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Reviewed by:
  • Religious and Philosophical Traditions of Korea by Kevin N. Cawley
  • David W. Kim
Religious and Philosophical Traditions of Korea, by Kevin N. Cawley, London and New York: Routledge, 2019, xxiii + 197 pp.

This volume is a comprehensive intellectual guide to the religio-philosophical landscape of Korean history in the context of East Asian cultural transmission. The six chapters of this text for courses on the history of Korean religion, philosophy, or culture demonstrate the transformation and glocalization of both transnational and local religions, such as Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Shamanism, and native new religious movements. What are the religious traditions of East Asia? How did they interact with Korean intellectual traditions? What geopolitical affect did these regional philosophical movements have on Korean kingdoms and dynasties? How were Korean religions unique? What were the identities of Korea’s “new religions” and how did they emerge in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? The Irish scholar Kevin Cawley explores the cultural and political roles of various religions as the key ideology of given eras of Korean history, from the Three Kingdoms to contemporary times. The author argues not only that Korea’s religious and philosophical traditions will continue to shape its future, but also that perceiving the combination of those traditions is a way of understanding “how Koreans think, live, and practice religions, which in the Korean context is inseparable from a long philosophical tradition” (xvi).

First, in terms of definition, the author regards religion and philosophy as “pathways” towards self-transformation in a Korean/East Asian context. He warns that insofar as its etymological meaning, the Western word “religion” should not to be applied to East Asia. Rather, it is argued, the ideological traditions of Korea should be understood as cultural ideas (the “three teachings” in the form of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism) from ancient China, [End Page 331] with shamanism an indigenous concept of the people of the Korean Peninsula. Philosophy in the East Asian context is understood as the set of teachings by morally cultivated scholars, wherein wisdom is seen as a realistic and achievable goal, and “which emphasizes that learning should transform how one thinks” (p. 19). Chapter 2 points out the process of cultural adoption and interaction whereby Chinese traditions were transmitted to the Korean Peninsula in what the author calls unique “Korean ways.” according to the Legends and History of the Three Kingdoms (Samguk yusa 三國遺事, ca. 1280) that first details the myth of Tan’gun, who is known as the progenitor of the Korean ethnic group, Buddhism and Confucianism were introduced to the peninsula during the Three Kingdoms period (trad. 57 CE–668). Cawley makes particular mention of the Silla military tradition of the Hwarang (“Flowering Youth” knights), who “followed Buddhist precepts and morality in order” to enhance the prestige of the royal family (p. 29). The author explores the Korean monks Wŏnhyo and Ŭisang as Buddhist pioneers. The il-sim (one-mind) teaching of Wŏnhyo is reflected as “t’ong pulgyo” 通佛敎 (being with others), or “integrated Buddhism,” in Silla (617–686), while Ŭisang (625–702) is examined as the founding patriarch of the Hwaŏm 華嚴 lineage (a tradition of Mahayana Buddhist philosophy based on the Avatamsaka Sutra [K. Hwaŏmgyŏng 華嚴經]).

Chapter 3 provides evidence on the emergence of Sŏn (Ch. Chan, J. Zen) Buddhism (with its focus on meditation) during the Unified Silla (668–935) period. The transformative feature of Sŏn Buddhism tradition becamse integrated with other Buddhist traditions. The works of Ŭichŏn (1055–1101), with their emphasis on kyo (doctrine), and Chinul (1158–1210), who taught kanhwa Sŏn (a method of meditation through studying or examining), brought about a consolidation in Sŏn thought. The Koryŏ dynasty (918–1392) witnessed the further development of Sŏn Buddhism as it transformed into “hoguk pulgyo” (state-protecting Buddhism). The completion of the Koryŏ Taejanggyŏng 高麗大藏經 (Great Buddhist Scriptures, or Tripitaka Koreana), comprising 81,000 print blocks, demonstrated this close relationship between the state and religion. In the following Chosŏn dynasty (1392–1897), state ideology transitioned away from Buddhism to Neo-Confucianism. Cawley maintains that Kihwa’s “way of humanity” (injido 仁之道) was one of the main rejoinders...