Marek Zemánek (Charles University, Prague)

23 February 2018


The history of Korean Buddhism stretches back more than 1,600 years. But it is also a productive source for the legitimization of relatively new traditions.

Contemporary Korean Buddhism is, to a great extent, a product of the 20th century, when it underwent several changes caused, inter alia, by Japanese occupation, nationalism, the Korean War, modernization and urbanization, and Protestant missions. As a result, many institutions, concepts, and religious practices, as well as some of the structures we encounter in Korea today, are products of the past century, yet are perceived and presented as something dating back to premodern times. Moreover, traditions are being invented literally in front of our eyes. Thus, the question of Buddhist tradition in Korea proves to be a multi-layered problem, as there are many parties involved in the process of invention and reinvention, including individuals, local temples and orders, and different agencies and offices of the government and administration.

The quest for the “Koreanness” of Korean Buddhism has been a point of contention, not only among Buddhists themselves but also among scholars of Buddhist studies, as academia is another important inventor of tradition. My lecture considers the strategies of dissemination of tradition by the means of UNESCO heritage registration, national heritage registration, the Templestay program, local festivals, and above all, invented lineages and the various approaches to public relations strategies. Pre-existing strategies in the East Asian and Korean Buddhist tradition are being used in new contexts, along with new mechanisms and new strategies for the invention of tradition. My lecture shall provide the participants with insights into the creation of a certain aspect of Korean culture and teach them to critically approach such phenomena.

The aim of my lecture is to introduce and deconstruct contemporary narratives of Korean Buddhism. There is a specific way how Korean Buddhism is introduced and dealt with vis-à-vis other “Buddhisms.” The lecture is based on textual research and fieldwork, as well as on reflection of contemporary discourse, both academic and popular. I shall address the process of invention of Korean Buddhism within the overlapping milieu represented by Buddhists themselves and academia.


Marek Zemánek teaches at the Korean Studies Seminar of the Institute of East Asian Studies, Charles University, Prague, and at the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, Charles University. Having majored in Korean Studies at Charles University, he specialized in Buddhist Studies at Dongguk University and in Religious Studies at Seoul National University and Charles University. His research focuses on Korean Buddhism, both contemporary and pre-modern, and on Korean religions in general, especially on religious rituals in contemporary Korea.