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From the Mountains to the Cities: A History of Buddhist Propagation in Modern Korea.

From the Mountains to the Cities: A History of Buddhist Propagation in Modern Korea. By Mark A. Nathan. (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai'i Press, 2018. Pp. xii, 194. $62.00.)

A work of excellent scholarship, Mark Nathan's From the Mountains to the Cities covers a period spanning from the late nineteenth century, when Korean monks first encountered the modern concept of religious propagation, to the present, and it addresses the ways in which Korean monastic communities have sought to reconcile the spread of Buddhism with state regulation.

In the first of six chapters, Nathan defines propagation--"p'ogyo" in Korean--in terms of how the concept became associated with the re-definition of religion and its role in the wider society. Once Western and Japanese missionaries arrived in Korea in the late nineteenth century, the idea of religious propagation came to encompass activities in which several religions could compete with one another. Nathan thus pays close attention to "the presence of transnational religious representatives" (4) in the history of the propagation of Buddhism in modern Korea. In the second chapter, by extension, he considers the role of the Japanese Buddhist missionary Sano Zenrei, who petitioned the Korean government in 1895 to lift the ban on Buddhist clerics entering the capital, thereby promoting the "opening of public spaces" (44). In this chapter, Nathan also explains how Korean Buddhist leaders and intellectuals mobilized the trope of so-called "mountain-centered Buddhism" in order to eliminate the socio-spatial isolation that Korean Buddhism had experienced during the Neo-Confucian Choson period.

In the third chapter, Nathan shifts focus to religious activities regulated by the Japanese colonial government in Korea, via laws that included the Temple Ordinance of 1911 and the Propagation Regulations of 1915. In particular, regarding the Temple Ordinance, which most scholars have criticized as a political tool used to undermine the autonomy of Korean monastic communities, Nathan alternatively explains that the legal measure facilitated "the redefinition of religion, the repositioning of religious organizations in relation to the state in modern societies, or the introduction of new principles in modern legal system" (73). In that sense, Nathan treats the relationship between the colonial legal system in Korea and the propagation of Buddhism in a more comprehensive way than other scholars, to date.

In the fourth chapter, Nathan addresses the Buddhist Purification Movement (1954-1962), in which South Korean President Syngman Rhee exploited the rhetoric of decolonization to consolidate his political hegemony. In the fifth and sixth chapters, Nathan investigates how the Minjung Buddhist Movement in the late 1970s and 1980s engaged in sociopolitical development, as well as how contemporary Korean Buddhist communities had transformed their mountain monasteries into cultural assets geared toward the propagation of Buddhism.

Nathan draws the conclusion that propagation has played a pivotal role in the development and vitality of Buddhism in Korean society. However, two shortcomings merit attention. For one, although this book concerns the history of Korean Buddhist propagation, Nathan relies heavily on secondary sources. It would have been revealing to have examined primary sources as a means to offer more convincing evidence of the relationship between Buddhist propagation and the institution's particular role. The other problem lies in Nathan's strict focus on the contemporary propagation of Buddhism only from the perspective of the Chogye Order. Although that Order ranks as South Korea's most popular Buddhist denomination, other Buddhist denominations should have been considered, regarding their role in the religion's propagation.

Nevertheless, Nathan's work doubtlessly makes an important contribution to the study of modern Korean Buddhism, especially by presenting the ways in which various propagations of Buddhism have operated within and sometimes struggled against the changing legal systems in Korea's colonial and postcolonial contexts.

Jeongeun Park

University of Prince Edward Island
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Author:Park, Jeongeun
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2019
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