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Reviewed by:
  • Korean Spirituality
  • James H. Grayson
Korean Spirituality, by Don Baker, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2008, xvi + 116p.

This innovative book, part of the University of Hawai’i Press ‘Dimensions of Asian Spirituality’ series, explores Korean religious practice and belief from the aspect of ‘spirituality’ rather than the more traditional approach of history, cognitive belief, and ritual structure. In part this represents a recent trend in ‘religious studies’, and in part it is an attempt to look at Korean religious life in a way which captures some of the contours of ‘religion’ in Korea which have escaped traditional forms of analysis. The book is not an in-depth look at ‘religion’ in Korea, but a broad-brush examination of religious life.

The book consists of seven chapters and an appendix, which really is an eighth chapter. The first chapter is the key chapter in the book as it sets out the author’s point of view that the characteristic of the Korean weltanschaunng is the assumption that humanity is essentially good, and that Korean spirituality is an attempt to ‘solve the dilemma’ of not achieving ‘the perfection they have expected to be theirs by birthright’ (p. 2). This idea he traces through the history of the different religious traditions, popular and foreign, down to the present day. ‘Spirituality’ becomes the search to interact with forces more powerful than ourselves which can help us to lead a more pleasant or meaningful life (p. 5). Consequently, in this view, Koreans see a ‘sage’ as someone who not only contemplates ‘knowledge’, but who also acts on it in an appropriate way (p. 15). The idea that Koreans have a sense of the innate goodness of humanity, and that the appropriate way of ‘knowing’ is to act upon one’s knowledge may be a characteristic of contemporary Koreans; however, these two ‘concepts’ are also key features of Confucianism, both in its classical form, and in its ‘Neo-Confucian’ form. One wonders how much this feature of current spirituality in fact represents the very deep influence which Confucianism has exercised in Korea, especially during the Chosŏn period.

The second chapter, ‘Folk Religion and Animism’, expands on the discussion in the first chapter by focusing on shamans and shamanistic practices and linking these with fortune-telling and prognostication. Non-shamanistic forms of popular religion are not considered here. The third chapter, ‘China’s Three Teachings in Korea, discusses Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism. The [End Page 206] overview of the first two traditions follows well-known subjects which are usefully seen from a fresh angle. I have questions, however, about the discussion of ‘Daoism’. For one thing, the term covers both a philosophical tradition, and an institutionalized form of popular Chinese religion consisting of different ‘schools’ or sub-traditions. Baker quite correctly points out the influence of the philosophical tradition on both Neo-Confucian thought and practice. But, in his discussion of what he calls ‘liturgical Daoism’, he implies that institutional Daoist traditions were present (p. 55). This I doubt. What he seems to be referring to are Chinese cultic practices, perhaps sanctioned or tolerated by the state, which were unrelated to particular Daoist schools. If this is the case, then it is incorrect to say that this tradition vanished, as there are still examples of this practice which are extant in modern Korea. One example would be the Tong-myo [East Shrine] dedicated to the Chinese ‘God of War’ Kwanu (Kor.) and built by the government after the wars of the 1590s. Subsequently, there were other shrines erected around Sŏul which were dedicated to this deity. Also, on Nam-san in the capital there is a shrine dedicated to another Chinese warrior figure, the Waryŏng-myo, which has no connection with support from the state. Collectively, these shrines represent the spread of Chinese religious culture and practice into Korea; but, they are not in a strict sense ‘Daoist’ as they do not form part of an institutionalized tradition.

Chapter Four, ‘Korean Christianity’, looks at this tradition in both its Catholic and Protestant forms from the aspect of faith-based communities, which he contrasts to ritual-based communities (p. 60). This...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2167-2040
Print ISSN
2093-7288
Pages
pp. 206-208
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-19
Open Access
No
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