It is difficult to overstate the influence that Buddhism has had on Korea’s cultural constitution and historical consciousness. Despite the length and complexity of the relationship between religion and nation, however, the history of Buddhism in Korea, as well as the history of Korean Buddhism in the trajectory of broader Buddhist culture, has been little more than a footnote, if that, in most English language texts. Meanwhile Korean sources teem with accounts of a unique brand of Buddhism that has alternately ruled the country and been exiled to the mountains, inspired the cynical and disgusted the idealistic, produced the greatest art and architecture to grace the Korean peninsula and reveled in the Spartan purity of absolute asceticism. Particularly compelling among these sources are the travel journals, from as early as the Silla dynasty, that paint a history of travel to the mountain monasteries in times of personal and national crisis and offer invaluable insights into the intertwined religious, artistic and political development of Korea.
The diary of a twentieth century monk who went by the Buddhist name Hyeonchik (1895-1962) is at once an example of such a composition and a singularly individuated work that humanizes it author, the Buddhist clergy he was a member of, and the Korean nation at large during the most critical junctures of its recent history. Both as an illustration of a literary genre characteristic of Korean religious history and as a unique deviation from the conventional constraints of that type-mold – the latter qualification arguably in reflection of the likewise distinctive developments of his historical milieu – Hyeonchik’s diary presents itself as a singular vehicle for translation and dissemination, particularly to an English-speaking Western world accustomed by its own literary tradition to an affinity for the episodic and the individualistic, but equally compelled by the mysteries of East Asian culture at large and its perceived esoteric religious traditions specifically. By catering to the latter desire for knowledge while offering the former element of accessibility, Hyeonchik offers the English-language world an intoxicating blend of known and unknown via translation.
Inga Kim Diederich received her Bachelors degree from the University of Chicago in 2009, with a major in Art History and minors in East Asian Languages and Civilizations and Visual Arts. Her research focus is the history of Buddhism in modern Korean history, particularly during the unprecedented upheavals of the 1930s through the 1960s. Her affiliation is with Seoul National University, where she has been studying for the past year as a visiting research fellow at the Kyujanggak Archives, taking classes, and working closely with professors in the departments of philosophy and history. She is currently applying to graduate programs and hopes to continue her study of Korean history when she returns to the United States.