From 5 to 10 July 2016 CESNUR, the Center for Studies on New Religions, held its annual conference in South Korea, on Religious Movements in a Globalized World: Korea, Asia, and Beyond, with a first part devoted to the presentation of 68 papers and the second to a field trip around Korea, visiting the headquarters of three new religious movements. Some 150 scholars from all continents participated in a vibrant and exciting academic event.
Several sessions were devoted to Western new religious movements, including Christian Science and its newspaper Christian Science Monitor (Susan Searle), the Jehovah’s Witnesses and how they are portrayed in fiction (George Chryssides), fundamentalist Protestantism and its problem with family schools (Liselotte Frisk and Sanja Nilsson), the Hungarian Pentecostal megachurch Hit Gyulakazet, part of the so called Faith Movement (Holly Folk), and Mormonism, with a session on Mormons, Freemasonry, and esotericism featuring Clyde Forsberg, Michael Homer, and the undersigned. Another session was devoted to MISA, the Romanian Movement for Spiritual Integration into the Absolute, and took place while the movement’s founder, Gregorian Bivolaru, was in jail in France, awaiting the verdict of the Court of Appeal in Paris about his extradition to Romania. Gabriel Andreescu explained the background of the legal case and the impact of prejudices against “cults” and esotericism on it, while I offered a general introduction to MISA and Gordon Melton explored the Western and Eastern sources of its controversial teachings about sexuality.
A session was devoted to Western Esotericism, with Milda Ališauskienė, who also introduced during the conference the International Society for the Study of the New Religions, of which she is the current president, reporting on the latest developments of the movement centred around the Pyramid built in Lithuania by the seer Povilas Zekas, Karolina Maria Hess and Małgorzata Dulska presenting the contemporary Polish esoteric artist Zbigniew Makowski, Paul Farrelly discussing the influence of Shirley MacLaine’s old New Age treatises on the new spirituality of Taiwan, and Matylda Ciołkosz unveiling the spiritual elements in the globalised phenomenon of Postural Yoga. The session also included a paper by Ksenia Kolkunova on channeling in Russia. Not only did she report on the reappearance of traditional Russian Orthodox themes in channeling, but she also mentioned that dragons, frequently channeled in Russia, claimed that they were working on behalf of Brexit and (quite correctly) predicted that Brexit would win. In another session, Angela Coco presented the esoteric elements in the Australian new religious movement Universal Medicine, and Boaz Huss reported on alternative kibbutzim established in Israel by new religious and esoteric movements, two of which are inspired by G.I. Gurdjieff (1866?-1949).
While this year only one paper was devoted to a movement based on Islam, with Meerim Aitkulova discussing the social construction of the Tablighi Jamat in Kyrgyzstan as part of a larger Islamic fundamentalism threat, not surprisingly most papers dealt with East Asian new religious movements, which were the subject of all plenary sessions. A leading Mongolian scholar, Samdan Tsedendamba, reported how new religious movements spread to Mongolia after the end of the Communist regime. They are mostly imported, from Mormonism to various branches of the Unification movement, but there also local creations based on reinterpretations of traditional Shamanism. Some Japanese religions were also explored, including Tenrikyo and its presence in Britain (Yueh-Po Huang) and MTJM or Modern Traditional Japanese Medicine (Tetsuro Tanojiri), some of whose groups are in fact better understood as new religious movements. Several papers were devoted to the globalisation of Vietnamese new religious movements.
Thien-Huong Ninh offered a general overview covering Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, and the Mother Goddess spirit possession cults, while Jason Greenberger focused specifically on Cao Dai, with a response by the current president of Cao Dai missionary activities overseas, Reverend Tran Canh, and with a movie on the inter-religious dialogue of Cao Dai’s Holy See with Japan-based Oomoto and Taiwan-based Dào Yuàn. An interesting perspective was offered by Grzegorz Fraszczak, who claimed that, while most scholarly research has focused on “official” activities of Cao Dai, there is also an esoteric current whose beliefs and practices are in principle secret but that is not less important for understanding the global movement.
The flourishing of new religious movements in Taiwan was discussed with a general introduction by Yuan-Lin Tsai, in specific sections devoted to I-Kuan-Dào (including papers about its problems with the Buddhist establishment in Thailand by Yu-Sheng Lin and its international expansion by Yun-Ying Chung) and T’ienti Teachings (with an important introduction to its cosmology by Chien-Hui Liou, followed by historical papers by Wenxing Liu and Ming-Chang Shen), and in an enlightening presentation of Weixin Shengjiao by Fiona Hsin-Fang Chang, who also compared it to the Korean religion Daesoon Jinrihoe. Weixin Shengjiao gives central importance to the Book of Changes (I Ching) but, while mainstream Taiwanese culture focuses only on its philosophical content and dismiss its parts on divination, the religion’s founder Hun Yuan insists that divination, as well as Feng Shui, are essential parts of Chinese religious tradition and actively propagates them. Fiona Chang sees Weixin Shengjiao, founded by Hun in 1983 and with some 300,000 followers worldwide, as an institutionalization of Chinese folk religion.
Gordon Melton reconstructed the controversial history of Eastern Lightning, evidencing how the Christian-based Chinese group was responsible of several crimes, including the beating and kidnapping of rival religious leaders and of common citizens contrasting its proselytism. Melton then discussed how the movement now tries to somewhat mainstream itself after its headquarters have been moved to Seoul. Jens Reinke offered a paper on the role of the Taiwanese monk Cihang (1893-1954) in the disputes between traditionalist and reformist Buddhism.
Several papers were devoted to Falun Gong. Jim Lewis discussed its pushy tactics in dealing with scholars, and international scholarship on the movement was criticized by Huang Chao, of China’s Wuhan University, while Benjamin Penny offered a detailed analysis of the Shen Yun song and dance troupes. He raised the question why Falun Gong spends so much money in organising the international tours of Shen Yun, whose connections with the movement are not advertised and sometimes not disclosed at all. Penny concluded that Shen Jun’s performances are better understood as public rituals that, within the framework of Falun Gong’s esoteric theology, powerfully contribute to save the world, whether the audience understands their ultimate meaning or not.
Eastern Lightning and Falun Gong are both regarded as “evil cults” by Chinese authorities. Ed Irons discussed how, while some religious movements in China committed very real crimes, the regime constantly expanded its list of “cults”, importing categories from the Western anti-cult movements and discriminating a large number of groups that in fact are not guilty of any wrongdoing. Anti-cultism was also discussed by Carole Cusack, who presented the 1995 TV series Signs and Wonders as a vehicle for its dissemination into popular culture.
Signs and Wonders featured a sinister oriental messiah loosely based on Reverend Sun Myung Moon (1920-2012), and one plenary session was devoted to the Unification movement. Eileen Barker assessed its role within the context of Eastern and Western new religious movements, Dan Feffermann presented the different schisms following the death of Reverend Moon in 2012, and I focused on one of such schisms, the Family Peace Association (FPA) led by Moon’s oldest surviving son, Preston Moon. The president of FPA offered a response, and the discussion that followed showed how controversial the question of succession and authority remains within the Unification movement. With its Christian origins, the Unification movement is somewhat different from the groups commonly classified as Korean new religions, a large constellation including some 180 major movements. Statistics are in themselves a contentious area. National censuses indicate that they represent only 1.1% of the Korean populations (while the percentage may have been as high as 30% during the golden age of Korean new religions at the beginning of the 20th century). Korean scholars estimate that the new religions may be actually losing members, particularly to Christianity, but that the census indication of 1.1% is grossly underestimated, as evidenced by the sheer number of temples and centres these religions maintain all over the country. Most probably, many census respondents who in fact belong to new religions are hidden among the 46.9% who declared themselves “unaffiliated”, in fact meaning that they are not affiliated with any mainline Buddhist or Christian organization.
The largest groups have each several million members, yet, unlike their Japanese and some of their Chinese counterparts, they are not globalised, have few followers abroad, and remain largely understudied by Western scholars. As opposed to this, there are dozens of excellent scholars of new religions in Korea, and a large bibliography in the Korean language. The received wisdom is that the new religions flourished as a response to subsequent imperialistic threats to the Korean national identity between the second half of the 19th and the first decades of the 20th century, first from Western powers and then from Japan. This common opinion was, however, challenged in the paper by Don Baker, one of the few Korean-speaking Western scholar of Korean religious movements. He claimed that in the birth of Korean new religions not less important than external social and political causes were internal developments within Korean philosophy and religious thought, traditionally based on the duality of the permanent li (substance) and the dynamic ki (form). While traditional Korean philosophy affirmed the priority of li and regarded ki as potentially dangerous, a movement reversing this order and gradually affirming the priority of ki over li gradually developed, and produced inter alia the new religions.
Several important papers, including those by Chaeyoung Kim and Kwangsoo Park, tried to explain and classify these new religions. Five major groups include respectively Chondogyo, founded by Choe Jewu (1824-1864), the oldest new religion and the heir of the Donghak revolutionary movement, which had a crucial role in the struggle for Korean independence and in affirming the superiority of “Eastern learning” over Christianity; Daejonggyo, whose crucial initial figure was Na Cheol (1863-1916), another nationalistic religion based on the veneration of the mythical ancestor of the Korean people, Dangun; the esoteric tradition started by Ilbu Kim (1826-1898), who proposed a new interpretation of the Korean version of the Book of Changes (I Ching); the movements originating from Ilsun Kang (1871-1909), who proclaimed himself the incarnation of the highest deity, the Lord of the Ninth Heaven, of which the largest is currently Daesoon Jinrihoe; and Won Buddhism, started by Bak Jungbin (Sotaesan, 1891-1943). Won Buddhism is different enough from traditional Buddhism that it accepts to be included among the new religions, although it prefers Don Baker’s label of a “Buddhist new religion”. These different groups, each of them including a number of different movements, as schisms were frequent and repeated, have certain common features, such as a messianic element, millenarian aspects, and the idea of the spiritual centrality of Korea.
The five groups, however, do not capture the entire richness of the Korean scene. Other scholars have proposed a classification in twelve groups. Apart from the groups commonly identified as new religions, there are also new manifestations of shamanism. The paper by Dongkyu Kim focused on superstars such as Kim Kum-Hwa, a female shaman whose ritual performances have been declared a Korean national treasure and presented in major Western cities, not without a certain ambiguity about where exactly lie the boundaries between artistic performance and religious ritual. Kim Kum-Hwa has also initiated a dozen Westerners, and Professor Kim investigated the activities of a Swiss shaman who struggled to deal with the mountain gods of the Swiss Alps. Apparently, they did not always appreciate the Korean rituals.
Additionally, there are now in Korea indigenous human potential movements, deriving from ideas borrowed from the Church of Scientology and Scientology’s splinter group Avatar, which has a significant presence in the country. Some of them are now trying to affirm themselves internationally, including Maum meditation and the “Buddhist psychotherapy” group Dongsasup. It is not coincidental that these groups were discussed by a scholar from the Catholic University of Korea, Hairan Woo, since the Korean Catholic Bishops have issued repeated warnings against human potential groups and what they regard as a growing and dangerous New Age movement in the country. Korea has been able to receive various Western influences and to transform them creatively, as evidenced by Shin Ahn’s paper on how A Course in Miracles and the methods of Alcoholic Anonymous have influenced present-day Korean spirituality.
The phenomenal success of Christianity in Korea, where census data identify 18.3% of the population as Protestant and 10.9% as Roman Catholic, has also generated a flourishing of new religious movements based on Christianity. The most famous, but by no means the only, group born in a Protestant milieu is Reverend Moon’s Unification movement, while several fringe Catholic groups have been generated by Marian apparitions not recognised by the Catholic hierarchy, some of them engaged in a bitter conflict with the official Church. The West has exported into Korea its own movements, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Together with Armenia and Turkmenistan, Korea is one of the few countries not offering a civil alternative to mandatory military service and where male Jehovah’s Witness routinely go to jail as conscientious objectors, as discussed in the paper by Kwangsuk Yoo. Professor Yoo also presented a video with interviews to Witnesses who, having served a jail term for their refusal of military service, now have a criminal record preventing them from being hired by both the public sector and the major Korean corporations.
The largest new religions of Korea have developed accredited institutions of higher learning, including Daejin University, operated by Daesoon Jinrihoe, where the CESNUR conference was held, and Wongkang University, Won Buddhism’s university, which we also visited and of which Seung-Hun Jo described at the conference the efforts in the field of both education and interfaith dialogue. Although Chondogyo (whose Central Temple in Seoul I was able to visit after the conference) today is not as large as it was in its heydays, it still stimulates interesting academic research, as evidenced by the paper of Tae-Yeon Kim on how telegraph, telephone, the steam locomotive, and radio stimulated its thought and were even incorporated in its sacred cosmology. Suksan Yoon, in another session, revisited the central importance of Donghak and its successor Chondogyo in the process leading to Korean independence.
Several papers at the conference illustrated how groups such as Daesoon Jinrihoe have developed an intense theological conversation both within their fold and with other religions, particularly on cosmological issues, as detailed by the papers and comments by David Kim and Gyung-Won Lee, who also deserve credit as the main Korean organisers of the conference. The session on Daesoon Jinrihoe included fascinating papers by several Korean scholars, including by Namsik Ko on the early history of the religion, and by Soyeon Joo on the key textbook Daesoon Jichim, while Ingyu Park compared the different incantations (mantra) of Korean new religions with the help of audio clippings. The session and the other papers on Daesoon Jinrihoe, including the presentations by Taesoo Kim on the movement’s ethics, by Wonhyuk Choi on how the group sees the history of religions, and by Daekeun Kim on possible relationships between its worldview and modern neurology, confirmed the growth of a Korean academic scholarship about the local new religions, as well as the linguistic problems still existing in translating certain Korean expressions and concepts into English. Of particular interests where transnational comparative perspectives, with Gyungwon Lee and Jason Greenberger both comparing Daesoon Jinrihoe with Cao Dai and I-Kuan-Dào, and Ed Irons comparing the Philippines’ Iglesia ni Cristo with the Chinese-born Local Churches, both now globalized Christian movements.
While groups such as Daesoon Jinrihoe and Won Buddhism are now largely accepted as a legitimate part of the Korean religious landscape, and praised for their charitable activities, Korean religious movements also include some bad apples. Peter Daley, an investigative journalist who has cooperated with the Australian anti-cult movement, presented the story of some Korean groups, with which he has crossed swords, including the Jesus Morning Star community and Chunjon Hoe, whose leaders went to jail for serious crimes and later resurfaced in the West (in Australia and Great Britain) by simply changing the names of their movements.
In a short account, I cannot do justice to all the papers presented, some of them focusing on methodology and globalisation issues (including Patrick Laude’s and the general introduction to the conference by senior Korean Catholic scholar Anselm Kyongsuk Min, who reiterated some of Pope Francis’ concerns about globalisation) and I apologise to those not mentioned here.
I should, however, mention the three-day field trip, which led us to discover the impressive facilities of the largest branch of the Unification Church, led by Reverend Moon’s widow Hak Ja Han, in Chung Pyung, of Daesoon Jinrihoe in Yeoju, and of Won Buddhism in Iksan. During the visit to Chung Pyung, which was somewhat prepared by papers in the conference by Eung-Tae Jo on Unificationist sacred scriptures and Minjung Noh on the International Peace Federation, we visited the museum devoted to Reverend Moon and were even able to confirm that the rumour according to which wrappings of candy bars eaten by the religion’s founder were preserved as relics of sort and exhibited in the museum is indeed true. And we had a meal and a musical introduction to Unificationist hymnology in the famous Church-operated Heaven G. Burger (G. standing not for “God” but for “Guk” in “Cheon Il Guk”, the forthcoming new civilisation announced by Reverend Moon). At Daesoon Jinrihoe’s headquarters in Yeoju we were admitted to visit the holiest ground of the movement. This requires traditional Korean dresses, which of course provided CESNUR scholars with unique photo opportunities. And at the headquarters of Won Buddhism some of us were admitted to meet with the current (fifth) Patriarch of the movement.
Finally, I would like to mention our exploration of Korean food, something Koreans take very seriously and which often has symbolic and even religious meanings. We visited a museum devoted to bibimbap, the most traditional Korean dish, located within a nationally famous restaurant where we discovered its different versions. And I should not forget the dedicated student volunteers of Daejin University, who went the extra mile in meeting all our needs and even entertained us with shows of both traditional Korean dances and K-pop, the world famous modern combination of music and dance, including the unavoidable Gangnam Style performance. It was very moving to see, at the end of the week we spent together, both the organizing staff and the foreign scholars very much regretting that this quality time came to an end. But we keep Korea in our hearts, many of us will come again, and – as we said in the traditional CESNUR banquet, where I presented a paper on anti-cultism in Israel and the anti-cult criticism of the largest contemporary Kabbalah movement, Bnei Baruch –, we will meet “next year in Jerusalem”, for CESNUR 2017 on July 3-7.
This report was originally published on the website of the CESNUR. It is republished with permission.