At the start of the twentieth century, the Korean Buddhist tradition was arguably at the lowest point in its 1,500-year history in the peninsula. Discriminatory policies and punitive measures imposed on the monastic community during the Chosŏn dynasty (1392–1910) had severely weakened Buddhist institutions. Prior to 1895, monastics were prohibited by law from freely entering major cities and remained isolated in the mountains where most of the surviving temples and monasteries were located. In the coming decades, profound changes in Korean society and politics would present the Buddhist community with new opportunities to pursue meaningful reform. The central pillar of these reform efforts was p’ogyo, the active propagation of Korean Buddhist teachings and practices, which subsequently became a driving force behind the revitalization of Buddhism in twentieth-century Korea.
From the Mountains to the Cities traces p’ogyo from the late nineteenth to the early twenty-first century. While advocates stressed the traditional roots and historical precedents of the practice, they also viewed p’ogyo as an effective method for the transformation of Korean Buddhism into a modern religion—a strategy that proved remarkably resilient as a response to rapidly changing social, political, and legal environments. As an organizational goal, the concerted effort to propagate Buddhism conferred legitimacy and legal recognition on Buddhist temples and institutions, enabled the Buddhist community to compete with religious rivals (especially Christian missionaries), and ultimately provided a vehicle for transforming a “mountain-Buddhism” tradition, as it was pejoratively called, into a more accessible and socially active religion with greater lay participation and a visible presence in the cities.
Ambitious and meticulously researched, From the Mountains to the Cities will find a ready audience among researchers and scholars of Korean history and religion, modern Buddhist reform movements in Asia, and those interested in religious missions and proselytization more generally.
This book makes a clear contribution to the field of Korean Buddhist studies, but it also offers a new perspective on aspects of modernity that have been at work across East Asia, and this reviewer recommends it to those who study Chinese and Japanese Buddhism. It is a good model for analyzing how the global legal system engendered by the colonial period continues to structure internal and external discourses of religion in East Asia. Even if one is not reading the book for its primary argument, it provides a useful summary of the changing political and legal status of Buddhism in South Korea from the Chosǒn Dynasty through occupation and military rule to the present day.
Mark Nathan explains clearly how propagation supported the transformation of Korean Buddhism to be identified as a legitimate religion on its own. . . . This book’s new approach, looking at the history of Korean Buddhism from the point of view of propagation relating to the law, is fresh. Moreover, it has another, unexpected merit in introducing the new trends of contemporary Korean Buddhism. For a long time, Korean Buddhism’s task was seen as reconciling the parallel tracks of elite monastic Buddhism and benefit-seeking (kibok) laities. This gap has been narrowing, though academia has not remained up to date on this fact. But this book explicitly reveals this change.
[This book] adds to current research on the relationship between the state and Buddhism and also offers a global vision of the history of mainstream Korean Buddhism since the end of the nineteenth century. This ambition—to present the contemporary history of Korean Buddhism in an accessible and concise volume in English—is extremely helpful. Despite the magnitude of the task, Mark Nathan manages to give a coherent account by following a specific approach: the development of propagation (p'ogyo) within Buddhism. This clear angle leaves some themes aside, but Nathan presents this focus on propagation in a very convincing way and shows the relevance of this issue for understanding the contemporary history of Buddhism in Korea.
From the Mountains to the Cities is an important contribution to the understanding of modern and contemporary Buddhism in Korea. It is one of the few books in the area of East Asian Buddhism which attempts to understand and interpret the dynamics of Buddhism in that area of the world.
Mark Nathan’s new stimulating book directs the spotlight toward the Buddhist mission, an essential facet of the tradition that has often been ignored in the scholarship. The book opens with a remarkable analysis of the debates regarding the question of whether or not Buddhism should be viewed as a ‘missionary religion.’ . . . He provides compelling evidence for [the former] in historical motifs of conversion of local deities to Buddhism and in the fact that East Asian Buddhist texts regularly promise merit to those who promote and reproduce these exact same texts.
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