Buddhas and Ancestors

Religion and Wealth in Fourteenth-Century Korea

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Juhn Y. Ahn
Korean Studies of the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies
  • Seattle, WA: 
    University of Washington Press
    , June
     260 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Over the course of the 14th century, Buddhism in Korea came under duress. Commonplace explanations for the sudden increase in attacks on the long-established religion have centered on the growing influence of Neo-Confucianism, social anxieties arising from the increasing prominence of sociopolitical upstarts, and the view that Buddhism had grown corrupt over the course of the Koryō dynasty (918–1392). Juhn Y. Ahn argues instead that the most important factor was a shift in attitudes towards wealth stimulated by sociocultural and economic changes that arose due to the Mongols. The result was a breakdown of assumptions about the link between Buddhist salvation and wealth that led to their separation into “two independent spheres of human activity and thought” (13).

Ahn charts this separation in five chapters, showing how the questions of salvation and the management of death were influenced by a range of socioeconomic and political factors. The first examines the importance of patronage. Ahn persuasively argues that charges of Buddhist corruption miss the point. Buddhist monasteries accumulated wealth in the 14th century not because they were corrupt, but because they fulfilled a vital function in transforming wealth into salvation and reinforcing family prestige (33). 

The question of corruption is dealt with most clearly—and helpfully, for the non-specialist—in the following chapter: “The Buddhist establishment provided the state and the ruling house with the possibility of overcoming earthly limitations … and, in exchange, it became the beneficiary of remarkable gestures of royal largesse beginning with the founding of the Koryŏ dynasty” (48–49). But it was not just royalty and the Buddhist establishment that shared in this reciprocal relationship. Wealth was the key and ultimately the problem. As “ersatz elites”—beneficiaries of the sociopolitical shake-up that occurred under Mongol rule—adopted “Buddhist methods of managing death,” those who considered themselves to be “true” elites found it necessary to emphasize something that wealth couldn’t buy: moral rigor (58). 

Chapter 3, evocatively entitled “This Way of Ours,” shows how, under Mongol rule, Buddhism’s efficacy in transforming wealth into salvation came under scrutiny and was augmented by the view that any meaningful Buddhist patronage had to reflect Confucian “moral principles such as sincerity and filial piety” (59). Apart from what seems to be a nod to Peter Bol’s 1992 This Culture of Ours: Intellectual Transitions in T’ang and Sung China (Stanford University Press), the title of this chapter calls to mind the way Korea’s Confucian intellectuals would come to define themselves and their culture. This is not, however, adequately explained. But in the end, the essential point is crystal clear: some members of the elite decided that it was unnecessary to employ “lavish Buddhist customs to define family values” (79). 

The two final chapters turn to the nitty-gritty details of the specific historical conditions that transformed “wealth and religion into incommensurables” (81). The Buddhist institution was a casualty in a chaotic process that neither it nor anyone else could fully understand, much less control. Ahn emphasizes this early in the work, noting that agents of change need not have “a specific ideological cause” (10), but it comes into sharp focus in his examination of the aftermath of Koryŏ’s capitulation to the Mongols in 1259. Buddhist monasteries, destroyed during the fighting with the Mongols, needed to be rebuilt; families from humble backgrounds gained wealth and power due to the need to manage the international relationship with the Mongols, and therefore, they had the means to engage in acts of patronage that had formerly been the preserve of elite families with long histories of government service. Challenged by the newcomers, the old elite suffered “a crisis of identity” and thus “were compelled, not by ideological conversion, but the problematization of wealth, to redefine themselves as a social group that valued the ideals of bureaucratic service above all else” (82). But the Confucian moral element in this redefinition elicited a counter-response as the newcomers sought to show that they too “could withstand the temptations of wealth” (104). As a result, Confucian moral integrity became the core criterion for all claims to greatness. Ahn concludes that it was the attempt of newcomers “to behave like legitimate members of the elite stratum, rather than their simple rise to economic and political prominence, that led to the late Koryŏ crisis of identity” (104). 

It was this moral position on wealth—“a novel compulsion” (106)—that led some to abandon Buddhism in managing death. The final chapter shows that this initial change cannot be reduced to anti-Buddhist ideology or an outbreak of Confucian-moral fervor, something illustrated through an examination of the actions undertaken by a certain Lady Hŏ after the death of her husband in 1301. Her stringent application of Confucian principles of mourning deviated from the Koryŏ norm, but even so, she also employed the old Buddhist method of patronage so that “prayers for her late husband would continue in perpetuity” (106). In less than a hundred years, her eclectic approach was overtaken by “a new norm” which prioritized Confucian virtues in the management of death. Those who wished to establish their elite credentials “had to seek alternatives to Buddhist methods of managing death, for these methods assumed wealth” (131).

This separation of wealth and religion at the individual level was mirrored by the state’s push to “claim authority and control over moral values” and “effort to build a wall between religion and wealth” (133). Ahn concludes by assessing a monastery reconstruction project which began in late Koryŏ and was then completed at the start of the subsequent Chosŏn dynasty (1392–1910). It is a fine example, but it is unclear that it illustrates “the fault line that divided the late Koryŏ and early Chosŏn courts” (141). It instead seems to illustrate how blurry the line was in certain respects. But the point is clear enough and serves to underscore the central argument in this study: changing attitudes towards wealth played a critical role in Buddhism’s “increasingly otherworldly and private character” (141).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Gregory N. Evon is Senior Lecturer in Humanities & Languages at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.

Date of Review: 
October 2, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Juhn Y. Ahn is Assistant Professor of Buddhist and Korean studies at the University of Michigan.

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