[KS] KSR 2007-13: _Currents and Countercurrents: Korean Influences on the East Asian Buddhist Traditions_, ed. by Robert E. Buswell, Jr

Stephen Epstein Stephen.Epstein at vuw.ac.nz
Wed Oct 3 00:32:01 EDT 2007

_Currents and Countercurrents: Korean Influences on the East Asian Buddhist Traditions_, edited by Robert E. Buswell, Jr. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2006. xi, 294 pp. (ISBN 978-0-8248-3179-0, paper $25.00; ISBN 978-0-8248-2762-5 cloth $40.00)



Reviewed by Dane Alston
Australian National University 
dane.alston at anu.edu.au



The collected essays in Currents and Countercurrents: Korean Influences on the East Asian Buddhist Traditions, edited by Robert E. Buswell Jr., provide a timely and valuable contribution to the fields of Korean and East Asian Buddhist Studies, and highlight the important role Korean Buddhism played in the broader development of East Asian Buddhism. Currents and Countercurrents draws together an array of internationally renowned scholars to show that Korean Buddhism has been anything but a passive recipient of Sinitic Buddhism and instead argues convincingly that Korean Buddhism significantly shaped the development of Chinese, Japanese and Tibetan Buddhism on a variety of levels.


This book is important for two reasons. First, the argument that it sets out to challenge is reflective of the broader biases that Korean Studies scholars frequently confront. Colleagues in Japanese and Chinese Studies, and sometimes even Buddhist Studies, often all too quickly dismiss Korean contributions to, and participation in, centuries of East Asian religious and intellectual history as derivative and insignificant. This problem is part of a larger issue that concerns present-day international and political relations in East Asia and resurgent forms of nationalism in the region. Currents and Countercurrents, however, shows the important role that scholars can play in wresting history from the hands of ideologues with nationalist agendas, and how confronting intellectual biases elsewhere can be carried out through thorough analysis of historical materials and fact.


Second, this book takes a phenomenon as large and complicated as Buddhism and shows that it has exerted its influence throughout the region in a variety of spheres, affecting larger doctrinal developments, immigrants, community groups, diplomatic exchanges and so forth. Rather than treating Buddhism as a static, monolithic or one-dimensional entity, this book shows the importance of approaching phenomena that fall under the broad rubric of “Buddhism” as multi-faceted, layered and dynamic-an approach equally applicable in examining Christianity, folk religions, Confucianism, philosophy and religion. Furthermore, the collaborative effort, similar to that of William de Bary and Ja Hyun Kim Haboush’s The Rise of Neo-Confucianism in Korea, will allow the work to stand out as a classic reference for years to come.


In the introduction Robert Buswell frames the importance of Currents and Countercurrents. The common understanding of the dissemination of Buddhism is that it gradually spread eastward from India to China and then, due to the central position that China occupied in the cultural and political developments of East Asia, extended into other Asian regions. Buswell explains that such an understanding fails to appreciate that cultural diffusion also entails “eddies” and “countercurrents,” and that innovation developed at the periphery could also have a significant counter-influence at the point of origin. The volume’s editor contends that peripheral developments in Korean Buddhism not only found their way to the Chinese centre, but, more importantly, were also accepted and recognised by the Chinese. Second, Buswell argues that an examination of Korean Buddhism’s influence more widely challenges the anachronistic and Japanocentric view of Korea as merely “a ‘bridge’ for the transmission of Buddhist and Sinitic culture from the Chinese mainland to the islands of Japan”(2). Replacing the bridge metaphor, he suggests Korea was a “bastion of Buddhist culture in East Asia.” The direction, then, of the book moves from the Korean peninsula east to Japan and west to China and beyond.


The first two chapters by Jonathan W. Best and Hee-Sung Keel examine the impact of Korean Buddhism on Japanese Buddhism. Best’s chapter looks specifically at Paekche and its role in transmitting Buddhism to Japan by addressing first, “the conditions and character of Buddhism in contemporary Paekche that facilitated its use as a vehicle of political and cultural interaction with Japan” and second, “the political and cultural circumstances in Japan relevant to the religion’s initial acceptance and subsequent development” (15). Best approaches Buddhism of this era not from a doctrinal or soteriological perspective, but as a cultural phenomenon that responds and adapts to contemporary circumstances. Drawing on extant textual, archaeological and architectural sources, he skilfully constructs a picture of Paekche Buddhism’s shifting from a religion confined to the court to a religion embraced by the people of Paekche, all of which occurred against a backdrop of fluid diplomatic relations with the states of the Chinese mainland. He then deals with the introduction of Buddhism from Paekche to Japan, first outlining the favourable diplomatic relations between the two countries, then showing the cultural, political and religious functions Buddhism held in Japan, and concluding with an account of the turbulent circumstances that surrounded Buddhism’s acceptance as a recognised religious practice among the ruling elite. Despite the sparse nature of sources for this period, Best nonetheless shows the multifaceted role that Buddhism played in Korea and how Paekche Buddhism facilitated what he argues was one of the greatest transformations of Japanese culture (37).


Hee-Sung Keel’s chapter also examines the influence of Korean Buddhism on Japan, although its focus is on Silla monk Ky?ngh?ng (fl. ca. 620-700) and aspects of his doctrine that influenced Japanese Pure Land monk Shinran (1173-1262). Keel explains that when Shinran radically reinterpreted H?nen teachings on nembutsu, the practice of reciting the name of Amit?bha Buddha so as to gain rebirth in the Pure Land, he shifted the soteriological focus away from the practitioner to “other-power,” namely Amida’s action in granting salvation and faith. In order to achieve this doctrinal shift, Shinran relied heavily on Ky?ngh?ng writings on the Larger S?tra of Immeasurable Life. While acknowledging that it is tempting to portray Shinran as refashioning the words of others to suit his own religious agenda, Keel instead suggests that Shinran clearly “ ‘heard’ a resounding confirmation of his other-power soteriology in Ky?ngh?ng’s words” (59). Keel provides numerous well-chosen quotes to illustrate the nuances of Shinran’s interpretation of Ky?ngh?ng that led him to take the latter as confirming his Pure Land message. In general, the Silla monk’s emphasis on the Larger S?tra and doctrinal taxonomy had clear resonance with Shinran, and Keel unravels with dexterity the complexities of the influence Ky?ngh?ng had on developments in Japanese Pure Land thought.


The remaining chapters turn their attention towards China and the mainland. In Chapter Three John Jorgensen looks at Korea’s role in the regeneration of Ch’an literature. He begins with a detailed account of geopolitical factors that shaped relations between the various Asian states and China, and explains why Korea was able to enjoy a “‘window of opportunity’ to influence Chinese Buddhism” (81). Based on detailed historical and textual analysis, Jorgensen describes how Chinese monks increasingly regarded Silla Buddhism as a “source of regeneration of the Way” (92), as is particularly evident in the regeneration motif found in Ch’an literature. Whilst these motifs were Chinese in origin, they were later used by returnees like Ch’oe Ch’i-w?n in attempting to reform Silla society. Korean monks and Korea were from then on increasingly described as the source from which Chinese Ch’an practices were revived and, in time, Silla monks felt themselves “privileged and favoured as heirs of Hui-neng” (105). This trend continued until the Sung dynasty, when the tide turned on foreign influences and the Sung started to exert its own cultural hegemony in the region. 


Bernard Faure and Eunsu Cho, in Chapters Four and Five, examine the lives of two enigmatic Silla monks who each helped shape early Chinese Buddhism: Musang and W?nch’uk. Faure looks at Musang’s (680-756, alt. 684-762) influence on Chinese, Tibetan and Silla Buddhism. Faure first provides a brief account of the rise of centralised states in East Asia during the 7-8th century and then of Szechwan province, where Musang eventually lived. Drawing on a number of sources he explains Musang’s background in Silla and his years practicing alone in Szechwan. Eventually Musang caught the attention of the Chinese court and was recognised for his magical powers and religious qualifications as the third patriarch of Szechwanese Ch’an. Musang’s Ch’an teachings, Faure explains (158), were summarized in the phrases: no-remembrance, no-thought, no-forgetting, which are respectively linked to the practices of morality, meditation (sam?dhi) and wisdom (prajn?). Two key features that Faure identifies in Musang’s biographies are his connection with the state and his “thaumaturgic” (i.e. magical) powers, which included taming tigers, predicting future persecutions of Buddhism, and even posthumously helping with the relocation of a bell. Faure points out that Musang was founder and abbot of one of the great Szechwan monasteries, Ching-chung suu, which was central to state ordination ceremonies and enjoyed considerable official sponsorship. Looking beyond China, Faure explains Musang’s role in introducing Buddhism to Tibet and also raises the question of why he failed to rate a mention in his native homeland. Overall, Faure does an admirable job in highlighting the issues surrounding Musang in spite of the fragmented sources.


W?nch’uk (613-696) was another Silla monk who rose to prominence in T’ang China and whose influence eventually spread to Tibetan and Japanese Buddhism. In Chapter Five, Eunsu Cho explains that although few materials on his life and thought are extant, W?nch’uk made significant contributions to interpretations of Yog?c?ra theories at a period when Indian and Central Asian Buddhist texts were being translated and coalescing into a distinctly Chinese form of Buddhism. Cho addresses the conflicting historical accounts of W?nch’uk as, on the one hand, a scheming, bribing, plagiarist outsider monk, and on the other, a “modest, respected, and solitude-loving scholar” (200). She suggests that his image may have been tarnished, during his lifetime and afterward, by disciples of K’ui-chi, a fellow disciple of Hsuan-tsang. K’ui-chi disagreed with W?nch’uk’s interpretation of Yog?c?ra and his commentaries on Hsuan-tsang’s translation of Yog?c?ra, the Ch’eng wei-shih lun. Cho contends that scholarship has failed to fully appreciate that W?nch’uk was establishing a logical and philosophical position based on an independent interpretation (181). W?nch’uk’s scholastic efforts in the end influenced not only the general scholastic approach towards Yog?c?ra, but also provided the doctrinal basis for later developments in Chinese Hua-yen Buddhism. In Tibet and Japan his teachings also enjoyed considerable popularity and sparked vigorous discussion. Cho’s analysis of W?nch’uk presents a convincing picture of an intellectual figure actively participating in contemporary debates, and whose contributions extended beyond his lifetime into the broader East Asian sphere of Yog?c?ra thought.


Chapter Six, by Chi-wah Chan, examines the impact of Korean monks on the Chinese T’ien-t’ai school. In the late sixth century Chih-i developed the T’ien-t’ai school based on the Lotus S?tra and Madhyamaka philosophy, and, while the school enjoyed a period of growth and development up until the late seventh century, with the death of its fifth patriarch, Kuan-ting, it entered what Chan describes as a “period of intellectual stagnation” (218). The author argues that Korean monks made a significant contribution in the development of Chinese T’ien-t’ai following the crushing of the An-Lu Shan rebellion and during the rise of the Sung. These events had crippled, if not destroyed, T’ien-t’ai institutions, doctrines and monasteries, but Kory? monks such as Chijong, ?it’ong, Ch’egwan and ?ich’on helped revive the struggling T’ien-t’ai community in China by providing books, lectures and financial support. Chan acknowledges that Korean monks had earlier participated in Chinese T’ien-t’ai practices during its formative period but concludes that they made no significant impact on its direction. 


The volume’s final chapter, by Chi-chiang Huang, also deals with T’ien-t’ai, this time through the life and practice of ?ich’on (1055-1101). Huang explains that ?ich’on had a great impact on Chinese Buddhism from the time of his pilgrimage to China in 1085. He begins by explaining why ?ich’on went to China and how, once there, he was able to meet with Ching-yuan of the Hui-yin Monastery, who become a longtime correspondent and his eventual dharma teacher. During his fourteen-month stay, ?ich’on travelled to numerous temples and met with leaders from different sects, which had a profound effect in opening ?ich’on up to the teachings of other sects (p. 247). ?ich’on’s impact in the Sung and Yuan lies with his affiliation with Hui-yin Monastery, his study with Ching-yuan and his relations with monks of other sects. Furthermore, ?ich’on provided not only much needed financial support for the monastery and Ching-yuan, but a direct connection to the Kory? royal house, a factor that enabled ongoing financial, doctrinal and material support (252-254). Even after ?ich’on returned to the Kory? court, he maintained contact with T’ien-t’ai practitioners in China and stayed abreast of affairs concerning the monastery. These exchanges also permitted ?ich’on to continue his compilation of Buddhists texts and facilitated the exchange and preservation of doctrines. From the time of the Southern Sung onwards, however, changing alliances between Kory?, Sung and Chin meant that support from Kory? to the Hui-yin Monastery was suspended for up to 150 years and the temple gradually deteriorated. Only later under the Yuan did support from Kory? resume, due to the privileged position of Kory? royalty and high-ranking officials within the Mongol regime (258-262). In this chapter Huang presents an aspect of ?ich’on’s career that has received relatively little scholarly attention, yet made an important contribution to East Asian Buddhist history.  


Taken as a whole, the variety of material in Currents and Countercurrents presents a compelling argument for Korean Buddhism as a dynamic force in East Asia. The individual chapters are well-polished pieces that stand alone in making their arguments, but when brought together, they reveal the complex human, doctrinal, institutional and even international functions that Korean Buddhism has played in influencing the development of Buddhism in the region. The specialised nature of this book and familiarity it assumes with Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan and Korean history, not to mention Buddhist terminology, schools, texts, ideas and personalities, makes this book most suited to those working in, studying or interested in East Asian and/or Korean Buddhism. Currents and Countercurrents is indeed a valuable contribution that helps us better understand the role of Korean Buddhism in East Asia, and it serves as a shining example of how scholars can individually and collectively help challenge academic and nationalist prejudices.

Alston, Dane 2007
Review of _Currents and Countercurrents: Korean Influences on the East Asian Buddhist Traditions_, ed. by Robert E. Buswell (2006).
Korean Studies Review 2007, no. 13
Electronic file: http://koreaweb.ws/ks/ksr/ksr07-13.htm <https://webmail.vuw.ac.nz/exchweb/bin/redir.asp?URL=http://koreaweb.ws/ks/ksr/ksr07-13.htm> 


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