Buddhist-Christian feminist to speak out at retreat

by Angela Jeffs

The Amago Sanso Retreat from Jan. 27 to 29 on the Izu Peninsula may see sparks fly! It will be the 49th annual celebratory gathering of Christian women from all over Japan and other parts of Asia, the same age — synchronistically — as its controversial keynote speaker, Hyun Kyung Chung.

Why controversial? Because fundamentalist Christians will think Hyun Kyung — who claims to be a pagan, shamanistic, eco-feminist Buddhist-Christian — is weird. But they are not the Christians likely to be attracted to the conference. Chung and the organizers expect similarly creative free thinkers to sign up — women who are open to exploring new ideas and having fun.

Hyun Kyung is professor of ecumenical theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and also a lay theologian of the Presbyterian Church of Korea. She first came to international attention in 1991, when she made a now famous speech — a feminist/Asian/Third World interpretation of the Holy Spirit — at the World Council of Churches in Canberra, Australia.

Hence the theme of the forthcoming Women’s Conference in Izu: “Come Holy Spirit . . .” Keynote speech apart, the event will include plenary sessions, a variety of workshops (Zen meditation, mandalas, how to support abused women), walking a labyrinth, soaking in hot springs and hiking, as well as singing, praying and quiet time.

I speak to Hyun Kyung in New York, where she explains that this will be her second visit to Japan. “I was in Hiroshima for its Memorial Day in 2000, addressing Catholic sisters about peace in Asia.”

This time she will be in Japan nearly three weeks, arriving tomorrow and leaving as soon as the retreat is over. In-between she will be all over the place — Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka — visiting colleges, meeting feminist and church groups, talking with Korean-Japanese.

Asked if she feels Korean or Korean-American, she replies: “I feel as if I am from the Earth. But culturally I am Korean. I grew up in an atmosphere of hatred towards Japan and Japanese, so there will be much to challenge me on my visit: the issues of ‘comfort women,’ colonial legacy, Yasukuni Shrine, the current fanaticism among Japanese women for Korean men. I would say I’m both excited and anxious.”

Peace is possible, she believes. The Bible talks about loving your enemy, so this is a good opportunity to practice what she preaches. “I won’t feel comfortable, but this trip will provide a good chance to meet people beyond conflict.”

At the weekend conference, she looks forward to discussing the meaning of the Holy Spirit for women today. “For me, it’s the life force or energy that makes things alive to flourish. The Bible says this clearly — that the spirit of God is the breath and source of life — but interpretation has become dogmatic.”

Hyun Kyung is concerned with passing on such basic teachings in a new mode. “You know the saying, ‘Don’t try to put new wine into old bottles!’ I’m a postcolonial feminist trying to explain Christian content with a new method of expressing Christianity. I’m not apologetic. It’s my identity.”

She lacks diplomacy, she says, laughing. “I don’t want to be bold, just clear and direct, to the point. All boundaries — which are to do with human perception — need to be extended. We’re insulated and restricted by names and form. Look at the phrase ‘Holy Spirit.’ . . . What does it mean to you? We need to get beyond known (generally accepted) perceptions and definitions.”

With Christian parents but growing up in a predominantly Buddhist culture, Hyun Kyung thinks it perfectly natural to describe herself as a Buddhist-Christian. “I’m as comfortable in Zen ‘dos’ and Korean art museums as I am in churches, convents and seminaries. I see no problem with this.”

She thinks having two religions is like being bilingual. “Just as Japanese are Shinto and Buddhist, I believe it perfectly possible to have a simultaneous translation in progress between Christianity and Buddhism.”

She admits to being a syncretist — combining Christian theology, Asian imagery and other streams of thought — pointing out that we all are syncretists; it’s just that most people don’t realize or accept it. Once asked by a German TV program what she was in terms of religion, her answer was both simple and profound: “I said that metaphorically my womb was shamanistic, my heart Buddhist, my head Christian, my aura eco-spiritualist.”

With 5,000 years of shamanism in Korea, 2,000 of Buddhism and just a century of Protestantism, Hyun Kyung embraces her heritage and brings them all to her Christian faith. “Korea’s ancestor worship is shamanistic. Since paganism covers all religious rituals predating Christianity, I would say I am pagan as well as a shaman and a Buddhist-Christian.”

Once she shaved her head, and in becoming a wandering monk in Tibet experienced what she can only describe as rebirth. Among the many books published in her name are four volumes under the title “Goddess-Spell According to Hyun Kyung: A Letter From Goddess to the Earth Keeping Women Warriors of the World.” “I wrote them like a madwoman . . .”

She defines herself as “salimist,” from the Korean word “salim,” which means “making things alive.” A salimist is an eco-feminist, a revolutionary, a “god’dess,” an alchemist, a magician who touches everything with energy, holy spirit. “I pursue theology for the flourishing of life — life in all its forms, all its fullness.”

Hyun Kyung regards the main purpose of her trip as being to seek the heart of Japanese people. “I’ve been so brainwashed into thinking them selfish, materialistic, imperialist-minded, not good neighbors. . . . It’s been embodied since childhood.”

The deep irony of Japan’s great aesthetic, and great violence, has always been a puzzle. “I want to meet the other side of Japan, to hear so many different voices that I leave transformed. I want to change, leave that old indoctrinated image behind. I want to leave feeling liberated.”