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Reviewed by:
  • Korea’s Great Buddhist-Confucian Debate: The Treatises of Chŏng Tojŏn (Sambong) and Hamhŏ Tŭkt’ong (Kihwa)by A. Charles Muller
  • Sem Vermeersch, Associate Professor
Korea’s Great Buddhist-Confucian Debate: The Treatises of Chŏng Tojŏn (Sambong) and Hamhŏ Tŭkt’ong (Kihwa). Korean Classics Library: Philosophy and Religion. Translated and with an introduction by A. Charles Muller. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2015, 192pp.

Anyone interested in the polemics between Confucians and Buddhists with which this book deals has almost certainly browsed versions of the translations on the website maintained by the author-translator (hereafter "the author"), A. Charles Muller ( There one can find full versions of Chŏng Tojŏn’s treatise, "An Array of Critiques of Buddhism" ( Pulssi chappyŏn), probably written in 1398, and Kihwa’s treatise, "Exposition of Orthodoxy" ( Hyŏnjŏng non), the dating of which is not discussed in this book. Some parts of these treatises have also appeared in the Korean Religions in Practicereader (Princeton University Press, 2007). Still, despite the fact that the bulk of the translated material is already available elsewhere, it is good to have them together in book format. Besides the tactile and visual pleasure of reading a book the traditional way, there are other compelling reasons. [End Page 141]

First of all, the author has added the translation of a shorter, earlier treatise by Chŏng Tojŏn (1342–1398) entitled "On Mind, Material Force, and Principle" ( Simgiri p’yŏn). Written in 1394, it compares the three teachings of Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism (discussed in this order in the tract), and although it clearly favors Confucianism, it is fairly evenhanded, and retains a high degree of respect for other traditions. In this it is very different from his "Array of Critiques," which attacks the foundations of Buddhism, trying to show that its most fundamental teachings are flawed and that its practices corrupt society. It is therefore an important source for tracing Chŏng’s evolution from moderate denial of the philosophical superiority of Buddhism to all-out attack.

Second, Muller has added an introduction to situate the issues that are discussed in these treatises. Following a general introduction to the three treatises and their authors, in a section entitled "East Asian Philosophical Underpinnings: Essence-Function and Interpenetration" he gives a succinct yet very cogent introduction to the common worldview underlying both Chŏng and Kihwa’s essays. All too often the two sides of the debate are seen as irreconcilable—this is of course in no small measure due to Chŏng’s polemics—whereas in fact they shared the same perception of how the cosmos worked, and of man’s place in that cosmic order. The so called "essence-function" ( ch’e-yong) paradigm in particular was universally used in East Asia to explain phenomena or argue a point. A lot of these similarities are of course due to the process of sinicization Buddhism underwent in China, yet it is still important to make this point, as it goes overlooked so often.

A third reason why it is important to have this book is simply the intrinsic value of the material. As the author notes, this kind of "debate" among different traditions is very rare. In my view, the biggest boon of this verbal sparring between Confucians and Buddhists is that it forces them to make their points clearer and more unambiguous, perhaps even drawing out aspects that would otherwise remain implicit. On the Confucian side, Chŏng Tojŏn, as the author points out, makes a synthesis of all the Confucian critiques that had been raised since Han Yu (768–824). But not only is it the culmination and probably the best reasoned Confucian critique of Buddhism, it also reveals a lot about the Neo-Confucian worldview of scholars like Chŏng Tojŏn, often credited as the architect of the Chosŏn dynasty. If you find the normal exposés of Neo-Confucian thought too abstruse, then you can find here (particularly in the [End Page 142] Simgiri p’yŏn) a much more concrete exposition of the kind...


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