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  • The Power of the Buddhas: The Politics of Buddhism During the Koryŏ Dynasty (918-1392)
  • Richard D. McBride II (bio)
The Power of the Buddhas: The Politics of Buddhism During the Koryŏ Dynasty (918–1392), by Sem Vermeersch. Harvard East Asian Monographs 203. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Asia Center, 2008. 485 pp. $49.95 cloth.

In The Power of the Buddhas, Sem Vermeersch comprehensively describes the nature of the complex relationship between the Buddhist church and the Korean state—in particular, the king and royal family—during the Koryŏ period (918–1392). The basic premise of the book is to deconstruct the conventionally received description of Koryŏ Buddhism as "state-protection Buddhism" (hoguk pulgyo). To Vermeersch, state-protection Buddhism means that the primary purpose of the religion would be to provide supernormal and popular support for and legitimate the state. The author contends that the notion of state-protectionism is too broad a category to be a useful analytical tool because it obfuscates the complex historical relationship of power struggles between the Buddhist church and the (Confucian) state (pp. 13–20, 146–47). In this respect he agrees with Kim Jongmyung (Kim Chongmyŏng), who was the first scholar of Korean Buddhism trained in the West to challenge this characterization of Koryŏ Buddhism; however, the top Korean scholars of Koryŏ Buddhism are for the most part disinterested in challenging the received usage of this term.1

In order to demonstrate the extent of this tension, the author marshals [End Page 150] a vast array of data and methodically examines the organs and procedures by which the Koryŏ state attempted to control the Buddhist church. The book is divided into three parts: (1) a description of Buddhism in the late Silla period and the foundations of Koryŏ King Taejo's (r. 918–943) Buddhist policy (pp. 31–147); (2) the official institution of Buddhism, including such things as legal provisions placed on the church and monks; sangha examinations, ranking, and administration; and the official and honorary positions of royal and state preceptor (pp. 151– 268); and (3) the ritual and economic roles of Buddhism (pp. 271– 364). In the end, although the author succeeds in throwing doubt on the concept of state-protection Buddhism, he does not replace it with a more accurate descriptive term.

The book highlights some of the fundamental problems facing scholars of traditional or premodern Korea. The first issue is the paucity of sources, and the second issue is that of the interpretation of those sources. Unlike the case of medieval Japan, where there is a relative abundance of monastery, land, and government documents that provide detailed insight into the relationship between individual Buddhist sects and the government, as well as the relationship between specific monasteries, the local nobility, and the surrounding populace, Buddhist documents for Koryŏ Korea are extremely deficient. Building upon the seminal research of such modern scholars as Hŏ Hŭngsik, Han Kimun, and Yi Chigwan, Vermeersch utilizes data from stele inscriptions (pimyŏng) to a greater extent than previous scholars and places great confidence in their validity and utility. In a sense, Vermeersch uses stele inscriptions to validate the Koryŏsa (History of Koryŏ), which is his primary source for relations between the Buddhist church and the state. As is well known, the Koryŏsa was compiled and edited by Confucian scholars during the early Chosŏn period (1451). Although the names of Buddhist monks, monasteries, and rituals appear frequently in the text, suggesting that important role of the religion at court and among officials and nobility, there is little information of substance that enables the historian to craft an accurate picture. Traditional Chinese histories likewise contain little information of substance on Buddhist institutions and the structure and content of rituals, as compared to Confucian rituals of state. Because the Koryŏ state consciously modeled itself after the Tang Chinese model, the author is able to make informed speculation regarding positions and organs of rule by using Chinese materials to help extrapolate about Koryŏ positions, organs of control, and so forth. In an attempt to counterbalance the inadequacies of the Koryŏsa, Vermeersch emphasizes stele inscriptions because they were typically composed soon...