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Buddhas and Ancestors: Religion and Wealth in Fourteenth-Century Korea (Review)

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John Y. Ahn. 2018.
Buddhas and Ancestors: Religion and Wealth in Fourteenth Century Korea
Seattle: University of Washington Press
ISBN 9780295743394

While John Ahn’s Buddhas and Ancestors is the most recent of the 15 books published in the series Korean Studies of the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington, it relates little to the other titles. With one exception, 14th century Korea is some 500 years before any period relevant to other books in the series. Medieval studies constitute no more than a small niche in present day Korean scholarship, so it is hardly surprising that so idiosyncratic a publication depended upon financial assistance from the Korea Foundation, to say nothing of the separate funding for the underlying research – which is prodigious. (Just look at all the names mentioned in the Acknowledgements.) All this means is that Buddhas and Ancestors is an extreme case of specialised research, with an apparatus criticus of a 100 pages in a book of 240 pages. That this includes a 13-page double column glossary of Chinese characters – all referring to words and names occurring in the text – gives some idea of what is in store for the reader. This is just the beginning: the list of abbreviations and primary sources ends with a note starting ‘For the sake of convenience …’ and ending with ‘… YS15:4622 [juan 208, Waiyi 1, Gaoli]’. You have been warned. The secondary sources – mostly in English – are more accessible, but inevitably many are in Korean, and significantly Japanese, but not Chinese – the 13-page glossary notwithstanding. (This would seem to require some explanation: in the 14th century, Kanja – as Chinese characters are known in Korea – were standard in the written language, and as such must be present in all quite numerous original texts from this period studied by the author in researching the book. The familiar Hangul orthography was a 15th century invention.)

If, in the remarkably extensive realm of Korean studies, Buddhas and Ancestors, is no more than marginal, it elucidates, at the same time, a special case of a quite general phenomenon in the history of religion: this is the attempt of mere mortals to establish a place in eternity where they will experience such joys of a world beyond the grave as are promised to believers. This is not only a matter of looking after one’s own future, but also that of one’s ancestors, in the expectation also, that one’s descendants will continue in the same tradition. The critical transformation comes when this prospect of paradise can be paid for in material terms, which result – as shown by abundant historical evidence world-wide – can be achieved by making gifts to institutions, maintained by servants claiming a supernatural vocation, and living in premises designed for the performance of prescribed ritual rather than any material benefit. Such premises, in Buddhism and Christianity, define a ‘monastery’, with its servants known as ‘monks’. Although these may sleep in a dormitory and feed in a refectory, this essentially human side to life is secondary to the religious side – as readily can be seen by any visitor to a Buddhist or Christian monastery, even, as is today all too likely, it is no more than a deserted ruin. For western man this is the world defined by Gregorian chants, illuminated manuscripts and extravagant ecclesiastical architecture. Buddhas and Ancestors describes its Buddhist equivalent in Korea in the final century (the 14th CE) of the Koryô dynasty.

This was a time of a deeply stratified society – as was also the case in Renaissance Europe. This meant that sejok families, members of a well-established élite, characterised – as also in Europe – by the ownership of large landed estates, and bound by loyalty to a reigning monarch, could according to their own tradition, pay both for their future beyond the grave and at the same time the welfare of their departed ancestors, by making vast donations to religious foundations. The evolution of this practice, and its consequences – social, political and economic – together with its steady decline in the course of the 14th century are the subject matter of Buddhas and Ancestors, and the story – or better stories – are both fascinating and instructive. The following brief excerpt (p. 108) is but one instance: ‘[Lady Hô] commissioned the construction of a Buddhist monastery and relied … on the […] clergy to seek post mortem salvation for her late husband, and eventually, herself and her children.’ That puts it in a nutshell. (The following pages give further details.) As in Europe such practices could not stand the test of time: their apotheosis was at the beginning of the 14th century. At the end (1392) of the Koryô period – as noted in the Conclusion (p. 133) – ‘Wealth was just wealth, and religion was something else. The architects of the new Chosôn state wanted to keep it that way.’ They succeeded: the scenario described in Buddhas and Ancestors was gone for good. We must be grateful to Ahn for recreating it for us so evocatively. His book is a work of impressive scholarship.

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