Between Dialogue, Polemic and Apologetic: Modes of Inter-Religious Contact in Pre-Modern Korea seen in the Regional Context of Far East Asia

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Inter-religious contacts between Buddhists and Confucians during the Chosŏn period shouldn’t be reduced to Buddhism in an environment dominated by Neo-Confucian thought, but also research in a wide range of interaction modes – revealed through religious, historical and literary sources.

Case studies contrast theses interaction modes and identify trends in their historical development, in order to develop building blocks of a more abstract typology of religious contacts.

Workshop: "Between Dialogue, Polemic and Apologetic: Modes of Inter-Religious Contact in Pre-Modern Korea Seen in the Regional Context of Far East Asia"

From: 16:00h Thursday, April 14th To: 16:00h Friday, April 15th 2011

The presentations dealt, according to the topic of the conference, with different aspects of interreligious contact on the Korean peninsula. Through the introduction of a wide range of sources, different modes of contact were examined.

Henrik Hjort Sørensen (Copenhagen/Bochum) took up the narrative of a Buddhist decline in Koryŏ times (918-1392), which has been widely spread in modern research. He discussed previously assumed reasons for and symptoms of such a decline, eventually to refute the very idea of such a decline. The sources, in the form of petitions to the throne or polemics, rather speak for a strengthening of Neo Confucian thought in the political sphere, whose spokespersons discredit Buddhism for political reasons, often under the circumstances of factional strife. Due to political conflicts the conduct in contact situations turns rougher also on the level of religious discourse, where sympathetic tendencies decline in significance and polemical attacks increase. Notably in official history records, the demarcation along the lines of religious allegiance becomes all the more important.

Christian Mularzyk (Bochum) analyzed cognitive patterns that underlie a special case of doctrinarian hybridity in the Buddhist writings of Kim Sisŭp (金時習, 1435-1493). To explain the soteriological scheme of the five positions of the Caodong school (Caodong wuwei 曹洞五位), Kim employs the Diagram on the Supreme Ultimate (Taiji tu 太極圖) authored by the Neo Confucian thinker Zhou Dunyi (周敦頤, 1017-1073), together with the commentary by Zhu Xi (朱熹, 1130-1200). The presentation aimed for an explication of reasons for which the combination of these texts could seem plausible to Kim Sisûp. The main basis for this plausibility was located in numerical symmetries in the architecture of both thought systems as they were perceived by the author.

Based on predating models of heterodoxy in China, Vladimir Glomb (Prague) spoke on concepts of heterodoxy in the context of an emerging Neo Confucian tradition in Korea. The central figures in his presentation were T'oegye Yi Hwang (退溪李滉, 1501-1570) and Yulgok Yi I (栗谷李珥, 1536-1584). Starting point for the enquiry was a passage from the Lunyu 論語, i.e. the analects of Confucius, which figured to become a focal reference point for discussions on heterodox teachings (yi duan / I tan 異端) in Confucianism and Neo Confucianism. Although according to the standard understanding of the passage it is recommended to keep distance to heterodox teachings as a precautionary measure to avoid their attractive traits, Confucian orthodoxy once and again refers to marked heterodox teachings in processes of self-positioning: In antiquity, this is the case vis-à-vis the schools of Yang Zhu (楊朱, 4th century b.c.E) and Mo Di (墨翟, 5th century b.c.E.), in the era of the Tang (唐, 618-907) vis-à-vis Buddhism, and in the Song (宋, 960-1279) this attitude is directed against Chan 禪. In the special case of Korea, the marginalized role of Buddhism and the emergence of the teachings of Wang Yangming (王陽明, 1472-1529) and Sŏ Kyŏngdŏk (徐敬德, 1489-1546) leads to the application of the concept of heterodoxy to inner-Confucian discourse: In this rigid discourse, Confucian teachings are evaluated as being either orthodox or heterodox.

Isabelle Sancho (Paris) examined the inner-denominational discourse on heterodoxy through the biography of Yulgok Yi I. Although later to be remembered one of the most important figures in the history of Korean Confucianism, Yulgok in his youth enters a Buddhist monastery – out of grief and after after finishing his mourning period for his deceased mother. In this episode, however, falls his Confucian awakening experience, leading him to return to the worldly sphere, where he would eventually succeed masterfully in Confucian state examinations and hold a strong Confucian viewpoint whenever it came to religious politics. Nonetheless the Buddhist interlude in his youth becomes an issue much discussed in his lifetime and posthumously. Comparing his biography to those of model thinkers of Neo Confucianism in China (esp. Zhu Xi), common traits in them could hint at an idea similar to that of a Bildungsroman: Pioneering figures of a tradition need to fall into the clutches of heterodox doctrine before they eventually can become exemplary thinkers of orthodoxy.

Kim Daeyeol (Paris) also focused his research on the life of a particular person, in this case that of Tasan Chŏng Yagyong (茶山丁若鏞, 1762-1836), a state official and Confucian thinker of the late Chosŏn era. Although he is generally portrayed as a devout Confucian, Tasan shows intellectual openness to ideas of different schools of thought or religions. In examining his writings, the question was posed, at what stages of his life concrete influences of Buddhist thought could be observed, and how this inspiration could take place. The focus was placed on poetic works, which were ordered in sequence following his biography. During active duty as an official (1790-1800) documents written by Tasan reveal a strong repulsion of Buddhism, while he at the same time often pays visit to Buddhist monasteries. In the phase of exile (1801-1818) a re-orientation of his attitude towards Buddhism takes place: Thus, Tasan perceives the calmness of Buddhist monasteries to be enjoyable as a contrast to the busy everyday life of a clerk in an office. In this time, he develops friendly relationships with monks, only social obligations hindering him in becoming a fully ordained monk. The key to understand this change of perception lie in Chŏng's new understanding of the relationship between Buddhism and Confucianism: Initially having viewed both teachings as quite distinct from each other, he perceives them now to be close to each other. Secondly, one can observe a spiritual re-orientation after his being exiled a civil servant. In this scenario, the medium of poems serves to create an aesthetic space for the discussion of Buddhist ideas.

Yannick Bruneton (Paris) dedicated his presentation to an inquiry into the Tongmun sŏn 東文選, a late 15th c. normative compilation providing a counterpart to the Chinese Wenxuan 文選 by assembling exemplary lyrics and prose literature from the Korean peninsula. After examining the structure of the TMS, Bruneton scrutinized monastery records and biographies of monks contained in the work for Confucian influences. Generally composed by Confucian literati, the texts often describe Buddhist monks as virtuous in a Confucian sense, e.g. as loyal (ch'ung 忠). This re-evaluation of the virtue of monks, however, also has another ring to it: By explicitly praising a small number of monks in this way, it is implicitly said that most monks do not adhere to stately ideals and therefore cannot be seen as virtuous. At the same time, the speaker remarked that many early Confucian thinkers had a rather ambivalent position towards Buddhism: Despite all radical polemics, to entertain friendly interactions with monks was an everyday affair.

The presentations of the workshop exemplified in astonishing manner the complexity of Buddho-Confucian contact during the Koryŏ and the Chosŏn eras. Thus, a broad range of interactions may be observed, depending both on media and genres as well as the biographies of individual authors, or even phases thereof. Correspondingly, the organizers plan to unite the contributions in a volume honoring the multi-perspective approach of the workshop and the multi-faceted picture emerging from the contributions.

Affiliated Persons


Christian Bernard Mularzyk


Office FNO 02/80
+49 234 32-23052

Prof. Dr. Jörg Plassen


Universitätsstr. 150
44801  Bochum
Office MB 3/92
+49 234 32-22316