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A Collective Trauma

The Maltreatment of Buddhists during the Chosŏn Era

The Chosŏn Dynasty (1392 - 1910) was a society ruled by Confucian elites. Although the Chosŏn Dynasty was a classist society, some aspects can appear to have been quite progressive by modern standards: women could participate in lawsuits and it could accommodate a diversity of cultural and religious practices,  with both shamanism and Buddhism being prominent among the larger lower-class population. These facts may suggest that Chosŏn promoted a tolerant space for religious diversity, but upon closer inspection, this was not the case.

This essay discusses the experience of Buddhists in Chosŏn dynasty. It focuses on the idea of collective trauma, as used in Hwansoo Kim's article "Buddhism during the Chosŏn Dynasty (1392-1910): A Collective Trauma," which portrays the mistreatment of Buddhists in the Chosŏn state. My personal interest in this topic stems from the fact that I am a descendant of Ashkenazi Jews, a group who has been targeted and persecuted repeatedly in history because of the religion they practice. States often enforced religious uniformity as a power move to hold control over the people it rules. They might cast a part of the population as infidels because of their religious difference, using their "otherness" as a way to enforce state orthodoxy. By focusing on collective trauma, this paper is meant to highlight the ways in which seemingly minute aggressions and acts of intolerance encouraged by a state affect the way a marginalized religious group might be treated.

During the Koryŏ dynasty, Buddhism played a prominent role in state ideology. The Chosŏn dynasty that replaced Koryŏ relegated Buddhism to the sidelines and envisioned Confucianism to be the sole state ideology, reforming both official and social practices to conform to Confucian ideals (Seth 130). I believe the purpose of the enforcement of Confucianism by the Chosŏn state was that it is easier to rule over a group of people if they all share the same ideology especially if it is the ideology of the ruling party. Along with enforcing Confucianism as a dominant religion, the Chosŏn state also used Confucianism to reinforce a homogenous ruling class, the sajok, in order to establish control over the country's subjects. For instance, to hold sacred the internal interest of the ruling class of Chosŏn, the state placed restrictions on status categories, including chungin, secondary sons, hyangni, and the hyanghwain (submitting foreigners). These restrictions effectively prohibited any individual, or their descendants, who were not a part of the established elite from entering the ranks of the ruling sajok class.

Shortly after the founding of Chosŏn, Buddhist monks were stripped of their positions, and Buddhist officials were intimidated into denouncing Buddhism as their practiced religion. These events were the result of the attempt of scholars to remodel Korean society for government institutions and marriage on the ideals of Confucianism (Seth 130). Chŏng To-jŏn, a Korean Neo-Confucian scholar, aided in the efforts to overthrow the Koryŏ kingdom (918--1392 [CE]) and regarded Buddhism as an undesirable alien faith, as it focused on individual enlightenment and not on the social relations that social interactions were reliant upon in society (Seth 136). Additionally, the nature of the practice of Buddhism was misrepresented in efforts to make Buddhism and its practitioners sound less appealing, as displayed in the written work by Confucian teacher Kim T'aejun, which regarded Buddhist monks in Chosŏn as "sexually promiscuous social outcasts" (H. Kim 102). The Chosŏn state encouraged the restriction of Buddhist activities and heavily curtailed membership. Although Buddhists institutions were allowed to exist, the actual practicing of Buddhism was discouraged. The Chosŏn state did not allow Buddhist clergy much religious, economic, or social autonomy, even after forcing burdens upon them that had nothing to do with their religious practice. In unique cases, Buddhists were assigned to military positions and other foreign service-related positions as envoys. This was due to the fact that allies to Chosŏn, such as Japan and China, were predominantly practitioners of Buddhism (H. Kim 114).

Ann anecdote discussed in the dissertation "Protect the Pines, Punish the People" by John S. Lee, shows the prejudice and intolerance of Buddhists in Chosŏn. It involved a a monk who was forced into state labor. As a member of a Buddhist monastery, he was required to patrol and protect the side of a mountain that was dense in pine trees. These trees were essential to the infrastructure of Chosŏn, because pine wood was used for the manufacturing of military ships and weaponry. After a strong storm along the mountainside, pine branches were left disturbed, with mounds of pine debris littering the mountain surface. A government officer saw this site and assumed that the monk belonging to the monastery assigned to the area had not been performing his duties; the officer assumed that the debris on the ground was the result of pine tree removal in the area. Rather than approach the monk with words, the officer confronted him with his fists, punching the monk in the chest to demand a confession for the crime the officer had pre-conceived. The monks were forced to pay substantial restitution (Lee 1).

This instance is quite alarming because of the arbitrariness of the violence the state officer perpetrated against the monk. Here, we see the impulse of violence against a monk, for seemingly no other reason than that the officer thought it was acceptable to beat a monk simply because of the lowly social status of Buddhist monks. I consider this to reflect an institutionalized intolerance of the Buddhist practitioners. Most other literature presenting cases of Chosŏn who dealt with the courts was given a hearing by the magistrate, the privilege to a petition, and in some cases, the ability to appeal a case and its sentences (J. Kim 7). So, although Chosŏn seemed to consider itself as a fair and just state, the treatment of Buddhist monks in the state proved otherwise. It can be true that the officer responsible for the crime against this monk might have been acting on his own and not on behalf of the Chosŏn state. However, even though this monk was a Chosŏn subject, it seemed the officer had no compunction abusing him and meting out punishment without using proper legal channels.

Tensions between Confucian scholars and Buddhist monks continued even into the 20th century after the end of the Chosŏn period. This is exemplified in the 1936 rage-fueled altercations between Buddhist monks and Confucian scholars in H. Kim's 2017 article. These incidents are a consequence of Chosŏn state's intolerance of Buddhism and reveal how the collective trauma experienced by Buddhists in Chosŏn left lasting scars across generations, persisting beyond the end of the Chosŏn Era.


Victoria Duran, “A Collective Trauma,” UCLA Korean History and Culture Digital Museum, accessed July 18, 2024,