Possession and Repetition

Ways in which Korean Lay Buddhists Appropriate Scriptures


  • Yohan Yoo Seoul National University, Seoul, Korea




Korean Buddhism, iconic book, Buddhist Sutras, appropriating scripture


This article demonstrates the need for the iconic status and function of Buddhist scripture to receive more attention by illuminating how lay Korean Buddhists try to appropriate the power of sutras. The oral and aural aspects of scripture, explained by Wilfred Cantwell Smith, provide only a limited understanding of the characteristics of scripture. It should be noted that, before modern times, most lay people, not only in Buddhist cultures but also in Christian and other traditions, neither had the chance to recite scriptures nor to listen to their recitations regularly. Several clear examples demonstrate contemporary Korean Buddhists’ acceptance of the iconic status of sutras and their attempt to appropriate the power and status of those sacred texts. In contemporary Korea, lay Buddhists try to claim the power of scriptures in their daily lives by repeating and possessing them. Twenty-first century lay believers who cannot read or recite in a traditional style have found new methods of repetition, such as internet programs for copying sacred texts and for playing recordings of their recitations. In addition, many Korean Buddhists consider the act of having sutras in one’s possession to be an effective way of accessing the sacred status and power of these texts. Hence, various ways of possessing them have been developed in a wide range of products, from fancy gilded sutras to sneakers embroidered with mantras.

Author Biography

Yohan Yoo, Seoul National University, Seoul, Korea

Assistant Professor, Department of Religious Studies, Seoul National University.


Choi, Keunyoung. 1996. “Kagukyeonghang.” In Pascal Dongsuh’s Korea-World Encyclopedia vol. 1, 29. Seoul: Dongsuhmunhwa publishing.

Eliade, Mircea. 1949. Patterns in Comparative Religion. Translated by Rosemary Sheed. New York: Sheed & Ward (reprinted 1958).

Gethin, Rupert. 1998. The Foundations of Buddhism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gombrich, Richard. 1990. “How the Mahayana Began.” In The Buddhist Forum, Vol. 1: Seminar Papers 1987-1988, edited by Tadeusz Skorupski, 21–30. London: School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

Graham, William A. 1987. Beyond the Written Word: Oral Aspects of Scripture in the History of Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 1989. “Scripture as Spoken Word.” In Rethinking Scripture: Essays from a Comparative Perspective, edited by Miriam Levering, 129–169. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Harvey, B. Peter. 1990. An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History, and Practices. New York: Cambridge University Press.

“Kagukyeonghang.” 1983. Donga World Encyclopedia, vol. 1, 37. Seoul: Donga.

Kinnard, Jacob N. 2002. “On Buddhist ‘Bibliolaters”: Representing and Worshiping the Book in Medieval Indian Buddhism.” The Eastern Buddhist 34: 94–116.

Levering, Miriam. 1989. “Scripture and Its Reception: A Buddhist Case.” In Rethinking Scripture: Essays from a Comparative Perspective, edited by Miriam Levering, 58–101. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Mitchell, Donald W. 2002. Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Moerman, D. Max. 2010. “The Death of the Dharma: Buddhist Sutra Burials in Early Medieval Japan.” In The Death of Sacred Texts: Ritual Disposal and Renovations of Texts in World Religions, edited by Kristina Myrvold, 71–90. Farnham: Ashgate.

Robinson, Richard H. and Johnson, Willard L. 1997. The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction. 4th ed. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Schopen, Gregory. 1975. “The Phrase ‘prthivipradesas caityabhuto bhavet’ in the Vajracchedika: Notes on the Cult of the Book in Mahayana.” Indo-Iranian Journal 17: 147–181. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/000000075790079574

———. 1991. Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks: Collected Papers on the Archaeology, Epigraphy, and Texts of Monastic Buddhism in India. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press (reprinted 1997).

Smith, Wilfred Cantwell. 1971. “The Study of Religion and the Study of the Bible.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 39: 131–140. Reprinted 1989 in Rethinking Scripture: Essays from a Comparative Perspective, ed. Miriam Levering, 18-28. Albany: State University of New York Press.

———. 1989. “Scripture as Form and Concept: Their Emergence for the Western World.” In Rethinking Scripture: Essays from a Comparative Perspective, edited by Miriam Levering, 20–57. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Strong, John S. 2002. The Experience of Buddhism: Sources and Interpretation. Belmont: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

Tuladhar-Douglas, Will. 2009. “Writing and the Rise of Mahayana Buddhism.” In Die Texutalisierung der Religion, edited by Joachim Schaper, 250–272. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.

Williams, Paul. 2000. Buddhist Thought. New York: Routledge.



How to Cite

Yoo, Y. (2012). Possession and Repetition: Ways in which Korean Lay Buddhists Appropriate Scriptures. Postscripts: The Journal of Sacred Texts, Cultural Histories, and Contemporary Contexts, 6(1-3), 243–259. https://doi.org/10.1558/post.v6i1-3.243