Learning from Monastic Litigation

Learning from Monastic Litigation

Philip Gant - Postdoctoral Associate in East Asian Studies and Lecturer in Religious Studies

Wednesday, October 28, 2020 - 12:00pm to 1:30pm
via Zoom See map

This talk examines the active legal role of Buddhist monastics in the society of Chosŏn Korea (1392-1910). Chosŏn is thought to have been particularly successful in using the law to advance Neo-Confucianism and persecute Buddhism into irrelevance. Although scholars have long called for a reorientation of that understanding of Chosŏn Buddhism, a workable alternative picture of its social realities has remained elusive. 

I provide one. Introducing the prodigious litigation in which Buddhist monastics became involved throughout those five centuries, I show that rather than grinding monastics out, Chosŏn’s legal system, in interpreting and applying policy decisions, functioned steadily and predictably to bring the country’s monastics more and more tightly into the fold. I trace how this developed within monastic social and religious networks, within the country’s land use patterns, and within the county’s law itself. Finally, I follow monastic litigation over the Chosŏn/Colonial Period (1910-1945) divide to demonstrate how the roots of modern Korean Buddhism’s enduring, creative engagement with society through law run deeper than received wisdom tends to suggest.

In the process, I show how Chosŏn Buddhism – all too long thought stagnant, dependent, and monolithic – was instead integrated, responsive, and diverse.

Philip Gant is a historian of premodern East Asia; his research focuses on Korean legal and social life over the centuries. His dissertation “Taking Refuge in the Law,” explored the tortuous litigation in which Buddhist monasteries and monastics in Chosŏn Korea (1392-1910) grew increasingly enmeshed to arrive at views of an overlooked religious landscape

Gant received his Ph.D. in History and East Asian Languages (HEAL) at Harvard University, and his bachelor’s degree in History and East Asian Studies at Yale College. 

From 2017 to 2019, he was a William R. Tyler fellow at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. In the field, he was a summer fellow at the Academy of Korean Studies, and a 2017-2018 visiting student at the Kyujanggak Institute at Seoul National University. A Richard U. Light fellow and a Blakemore Freeman fellow in Seoul, Korea, he was a Greenberg/Yale-China Initiative scholar in Beijing, China, and a Reischauer Institute summer language grantee in Kanazawa and Yokohama, Japan.


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