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A Look at Buddhism and Modernity in Korea

A UCLA undergraduate student in Korean Buddhism reports on Professor Jin Y. Park's colloquium presentation at the Center for Buddhist Studies.

On November 4, 2005, Professor Jin Y. Park of American University in Washington, D.C., gave a talk entitled, "Buddhist and Modernity in Korea: Unraveling the Knots." Jane Lam reports on this talk, which was the third in the 2005-2006 Center for Buddhist Studies Colloquium Series.

In her colloquium presentation on Buddhism and modernity in Korea, Professor Jin Y. Park discussed modern Korean Buddhism, beginning in the late 19th century and continuing through the 20th century. Her focus was on the revival and renovation of Buddhism and how the tradition was affected by Japanese colonialism. She examined the role Korean Buddhism played in the development of a modern social and national identity for Korea. She also noted the combined influence of modernity and gender in Korean Buddhist culture.

With the decline of the Choson dynasty, an era in which Buddhism suffered from a centuries-long repression, Koreans saw an opportunity to revive their Buddhist tradition. There were two approaches in this campaign. First, there were Zen revivalists, like the iconoclastic monk Kyongho (1849-1912), who wanted to restore traditional Buddhist practices. Second, there were reformists, who encouraged change in order to enhance the viability of the tradition in modern society.

As a part of these dual campaigns, many new treatises were produced, some of which were influenced by Japanese colonialism. Among the major concerns addressed in these treatises were improvements in education for both the monks and the general population, and the creation of Korean Buddhist texts translated from Chinese. If Buddhism was to thrive in modern secular society, reformists felt that it was important to educate both sangha members and lay followers in doctrinal teachings. Reformists also emphasized the importance of the relationship between the monks and the general public. The only way for Buddhism to survive in the modern world was to expand the focus of the tradition from the monastery exclusively to the broader public sphere. Reformists also emphasized the need to have Buddhist texts translated from Chinese to Korean, so that these scriptures would be accessible to the general population.

Gender was another factor that affected modern Korean Buddhism. Modernity in the West occurred in conjunction with gender equality and independence. When these ideas entered Korea, they were considered to be a crucial part of the modernization process. This was the first time Korea had encountered such concerns and Korean women responded with great enthusiasm to these calls for equality. Women found in Buddhism a way to counter their devaluation by traditional Choson Korean society, which was based on Neo-Confucianism. As a result, Buddhist modernity was viewed as an opponent of traditional social values.

Professor Park concluded her lecture with a discussion of some of the problems that have resulted from the modernization of Korean Buddhism. In reforming the tradition, for example, Buddhist reformers revealed their own limitations. For example, after the Japanese colonial period, reform movements began to die out, because the reform agendas had been too heavily influenced by Japanese antecedents. Professor Park suggested that instead of carrying out reforms as a reaction to social political problems, reformers had to find their own identities. She also pointed out the problem of periodization. The year 1895 is often assumed to mark the beginning of modernization, but this simple demarcation line separating traditional from modern Korea does not take into account what was actually a much lengthier period of transition. The relationship between traditional and modern is actually quite complicated and needs to be better understood in order to fully understand Korean Buddhism.