Korean Buddhism in the Twentieth Century


A review of Buddhist Propagation and Modernization: The Significance of P’ogyo in Twentieth-Century Korean Buddhism, by Mark Andrew Nathan. 

When I was asked to review Mark Nathan’s dissertation, I immediately flashed back to a presentation I heard him give in 2008. In fact Nathan’s research had stood out to me at the time for his clear focus on what Buddhism does as contrasted with Buddhist philosophy, the focus of the majority of scholarly works on Buddhism.

Editor’s Note: Although Mark Nathan uses M-R Romanization throughout his dissertation, the reviewer has utilized the Korean government’s Romanization scheme.

From the beginning of the introduction the calm scholarly tone of Nathan’s work matches the ideals of Korean Buddhism, while clearly exposing the importance of the propagation of Buddhism, or pogyo, in the twentieth century. Nathan finds that “the adoption, rapid diffusion, maintenance, and continued reproduction of the organizational elements associated with pogyo, have played a formative role in the development of modern Korean Buddhism” (p. 3). In his dissertation he examines the pogyo practice in Korean Buddhism to reveal 1) how pogyo was conceptualized and the material practices through which it was carried out, as well as 2) the underlying forces at work in this response to modernization. Nathan characterizes these two foci as empirical and theoretical, respectively.

Chapter One dives right into explaining the purpose of the research, establishing the context, and outlining tangentially connected work by other scholars. Although there are more plentiful works in Korean by scholars such as Shim Jaeryong, in English, Buddhism in modern Korea has only been covered through more focused studies such as the work of Robert Buswell Jr., Mark Nathan’s Ph.D. committee chair, and research by Pori Park, who discusses Buddhism during the colonial era including a brief section on pogyo. In this first chapter the dissertation traces the entire history of the religion in modern Korea. We learn of the arrival of Japanese Buddhist missionaries in 1877, the lifting of the law prohibiting monks and nuns from entering Seoul (and other major cities), and the 1899 (instituted in 1902) state initiative to reorganize Korean Buddhism (too little, too late). Each of these years, Nathan points out, is connected directly to pogyo activity. Chapter One concludes by briefly outlining each of the remaining chapters.

Chapter Two tackles the question of how pogyo was defined and conceptualized by the Buddhist organizations who utilize the term. Nathan employs diverse sources ranging from the personal writing of early propagators to regulations governing propagation to manuals explaining how to propagate Buddhism. Nathan begins with an analysis of Han Yongun’s Joseon Bulgyo Yusillon, concluding that Han found pogyo to be the natural responsibility of all Buddhists as the only way for Buddhism to become stronger, and that Han identified only activity outside the bounds of the temple/monastery as pogyo. Nathan also briefly summarizes the ideas of Gwon Sangno, Bak Hanyeong, and Yi Yeongjae, concluding that “for these early reformers, pogyo represented the primary way for Buddhism to become more socially relevant by enabling the monastic community to become more socially active and engaged” (p. 50). After this examination of what individual intellectuals considered to be pogyo, Nathan follows with outlining the ideas about pogyo presented in propagation regulations. Finally Nathan addresses propagation manuals, the first of which was published in 1938. Nathan’s interest in pogyo causes him to search through all the manuals, however, and his analysis of a 1999 manual by the Jogye Order (the dominant order of Korean Buddhism) is extensive. As Nathan wrestled with the documentary record to define pogyo he found the definition expanded to include indirect propagation activities. These activities are those that benefit society, not just Buddhists, and are considered within the scope of pogyo, an argument developed by some contributors to the Jogye Order propagation manual. After examining all of these various arguments, Nathan finally settles on his own definition of pogyo: for the purposes of this study, pogyo refers to all of the activities and mechanisms that make it possible for both monastic and lay Buddhist individuals and organizations to increase people’s exposure to, understanding of or involvement in Buddhist teachings and practices, either directly or indirectly, and in a way that promotes and advances the teachings and ideals of the religion in society by putting them into practice (p. 66). Nathan explicitly clarifies that conversion is not part of this definition, as conversion in a Buddhist context is, at best, unclear.

At the end of the chapter Nathan also raises the interesting question of the historicity of Buddhist propagation—is Buddhism a proselytizing religion or was this idea copied in whole cloth from Western Christian missionaries? Should pogyo be understood as an effort to proselytize or evangelize, in the way that the word pogyo is meant when it is used in the Christian context? To explain why he uses propagation for the Korean word pogyo, Nathan examines the English alternatives, and ultimately discards each because of the importance of conversion to terms such as proselytize, and their strong Christian context.

Geography is a key theme in Nathan’s dissertation, and he turns his attention to the subject in Chapter Three. Here Nathan begins by examining the late Joseon Dynasty efforts to “ameliorate Buddhism’s perceived social and geographic isolation” (p. 84). Propagation centers were a crucial part of reclaiming urban spaces for Buddhism. “Pogyo …provided the means for conveying or transporting Buddhism from the mountains to the cities as well as for conveying or communicating the teachings, ideals and practices of the religion to ordinary people” (p. 86). Deepening his explanation of geography beyond the push for urban propagation centers, Nathan explains the spiritual and philosophical connection between Buddhism and mountains. His nuanced explanation of how the landscape was inscribed with religious meaning, followed by theorizing on the meaning of space and place to religion, is one of the most fascinating parts of the dissertation. Continuing the close reading and analysis of Han Yongun’s Joseon Bulgyo Yusillon that informs much of the dissertation, Nathan uses Han’s discourse on locality and Buddhism as illustrative of the concern that without relocating to urban centers and carrying out pogyo, Buddhism would not survive.

In their efforts to establish urban propagation programs, Korean Buddhist orders cooperatively established Gakhwangsa. This temple became a place where different orders could meet and cooperate to varying degrees. Nathan explains that the monks were given more latitude in their activities than many Koreans because the Japanese preferred Buddhist activity to Western missionaries and Christianity. In this regard Nathan points out that although the 1911 Temple Ordinance Law gave undue power to the pro-Japanese abbots of the thirty major temples, it was also connected to central propagation efforts that formed a foundation for Buddhism’s re-entry into urban Korea. Although most propagation centers focused on spreading the dharma, a few “played important roles in monastic affairs and social movements that went beyond the dissemination of Buddhist ideas and practices” (p. 115). After the end of the Japanese Occupation, however, Buddhism went through a difficult period of adjustment, as different groups sought to control the major monasteries. Nathan sketches a difficult period lasting from the 1950s through to the 1970s where the combination of in-fighting, national poverty, a powerful Christian president, US military influence, industrialization, and urbanization interrupted propagation activities to varying degrees. After Park Chung Hee became president he enacted the Management of Buddhist Property Law in 1962, allowing the government broad powers over monasteries and their finances. Under this law Buddhist groups had to register with the government; the Jogye Order (the dominant order today) registered first, but in 1970 separated into the Jogye and Taego Order (now the second largest order in Korea, the Taego Order monks may marry). Some temples, however, registered as propagation centers without specifying an order, although later most established a formal relationship with a specific order. They educated lay people on Buddhism, but also engaged in social welfare activities. Other propagation centers were established by specific (usually large and famous) monasteries to carry out activities in the urban setting. Nathan makes it clear, however, that most temples established in urban areas, even if they did not explicitly call themselves propagation centers, included propagation as one of their major activities. At the end of the chapter Nathan introduces a reverse trend—now many rural temples seek to draw lay people back to the traditional temple setting. “The scenic beauty of the temples’ natural surroundings, combined with their embodiment of the cultural heritage of Korea’s living past acted as motivating factors or important incentives for the public to come into contact with the historic temples of South Korea’s rugged mountains” (p. 132). Mountain temples became increasingly integrated into the lifestyle of Koreans, for tourism and for retreats (the assumption is that participants are Buddhists), culminating in experiential programs such as the Temple Stay Program designed to give a touristic but educational experience of Korean Buddhism (to participants who are assumed to be non-Buddhists).

Chapter Four addresses the impact of laws and regulations on propagation, because the “introduction of modern legal principles that redefined the nature of religious organizations and their relationship to the state and other institutional sectors of society, together with […] new legal and regulatory structures […] exerted coercive and normative pressures on newly forming Buddhist organizations” (p. 139). In this chapter Nathan argues that law led to an emphasis on pogyo as the method to reform, revitalize, and modernize Korean Buddhism. Nathan feels, however, that most scholars have only investigated these laws to discuss colonial oppression, rather than the impact of law on Buddhism. Nathan has found that courts have consistently used pogyo as a central part of their understanding of religious organizations. Pogyo‘s central position in law evolved from Westerners who first protected their legal right to practice and then extended rights to Christian missionaries. Nathan explains Japanese Buddhist propagation in Korea, contextualizing it with several pages of detailed information on Buddhism after the Meiji Restoration in Japan, as well as a discussion of the activities of Japanese Buddhist monks in Korea. Although Nathan finds these efforts to be part of Japanese imperialism, they did provide an example to Korean Buddhist monks of active propagation of Buddhism, and Japanese monks such as Sano Zenrei were active proponents of overturning the law forbidding Korean Buddhist monastics from entering the major cities while advocating for freedom of religion. Although scholars have previously focused on legal language that allowed Japanese Buddhist organizations to apply to take over Korean Buddhist temples, Nathan finds this line of inquiry to be relatively unimportant as despite many applications, only minor temples were ever granted to Japanese Buddhist organizations.

In his detailed analysis of the Temple Ordinance passed by the Japanese Colonial government Nathan questions the either/or binary that either accepts the Japanese at their word, or regards the ordinance as terribly detrimental to Korean Buddhism. Nathan asserts that it is possible to study the law without nationalist bias if the law is not treated automatically as a tool for political ends. It is in the ordinance’s articles related to pogyo that Nathan goes into the most detail, clarifying that “Article 2 of the Temple Ordinance, therefore, presents us with a situation where the state was in effect prescribing through legal means an area of Korean Buddhist religious activity that, for all intents and purposes, was not yet established as an organized practice in Korean Buddhist temples and monasteries” (p. 172). Through his reading of several related laws, Nathan finds “propagation constituted the entire framework for regulating religious activity in society under the law” (p. 174). This understanding of pogyo as central to religion by the Japanese impacted post-colonial Korean Buddhism and legal measures related to Buddhism. Nathan also points out that the Temple Ordinance remained in effect, in large part, until 1962 when it was replaced by the Buddhist Property Management Law. The latter was an improvement in some ways—such as removing government interference from the selection of abbots—but many other aspects of the law seemed to be modeled on the ordinance. In 1987 the Traditional Temple Preservation Law replaced the previous law, with reduced powers. Crucially, despite differences between the laws Nathan points out that “there is a high degree of continuity in the way that the state has singled out Buddhist temples and organizations, or some subset of them, and treated them differently than most other religious organizations and places of worship under the law” (p. 190).

Chapter Five addresses the role of mass media in propagation. I was especially looking forward to reading this chapter because I have never seen any academic work addressing the mass media Buddhist presence, although in my years in Korean Studies I have often encountered Buddhist mass media. Nathan’s chapter included an overview of how the modern mass media contributes to pogyo with a comparison to pre-modern Buddhist propagation. “This longer historical view reveals intriguing differences between the pre-modern patterns in the textual propagation of Buddhism and the modern practices that characterize pogyo and mass media” (p. 195). Nathan explains how the publication of Buddhist periodicals, including newspapers and journals, which he calls “the most immediate and tangible products of the newfound emphasis being placed on Buddhist propagation in Korean society” (p. 199), began during the colonial era. Although other scholarship has viewed these publications through the lens of collaboration, by seeing pogyo as the over-arching goal of the contributors Nathan finds the journals steadfastly focused on propagation, not politics. He outlines the publication history of various periodicals during the colonial era, most of which last only a few issues, and traces the situation for newspapers and journals up until the present. In the following section Nathan does the same for stand-alone publications, primarily books, on Buddhism as well as translations of historical Buddhist works from Chinese characters into vernacular Korean. Earlier books often used mixed script, introducing a barrier for some potential readers, but the single biggest hurdle for Buddhist publication was the sheer size of the Buddhist canon, which had been developed over the course of a thousand years. Some authors also created condensed or abridged versions of important Buddhist works, including Han Yongun. Baek Yongseong spear-headed efforts to translate entire sutras into vernacular Korean throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s, and he was increasingly joined by other monks. Nathan explains, however, that from liberation to the 1960s there were very few Buddhist books published. In 1963, however, cooperative efforts for publication commenced with the goal of translating the entire canon: this lasted until 2001 when the 318th book was published. Other media used for Buddhist propagation began with colonial era radio broadcasts but a dedicated radio station didn’t emerge until 1990 and the Buddhist TV station did not begin until 1995. The internet has seen further developments including digitization of the Korean Buddhist canon, however there was no extensive discussion of these modern mediums in the dissertation.

After briefly touching on the internet, Nathan rewinds 2,000 years to discuss the development of the Buddhist canon and, of course, pogyo efforts of the time. Nathan points out that the earliest efforts to record the dharma in books were directly linked to propagation, and traces the transmission of Buddhism to China (most transmission to Korea came through China). As Nathan points out, in the Mahayana branch of Buddhism the idea that keeping, reciting, or copying sutra was beneficial to the actor was widespread, further encouraging the spread of written Buddhist materials. East Asia was particularly fertile ground for the proliferation of a religion where passing on religious texts was a religious (meritorious) act.

Chapter Six is the conclusion of the dissertation. Here Nathan helpfully outlines all his major points. In general these have already been summarized above. However, Nathan ventures into interesting territory with his conclusions about propagation such as: “although Buddhist propagation as a practice has likely resulted in a greater number of lay people who self-identify as ‘Buddhists’ and support the religion, the reasons why people decide to create ties to Buddhist temples and organizations or to call themselves Buddhist are a separate matter” (p. 234). In the next section Nathan outlines further research directions for the study of Buddhist propagation. He clarifies that most scholars have focused closely on individuals and hence the organizational and institutional framework becomes subsumed into individual biographical stories, and has been at time subverted by nationalistic bias. Other scholars have reified Buddhism in their work, leading to a host of analytic problems as the many divisions and personalities within Korean Buddhism are subsumed into one undifferentiated monastic community. In addition Nathan warns against considering pogyo as just one more activity that was added to the roster for Buddhist organizations, but rather points out that many organizations were formed to carry out propagation—pogyo came first, with Buddhist propagation centers even serving as the birthplace of some modern Buddhist orders. Next Nathan addresses the tension surrounding pogyo owing to a perception that it may too closely follow Christian methods, hence occluding some characteristics of Buddhism. Nathan ascribes the dearth of academic study of pogyo directly to the way that it has been characterized as a Christianization of Buddhism. Nathan introduces some of the theoretical literature on the topic, but his position is that “I would argue that the importation and adoption of a normative understanding of religion, which came from the West (and in Korea’s case, Japan also) and which Protestant groups naturally exemplified through their organizations and activities, should be seen as the underlying factor in the decision to appropriate certain strategies, methods, and organizational structures from Christianity” (p. 245). Next Nathan discusses institutional isomorphism as applied to his studies of Korea, and concludes that although this factor is important, Buddhist specific laws have worked against homogenization. When Korean Buddhist organizations adopted pogyo as a practice, they looked to institutional models, such as Japanese Buddhists and Christian organizations, “conforming to the norms and expectations of the institutional environment” (p. 250). However, pogyo was not un-Korean, but rather “the values, symbols, and ideals that inform the concept of pogyo and endow it with potency both as a religiously valid and socially beneficial form of practice were drawn from a mix of Buddhist doctrines and teachings, traditional Korean and East Asian ideas about religion and society, as well as new values, belief systems, and definitions of religion introduced from the West” (p. 252).

After finishing reading this dissertation I was more convinced than ever that Mark Nathan makes an original and needed contribution to the literature on Korean Buddhism. This is a work that steps back and views over 100 years of Buddhism from the perspectives of organizational structure, law, geography, media, and most of all the multiple points of impact during Korea’s difficult modernization. My perspective, based on all the additional questions that arose as I read the dissertation, is that as a book this will form the basis of countless additional studies in the largely ignored field of modern Korean Buddhist practice. Until the book is published I feel that this dissertation is essential reading for anyone who is researching Buddhism in contemporary Korea, as well as scholars of religion more generally (in fact I recommended it at least five times while I was reviewing it).

CedarBough Saeji
Department of Korean Studies
Hankuk University of Foreign Studies

Primary Sources

Laws, Regulations, and Legal Documents Related to Buddhism
Publications by Buddhist Monastics
Publications on Buddhist Topics by Lay People

Dissertation Information

University of California, Los Angeles. 2010. 269 pp. Primary Advisor: Robert Buswell, Jr.

Image: Jogyesa. Wikimedia Commons.

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