ISS Visiting Scholar: Gyungwon Lee
“Scriptures Going International: Translating the Founding Documents of a Korean Religious Movement”
On Thursday, 14 August, 2008, ISS Visiting Scholar Gyungwon Lee gave an informal presentation over lunch. Professor Lee earned his Ph.D. in Korean philosophy and thought, primarily Confucian, from Sungungwan University. He also holds several master’s degrees in various religious traditions. He now teaches at the School of Religion and Culture at Dae Jin University, which is located in the middle of the Korean peninsula. Its central location positions it at the heart of the possible reunification of North and South Koreas. Professor Lee comes to ISS with the theme of unity in mind, as his area of research is the Korean religion Daesoon Jinrihweh (or Daesoon), which names unification as its main tenet.
As Professor Lee explained, Korean religious systems are an amalgamation of eastern and western thought. Daesoon is a quite recent movement and yet is also positioned as heir of ancient Korean thought, in contrast to Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity—all outside influences on Korean culture. The founder of Daesoon, called Kang Jeung-san or Sangje, lived at the turn of the century (1871-1909), a time when Korea faced many outside dangers, including colonial attacks from Japan and Europe. Addressing the anxiety over Korean identity, Daesoon arose as an indigenous movement that is a vehicle for sustaining Korean ideals and ways of life.
Daesoon insists on a unique doctrine derived from ancient Korean and western philosophies and from Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity. The main value propounded is unification of the world and its civilizations. The founder arranged a heaven and spirit society, where the unification is to happen. This principle of a spiritual society is meant to engender altruism, social change, and the dissolution of resentment. According to Professor Lee, it is this doctrine that is unique to the Daesoon religion. The orthodox denomination of the tradition began upon the Sangje’s death, and his successor established a new branch in 1925. In 1969, a subsequent leader started another offshoot, naming it Daesoon.
Because there are no documents representing ancient Korean philosophy, from which Daesoon Jinrihweh is said to derive, the tradition’s scriptures center on the founder, including an account of his life, teaching, and miracles. The most important text of Daesoon Jinrihweh is called Jeongyeong, or “Supreme Scripture.” While at ISS, Professor Lee translated the Daesoon Jinrihweh Yoram (“Introduction to Daesoon Jinrihweh”). It is a summary of the founder’s teachings and the religion’s central tenets. It cannot be changed or corrected in translation, which is one of the challenges of his project. Finally, the Daesooon Jichim is a guidebook for religious practice, written by the founder. It is considered authentic revelation and classic.
Next, Professor Lee plans to translate the Jeongyeong, which will be a difficult project because so much of the language is rendered in classical Chinese characters (the Korean language has some Chinese characters, though Korean has its own pronunciation of them). Older generations can understand the classical language and Chinese characters, but younger generations—those that Daesoon Jinrihweh most wants to impact—either cannot read them or find them irrelevant. This difference is an indication of rapid and recent developments in the Korean language—and society. It is fairly typical for new religious movements to hold classical language patterns authoritative, but the teachings need to be written in vernaculars as well.
The process of translation involves struggling with mutual understanding and expression, acceding to context. Translation always represents loss—and some gains. Professor Lee explained that the Daesoon community wants its scriptures translated as a means of evangelizing foreigners outside Korea. There are no international branches of Daesoon Jinrihweh yet, but contact with outsiders prompts the translation. As a gesture of friendship across borders, Professor Lee presented ISS with a traditional Korean fan on which one of the four main tenets/principles/goals of Daesoon Jinrihweh is hand-painted in Chinese characters: “The dissolution of resentment in mutual beneficence of all life.”
Professor Lee’s work informs the ongoing discussions of the Institute for Signifying Scriptures. Textual dynamics, as are evident in the evolution and development of Daesoon Jinrihweh, highlight broader contours of the phenomenon of scriptures. Communitarian needs embalm founding figures in written texts. Their words and activities are invested with authority and set up as a center from which boundaries are delineated. These texts also generate parallel texts to widen the center. In the process of writing, language reinforces the authority invested in the scriptural complex by accessing the old through linguistic meters popularly referred to as “classical.” Within these dynamics, translation becomes an active process that bridges conceptual divides and transposes wider scriptural complexes.