The Weatherhead East Asian Institute welcomes Seong Uk Kim, the Il Hwan and Soon Ja Cho Assistant Professor of Korean Culture and Religion in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia University, to the WEAI faculty. Professor Kim’s research investigates the intersections between Buddhism and other religions, religion and politics in modern and pre-modern Korea, and Buddhist transformation in the colonial and contemporary periods. He is currently completing a book manuscript, focusing on the intersection between Buddhism and Confucianism during the Chosŏn dynasty. Before coming to Columbia, he worked as a postdoctoral fellow and lecturer at Washington University in St. Louis and Harvard University. In the following Q&A, Professor Kim discusses his scholarship and teaching interests.
After you earned an undergraduate degree in Chemistry, what experiences led you to pursue a career studying East Asian religions?
When I was in college, even though my major was Chemistry, I was more interested in religion because of my family background. My mother was a devout Christian, and, when I grew up, I felt that it was my religious duty to go to church. When I graduated from college, I got a job at an electronic company, but I was not sure if that was what I really wanted to do. I decided to go to a graduate school to study religions, especially Christianity. There, I had to take a required class on Buddhism, which, in retrospect, was the turning point. I was really surprised to hear about all different schools of Buddhism in East Asia, for example, Pure Land Buddhism and Zen. I realized that I actually did not know much about East Asian religions and cultures, though I was Korean. That senses of surprise, realization, and curiosity made me pursue my career as a scholar in East Asian and Korean religions.
Can you tell us briefly about your current book project on the intersections between Buddhism and Confucianism in the Chosŏn Dynasty?
The relationship between Buddhism and Confucianism has a long pedigree in East Asia. Chinese Confucians have showed their deep and extensive interest in Buddhism ever since it was introduced to China. They both checked Buddhism by criticizing it for violating Confucian ethics and tried to harmonize Buddhism and Confucianism by arguing that the two actually shared the same root. Korean Confucians also took this approach of competition and reconciliation toward Buddhism until Chosŏn. As neo-Confucian literati established the new dynasty as a Confucian state, they adopted an unprecedentedly harsh anti-Buddhist policy, which hardly could be found in either China or Japan. However, what was interesting there was that, contrary to their public and official anti-Buddhist position, many of these Confucian literati of Chosŏn practiced Buddhism in their private lives. This discrepancy or ambiguity created unique interactions between the two religions in the staunchly Confucian state. My book will look at the distinctive transformation of Korean Buddhism that developed from those interactions within the broader East Asian context by looking at the various levels on which Buddhism, Confucianism, literary culture, folk religions, and politics intersected in late Chosŏn.
What are some of the questions about religion and culture that drive your research and teaching?
Religion interacts with culture in many different ways. For example, religion influences culture, serving as a formative and transformative force in and toward culture. At the same time, culture influences religion, as a constitutive element of that particular cultural ground. These interactions between religion and culture happen in various levels and fields as well. My research and teaching interests lie in the questions of (1) what, how, and why mutual influences and transformations occur when religion intersects with cultural fields such as art, architecture, literature, philosophy, politics, and popular culture; (2) how these interactions and intersections can be understood from a broader geographical and transnational perspectives; and (3) how a more in-depth and multifaceted image of a society can be drawn by navigating this complex mixture of religion, culture, and politics in that society.
What kinds of sources and archives have you drawn from in order to study pre-modern and modern Korean religion? What kinds of challenges do you encounter when conducting your research?
Influenced by Confucian literati culture, Buddhist monastics of Chosŏn compiled their private literary anthologies. Several of these anthologies have been collected and digitized through Korean government sponsorship. Besides these collections, some important extant Buddhist records and writings such as epigraphical materials, temple gazetteers, travelogues, and ritual manuals and materials, have also been collected with the support of local governments, colleges, or individual donors. However, still, many other visual and textual materials are scattered throughout Korea, sitting in private libraries and storages of local temples and Buddhist monks. In a certain sense, it is inevitable that there might be a marginalized or even totally ignored aspect of Buddhism. One of the biggest challenges for my research is figuring out how to minimize that possible marginalization.
What courses are you planning to teach at Columbia in the coming semesters?
I will teach “Buddhism and Korean Culture.” This course examines how Buddhist doctrines, rituals, and practices have contributed to the formation of worldviews, social ethics, and lifestyles of the people in the Korean Peninsula. It also looks at the unique modes of the interactions between Buddhism and other Korean religions, as well as Buddhism and politics in the broader East Asian context. The other course I will teach is “Religious Traditions in Korea.” The course explores how Koreans not only transformed such imported traditions as Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity, and integrated elements of their own indigenous traditions to meet their own religious needs, but also served as active agents or participants in the development of pan-East Asian religious traditions, for example, Hwaŏm/ Huayan/ Kegon Buddhism.