Redefining Zen: Ch’oŭi Ŭisun’s (1786-1866) Affirmation of the Kataphatic Discourse in Zen


Thursday, February 19, 2015, 4:30pm to 6:00pm


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

Religious Identities in Asia Series

Seong-Uk Kim, Soon Young Kim Postdoctoral Fellow, Korea Institute, Harvard University

Dr. Kim received his Ph.D. in Korean Religions and Korean Buddhism with a subfield in East Asian religions and religious studies from the University of California, Los Angeles in June of 2013. His dissertation is entitled, “Korean Sŏn Buddhism in the 19th Century: Paekp’a, Ch’oŭi and Buddhist-Confucian Interaction at the End of the Chosŏn Dynasty.” His main research area is Sino-Korean Buddhist tradition. His academic interest is also in other religions in East Asia such as Confucianism, Shamanism, and Christianity. As Soon Young Kim Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard, he extends his dissertation into a publishable manuscript. His manuscript, “Redefining Zen: Nineteenth Century Korean Zen Buddhism and Its Acculturation,” explores Korean Buddhism during the latter half of Chosŏn (1392-1910) in relation with Confucianism. In particular, it demonstrates that the intersection of these two religions in the 19th century Korea occurred not only on a personal level between Buddhist monks and Confucian literati but also on a philosophical level that led to the mutual transformation of Buddhism and Confucianism. Dr. Kim worked as a postdoctoral fellow at Washington University in St. Louis, in the Department of East Asian Languages & Cultures/Religious Studies Department, where he taught “Buddhist Traditions,” “Introduction to Korean Religions,” and “Theories and Methods in the Study of Religion.” He also contributed to the publication of the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), writing more than 100 entries. He will offer a course “Sages, Saints, and Shamans: an Introduction to Korean Religions” in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations in the 2014-15 academic year.

Chaired by Si Nae Park, Assistant Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Harvard University

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. This lecture not only challenges such a common perception, but also presents a more comprehensive picture of Chosŏn Buddhism through a case study of Ch’oŭi Ŭisun 草衣意恂 (1786-1866). Literary collections of late Chosŏn, compiled by Confucian literati, reveal that many yangban aristocrats held favorable attitude toward Buddhism, making frequent and substantial monetary donations to Buddhist temples; some of them even showed their keen interest in Buddhism, reading Buddhist texts and discussing Buddhist doctrines with monks. Chosŏn Sŏn masters, in an effort to embrace the literati’s intellectual approach to Buddhism, developed distinctive visions of the relationship between Sŏn meditation and Kyo doctrinal studies. In particular, Ch’oŭi redefined Sŏn and Kyo, vindicating the doctrinal studies, a field of Buddhist training traditionally despised in Chan/Sŏn circle as an obstacle on the path to enlightenment. His new definition of Sŏn also defies the conventional view of Chan/Sŏn that characterizes it as paradoxical and non-linguistic rhetoric, endorsing the value of conceptual and rational rhetoric in Chan/Sŏn soteriology. 

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

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