[Buddha-l] Review of 'Sangha-State Relations in the Koryo Dynasty'--a longy but goody

JKirkpatrick jkirk at spro.net
Wed Oct 7 13:53:52 MDT 2009

Everything you always wanted to know about king-sponsored Buddhism in Korea but were afraid to ask :)  
Too long for this list--I just cut it. 


October 7, 2009

Sem Vermeersch.  The Power of the Buddhas: The Politics of Buddhism during the Koryo Dynasty.  Harvard East Asian Monographs Series.
Cambridge  Harvard University Asia Center, 2008.  485 pp.  $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-03188-3.

Reviewed by John Jorgensen (Griffith University) 

Sangha-State Relations in the Koryo Dynasty

	Buddhism is frequently referred to as the state religion of Koryo, a dynasty that ruled most of the Korean Peninsula from 918 to 1392.
The type of Buddhist ideology adopted is routinely described as "state-protection Buddhism," meaning that the state sponsored Buddhist rituals and works in order to invoke sympathetic spiritual powers to ward off natural and military disasters, and bolster the status of the ruler as a Buddhist monarch or _cakravartin_, thereby gaining the support of the Buddhist Order and the king's Buddhist subjects.  This ideology is said to have been initiated by Wang Kŏn (r. 918-43), the founder of the dynasty.  This state sponsorship of Buddhism is alleged to have given the Buddhist Order or Sangha great wealth and economic influence, leading in turn to corruption and the mounting manipulation of Buddhism, along with the restrictions made in response.  It is also alleged that Buddhist monks were co-opted into the state bureaucracy via an examination and political appointments as spiritual advisors to the king.
	Sem Vermeersch's _The Power of the Buddhas_ critically reexamines these standard characterizations using the best editions of original sources, most Korean scholarship on Buddhism, plus some Japanese and Chinese primary and secondary sources.  In particular, he has used epigraphical evidence and the study based on this type of evidence by Ho Ho-ng-sik, especially Ho's _Koryo Pulgyosa yŏn'gu_ (Studies in the history of Koryo Buddhism) (1986), which at 930 pages is a mine of information.  As there is much to discuss, Vermeersch's book, including bibliography and index, is relatively long at 485 pages.
	The existing literature in European languages on Koryo Buddhism is limited to a handful of monographs, book chapters, articles, and unpublished doctoral dissertations.  Therefore, this book is a welcome contribution to the study of medieval Korea and the state that produced one of the major achievements of East Asian Buddhism, the Koryo Tripitaka.
	Focus is concentrated on the founding of the Koryo dynasty, for Vermeersch judges that this "marked a real break in the Buddhist world, reshaping it fundamentally, initiating an organizational and ideological template that remained more or less in place throughout the dynasty," a structure that was "inherently bureaucratic" (p.
vii).  Therefore, this book is not about doctrine, but about the political and social roles Buddhism played in Koryo history.  In particular, it deals with religion and the state, which in early Koryo was only a small coterie of eminent officials in the king's circle.


	This book attempts to remedy some of these deficiencies by putting as much of the information as possible into context, first by looking at the relations Buddhism had with the state in late Silla, the preceding dynasty.  Silla had been aristocratic.  Silla aristocrats began to lose their control over the regional areas where the local elites sponsored Sŏn monks who had connections with China.  After several warlords, including Wang Kŏn, had set up rival dynasties, the doctrinal schools of Buddhism that had been tied to the aristocratic clans and court of Silla, often by family connections and appointments, lost influence, leaving Sŏn dominant.  As a result, the Silla court approved and supported some Sŏn lineages, but they were located in the provinces and not the capital.  Wang Kŏn thus lured them over to his side and thereby demonstrated that he was the legitimate successor to the previous rulers.  To do so, he tried to appropriate all the Silla symbols of state Buddhism and left a political testament calling on his heirs to obtain the protection of the Buddhas, establish Buddhist festivals or rituals, and maintain certain monasteries. [more in book]

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