Thursday, 22 March 2007

Buddhism and Secular Power in... Korea

Henrik H. Sorenson is scathing about contemporary Buddhism and what he sees as its degradation in Korea today. His catalogue of infighting, self-aggrandisement, image-focus in various temples makes for a reading that is at once sad and funny. Funny that one could ever imagine that a human organisation could escape such behaviour. The older history of Buddhism in Korea also reveals just how worldly this religion is (as they all are), and how religious the world is...

Following an almost five-hundred-year period of prosperity and influence that spanned the major part of the Koryo dynasty, Buddhism and its supporters among the nobility lost out to the rising force of Confucianism at the end of the foureenth century... At the beginning of the [Choson] dynasty [1392-1910)] a series of anti-Buddhist edicts were formulated with the dual purposeof diminishing the economic power of the temples through the confiscation of temple lands, and of preventing Buddhist monks from meddling in national politics as had been their custom... (128)

Sounds like Henry VIII and the Roman Catholic Church...

Japanese Buddhist missionaries and the Japanese occupying forces in the early decades of the 20th century strongly promoted Buddhism to the Koreans, who rejected the Japanese sects but enjoyed their own Buddhist revival, as well as enjoying the fruits of lands returned from confiscation. Politics with a big P and a small p were of course part and parcel of Buddhist activity, in the temples and out of it (130-1). Note how the Japanese controlled the sermons in Buddhist temples during the late 30s. Apparently the Turkish government also prescribes the sermons in the mosques of Anatolia today!

Sorenson seems to expose (or fall into!?) a kind of essentialism, an ethnically restrictive notion of religious faith (which is, technically, almost fascistic, if that doesn't seem too harsh) when he comments on Korean intellectuals' new love for Buddhism in the face of growing Christian influence. [A]n Eastern tradition that had existed in Korea for more than 1,500 years was thought to be better suited to the Oriental mind than Christianity (131). The use of the passive voice is particularly noteworthy - who felt this, I wonder, and how does Sorenson know...?

Praise God for the explosion of the gospel in Korea despite this 1,500 year old tradition. The conduct of Presbyterian President Chun Doohwan in opposing Buddhism via the govrnment may have been inappropriate, as Sorenson suggests, but there are so many exciting Korean believers across the world who do bring glory to Christ.