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  • Editor’s Introduction
  • Boudewijn Walraven

The past century has seen a huge imbalance in the study of Korean Buddhism. Most attention has been devoted to the early period and particularly to Buddhism in Silla, where Wŏnhyo (617–686) emerged as a towering figure whose influence reached far beyond the Korean peninsula. Koryŏ, too, received considerable attention, particularly thanks to the printing of the Tripitaka, which became the basis for the Taishō Canon that is used as a standard edition by modern buddhologists. Undoubtedly Korean Buddhism flourished in these ages and was even able to exert influence on the Buddhist traditions in other countries. With the advent of the Chosŏn court in 1392, however, the gradual adoption of Neo-Confucianism as the new state’s ideology implied a drastic deterioration of the position of Buddhism, which no longer could claim to be the dominant system of belief and was severely weakened institutionally. Twentieth-century scholars of Korean Buddhism (among whom quite a few Japanese) accordingly adopted a negative perspective on Chosŏn Buddhism. Official policies of the Confucian government designed to curtail and control Buddhism were deemed to have resulted in intellectual stagnation and a relegation of Buddhism to the lower classes (accompanied by a vulgarization of its contents, often disparagingly referred to as “shamanization”). Particularly the second half of the Chosŏn period, after 1600, has been regarded as hardly worthy of serious research. Typically, a series of edited books with articles on Korean Buddhism translated from Korean and Japanese that was published by the Center for Korean Studies of the University of California at Berkeley started with a volume on the Three Kingdoms and never progressed beyond Buddhism in the Early Chosŏn (1996). Yet, Late Chosŏn Buddhism merits more attention, at the least because of the important role it continued to play in society, perhaps not at the official, public level, but in the private lives of people of all classes. As Martina Deuchler, one of the foremost scholars of the [End Page 5] development of Confucianism in Chosŏn, recently told me, in the eighteenth century even the majority of yangban in the Andong area (traditionally regarded as a bastion of Confucianism) were privately Buddhists. Members of the royal family invariably would have a temple near their graves and many yangban families would generously contribute to the maintenance and reconstruction of temples.

The study of Late Chosŏn Buddhism has suffered from a double bias. Not only was it seen as degenerated because of oppression by the state, but the modernist perspectives of early twentieth-century reformers of Buddhism like Han Yongun emphasized the negative, “superstitious” sides of Chosŏn Buddhism, in the same way other Korean reformers who had been recently introduced to western culture were inclined to disparage Korean traditions in general. It should also be kept in mind that at the time, and well into the 1970s, western studies of Buddhism (as well as Japanese studies influenced by this trend), adopted an approach that has been characterized as “Protestant”1 (and might also be branded as “orientalist”), and were extremely text-oriented, emphasizing doctrines rather than the living practice of Buddhism. This perspective was ill-suited to the study of the reality of Buddhism as it actually existed in Asia, in which ritual and meditative practices played a much more prominent role than intellectualistic “philosophizing.” As a consequence of all these factors, the study of Late Chosŏn Buddhism has attracted little interest and a proper understanding of its functioning has been difficult to achieve. Yet, as noted above, Buddhism continued to play a role in the lives of the elite (the great calligrapher Ch’usa Kim Chŏnghŭi being a prime example, but also a political figure like the Hŭngsŏn Taewŏn’gun), as well as in the lives of the lower strata of the population. Moreover, Buddhism was also involved in the remarkable social and intellectual changes and developments that characterize Late Chosŏn society (irrespective of the way one wishes to interpret these changes, as signs of early modernity or not).

In recent years, several studies (some by contributors to this issue) have appeared that...


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