opened a small temple in Seoul in 1984, became famous for his skills in Chinese astrology, and offered attractive preaching related to daily life and contemporary culture. He moreover invited famous monks to preach and managed to draw Christians along with Buddhists to temple events. Promoting a Buddhist version of the prosperity gospel supported rapid growth, promising that followers would be materially rewarded to the extent they are generous to the Buddhist cause. Today, some 300,000 people belong to what has become the largest Buddhist temple in urban Korea.

Jigwang learned how to preach by carefully studying the preaching methods of Pastor David Yonggi Cho, the founder of Yoido Full Gospel Church, the largest Pentecostal congregation in Korea. Jigwang has also copied Yoido’s model of home cells, where people meet regularly in small groups. Different types of prayers and rituals can be ordered online against set fees, with payment by credit card. A patriotic component is added, with emphasis on the prospects for reunification with North Korea and the need for the movement to receive funding (through tithing) to support poor and starving North Koreans when unity arrives. As part of a quest for legitimacy (he has never been formally ordained as a monk and has never received the status of master of meditation), Jigwang received a PhD from the Department of Religious Studies at the prestigious National University in Seoul. His preaching takes religious pluralism into account and makes frequent references to other religious traditions in contrast with most other Buddhist monks. While his preaching is critical of Christianity, Jigwang’s new ways make many other monks critical of him. But his discourse on success, health, and altruism proves attractive to his audience and contrasts with more other-worldly forms of Buddhism. Membership, however, seems to have reached a ceiling, with a number of participants not staying for more than a year, and there have been some financial scandals reported. (Source: Archives de Sciences Sociales des Religions, October-December)