Buddhist Religious Identity in South Korea


A review of La construction d’une identité religieuse bouddhiste en Corée du Sud (The Construction of a Buddhist Religious Identity in South Korea), by Florence Galmiche.

Florence Galmiche’s The Construction of a Buddhist Religious Identity in South Korea is a 371-page dissertation, originally written in French, richly illustrated with photographs taken by the author. It includes a glossary, a list of informants, a list of primary sources, and a trilingual bibliography (English, French and Korean). It could be characterized as a classic thesis in social anthropology.  However, the subject — an analysis of the contemporaneous revival of Buddhism — is very innovative as most experts on Korea concentrate on rivaling religions such as Confucianism, Shamanism, and Christianity.

Ed. note: This review belongs to a new series on our website, called “DR World”, dedicated to reviewing dissertations from around the world written in languages other than English, including French, German and others. If you would like to have your dissertation reviewed here, or to contribute a review, please contact info@dissertationreviews.org.

The ambition of the thesis is to bring out the transformation of religious practices in modern Korea. Accordingly, Florence Galmiche chose to work with housewives since they are in fact the major actors of the modernization process of Buddhism. Her aim is to elucidate the tension between two visions of religion:  the first oriented towards popularization and life “here below”, and the second more concerned with ascetic tradition.

The first chapter focuses on devotional rituals executed in Buddhist temples by mothers of the young candidates wishing to be admitted to prestigious universities. The ethnographical description of the rituals accomplished by thousands of women — about 1,500 for a single day at Bongeunsa Temple 봉은사 in Gangnam District in Seoul — is simply astonishing: under the monks’ iron rule, the mothers conform themselves to the busy schedule of their children. They keep praying and bowing as long as their children’s university entrance examinations are still running, and take rest during the occasional breaks.  Such ceremonies are obviously linked to the belief in some “quasi-magical” effect, but, according to the monks’ injunction, the women must not pray for the success of their children, and instead must accomplish a correct devotional attitude complying with their social status. This dual, ambivalent interpretation offers the possibility to hide the popular appearance of the practice.

The second chapter describes the extension of the role of Buddhist laymen, who initially visited the temples from time to time, for instance during the university entrance exam prayers. The formation of secular associations gives support to apparition and development of small cooperative groups. This type of social formation seems inspired by the charity activities of Christian churches, but they also meet the aspirations of a new and modern Korean Buddhism. As the role of faithful adherents is becoming more important, monks get involved in religious teaching and organize training sessions in Buddhist doctrines, consequently obliterating the traditional repartition of tasks between monks who led an ascetic way of life, and the lay followers who engaged with society.  In fact, this new modern Buddhism does not focus any longer on the monks but on the laical community, Florence Galmiche concludes.

The last chapter brings to light the contradictions created by this recent situation. The individual engagement in social activities is opposed to the egotistic seclusion of monks. Some criticize the monastery way of life, supposed to be without any social utility and consider that “modern Buddhism” means “socially involved Buddhism”. But others defend a way of life dedicated to ascetic practices, and advocate the reinforcement of monks’ authority and their supremacy bound to their detachment from mundane, secular affairs.

Florence Galmiche’s dissertation is very important. It will of course be of great interest to specialists of Korea and to social anthropologists and sociologists specialized in religion. Beyond that, the revival of Buddhism(s) is part of a sweeping global change, taking place everywhere from the Himalayan regions to Japan.  In fact, the efforts accomplished to acquire a phantasmagoric parity with Western nations implied the valorization of universal religions, comparable to Christianity. And, in Asia, Buddhism is the only religion which appears universal and comparable to Christianity. Although this influence is often denied by local specialists, the influence of Western metaphysics leads to the greater emphasis on faith and belief, and the deprecation of practices. Because of the political necessity to avoid any amalgam of rituals and magical practices, monks establish meditation as the most “intellectually correct” ritual. This mode of thinking de-emphasizes or even ignores the efficiency of rituals.  The prayers do not offer any longer guarantee about success. Monks aim to convince parents to abandon excessive desire, especially as far as their children’s success is concerned. Mothers, as seen above, must not think about the success or the failure of their prayers, but they must adopt a “correct” attitude, the climax or apogee of which is meditation — a kind of ritual considered more developed in Asia than in Western countries.

Though the actors — monks or laymen — always refer to Korea, this phenomenon is not typically Korean. In fact, many Asian countries refer to Buddhism as a new way to a “modernity” which would not be indebted to nineteenth-century Western philosophy and political thought. Far from the usual “modernity,” the conception of which is based on the proliferation of technical objects, the domination of nature and the autonomy of the subject, Buddhism proposes — or claim to propose — a symmetrical cosmology which enhance ecological philosophy, links between nature and culture and interdependence of human beings. Theses values, to be substituted for western concepts, are conceived as contributions of Asia to the definition a new world order. Korea appears as one of the nations implied in this process of universalization of a local religion, a process which from now on can no longer be the privilege of the Western countries.

One of the most valuable insights of Galmiche’s work is the discovery of the logic produced by the combination of entwined layers of micro and macro analysis which articulates women’s religious activities and the role of Buddhism in Korea. This habile construction offers the reader a comprehensive picture of Buddhism in Korea. Standing out from usual studies about Korean Buddhism in Korea, Japan and the United States — which tend to focus on history, history of art, philology and philosophy — and from contemporary studies which generally aim to contribute to the creation of a reformed Buddhism, this dissertation reveals that the opposition between “popular religion” and “elite religion”, as well as the dichotomy between rituals and beliefs, are no longer pertinent. This dissertation extends the reflections of Richard F. Gombrich, Gananath Obeyesekere, and perhaps George D. Bond on the growing individualization and goes beyond them, as the complexity of the Korean situation clearly shows that the revival of Buddhism and the development of individual affiliation of believers are not a reaction to the loss of influence of religion within the context of modernity. On the contrary, the success of Buddhism is based on modernization itself.

This dissertation is a model for future research for the comprehension of the notion of modern religion and modernity in Western countries. All specialists of religions in Asia, as well as researchers interested in the social meaning of so-called individualism should read this fascinating work.

Laurence Caillet
Laboratoire d’ethnologie et de sociologie comparative
Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense / CNRS

Primary Sources

Fieldwork of the author
Statistical inquiries by Gallup in religion
Taehan pulgyo chogye-jong p’ogyowon, Pulgyo immun
P’anjon (2007-2010)

Dissertation Information

École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS). 2011. 371pp. Dissertation originally written in French. Primary Advisor: Danièle Hervieu-Léger.


Image: Photograph taken at Bongamsa Temple 봉암사 in Mungyeong, October 2007, by Florence Galmiche.

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