- Han’gugin ŭi chonggyogwan: Han’guk chŏngsin ŭi maengnak kwa naeyong
If you are looking for a comprehensive survey of Korea’s religious beliefs and practices past and present, this is the book for you. It presents the results of a five-year research collaboration by eight of the top scholars in the field of religious studies in Korea, with each member of that team focusing on their particular area of expertise. Led by Yoon Yee-Heum, a sociologist of religion and an expert on Korea’s new religions, that team included Kŭm Changt’ae (Confucianism and Catholicism), Yi Ŭnbong (Daoism and religion in ancient Korea), Kim Chongsŏ (Protestant Christianity and religion in the modern period), Kim Younghwan (Buddhism), Sŏ Yŏngdae (folk religion and the religion of ancient Korea), Kim Hongsu (Protestant Christianity), and Yun Wŏnch’ŏl (methodology).
They began by examining earlier studies of religion in Korea, and concluded that many of them were flawed by the biases of the researchers or by too narrow a focus. They then proceeded to chart a new course, examining around 700 different important documents from Korea’s long religious history and extracting from them 1,506 key terms in order to use those terms to construct a portrait of the religious consciousness of Koreans. They organize those key terms under five categories: supernatural beings and religious absolutes, notions of reality and order in nature and in society, definitions of human beings, religious practice and experience, and fortune and misfortune. Having identified what they see as the key concepts in Korea’s religious culture, they next examine what roles those concepts have played in Korea’s religious life. Noting that most of those concepts are not indigenous concepts but instead were imported into [End Page 199] Korea, primarily from China (most of the terms on their list are written in Sino-Korean characters), they analyze how such concepts have become part of the religious consciousness of Koreans. Some, they note, have been reinterpreted as indigenous Korean concepts or have been borrowed as alternative names for indigenous Korean beliefs and practices. Others have been part of Korea’s religious discourse for so long that they are seen as integral parts of Korean culture, despite their alien origin.
Despite the substantial influence of imported concepts and terminology, the authors argue that, nonetheless, Korea has had from the beginning, and continues to have today, a distinctive religious orientation. Koreans, they write, are unusually dedicated to maintaining the doctrinal purity of their various religious traditions. That is why, they claim, Korean Buddhism is the most orthodox form of Mahayana Buddhism, Korean Confucianism is the more orthodox form of Confucianism, and even Korean Protestant Christianity is the most orthodox form of Christianity. At the same time, Koreans are tolerant of religious differences and have always been open to borrowing from other religious traditions in order to enrich their own. This creative tension between a dedication to orthodoxy, on the one hand, and a willingness to learn from others, on the other, has created a dynamic religious culture in Korea. That dynamism has been reinforced, they argue, by a distinctive Korean preference for a religious focus on the world of actual experience rather than on some abstract other-worldly ideal. As a result, Koreans have been able to maintain separate and distinct strands in Korea’s religious culture while also ensuring that those various religious traditions co-exist in harmony with one another and also constantly adapt to changes in their material and social environment.
To support their argument that a Korean tradition of fidelity to doctrine combined with openness to the ideas and practices of others has fueled unusual religious creativity over the centuries, the authors cite as examples five great Korean Buddhist thinkers (Wŏnhyo, Ŭisang, Uich’ŏn, Chinul, and Hyujŏng), and five great Korean Confucian thinkers (Chŏng Dojŏn, Kwŏn Kŭn, T’oegye, Yulgok, and...