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  • The Power of the Buddhas: The Politics of Buddhism During the Koryŏ Dynasty (918–1392)
  • Hwansoo Ilmee Kim, Assistant Professor
The Power of the Buddhas: The Politics of Buddhism During the Koryŏ Dynasty (918–1392). By Sem Vermeersch, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2008, 485p.

In the study of Korean Buddhism, two sweeping but interrelated meta-narratives have dominated as hermeneutic paradigms: "syncretic Buddhism" (t'ong Pulgyo) and "State-protection Buddhism" (hoguk Pulgyo) arose from ideological scholarship during the colonial era (1910– 1945) and were further codified by scholars of the post-colonial military regimes (1970s). A growing number of Western and Korean language scholars, led by Shim Chaeryong, Robert Buswell, Henrik Sørensen, and Kim Jongmyung, among others, have detailed the discursive origins of these concepts and shown how they are problematic in finding holistic interpretations of Korean Buddhist history. Sem Vermeersch, in his meticulously researched book The Power of the Buddhas, joins this group by challenging the second meta-narrative of "State-protection Buddhism." [End Page 109]

Vermeersch seeks to revise the conventional interpretation of the Buddhism of the Koryŏ dynasty (918–1392) as being exclusively "State-protection Buddhism," which is defined as "a religion whose prime purpose was to rally support (supernatural and popular) against foreign invasions" (p. 3). By employing International Studies scholar Sabrina Petra Ramet's theory of the relation between religion and politics and relying on historical texts, literary collections (munjip) and, most importantly, epigraphic material (myojimyŏng or pisŏk), Vermeersch scrutinizes the matrix of the relationship between the state and Buddhism. His central argument revolves around two questions: what was Buddhism to the state, and what was the state to Buddhism? Through a close analysis of primary sources, Vermeersch concludes that "Buddhism was a broad canvas on which people projected many religious and secular concerns and desires, among which 'protection of the state' was but one aspect" (p. 3).

The Power of the Buddhas consists of three parts with seven chapters altogether. The first part, which is divided into two chapters, details the historical and ideological background of Koryŏ Buddhism by looking at Buddhism's relationship to the state in the late Silla dynasty (668–935) as well as the policies of the first king of Koryŏ (T'aejo) on Buddhism. Vermeersch points out thatin the late Silla period the temples of the Sŏn schools received the majority of their support from local officials rather than from the central court, and therefore the Sŏn schools fared well even as the dynasty waned. As a result, when T'aejo came to power, he sought out these local Sŏn temples as a major source of legitimacy to stabilize his new and fragile dynasty. Thus, he promulgated the Ten Injunctions which in turn set the standard for Buddhist policy-making throughout the Koryŏ era. However, Vermeersch cautions the reader that legitimacy did not derive exclusively from the power of the Buddhas but also from other traditions such as Confucianism and worship of indigenous deities (p. 146). In doing so, he undermines the idea that Buddhism was the sole sourcefor legitimacy.

The second part, which consists of three chapters, mainly concerns the ways in which the state administered the institution of Buddhism. Chapter three discusses the legal procedures for monastics in regards to ordination, statuses [End Page 110] of monks and nuns, and monastic rules. Vermeersch demonstrates that Koryŏ monastics, mostly sons of high officials and thus of aristocratic origins, enjoyed economic, social, and political privileges and were lax in following core monastic rules such as celibacy and frugality. The monastics' social background, he points out, blurred the relationship between the state and Buddhism. The following chapter goes into depth on the sangha examinations, the bureaucratic rankings and organizations of the central office (the Sangha Registry) of Koryŏ Buddhism to determine whether state officials or monks were ultimately in charge of these. Vermeersch shows that while the central state authorities controlled the sangha, Buddhist monks and powerful families acted as pressure groups and furthered their own personal, group, and institutional interests. The last chapter of part two examines whether royal and state preceptors wielded more or less power and authority...


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