From the Mountains to the Cities

A History of Buddhist Propagation in Modern Korea

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Mark A. Nathan
Contemporary Buddhism
  • Honolulu, HI: 
    University of Hawai'i Press
    , July
     2018.
     206 pages.
     $62.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780824872618.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This ambitious book project covers the time period between 1877 to 2015, but despite the broad timespan, Mark Nathan coherently documents the modern history of Korean Buddhism through the idea of p’ogyo (propagation). Focusing on p’ogyorenders Buddhist life in a new and realistic light, and it avoids the binary and nationalist thrust of much scholarship. While maintaining both tension and unity through the lens of p’ogyo, this book contextualizes Buddhist practices in relation to volatile political, social, and legal environments. 

This book uniquely analyzes the legal system, showing how the complexities of Buddhist history can be deciphered through legal concepts and institutions. Departing from a politically-charged approach, From the Mountains to the Cities paints a vibrant picture of modern Buddhism from the colonial, post-colonial, and contemporary periods. Previous studies on Japanese law focused on the negative aspects of the Japanese temple ordinance on Korean Buddhism, portraying Korean Buddhism as a victim of colonial rule. Nathan, however, shows that Korean Buddhism found its own path through the legal environment by using p’ogyo to gain legal recognition under the Japanese colonial government. 

By shedding light on the interaction between Japanese laws and Buddhist organizations, the author argues that Korean Buddhists made propagation a central tactic of their survival, legitimizing their religion by appealing to the Japanese laws that consider propagation a main feature of religion. Previous scholars regarded Buddhist propagation as a way to respond to Japanese Buddhist and Christian missionaries, but the influence of the laws on Korean Buddhist propagation has until now never been explored. The material on contemporary Buddhism (1980 to 2015) makes the greatest contribution to the field, with its broad coverage of Buddhist practices and analysis of contemporary practices. This book, however, is focused solely on the Chogye Order. It would have been better to include T’aego, Chingak, or Ch’ontae Order propagation, if only briefly. 

From the Mountains to the Cities is well researched, organized, and meticulously documented, using historical and socio-political resources and legal and ethnographic data, in particular. It successfully portrays a positive picture of modern Korean Buddhism, which has adjusted to the volatile backdrop of the colonial and post-colonial eras and the present day to be modern, socially-engaging, and viable amidst political, legal, and cultural change. It covers almost all-important academic work done both in English and Korean, and this is the first book that addresses the span of modern/contemporary Buddhism in English. It should attract scholars not only in the field of Korean Buddhism and Korean history but also those who work at the intersection of religion, politics, and law. The book’s comparative nature should also appeal to scholars in Buddhist studies in other regions and in religious studies, in general.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Pori Park is Associate Professor in the School of Historical, Philosophical & Religious Studies at Arizona State University.

Date of Review: 
January 5, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark A. Nathan is Associate Professor in the Department of History and the Asian Studies Program at the University at Buffalo, the State University of New York.

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