Korean Buddhism: History—Condition—Art

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            The author does not over-estimate the importance of this little book: it is nothing more than its title claims. It consists of three lectures given to popular audiences, with the accompaniment of many illustrations. It represents, however, a considerable amount of work in an almost virgin field. It has involved hard journeys to remote mountain monasteries, and days and nights of conversation and inquiry with many monks and priests. It is not, however, a profound study nor an exhaustive presentation. It barely touches many a subject, which would alone furnish more material than could be treated in three such lectures. It but scratches the surface.

            The material which it presents is however new. Outside of Mrs. Bishop’s account of her visit to the Diamond Mountain monasteries and scattered references in her book to a few local temples, there is almost nothing on the subject of Korean Buddhism accessible to English readers. A glance at our bibliography will show that not one of the books or articles there listed appeared in the West. All were printed at Seoul, Shanghai and Tokyo and publications appearing at those centers are little known outside. To aid serious readers, who may care to secure them, the publishers’ names are given in our list. The author has carefully read all the items listed and acknowledges indebtedness to all the authors.

            The actual amount of material for the full study of Korean Buddhism is enormous. There are many voluminous works in Chinese and Korean dealing with Korean history; when carefully sifted, these will yield many important facts. Many, perhaps all, of the monasteries have records of their history somewhat after the nature of annals; most of these are in manuscript, but a few have been printed, presumably from wood-blocks cut at the establishment by the monks. There is a third source of information, as vast in bulk as either of the other two; it is the inscriptions on monuments, which are scattered in thousands over the peninsula. The gleaning of information from these three sources—for the work must absolutely be of the nature of gleaning—will require many years, but the work is worth the doing. It is urgent also. Every one of these three sources is subject to destruction and even now is threatened. Old books in Korea are being constantly lost and destroyed; new editions of them are often carelessly and inaccurately reproduced; in some cases, the new editions are intentionally mutilated, important passages being suppressed. The monastery records are less secure than ever before; with the new life and energy in these old establishments, renovation and clearing out of nooks and corners and overhauling of accumulations of papers, places documents, the value of which is unknown or unappreciated, in serious jeopardy. As for the monuments many are disappearing and others are becoming undecipherable through weathering. There is pressing need then of promptly securing these materials and making them available for study.

            The Japanese are doing much good work. They are gathering old books and records. Up to 1915 more than one hundred and fifty thousand books, manuscript and printed, had been gathered by the Government-General. Among these were the “Annals of Yi” numbering sixteen hundred and thirty-three volumes and the “Royal Diaries,” aggregating thirty-one hundred and ninety-nine volumes, “all hand-written with the brush.” Of the “Annals” there were four sets made under the Korean government for the four old royal libraries. The “Royal Diaries” were compiled at the king’s orders; they dated from Yi Tajo himself, but those up to near the end of the sixteenth century were burned by the Koreans at the time of the Hideyoshi invasion; those now existing cover the period from 1623 to 1907. Japanese scholars have organized a society for reprinting old and rare Korean books and have gotten out many volumes. They are piling up direct observations also. From 1909 to 1915, they conducted a peninsula-wide survey of ancient monuments and have printed the results in four fine volumes, with splendid illustrations, under the title Chosen ko seki gafu. They have taken steps toward the preservation and, where necessary, the reconstruction of important monuments and notable buildings. They are copying the monastery records and ultimately will have a complete set of all that remain. The originals ought to be left in possession of the monasteries themselves, with the obligation to guard and keep them safely. As to monumental inscriptions, the Government-General has been equally industrious. Up to March, 1915, there had been made thirteen hundred and seventy-seven direct rubbings from inscribed stones, of which forty-four represented Sylla, forty-three the period of the Koryu Dynasty and thirteen hundred and three the Yi Dynasty. It is fortunate that this preservation of material is being undertaken. The world will profit by it, though it may still be long locked up in Chinese characters.

            In this book the work of Yi Nung Hwa is mentioned. His Buddhist magazine should yield some data of value. If his History of Korean Buddhism is printed it ought to be of high importance, as he naturally has a much easier task in consulting the original sources than any foreigner. If his work is done with care and critical judgment it should be the necessary foundation for all future study. All depends upon how he performs his task. Readers who become interested in our lectures are advised to read Bishop Trollope’s admirable Introduction. It clears the ground and indicates the direction of further studies.

            The author has hundreds of negatives illustrating Korean Buddhism. One hundred and fifty pictures were used in the original lectures. When cutting down to what seemed the absolute limit, in selecting pictures for the book, he found that he had more than double the number permitted by the necessary conditions. Further reduction was difficult and many pictures have been rejected, which are more beautiful or interesting than some of those that are included. The final choice was based upon the desire to give as clear an idea as possible of actual conditions and to represent all the important phases presented in the lectures. One or two of the pictures were made by Manuel Gonzales in 1911; all the others are the work of Maebashi Hambei, who accompanied me, in my last three expeditions to Korea, as photographer.

            Chicago, July 12, 1918.

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