Published Frank M. Tedesco in 1996
The Practice of Abortion in Korea
We know very little about the practice of abortion in early Korean culture. Like traditional, sedentary agricultural economies throughout the world, we may assume large families were highly valued as a labor force to share the toil of the fields and paddies and that consequently fertility was welcome and encouraged in ancient Korea.
Unlike the on-going debate regarding the Japanese Edo period, we are not aware of any demographic research in Korea which suggests that abortion or infanticide was ever practiced widely by any sector of Korean society at any time (except the present) in order to limit family size. Anthropologists, however, have noted that female infanticide in Korea was not unknown in the recent past. Out of wedlock conceptions or unwanted pregnancies in marriage would be dispatched with Chinese herbal medications, physical assault and home remedies.
Indigenous folk beliefs of Korea and geomancy are closely associated with fertility. Visits to Buddhist temples to pray for children have long been resorted to by Korean women who have been barren. The birth of sons became especially important in later Joseon dynasty times when the society became decidedly more neo-Confucian and male-orientated. Females were subordinated in all areas of life except within the family. A wife had to bear a son to fulfil her most important purpose which was to provide a first-born male to continue the family line and honor her husband's ancestors. It was her duty. A wife's position was secure only if her first child was a boy.
The large patrilineal family was the domestic ideal in the Joseon dynasty, the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945) and the baby boom after the Korea War (1950-1953).
Abortion was strictly prohibited in Korea during the Japanese colonial period as it was in Japan. Prosecution of induced abortion was sporadic during this period with penalties inflicted on both women who had the surgery as well as on those who performed the induced abortions illegally. Japanese law, however, did allow the termination of pregnancy if it was due to rape or 'error."
Family Planning and Abortion in South Korea from the Sixties
Korea was the third nation in the world, after Pakistan (1953) and India (1958), to adopt an explicit population control policy in 1961. A national family planning program was established in 1962 as a component of the Park Chung Hee (Pak Chong-hui) government's first Five-Year Economic Development Plan and it has been an integral part of population control policy in successive plans until the present. The government was convinced that without a proper population control policy it could not achieve economic development (per capita income increase and the elimination of poverty) quickly.
The general population's aspiration for smaller families emerged along with the government's campaign for family planning.
The government's program and the compliance of the population very speedily reduced the average number of children per family in South Korea. It dropped from nearly six in 1960 to less than two in 1990. This equates to an average reduction of two persons per family per one generation. The crude birth rate was over 40 per 1000 in the population in 1960 but fell steadily in the last thirty years to 16.2 in 1990 and it has reached below replacement level in the last decade. Besides an increase in the average age of marriage due to the extension of longer education to women and more young female participation in the labor market, contraceptive devices were widely diffused and cheaply or freely available in this period as well as incentives for vasectomy and sterilization. Women were especially cooperative in the family planning movement and almost invariably resorted to abortion when contraception failed. Induced abortion rapidly increased with the active participation of physicians and their staff and the attenuation of judicial surveillance of the prohibitive Korean Penal Code.
Abortion Laws and Religious Responses
According to the Korean Penal Code, articles 269 and 270, induced abortion is illegal. The government did not immediately legislate more liberal laws regarding abortion when it began its family planning campaign, however. Two attempts were made to legalize induced abortion with the pressure of Protestant religious groups and politicians in 1966 and 1970 but they were defeated. A Maternal and Child Health Law, however, was passed in 1973 by the Extraordinary State Council (martial law authority) which set out conditions in which abortions could be performed. According to the law, a physician is only permitted to perform an abortion, with the consent of the woman and her spouse, in case of hereditary defect of the fetus and certain infectious diseases, when the pregnancy results from rape or incest and when from a medical point of view, the continuation of pregnancy will be detrimental to the health of the mother. It did not permit abortion on socioeconomic grounds although the government had intended to do so in the earliest preparation phase of the law. It did not do so because of religious protest from Catholics and a few politicians.
The Catholic Korean Bishops' Association protested against the Maternal and Child Health Law of 1973 without success but the Korean Association of Protestant Churches convened and officially accepted it in 1974. We do not know what Buddhists were thinking at then as we have not found any record of their position in the literature available. Informants say there was no organized voice, from either the sangha or lay groups. The Roman Catholic Church has continued to oppose any further liberalization of regulations pertaining to abortion throughout the past decades. The Protestant churches, which represent a spectrum of opinion on abortion, support legislation cautiously.
Abortion and Women's Organizations
Even though the problem of abortion is mainly a women's issue, the majority of Korean women's organizations have remained unresponsive to it according to Sung-bong Hong (Hong Song-bong), a researcher of abortion in Korea in the period. There is really no strong reason for Korean women to protest against the restrictive Penal Code or the stipulations of the Maternal and Child Health Law because lack of enforcement has rendered them meaningless. So permissive is the prevailing public attitude to abortion that more than half of those who responded a structured abortion survey in Seoul in 1991 did not know anything about laws regulating abortion and less than a quarter who had abortions knew it was illegal at the time of surgery. And many of those who experienced an abortion in the past did not 'feel sorry or regret.' 49 percent 'felt good to have it done' or 'did not have any special feeling about it,' 26 percent.
Unlike the strident and wrenching issue it is in the West, abortion in Korea is uneventful and performed as a matter of course without second thought (except among the very religious) despite its illegality. The operation can be gotten very easily anywhere in the country at most private gynecological clinics (small hospitals) or at larger institutions. A few personal questions are asked very perfunctorily. When pregnancy is positively determined the operation can be performed hygienically and efficiently at relatively low cost even on the first visit. Since the great majority of abortions do not fall within the legally prescribed categories that qualify the procedure for national health insurance coverage, physicians need not be burdened with much record keeping for taxation purposes- transactions are in cash, tax-free and sought after by thankful clients.. This business is very lucrative for ob-gyn specialists some of whom are quite reliant on abortion clients for a large proportion of their income.
Knowledgeable informants opine that private ob-gyn clinics depend on abortions for up to 30 to 80 percent of their income. One commented that his own clinic performed two abortions for every one live birth on average and that his practice was not exceptional. Would it behoove Korean ob-gyn physicians to advocate greater statutory legalization?
Acceptance of Abortion in South Korea
Korea has often been called an "abortion paradise" by many social commentators for reasons set out above. Very accurate statistics for induced abortion in the nation are unavailable because of its illegal status. A common estimate cited in the press and by commentators is that as many as a million to a million and a half abortions are performed annually in Korea. Some cite more two to three million abortions per year but they are accused of gross exaggeration with limited supporting evidence. We can, however, refer to professionally gathered sampling data compiled by government research institutes to get a clearer picture of abortion behavior in the Republic.
In spite of legal and social constraints, as well as extensive contraceptive services offered by the government program, the proportion of women who have had at least one induced abortion among married women aged 15-44 increased from 7 percent in 1963 to 53 percent in 1991. ..The total abortion rate of married women increased more than four times from 0.7 in 1963 to 2.9 in 1979, but it fell to 1.6 in 1988. However, the total abortion rate shows an increasing trend in recent years, particularly for women in their 20s.
The legal and social attitude toward abortion has been exceptionally generous and abortion has been a commonly used method to control fertility. Increasing premarital and teen pregnancies are likely to worsen the situation in the future. Though the abortion rate fell after its peak in 1979, the rate keeps on increasing for married women aged 20 to 24 and the rate for those aged 25 to 29 remains high. The recent situation that the younger age group (20-29) were practicing less contraception but using more induced abortions, needs serious attention in the near future.
More than half of Korean wives have experienced an abortion and about one third have had two or more according to surveys. The abortion rate among young married and single women is accelerating sharply in very recent years as well. Regular abortion seems to have become accepted cultural behavior in modern Korea.
Another characteristic of the abortion phenomenon of Korea must be noted-son preference. The frequency of sex selective abortion has become an important factor in the distorted sex ratio (number of males per 100 females) in the last decade, specifically since 1985. The current ratio is about 116 males to 100 females, far higher than the normal ratio of 106. Complex statistical procedures aside, "the annual number of female fetuses aborted appears to range between 10,000 to 18,000, amounting to nearly 80,000 during the five years 1986-90.
These "missing" girls represent about 5 percent of actual female births" The implications of this sexual imbalance for future generations are many, not the least of which is finding marriage partners. Already in Korea the marriage market for males aged 5-9 in 1990 will be extremely tight; nearly 50 percent of them will not be able to find spouses in the conventionally acceptable age range! On this matter effecting the lives of male children, the Korean government took quick action.
On 31 January 1990 Korea's Ministry of Health and social affairs suspended the medical licenses of eight physicians who had performed sex-determination tests on fetuses, an action that was widely reported in the media. In May the same year the ministry amended the regulations on medical care so that licenses could be revoked for performing sex-determination procedures....some observers, however, believe that the harsh regulations would only raise the clandestine service of sex determination.
In response to this widespread, underground service and the ever-deepening imbalance of the sexes in Korea, the Korean Medical Association (membership 40,000) launched a self-reform campaign in February 1995 to stamp out medical tests that identify the sex of embryos. The association declared that "it would take the lead in seeking out fellow medical practitioners who practice prenatal sex testing for sexual identification and report them to the authorities... doctors have to go all out to bring this practice to a halt." "In this issue, the biggest obstacle has been the doctors' perception that the punishment of doctors is unfair because the tests are done at the request of the pregnant women." Nevertheless the collusion of physicians and their son-seeking clients has led the number of selective female fetal abortions to climb to about 30,000 a year.
The KMA action received widespread news coverage on television, the radio and the press. It is still too early determine whether this public information will affect long ingrained patterns of sex discrimination in Korea, however. Interesting, though, is a rare expression of anti-abortion sentiment which was expressed in a major Korean newspaper editorial in response to the doctors' action:
Prenatal sex identification for the purpose of abortion has been widespread under Confucian family norms preferring sons to daughters. A 1987 law authorized fetal tests only for the detection of genetic problems, including deformities, and the monitoring of fetal growth. But the tests have been widely used to identify the gender of embryos....Pregnancy or birth is pure and sacrosanct. Life is more precious than any other thing. An individual's desire for convenience or pursuit of self-interest should not be left to control birth. As for doctors under any circumstances, killing a fetus for money can never be condoned.
The new goals of the national family planning program (including the Planned Parenthood Federation of Korea) are very much concerned with improving the quality of family life and leveling the numerical distortion of the sexes for future generations of Koreans. Korea has made remarkable progress in limiting population growth. It is now time to concentrate on "the quality and use effectiveness of contraception, maintenance of a balanced sex ratio and the reduction of induced abortions... the practice of selective abortions which is triggered by parental sex preference."
Contemporary Korean Buddhists and the Abortion Issue
About one quarter of the population of South Korea claim Buddhism as their religion in the Republic of Korea. They have been silent regarding the common practice of abortion in their country, at least until the last few years. The Buddhist populace in general, like most of of the Korean population, seems to have unresistingly embraced national family planning directives that arose in the sixties. The ethos of rapid economic development through smaller family size was required, many echo, in order to curtail the population boom after the Korean War and also to catch up with advanced nations like Japan as soon as possible. Trevor Ling's 1969 remark that in Mahayana Buddhist Korea "abortion is illegal, but widely practised and socially accepted' is supported by results of the Korean National Abortion Survey of 1971 which indicated that Buddhists were in fact slightly more likely to have abortions than other segments of the population.
A later abortion survey conducted by the Korean Institute of Criminology in 1990 also found that Buddhists had as high or higher an abortion rate as the rest of the population (in the Seoul sample survey) and that the highest number of repetitive abortions (3 or more) were among Buddhists.
Korea's high abortion rate and the unquestioning practice of abortion among Buddhist women has slowly begun to be recognized as an issue requiring attention by Buddhists themselves not more than ten years ago, but it is still relatively ignored. Many lay people with whom we have spoken haven't given abortion a thought. They just accept it as no more than an act of discretionary, personal hygiene or emergency surgical relief similar to an appendectomy or a tooth extraction. While there are a small but growing number of Buddhists who are quite concerned about the common practice of abortion among their peers, they are not very visible in the general Buddhist populace. There is no common or public practice of rites for aborted fetuses in Korea as is practiced in Japan. There are no red bibbed statues of Ksitigarbha (Japanese: Jizo; Korean: Chijang) to be found on streets and cemeteries in Korea like you can observe in Japan. Nor are there commercial newspaper ads for mizuko kuyo ("water baby offering rites") as found in the Japanese press. Japan has thousands of temples where aborted fetuses are memorialized; Korea probably has no more than ten or twelve sanctuaries where ceremonies for aborted babies are performed. These rites are usually performed sporadically throughout the year when the rare demand arises. There are no traditionally fixed dates on the annual ritual cycle for the ceremonies as there are for other religious events. Nor are there temples or cemeteries like Hase-dera or Purple Cloud Temple described by William LaFleur in Liquid Life where services for aborted fetuses are a major or sole focus of religious activity. For the great majority of Korean Buddhist believers, if the spirits of aborted fetuses are remembered at all, it is at the time of Uranpun-jae-il (Ullambana- Festival of the Hungry Ghosts'- 15th day of the 7th lunar month) when some Buddhists dedicate memorial tablets to the spirits of the aborted infants "water children" or "water babies" (suja- same Chinese characters as Japanese mizuko) along with deceased family members in their favorite temple. This, too, is only a recent trend. It is not a well-known or solicited practice, however. These tablets for the miscarried or aborted children of married women are displayed openly and can be easily identified by family names but are anonymously attributed or absent for the unmarried. It can hardly be characterized as a lucrative business. One must go out of one's way to discover "suja" among thousands of paper memorial tablets dedicated to ancestors or the "mature" dead which are pasted on the walls of the temple behind or near the altar for memorial services.
Venerable Myogak and Aga-ya! Please Forgive Me!
An awakening of concern for aborted fetuses occurred among Buddhists in Korea in early 1985 with the work of Venerable Sok Myogak, a Chogye Order pigu (Skt. bhiksu) now in his late fifties. Myogak, formerly of famous Pulguksa Temple, incited great interest among a group of posallim (female supporters) in Seoul when he introduced them to a first draft of his Korean translation of some selections from a Japanese book regarding mizuko. The book's depiction of the fears and suffering of the spirits of helpless, aborted children and their attempts to seize the attention of their parents through dreams and misfortunes (interference) in their daily lives resonated deeply among these pious Buddhist women. It obviously brought to surface feelings of uneasiness and guilt they had experienced for years but could or would not identify and provided a justification for certain life problems. "We grieve over the death of our pet animals and even bury them. How much more so a baby in the womb which is aborted! We cannot ignore them," to quote a posallim on a local radio broadcast this spring.
The posallims encouraged Myogak to continue his translation which they eventually published as a paperback at their own expense in 1985. It is evocatively entitled "Aga-ya, yongsohaedao" which can be translated as "My Dear Baby, Please Forgive Me!" This volume was read eagerly among Ven. Myogak's followers and their network of friends. The book's readership quickly spread from Seoul to Taegu and Pusan in the Kyongsang provinces at the southern end of the country where "there are many more devout Buddhists" as the area is popularly described, and other more rural parts of the country. News of the book also spread among the ordained clergy, a number of whom came personally to Myogak to purchase fifty or a hundred copies at a time to distribute among their followers. These monks began to offer rites for aborted fetuses on their own, modeling their rituals on what they learned from Myogak directly and through their reading of his translation.
It appears that 'Aga-ya" was a beginning a first step in the public expression of distress over abortion in Buddhist society. It was and continues to be an inspiration and catalyst for some monks and nuns to independently investigate the scriptures and innovate ritual practices they consider appropriate to the needs of their congregation. As the book has become more widely distributed, a more and more people are asking to perform "nak t'ae-a ch'ondo-jae" ("auspicious rebirth ceremony for aborted babies") at the ten or more temples which have initiated the rituals. It is not possible to determine just how many temples are planning or already performing them given the sensitive and personal nature of the rite.
Ven. Myogak claims that "around 500 women have performed the ceremony at Kukch'ongsa," his apartment style temple in Sadang-dong, Seoul since his book was published. "Since those people aborted two babies on the average, about 1,000 spirits have benefitted from the ceremonies." As of May 1992, he records in a later edition of his book, he had about 500 telephone consultations, 147 correspondences by letter and 300 personal consultations. "Most people who consulted with me tried to rationalize what they did and put the blame on others. Whatever the reason or the situation, they should acknowledge that they themselves as responsible for their actions, be very clear about this, and perform ch'ondo-jae offering for the little spirits with a very sincere heart" writes Venerable Myogak in the introduction of Aga-ya!.
The people who come to Myogak share the belief that the act of abortion is unequivocally wrong, a grievous misdeed. One posallim said on radio, "an old proverb says that if you "erase' your baby, you'll have no luck for three years. After I aborted my baby, nothing went well. I believe I was being personally punished for what I did." Another mother revealed, "I immediately got pregnant after my first baby was born. And I had an abortion. One day my elder sister bought a copy of "Aga-ya!" she found at a temple bazaar and lent it to me. After reading the book, I cried and cried and felt that I did a terrible thing. I went to see Myogak Sunim and performed ch'ondo-je for relief." Yet another lady testifies, "I was too young and didn't know any better when I aborted my first baby. My second child died the day after she was born. I thought the baby was sleeping so I left her alone. My aunt came to visit but she didn't even want to see the baby. I was very upset because I thought she acted that way because the baby was a girl. When I went in to change my baby's diaper, she was cold and stiff. Out of my mind, I buried my baby with her soiled diaper on, with my father's help on the small bank around the rice paddy (She begins to sob) It still breaks my heart that I left my baby like that with a soiled diaper. I was foolish. I feel much better now after performing ch'ondo-jae." The expression of repentance through confession and ritual offering undoubtedly had a healing effect for its performers.
Aga-ya! is mostly a recitation of many shocking and sad stories of abortion from both Korea and Japan. Although originally inspired by Japanese example, the sentiments expressed in the book well represent what I have experienced as the dominant Korean Buddhist "pro-life" orientation toward abortion. It is concerned primarily with the suffering and neglect of the aborted fetus and the deleterious effects of ignoring them in the unseen world.
Myogak's prologue first lays out a very simple and terse outline of the fundamental Buddhist understanding of existence- of past, present and future lives, of causality and the twelve links in the chain of dependent co-origination - and includes a diagram of the six realms of (life and death) existence. There is a special notation that only in the human realm can one perform spiritual practice and experience realization of Buddha Nature. Myogak then presents his purpose with cultural and historical references (I paraphrase):
Like the solemn and complicated rites for the dying performed by Tibetan monks to assure that the spirit of the dead will not wander around in the other world or be restless, Koreans also perform ch'ondo for the spirit of the dead.
Buddhist funeral rituals that were passed down from Koryo as indigenized custom were abolished by Choson King Yejong and replaced with Confucian rituals. These Confucian rituals were merely a matter of form and procedure and not truly religious in the sense of real concern for the spirits of the dead. Buddhist rituals were performed in temples with the understanding of dependent co-origination and samsara. People reap the rewards of their karma, consciously or unconsciously, therefore the families of the dead thinking of the karmic result the dead will receive in the next life, sincerely pray that the dead will choose not to re-enter samsara...
Whether Buddhist or not, people offered their entire hearts and minds for the spiritual rebirth of the dead . However, the young spirits that hadn't yet reached adulthood were neglected. For example, when children die in Korea they are usually cremated or buried without any funeral ritual. Those little lives which are aborted or miscarried without seeing the light of the world are being processed as if they were vestigial organs (like an appendix) And, since many babies were conceived through immoral behavior, they are dispatched even more mechanically avoid discovery. If the baby is considered "a problem" the parents' only thought is to rid themselves of it - they give no thought to the fetus at all. And, too, if the mother involuntarily miscarried, relatives and friends dote only on the woman's health and don't give a thought for the health or afterlife of the baby whose life was truncated abruptly. Yet when our pet animals die, we grieve for them so miserably.
I believe something is wrong here when we are indifferent to the lives that grow in our own bodies. Babies who have been aborted through artificial means should be guided to a better rebirth. At the same time, we should consider the condition of many women who suffer in so many different ways, sometimes inexplicably, and try to alleviate their anguish if even only slightly. More people should pay attention to the spirit of aborted fetuses. I hope many more women, especially those who have experienced miscarriage or abortion, will perform ch'ondo ceremonies for the spirit of these poor little ones. They should do it with devotion through chanting, recitation of names of the Buddhas and bodisattvas, appropriate offerings and deep repentance of their cruel deeds in order to rid themselves of their karmic hindrances. And they should make greater efforts to nurture brighter and happier families for a brighter, happier society.in the future.
Korean and Japanese Practice Compared
Myogak's call to repent for aborting babies as exemplified in Japan is echoed by other Korean Buddhist leaders since the publication of Aga-ya in 1985! Cho Myong-nyol, a Japan-educated faculty member of Seoul's Central Sangha College, writes that "the Japanese acknowledge abortion as an evil misdeed yet mizuko offerings allow the Japanese to dignify and revere life. The rituals provide an opportunity for people who committed abortion (all family members, sympathizers and doctors included) to rise above their suffering rather than be stigmatized as criminals. This practice is both rational and worldly-wise." She notes that "it seems that all religious groups in Korea except the Catholics are publicly silent on abortion. Rather than relying on government policy, the role of religion is to try to provide opportunity for people to raise above the problems of their daily lives through religious belief and to awaken them to an authentic ethics of life."
It is apparent that despite bitter memories of Japanese cruelty and intervention into Korean Buddhist tradition during the thirty-five year colonial period and a well-founded fear of Japan's economic clout and cultural influence on Korea's youth today, Korean Buddhist leaders are still amenable to learn from their imposing neighbor. Many older Korean Buddhist scholars were educated in Japan during the colonial period. They were deeply influenced by Japanese scholarly values and comprehensive grasp of Buddhist traditions of East Asia and India. The younger Korean generation travels to Japan for graduate study and research at Buddhist universities. It is no surprise that they respect Japanese traditions as worthy of serious consideration yet emphatically affirm their own, important Korean national heritage. This sentiment is expressed well by Professor Mok Jeong-bae (Mok Chong-bae), former dean of the Graduate School of Buddhist Studies at Dongguk University when he suggests in the Tabo quarterly, an organ of the Korean Buddhism Promotion Foundation, that Koreans ought to " find a way to transform Japanese suja belief into Korean form."
Proof that Korean Buddhists are not accepting Japanese innovation unquestioningly can be observed in matters of terminology, for instance. The term "mizuko" in Japanese is composed of two Sinitic logographs that are pronounced as "suja" in Korean. Koreans are not happy with this expression because it is not a Buddhist term; they say it has no scriptural reference and sounds foreign to their ears. It may be used for convenience by those who are not familiar with Buddhist terminology in Korea or by those who read Japanese materials and go back and forth between the two countries often. One Korean monk told us he thought it was an invention of a Japanese lay woman and not to be taken seriously! The mizuko concept is apparently deeply enmeshed in ancient Japanese folk belief, however, and has been only recently revived in Japanese Buddhist ritual tradition. It has not been picked up in popular Korean culture as a fashionable foreign trade name yet!
A Nun's Innovative Response
The Korean nun Venerable Songdok who has been very committed to studying the abortion problem and leading ceremonies for her congregation over the past five years prefers to use the logographs which are pronounced "t'a-t'ae" in Korean. "T'a t'ae" is a Buddhist term for abortion which is found in Chinese Buddhist sutras. The most commonly used and medically and legally acceptable term for abortion in Korean is "nak t'ae." The Japanese expression "mizuko kuyo" or "suja kongyang" in Korean ("water-child offering") is unfamiliar to Koreans. The term "nak t'ae-a ch'ondo-jae" is more readily identifiable as an "auspicious rebirth offering ceremony for an aborted fetus." It is a kind of new variant of the common expression "yong-ga ch'ondo-jae" which refers to "an auspicious rebirth offering ceremony for spirits of the dead" which can be employed in both group and individual funerary occasions for adults. Another expression employed by Venerable Songdok for her forty-nine day long group ceremonies for aborted fetuses is "T'a t'ae agi-ryong ch'ondo pophoe" which can be rendered as "Dharma meeting for the auspicious rebirth of aborted babies."
Venerable Songdok was born in 1950. She left home (ch'ulga) to begin son (Zen) training at the famous piguni (Skt.bhiksuni) monastery Unmunsa at age 19. She is also sometimes called by the honorific title "kun sunim" (great master) or more specifically by her lineage designation title Pangsaeng sunim (Pangsaeng - "release of living creatures"- "protector, savior of all living beings") Songdok is known for her devotion to social service and efforts in organizing the first Buddhist Volunteer Service Association in Seoul. She refrains from collecting offerings to use on expensive temple building projects but rather instructs her followers to use their time and money to help others. She has a vision to make Buddhism a visible, moral force in Korean society by engaging the energies of Buddhist lay people who have had no Buddhist channels available to them to express their social commitment. She has studied Buddhism academically at Dongguk University and has done special study of Buddhist hospice care (vihara) in Japan and remembers being well warned by her Japanese teachers not to emulate the crassly greedy mizuko temples that were operating there.
Songdok has been leading lengthy annual ceremonial meetings for the spirits of aborted babies since 1991. She began to lead ceremonies for aborted babies much earlier on a case by case basis for individual mothers and families, much like the monk Myogak, but she found she had no time to accommodate all the requests that came to her. The depth of the abortion problem in Korea became quite apparent to her at that time so she and her family of nun disciples organized group ceremonies about five years ago in order to meet the needs of the many women who felt they had to "do something" about their abortions. They designed the long ceremony as more than just a spectator event for their lay believers. It is actually a kind of Buddhist consciousness-raising event in an active devotional and community setting. Fifty to a hundred people have participated in the ceremony every year since 1991. These ceremonies extend over forty-nine days, the same duration as the funeral service for adults. They are scheduled to begin in late May after Buddha's Birthday and to end in July, just before school lets out for summer recess. This allows mothers to attend the services more freely. The majority of the participants are housewives; unmarried women are apparently be too ashamed to attend. Husbands attend irregularly because of job demands. Prayers are led every morning by Songdok and her disciples for three hours. They are joined by lay participants who make the time at will. Most believers try to attend every day. In 1995, over thirty out a hundred participants had perfect attendance and most missed very few days. Those who must work away from home and far from the temple attend once a week, usually on Saturdays, at seven-day intervals. (There are also regular Sunday morning Dharma services for the entire congregation in conformance with the solar calendar work week, much like Christian services). The majority are mothers although a few fathers attend irregularly. A very modest fee is required for participation in "auspicious rebirth ceremonies," 49,000 won or 1,000 won ($1.35) a day for forty nine days, the price of a liter of milk in Seoul. This sum goes to cover expenses of printing, altar preparations, and food offerings that are consumed by the celebrants after every service. Participants in t'a t'ae agi-ryong ch'ondo Dharma meetings share responsibilties for preparing the temple for the service, meal preparations and cleanup afterwards. The atmosphere at the temple is very solemn during prayers and prostrations which require considerable exertion, concentration and self-reflection but quite convivial at lunch after the three hour service.
In preparing reading materials which are distributed consecutively each week, Venerable Songdok focuses on the gamut teachings related to life, death and rebirth in the Buddhist canon as well as introducing ideas about the spiritual world from other religions in Korea. One year she even devoted space to the Tibetan perspective on bardo and rebirth, a topic inspired by the long visit to Korea by the charismatic Tibetan child tulku Ling Rinpoche, the emanation (incarnation) of the present Dalai Lama's former head tutor. This is no doubt an innovative program in Korean Buddhism. Questions and answers about the nature of re(birth) and the beginning of human life in the womb at conception, why spirits of aborted babies cause troubles for the living, the best method of performing ch'ondo, etc. fill the weekly guidebooks.
Auspicious Rebirth Ceremonies, National Development and
Cultural Adaptation in Contemporary Korea
South Korea's rapid modernization this century and its driving ambition to become a leading economic power in the last twenty-five years has fostered great changes in its traditional cultural patterns and family life. The transformation from a relatively self-sufficient agricultural lifestyle to an urban, industrialized and trade dependent economy has had human costs. A national family planning policy that encouraged smaller families was a dramatic success and the envy of other developing nations. But it also resulted in the popularization and acceptance of abortion that was very uncommon in earlier times. Children were needed to work the fields and honor the ancestors. Fertility was something to pray for. Conception was hailed by birth dreams (t'aemong) and infants were even nurtured before birth with instruction in the womb (t'aegyo). This is not so today. Nowadays Korean population experts opine that about half of all children conceived in the nation are victims of artificially induced abortion. It is no surprise that some women in contemporary Korea have sought ways to mourn the death of their unborn children in a traditional ritual context. This article is a brief report on the state of abortion practice in Korea and how certain Buddhist leaders and their followers have adopted a foreign ritual form for helping aborted fetuses achieve a happier rebirth. Korean Buddhists have creatively adapted and transformed the ceremony for the distinctively Korean sociocultural environment and, in a quiet way, have tried to raise public sensitivity to the issue of abortion by tending to the spiritual and psychological needs of those who grieve the unborn dead.
This article originally appeared in Korea Journal, Volume 36 No.2 Summer 1996 pp.61-74