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Reviewed by:
  • Trial and Error in Modernist Reforms: Korean Buddhism under Colonial Rule
  • Jin Y. Park, Associate Professor
Trial and Error in Modernist Reforms: Korean Buddhism under Colonial Rule. By Pori Park, Korea Research Monograph, Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley, 2009, 158p.

Recent Buddhist scholarship has shown special interest in the transformation of Buddhism in modern times. Buddhism's encounters with modernity have appeared in different forms, depending on the regional and historical contexts in which they took place. In the West, the encounter resulted in the introduction of Buddhism to the Western world, which was followed by the emergence of a modern style of Buddhist scholarship and new forms of Buddhism. In East Asia, Buddhism's encounters with modernity have been frequently discussed in relation to political characteristics, including nationalism and colonialism, and their socio-religious manifestations have been characterized by, among other things, mass-proselytization, lay Buddhist movements, institutional reform, and the emergence of socially- engaged Buddhism. In the context of Korean Buddhism, its encounter with modernity was especially colored by the historical situation of colonialism. The seemingly contrasting concepts, such as the East versus the West, the traditional versus modern, and nationalists versus collaborators, have frequently influenced scholarly evaluations of Korean Buddhism during this period.

Trial and Error in Modernist Reforms: Korean Buddhism under Colonial Rule, by Pori Park, challenges such a dualistic approach to the understanding of modern Korean Buddhism and proposes to see the complex synergy of diverse factors that Korean Buddhism faced during the colonial period of modern Korean history. In investigating the evolution of Korean Buddhism from the late nineteenth century to the first half of the twentieth century, the author explains the dual tasks faced by Korean Buddhists, tasks which were similar to those encountered by Buddhists in other countries. The tasks are described, borrowing the expression of the Buddhist scholar George Bond, as "identity" and "responsiveness." In the course of the modernization of Korea, Korean Buddhists had to maintain their identity as Koreans as well as maintaining Eastern values (including those of Buddhism), and at the same time, they needed to be responsive to the changing milieus of Korean [End Page 152] society. The social milieu was coming increasingly under the influence of new religions, such as Christianity, and modern Western concepts; in addition, it was under the control of the Japanese colonial government. Despite the appearance of a dualistic structure of society, Trial and Error in Modernist Reforms emphasizes the complexity of the situation, thereby challenging any simplistic dualistic approach in the understanding of Buddhism and society at the time.

The book consists of five chapters. Chapter 1, "Rebound: From Oppression to Emulation of New Models," briefly outlines the history of Korean Buddhism from the Chosŏn dynasty (1392-1910) to the early twentieth century. During the Chosŏn dynasty, anti-Buddhist politics systematically suppressed Buddhism by depriving the religion of its financial resources and sectarian identity. With the opening of Korea in 1876, Korean Buddhism faced yet another crisis in dealing with the influx of Japanese Buddhism and Christian missionaries. The crisis also offered an opportunity for Korean Buddhism to re-invigorate itself as Buddhists tried to learn from this new environment to overcome their degraded position in Korean society. In the process of emulating Christian missionaries and Japanese Buddhists, Korean Buddhism went through a period of trial and error, which is the theme of the second chapter.

Chapter 2, "Caught In-Between: Korean Reactions to Japanese Buddhism and Colonial Politics on Buddhism," discusses the policies of the Japanese colonial government regarding Korean Buddhism through a system similar to that utilized in Japan. Monasteries were subject to the centralized system through the Temple Ordinance, and the colonial government justified this by stating that the purpose of the system was to protect Korean Buddhism. Many Korean clerics accepted that justification, the author argues, even though the ordinance left Korean Buddhism subject to the control of the colonial government. Park states: "With the enactment of the ordinance, they [Korean Buddhists] were able to embark on modern reforms, although under the tight scrutiny of the Japanese regime" (p. 47).

Chapter 3, "Modernizing Buddhism: Buddhist Reforms before the March...


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