A look into South Korea reveals a confusing number of influences: the society is commonly described as Confucian, the politics are clearly influenced by Christianity, yet visit South Korea and you may think Buddhism is the religion of the land – there are temples virtually everywhere. Almost a quarter of the Korean population define themselves as Buddhists.
Yet how can we explain Buddhism’s seeming lack of power and influence in shaping contemporary Korean politics and society? Why are there no strong Buddhist political parties or charismatic Buddhist leaders setting the agenda?
To find answers, we sat down with Seoul National University Professor Sem Vermeersch and took a long, hard look together at Buddhism in Korea, from its introduction from China in the 4th century to our modern times.
Professor Vermeersch studied Korean at Seoul National University and received his PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Korea Institute of Harvard University and joined the faculty of Seoul National University in 2008, where he also serves as Associate Director for the International Center of Korean Studies and as editor of the Seoul Journal of Korean Studies. In addition to several academic publications, Professor Vermeersch is the author of “The Power of the Buddhas: The Politics of Buddhism During the Koryo Dynasty”, published by Harvard University Press, for which he was awarded the James B. Palais Book Prize by the Association of Asian Studies in 2010.
In Korean history, mostly Buddhism didn’t play an active political role […] I cannot think of any examples of Buddhists pushing their own agenda into the political world so I don’t see that happening. But the profile of Buddhism is changing.
The interview was conducted on December 15th in Seoul.