(Book Excerpt 5) The Mago Way by Helen Hye-Sook Hwang, Ph.D.

cover front final rdcd[Author’s Note] The following is from Chapter One, “What Is Mago and Magoism and How Did I Study HER?” from The Mago Way: Re-discovering Mago, the Great Goddess from East Asia, Volume 1. Footnotes below would be different from the monograph version. PDF book of The Mago Way Volume 1 download is available for free here.]

How My Education and Experience Helped Me Study Mago

The topic of Mago came to me in time for writing my doctoral dissertation for the Women’s Studies in Religion program that I was enrolled in at Claremont Graduate University. My graduate education, which I crafted to be a feminist cross-cultural alchemical process of de-educating myself from the patriarchal mode of knowledge-making, led me to encounter the hitherto unheard-of Goddess of East Asia, Mago. I came to read the Budoji, the principal text of Magoism, in 2000 and did some basic research to find out that Mago was known among people in Korea and that S/HE was also found in Chinese and Japanese sources.


Among the primary sources that I gathered, the Budoji stood out because: (1) it adopts a bird’s eye view of the Great Goddess from the cosmic beginning, and (2) it counter-testifies to the pre-Chinese mytho-history of Magoism succeeded by ancient Koreans, which is written out of ancient Chinese history.


That was the beginning of my Mago study. Since then, the topic of Mago has shaped not only my Goddess scholarship but the course of my life. I have made myself a scholar advocate of the Great Goddess. The knowing of Mago is still unfolding, which makes the task of writing about Magoism ever daunting and challenging.


My major task for the first two years was to search for and collect as much diverse data as possible from Korea, China, and Japan. As a result, I was able to document a wealth of transnational primary sources including folklore, art, literature, toponyms, and the debris of religious and historical texts as well as so-called apocryphal texts including the Budoji. Processing these various and sundry data required a new methodology, which I named the mytho-historical-thealogy of Magoism. Multi-disciplinary and comparative by nature, my dissertation started the journey of an unending adventure for the forthcoming years.


My graduate studies provided an opportunity to go deeper in my self-searching quest. I quenched my long-repressed thirst of pursuing academic goals without feeling selfish or antithetical to the love of God. How sweet that was! Ten years did not seem long! For the earlier years during which I was a Christian, I, taking my religion too seriously, firmly believed in the Christian teaching of “denying oneself to follow Jesus.”[i] To pursue an academic career was my dream in my early 20s. But I gave it up for the love of God. And I joined Maryknoll Sisters, the U.S.-based Catholic overseas missionary organization. I felt strongly drawn to embark on my life to the unknown, which I thought of as God calling. Only when I began to study Mago, I learned that the strong pull into the unknown was the Way, a living legacy rooted in East Asian culture and history. Throughout my Christian years, my Self was the battle field: It was “I” that was under fire. I self-policed to ensure that I was chained to self-tormenting. That was an everyday spiritual practice of crushing my heart’s craving for intellectual activities. The pain culminated in the mission field of the Philippines wherein I exposed to myself the reality of extreme poverty and violence. I had hit rock bottom.


The belief system of Christianity began to crumble and lose its grip over my Self in proportion to my capacity to focus on the question, “Who am I?” The time came when the “I” was no longer able to bear the agony caused by self-alienation. I simply quit Christianity and declared myself free from it. The God that I held onto so tightly turned out to be a non-being. I said good-bye once and for all and walked away. Then, I found within myself that what I had sought even throughout my Christian involvement was the Way (道, Dao, Do). I was coming home/becoming myself with the realization that the Way was nothing other than the Way of the Great Goddess, Mago. Now as a post-Christian, it did not take long to set myself on a plan of enrolling in a feminist studies graduate program. However, I was no longer the uninformed youth that I was in my early twenties. In the end, all I wanted was knowing and becoming myself as a woman of Korea and East Asia. Knowing was a very personal and political matter to me.


I was finally at peace with my Self. An insatiable craving for intellectual development in me was attended to for the first time. As a matter of fact, I had been a reader and a writer by nature from youth. The first few years of my graduate education were nothing other than a practice of self-acceptance as a self-born woman. I voraciously and systematically read up on writing term papers for the classes I took on various subjects related to feminism, theology, and religions. Nonetheless, the School of Religion at Claremont Graduate University did not, in those days, offer classes on East Asian topics that I wanted to take. Claremont education allowed me to train myself as a feminist scholar of my own kind. Or at least it did not stop me from what I meant to do; I secured tools and materials to build my own scholarship on Magoism. With a Ph.D. degree in Religion and Women’s Studies, I left the school with the realization that I still needed to be grounded in East Asian Studies.


I would say that my graduate education worked for me in a non-conventional way. In the first place, I was the first and only non-white foreign non-traditional student at age 35 in the graduate program. That was not something new or bad per se. I had been a cross-cultural Catholic missionary for the previous eight years and lived in the U.S. and the Philippines as well as Korea. Compared to being a cross-cultural missionary, being a graduate student was far less risk-free, I would say. At any rate, I was not alone. I was with myself. Furthermore, I was a post-Christian feminist who was deeply influenced by Mary Daly and maintained a close personal relationship with her throughout my graduate school years. In fact, it was Mary Daly who wrote a recommendation letter for my application to the program. My difficulty was in another area. Being in graduate school, especially for the first year, was one of the most difficult challenges that I had to overcome in my life. As a Chemistry major in undergraduate education, I had never seriously learned how to write a humanities or social studies paper, let alone write papers in a non-native language. Despite all, I managed all pretty well throughout the years of my graduate studies. Being a student was relatively easy work for me.


I paid the price for shaping my own scholarship. I held part-time teaching positions trying to gain a tenure track position for a few years. I wanted to hold a full-time teaching position but not badly enough to negotiate my own way of doing gynocentric scholarship or the topic itself. In retrospect, I unconsciously defied being molded to an institutional position. More to the point, I could not allow myself to be exposed without any support to combat the unnamed harassment of institutional racism, sexism, and xenophobia in U.S. universities. After landing an online teaching position for Women’s Studies and Religious Studies at a university, I steered my ship to revert to student status. I enrolled in another M.A. program in East Asian Studies at UCLA. It was my attempt to enter an academic position through a different door. However, after one year, it proved that I was unfit for Korean Studies. I was yet to evolve to something unknown.


In retrospect, I would say that my encounter with Mago as a doctoral dissertation topic was ultimately prompted by my intellectual/spiritual quest as a feminist who came from Korea. Ardently following the Radical Feminist thought of Mary Daly in the 1990s, I wanted to seek my own cultural identity that was not only non-patriarchal but also East Asian and Korean. This threw me to an untrodden path in academia. Mago being an unintroduced topic, my study was destined to blaze an entirely new trail.


I used to think to myself, if I had remained a Christian feminist, I would not have encountered Mago. Likewise if I had resorted to Buddhism or any other East Asian religion, I would not have dared to delve into the study of Mago. It was only because I was becoming myself that I was able to meet Mago.


(To be continued. See Book Excerpt 4 here.)

Meet Mago Contributor Helen Hye-Sook Hwang, Ph.D.


[i] This was the passage that froze me to self-loathing: “Then Jesus told his disciples, ’If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.’” Matthew 16:24.