We are excited to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: Buddhas and Ancestors: Religion and Wealth in Fourteenth-Century Korea, published by the University of Washington Press and included in its Korean Studies of the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies series. The book’s author is Juhn Ahn, an Associate Professor of Buddhist and Korean Studies at the University of Michigan.
Two issues central to the transition from the Koryo to the Choson dynasty in fourteenth-century Korea were social differences in ruling elites and the decline of Buddhism, which had been the state religion. In this revisionist history, Juhn Ahn challenges the long-accepted Confucian critique that Buddhism had become so powerful and corrupt that the state had to suppress it. When newly rising elites (many with strong ties to the Mongols) used lavish donations to Buddhist institutions to enhance their status, older elites defended their own adherence to this time-honored system by arguing that their donations were linked to virtue. This emphasis on virtue and the consequent separation of religion from wealth facilitated the Confucianization of Korea and the relegation of Buddhism to the margins of public authority during the Choson dynasty.
“A finely nuanced treatment of the changing relationship between social elites and Buddhism throughout the Koryo period. Ahn provides us with a new understanding of how certain Neo-Confucian values found favor among the late Koryo elite and how Buddhism became separated from the state during the transition from Koryo to Choson.”
– John B. Duncan, UCLA
We thank Dr. Ahn for taking the time to discuss his book with us. Please read the following Q&A to learn more about the research and questions that drove his project.
You have noted that this book grew out of an “accidental discovery.” What was that discovery and how did it inspire you to undertake this book project?
Many years ago, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco held a special exhibit titled “Goryeo Dynasty: Korea’s Age of Enlightenment, 918 to 1392” (Oct. 2003 – Jan. 2004). On my way back from the exhibit I made sure to pick up a copy of the catalog, but it ended up collecting dust on my bookshelf for a few years. I was preoccupied with a different research project on Chan/Zen Buddhism at the time. A few years later, while looking for an image to use for a course poster, I caught sight of the old catalog and decided it was time to give it a good read. In its explanation of an exquisite Amitābha triad painting on loan from the Tokyo National Museum I noticed a brief reference to “merit temples,” wealthy and powerful families, and their desire to continue wealth and prosperity into the next life. I was already familiar with these aspects of Korean religion and well-established claims about the corruption of Buddhism during the late Koryŏ period, but I found myself wanting to probe deeper into the connection between merit temples and the corruption of religion, wealth in afterlife, social distinction, and taste. This, no doubt, had something to do with the timing of the rediscovery of the catalog: I began this research on wealth, social identity, and religion during the global financial crisis of 2008.
What are some of the larger questions that have driven your research and thinking about religion in East Asia and how does this book relate to them?
In the study of East Asian religions, there are conceptual associations that are, for one reason or another, ignored, avoided, or criticized. The religious experiences of Zen masters are not usually associated with their reading habits or their perception of the economy. Violence and moral responsibility are most typically regarded as opposites or, at least, incompatible aspects of humanity. The mixing of religion and wealth is also commonly regarded as something that must be shunned and criticized. In my research I have tried to show that such associations are possible and, at one point in history, they were even treated as necessary. My book explains how religion and wealth went their separate conceptual ways during the Koryŏ dynasty. It was the separation, rather than the mixing of religion and wealth, that made it possible to speak of corruption and link the aristocracy with the “tasteful” and the parvenu or the powerful with the “vulgar.”
This book challenges the widely held narrative that the Confucianization of Korea took place in the Koryŏ and Chosŏn dynasties because Buddhism, which had been the state religion, had grown increasingly corrupt. What, instead, do you argue led to the decline of Buddhism and the rise of Confucianism in the Korean state?
Protestant assumptions have led scholars of Korean religion to misleadingly argue that gilded icons and wealthy temples are signs of corruption and moral decay. There is no denying the wealth of the Buddhist establishment during the Koryŏ dynasty. Monasteries and temples had moveable wealth, sizable landholdings, and large numbers of slaves. But for centuries this was regarded as natural, necessary, and justifiable. Monasteries and temples were regarded as necessary in establishing elite credentials (for families) and public authority (for the throne and the state). Citing corruption, reform-minded officials did, however, begin to voice their vociferous opposition to Buddhism during the late Koryŏ period. This has commonly been attributed to the Confucianization of Korea, but in my book I argue that the conceptual separation of religion and wealth may have played a far more significant role in bringing about this radical shift in the Koryŏ officialdom’s attitude toward Buddhism. Once it became possible to see wealth and religion as incommensurables, the argument could be made that donations would simply result in the privatization of taxable and alienable resources, making them inaccessible to the fiscally troubled state. The economy was the state’s to control. Buddhism thus had to be pushed into the margins of public authority.
What kinds of sources and archives did you use to help support your explanation for Confucianism’s ascent in Korea?
I relied mainly on tomb epitaphs, collections of scholar officials and monks’ writings, geographical surveys, dynastic histories, and monastic stele inscriptions. Compared to the subsequent Chosŏn dynasty, sources that survive from the Koryŏ period are limited in number and variety. This of course means that some aspects of Koryŏ history are lost to history, but it also means that surviving sources will receive closer scrutiny. Tomb epitaphs and temple stele inscriptions must be treated not only as repositories of information and facts about the people and temples described therein but also as objects of inherent value to the people who commissioned and used them. It is therefore necessary to ask why their production and consumption mattered to the Koryŏ elite, which is precisely what I do in my book.
The late Koryŏ period has received much scholarly attention. The Koryŏ and Chosŏn were two relatively long dynasties that occupied the same physical space, but there has been a tendency to see them as being radically different. One was a Buddhist dynasty dominated by an aristocratic elite whereas the other was a Confucian dynasty run by scholar-officials. Framed this way as a story of class and ideological conflict, the Koryŏ-Chosŏn transition seemed to favor and perhaps even warrant social, political, and ideological analysis. Few deemed it necessary to focus on the religious dimension of this transition, which was largely assumed to be inconsequential. This was probably the greatest challenge of writing a history of religion and wealth in Koryŏ period Korea.
What findings especially surprised you during the course of your research?
The brashness of the writers from the Koryŏ period was perhaps the most surprising discovery I made during the research for this book. In the tomb epitaphs (embellished and stylized prose biographies and verse inscriptions written on behalf of the dead) and temple stele inscriptions that they prepared for their friends and colleagues late Koryŏ scholar-officials often voiced their frank criticism of the deceased and his or her family. Some problems seem to have been too obvious to ignore.
Quite unexpectedly, my research also led me to a recent legal battle that erupted over a gravesite near the border with North Korea. In 1991, members of the Ch’ŏngju Han descent group, who had been caring for two graves located on this ancestral gravesite, noticed that the graves had been desecrated. Inside the desecrated graves they saw beautiful murals, so they contacted the national museum and requested assistance. The museum soon dispatched an excavation team to examine the graves. Much to the chagrin of the Ch’ŏngju Han, the team discovered that one of the graves actually housed the remains of a man named Kwŏn Chun whose death opens my book. The Ch’ŏngju Han filed a lawsuit against the excavation team’s report and the rightful owner of the grave had to be determined in court. Key to determining ownership was Kwŏn’s tomb epitaph. The legal battle over Kwŏn’s grave was a helpful and unexpected reminder that graves, like their owners, have lives and tomb epitaphs were and apparently still are (!)—as they were intended to be—critical to writing their stories.
Could you tell us briefly about your current research project(s)?
I am currently engaged in a few research projects. The first project I hope to complete is a book manuscript on the history of reading habits and the development of new soteriological techniques in Song dynasty Chan Buddhism. I am also currently preparing a chapter on the economic history of the Koryŏ dynasty for the Cambridge History of Korea. In addition to these two projects, I plan to turn my ongoing research on the cultural history of wealth and weather and monastic economy during the Chosŏn period into a book.