About Dr. Joongpyo Lee

 Dr. Joongpyo Lee is an acclaimed Buddhist scholar and founder of Buddhanara, an organization dedicated to building harmony, equality, and peace through promoting wisdom. Dr. Lee has dedicated his life to understanding and sharing the truth that Buddha realized in a way that is compatible with modern society. 

His work began in high school when he organized a successful Buddhist society. After graduating from the Department of Philosophy at Chonnam National University, he received his master's and doctorate degrees in Buddhism from Dongguk University. He spent some of his university years as an ordained monk. 

Dr. Lee’s love of the Dhamma drove him to try to understand the real meaning of the teachings. Increasingly dissatisfied that he couldn’t find any texts that clearly and coherently explained Buddha’s core teaching, the twelve dependent-related links, he learned Pali to read and study the earliest suttas, the Nikaya, himself. His study culminated in receiving a doctorate degree from Dongguk University for his thesis ‘A Study of the Middle Way System in the Chinese Āgamas and Pāli Nikāyas’.

This thesis began a comprehensive exploration that revealed the profound alignment of early Buddhist teachings, the Mahayana, modern philosophy, and science. Dr. Lee has been recognized as one of the leading Buddhist scholars in Korea, and one of the main voices in the secular Dharma movement. Fluent in all the traditional scriptural languages, he is the author of seven books and recently completed a modern and readable translation of all Buddha’s Nikaya teachings.


He served as a professor in the Department of Philosophy at Chonnam National University for 30 years, he was appointed professor emeritus upon his retirement in 2019.

He served as the director of the Honam Buddhist Culture Research Institute, the president of the Pan-Korea Philosophical Society, and the president of the Buddhist Studies Research Society.

Dr. Lee says “Even after modern Christian values ​​collapsed in the West, the hierarchical power and class structure with God at the apex remained. It is taken for granted that the strong win and trample the weak through struggle and competition for positions,” he explained. He contrasts this view of society with the truth of dependent-relationship Buddha discovered 2600 years ago: “What Buddha realized is we are all connected and we depend on another. We cannot truly be happy when others are unhappy. We cannot truly be healthy when others are sick. My happiness and well-being comes when the whole system of life is happy and healthy.”

Dr. Lee’s Translations of the Nikaya

Since 2010, Dr. Lee has been working full-time on a fresh new translation of the Nikayas from Pali into modern Korean. Thus far, he has translated the Digha Nikaya, Majjhima Nikaya, Samyutta Nikaya, the Mahavagga of the Vinaya Pitaka, and is near completion of the Suttanipatta. Those texts and others by Dr. Lee have been published by Bulkwang Co.

Originally trained in Korean (Mahayana) schools, he became increasingly concerned that the main meaning of Buddha’s teachings had been lost, and has dedicated his life to reinvigorating Buddhist understanding and practice. Buddhist faith has deep roots in Korea, but people struggle to convert that faith into practical insights. Monastic authority is intertwined with political influence and plagued by corruption. Spiritual practice centers around the practice of hwadu, but without understanding fundamentals such as the 12 dependent-related links, hwadus can’t lead to liberating insights. People study and memorize Mahayana scriptures, but struggle to convert that understanding into freedom from craving and clinging.

Many Koreans now look to Southeast Asian countries like Burma, and to Western countries for insight into Buddhism. And many people have rejected Buddhism to strive for external success or to follow the allure of wealthy and charismatic Christian churches. While there’s beauty and value everywhere, Koreans’ rich Buddhist legacy can be a perfect guide to finding happiness in the modern world, but only if Koreans gain the wisdom to interpret the Dhamma correctly.

“If you find yourself in a strange place without a map, there is only one way to avoid being lost. You must retrace your steps to where you came from. Buddhism in Korea has lost its way. To find our way again, we must trace our steps back to Buddha’s original teachings, and understand their real meaning.”  - Dr. Lee Joongpyo

The seeds for this insight came decades ago, when Dr. Lee was working on his doctoral thesis, ‘A Study of the Middle Way System in the Chinese Āgamas and Pāli Nikāyas’. The Mahayana teachings are often contrasted with early Buddhist teachings, and competition among lineages has reinforced this separation. But Dr. Lee realized that it is impossible to understand Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka philosophy without recognizing it as a response to the ten questions that Buddha refused to answer, and as a rebuttal of the Abhidhamma interpretations of Buddhism that arose in the 3rd century CE. 

Despite the overwhelming size and variety of the Mahayana sutras popular in Korea, their essential meaning is to point people to this middle way and to guide people how to live in harmony through understanding the equality of self and others. The unanswered questions point to a middle way that can only be realized through meditating on foundational teachings such as the five aggregates, three marks of existence, and 12 dependent-related links. But many Mahayanists don’t appreciate the profundity of these Nikaya teachings.

Although Buddha’s teachings are normally presented as a religion that require people to adopt a set of beliefs, Buddha again and again made the point that his teachings were something that everyone could see and validate in their own experience. Careful reading of the Nikaya reveals the path to liberation. This path is always available to us, but we need to identify how we constantly recreate a self on the basis of clinging to impermanent aggregates. 

To promote the study and practice of Dhamma, Dr. Lee created Buddhanara, an organization dedicated to bringing Dhamma into modern life. Buddhanara currently operates six dedicated teaching Centers across Korea, as well as a nascent US branch.

To get a sense for Dr. Lee and his teachings, look at this talk he gave as an introduction to Buddhism which conveys some of his views (Andrew and Ashley Davis did the English closed captions). Although the rest of his teachings are in Korean, you can see more of his work and talks on YouTube or at the Buddhanara website.

In the next few years, one of his goals is to combine these condensed texts into a single volume (inspired by the Bible) to make it easier for people to study and share Buddha’s teachings.

Dr. Lee’s 27 years as a university professor put him in constant contact with experts in fields such as Anthropology, History, Physics, and Philosophy. Those interactions have equipped him to understand and explain how historical forces shaped aspects of Buddhism, and how Dhamma is necessary to make sense of profound modern topics like Quantum Physics and Artificial Intelligence. These secular explanations are an important contribution to showing the relevance of Dhamma to our modern world. To facilitate this interdisciplinary dialog, Dr. Lee organized Buddhanara Open University in which a variety of university professors offer concise courses that introduce fields such as Astrophysics and show how Dhamma relates to those topics.