Doctrine and Practice in Medieval Korean Buddhism

The Collected Works of Ūich'ōn

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Richard D. McBride II
Korean Classics Library: Philosophy and Religion
  • Honolulu, HI: 
    University of Hawai'i Press
    , November
     228 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The 11th century is a significant period for studying the history of Korea and Korean Buddhism, as the Korean peninsula entered a period of peace and prosperity and Buddhism flourished in the Koryŏ capital. As part of a larger effort to restore peace and stability after the devastating Khitan invasions at the beginning of the century, the Koryŏ court began to exert greater control over local strongmen, empower the civil bureaucracy, and develop the royal cult. Key to developing the royal cult was the Koryŏ court’s support of Buddhism. The Lantern Festival and the Eight Prohibitions Festival were restored, and a grand monastery, Hyŏnhwa-sa (“Monastery of Mysterious Transformation”), was built to honor King Hyŏnjong (r. 1009-1031) and his late parents who had never ascended the throne. 

The construction of grand monasteries associated with the royal cult—memorial monasteries that housed the funerary portraits of kings and queens—continued during this period. Only ten years into his reign, Hyŏnjong’s son King Munjong (r. 1046-1083) was able to begin construction of his memorial monastery, Hŭngwang-sa (“Monastery of the Flourishing Royal Cult”). The new monastery was later furnished with a copy of the Buddhist canon gifted by the Chinese Song court. Munjong’s son, the monk Ŭich’ŏn, was installed as its first abbot. At Ŭich’ŏn’s request, his mother Queen Inye (d. 1092) also commissioned the construction of her own memorial monastery, Kukch’ŏng-sa, which was named after Zhiyi’s (538-597) famed monastery Guoqing si (“Monastery for Purifying the State”) on Mt. Tiantai in China. 

McBride’s annotated translation of selections from the collected works of Ŭich’ŏn naturally offers one of the best ways to study the capital-based Buddhism of this period. Through Ŭich’ŏn’s activities and writings we can get a good look of the kinds of things that a privileged Korean monk from the Koryŏ capital considered important and necessary. Ŭich’ŏn showed great interest in the collection and correction of texts. He understood the importance of proper ritual protocol and Buddhism’s role in the royal cult. Using letters and poems as a medium, Ŭich’ŏn also made great effort to forge lasting social networks. 

Ŭich’ŏn’s collection also offers a good sense of the kinds of responsibilities and duties that a monk of his stature in Koryŏ Korea was expected to perform. He had to open a lecture on scripture with a formal introduction and close it with one as well. He had to prepare orations for sacrifices and write eulogies for the dead. He also had to officially correspond with the palace through formal genres such as the memorial.

Doctrine and Practice in Medieval Korean Buddhism neatly reveals these and other aspects of Koryŏ Buddhism during its so-called “golden period” through its highly readable translations. Almost half of the texts that appear in this book have been previously translated by McBride for another volume in a different series titled The Collected Works of Korean Buddhism (Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, 2012), but Doctrine and Practice is a far more useful resource in that it provides annotated translations of most of the texts contained in Ŭich’ŏn’s collection. The only quibble about Doctrine and Practice worth mentioning here is its decision to not include translations of a few texts that bear a direct relation with the royal cult. But this in no way affects the value and integrity of the book. The primary aim of Doctrine and Practice, as McBride makes clear in the translator’s introduction, is to make available material “relevant to reassessing Ŭich’ŏn’s role in the founding of the Ch’ŏnt’ae school and his relationship with the Hwaŏm school” (9). The material presented in the book firmly supports McBride’s claim that Ŭich’ŏn had no intention whatsoever to abandon the Hwaŏm tradition.

Overall, Doctrine and Practice is a fine piece of scholarship. The translations are accurate and highly readable. They elegantly straddle the invisible fence that divides the duty to remain faithful to the original text and the duty to make the text comprehensible to a reader who speaks a different language and belongs to a different cultural universe. Particularly noteworthy are the robust endnotes that provide missing context. They comprise no less than half of the entire book. The introductory essay is also a very useful resource in learning about Ŭich’ŏn and scholarly opinions about him. All in all, it is safe to say that McBride has produced an indispensable tool for studying Ŭich’ŏn and Koryŏ Buddhism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Juhn Y. Ahn is Associate Professor of Buddhist and Korean Studies at the University of Michigan.

Date of Review: 
September 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Richard D. McBride II is associate professor of history at Brigham Young University–Hawai‘i.


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