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Korean Sŏn Buddhism in the 19th Century: Paekp'a, Ch'oŭi and Buddhist-Confucian Interaction at the End of the Chosŏn Dynasty


Korean Buddhism is often described as showing few signs of creativity and being virtually dead in the latter half of Chosŏn (1392-1910), the last dynasty of Korea, because of harsh persecution by the Confucian ruling class. My dissertation explores Korean Sŏn (C. Chan) Buddhism in the early nineteenth century, focusing on the monks Paekp'a Kŭngsŏn (1767-1852) and Ch'oŭi Ŭisun (1786-1866). The purpose of this study is not only to challenge this common misperception, but also to present a more accurate picture of Chosŏn Buddhism, particularly its unique development of Sŏn theories. My dissertation, first of all, demonstrates the presence of active interactions between Buddhism and Confucianism during late Chosŏn. In particular, it shows that many Confucian literati provided extensive financial and ideological support for Buddhism and pursued their interest in the religion as an alternative for Confucianism. As a case study of the development of Korean Sŏn theories of this time, my dissertation explores Paekp'a and Ch'oŭi's unique ideas on the relationship between Sŏn and Kyo (doctrinal studies). Paekp'a reconciled the soteriological tension between the Heze and Linji schools, regarding the utility of doctrinal studies. In doing so, he integrated the kanhwa (C. kanhua) technique of the Linji school into the Heze scheme of "sudden enlightenment followed by gradual cultivation." With this synthetic path, Paekp'a limited the soteriological validity of doctrinal teachings or studies by describing them as unable to achieve the final perfect enlightenment on their own. Ch'oŭi, on the other hand, argued for the unity of of Sŏn and Kyo by introducing new definitions of these two strands of Buddhism. He argued that Sŏn and Kyo were not fundamentally different from each other. Their different rhetorical styles not only reflect the same quality of the Buddha's enlightenment but also serve equally as skillful means to help sentient beings with different capabilities attain the ultimate Buddhist goal. Hence, for Ch'oŭi, there is no hierarchy between Sŏn and doctrinal teachings. My dissertation not only undermines the colonialist image of Korean Buddhism, but also demonstrates the uniqueness and continuity of Korean Sŏn Buddhism within the East Asian Buddhist tradition.

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