AAS Annual Meeting

Korea Session 485

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Session 485: In the Shadow of Modernity: 19th-Century Korean Buddhism

Organizer: Boudewijn Walraven, Sungkyunkwan University, South Korea

Discussants: Nam-lin Hur, University of British Columbia, Canada; Bernard Senecal, Sogang University, South Korea

Late Choseon Buddhism has suffered from a double bias. Official policies of the Confucian government designed to curtail and control Buddhism are still generally deemed to have resulted in a relegation of Buddhism to the lower classes (accompanied by a vulgarization of its contents), while the modernist perspectives of twentieth-century reformers like Han Yongun have above all emphasized the negative sides of Choseon Buddhism. As a consequence the study of late Choseon Buddhism has attracted little interest and a proper understanding of its functioning has been difficult to achieve, particularly when the second half of the Choseon period is concerned. Yet it is clear that Buddhism continued to play a, sometimes important, role in the lives of the elite (the great calligrapher Ch’usa being a prime example) as it did in the lives of intermediate groups as well as of the common people. Moreover, Buddhism also was involved in the remarkable social and intellectual changes and developments that characterize late Choseon society (irrespective of the way one wishes to interpret these changes, as signs of early modernity or not). This panel will focus on the 19th-century, the period just before the great upheavals that came with the opening of the country and the advent of “modern times” (in the conventional sense). Apart from providing a better understanding of the place of Buddhism in the intellectual and social life at the time aims to contribute to deeper insight in 20th-century developments by clarifying what went on before.

Elite Lay Buddhist Practice in Late 19th Century Choseon Buddhist Society
Eun-su Cho, , South Korea

Typical narratives of Korean history at the turn of the twentieth century list a chain of events with well-established causal relationships. The late 19th century is characterized in terms of a “Confucian response to the West,” the early 20th century in terms of a preoccupation with anti-Japanese activism, and the post-war period centered on social restructuring, guided by the forces of Protestantism and capitalism. In this linear and monolithic historiography, the place of Buddhism is vague and obscure. According to this reading of history, Buddhism was never able to recover from the long and harsh anti-Buddhist state policy of Choseon and was thus relegated to the shadows, virtually disappearing from the stage of Korean history for years to follow. Following up on my 2002 article touching on this area, I will continue to probe the practices of Buddhism, especially that of lay Buddhist elites. I argue that these practices evolved and restructured amidst social change, and that the last few decades of the 19th century is an important missing link in understanding 20th century colonial Buddhism. I use data gathered from monastery historical records, personal memoranda by Buddhist clergy and lay practitioners, and epitaphs and inscriptions describing Buddhist activities of the period. An elucidation of the changes in Buddhist practice, rituals, and social engagements will allow for the emergence of an alternative picture to the traditionally accepted view of Buddhism at the end of the Choseon dynasty as “dormant” and “invisible.”

Kim Okkyun's Buddhist Thought and the Formation of His Reform Ideas
Jongmyung Kim, Academy of Korean Studies, South Korea

Kim Okkyun (1851-94) was a reform-minded politician and led the Kapsin coup d’état of 1884, a prelude to the modernization of Korea. Conventional scholarship has focused on his life as an ill-fated politician. However, sources, including Kim Okkyun cheonjip (Collected Works of Kim Okkyun), indicate that just like Chinese intellectuals of his time, Kim was a pro-Buddhist scholar and his reform ideas were formed under the influence of his Buddhist thought. However, research on this theme has remained understudied, is long overdue, and is sorely needed in the field of Korean Buddhism as well as in the modern history of Korea. The purpose of this paper is to examine the influence of Kim's Buddhist thought, heterodoxy of his time, on the formation of his reform ideas in the coup. Kim criticized Confucianism, orthodoxy of his time, in Confucian Korea, argued the abolition of the lineage-oriented social structure, and emphasized equality among people. Composed of three sections, the first section of this article will discuss the life of Kim and the ideological background during his time. The second section will examine Buddhist thought, including Zen thought, with which Kim was familiar, and the third section will be devoted to analyzing the relationship between Kim's Buddhist thought and his reform ideas reflected in the coup led by him.

The Buddhist reconquest of Korea?
Younghee Y. Lee, University of Auckland, New Zealand

The late Chosŏn period saw significant social changes, one of which was increasing urbanization. The capital Hanseong, in particular, grew both in size and diversity of its population, with a number of satellite towns springing up nearby along the Han River that flourished because of the trade that was necessary to furnish the increasing numbers of city dwellers with all they needed. It is often said that Buddhism in the Choseon period catered to the lower classes and withdrew from the cities to the mountains, and certainly that was where one would find the temples, but it continued to serve the urban city population, including the women’s quarters of the royal palaces, as well as men of different social status groups. This paper will argue that monks like Namho Yeonggi (1820-1872), who maintained relations with elite yangban and educated commoners, not only adapted to the changes in society, but actively participated in the intellectual and cultural life of the period and while promoting their faith primarily addressed the literate, whether they were living in the countryside or dwelling in the cities. Yeonggi was the author of two Buddhist songs in the kasa form, which will be the focus of this paper, and one of these, Changan keolshikka (Song of Begging in the Capital), may be seen as a Buddhist counter-attack against the dominance of Neo-Confucianism, as an appeal to the educated for a symbolic reconquest of the centre of the nation.

Buddhist accommodation and appropriation and the limits of Confucianization
Boudewijn Walraven, Sungkyunkwan University, South Korea

The Confucianization of Korea may be regarded a slow but steady process that continued throughout the Choseon period, constantly extending its influence to new layers of the population. From the outset this provoked various forms of Buddhist apologetics. Monks like Kihwa (1376-1433) and Hyujeong (1520-1604) argued for the fundamental compatibility of Buddhism and Confucianism. The Confucian social ethics emphasizing filial piety and loyalty to the monarchy were fully accepted by Buddhists and by the 18th-century a situation had come about in which Buddhist kasa songs were a major conduit for the propagation and maintenance of Confucian values. The priest Yuil (1720-1799) even declared that adherence to these ethics was sufficient to gain admittance to the Pure Land of Amitabha, without any form of Buddhist practice. All this may be regarded as testimony to the relentless Confucianization of Choseon. The question arises, however, what exactly is the meaning of this “Confucianization”. The argument of this paper will be that the appropriation of Confucian social values by Buddhism (as well as, for instance, shamans and adherents of the cult of Guan Yu) by the 19th century actually weakened Confucianism as an institutional faith by undercutting its hegemonic claims (which in Korea had been much more pronounced than in China or Japan). In this way, Buddhism opened the way for Christianity (and native new religions) even before the country was formally opened for missionary activities after 1876.