Introduced to Korea during the first millenia, Buddhism has a long history on the Peninsula and remains until today a major influence on the Korean society. This is nothing, however, compared to the clout it enjoyed as state religion during the Koryo period, from the 10th until the end of the 14th century. What caused the downfall of Buddhism in Korea? A popular argument is that Buddhism had become so powerful and corrupt that the state needed to suppress it.
Professor Juhn Ahn opposes this Confucian critique and we had the pleasure of interviewing him on the matter. After an overview of the current narrative, he told us about the societal shifts of the late Koryo dynasty, the problematic integration of newcomers into the Korean elite and how these factors led to the fall of Buddhism’s popularity.
Professor Juhn Ahn is Assistant Professor of Buddhist and Korean Studies at the University of Michigan. In addition to various articles on East Asian Buddhism, he also has a forthcoming book on the subject: Buddhas and Ancestors: Religion and Wealth in Fourteenth-Century Korea. Professor Ahn received his PhD in Buddhist Studies from the University of California, Berkeley.
I think the downfall or the decline of Buddhism is really the wrong way to understand it [and] there really isn’t good evidence to make that claim. What I think we need to present is a slightly more nuanced claim [as] what happened to Buddhism isn’t that it actually declined or that it shrunk, but that there was an attempt to remove it from the realm of public authority.
The interview was recorded on November 18th, 2017 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.