Religion and Wealth in Fourteenth Century Korea


Thursday, October 27, 2016, 4:30pm


Thomas Chan-Soo Kang Room (S050), CGIS South Building, 1730 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, MA 02138

Religious Identities in Asia

Juhn Y. Ahn
Assistant Professor, University of Michigan

Chaired by Sun Joo Kim, Harvard-Yenching Professor of Korean History; Director, Korea Institute, Harvard University

In fourteenth-century Korea, Buddhism slowly began to embark on the path of becoming an otherworldly religion that could no longer expect the splendor and refinement of its temples and clergy to be a source of spiritual inspiration. It had become increasingly difficult for some to regard wealth and religion as comfortable bedfellows. This led an outspoken minority within the late Koryŏ elite to vociferously denounce the perceived decadence of Buddhism. Historians generally tend to argue that this marks the beginning of the end of Buddhism in Korea, but this talk will try to bring the controversial notion of the decline of Buddhism in Korea into new focus by taking a closer look at the various ways in which elite families of fourteenth-century Korea cared for their dead. Some families, as one might expect, opted to follow established practices while others chose to explore “new” options. This resulted in an implicit debate about how to relate to the dead: can a tight link between the living and the dead be forged with wealth? Or, are wealth and postmortem salvation actually incommensurable? This debate did not unfold neatly along ideological lines (i.e., Buddhism vs. Neo-Confucianism) or class lines as many historians assume, but this talk will try to show how the debate made it possible for the state to push Buddhism into the margins of public authority in Korea.

Generously supported by the Min Young-Chul Memorial Fund at the Korea Institute.

Jointly sponsored with the Harvard Asia Center and the Center for the Study of World Religions.