This article examines the history of the villages of lay monks (chaegasŭng) near North Korea’s northernmost border. These communities had been ignored for centuries until they suddenly became the object of scholarly and public attention when Korea fell under Japanese colonial rule (1910–1945). The men of the villages were called “lay monks.” They shaved their heads, had wives and children, and had more than one ethnic identity. Despite the sizable number of lay monk villages in this region, their long history and, more importantly, their monastic identity and Buddhist lifestyle, narratives about these communities are almost absent in the historiography of Korean Buddhism. The absence of a written history is ascribed to that historiography’s privileged focus on the influential figures, doctrines, texts, and schools that contributed to the protection of the state. Colonial experiences and national divisions have reinforced these elite- and nation-centered narratives about Korean Buddhism to the exclusion of its more pluralistic, local dimensions on the periphery. If the history of these lay monk communities is understood within the context of Chosŏn Buddhism (1392–1910) placed under the Neo-Confucian hegemony of the Chosŏn dynasty, then clearly the existence of these communities is not an anomaly developed independently, but instead is an integral part of Korean Buddhism.
One of the key characteristics of Buddhism during the late nineteenth century through the first half of the twentieth century was the rise of lay leadership in all aspects of Buddhist tradition. East Asian Buddhism was no exception to this trend, but the ways, degree, and timing in which this modern phenomenon manifested itself varied, especially in the case of Korean Buddhism, which saw a late arrival of lay leadership. This article addresses the question of why lay Buddhism struggled to emerge as a strong force in Korea compared to China and Japan. Without a doubt, colonialism was a key factor. Japanese rule disrupted the development of the Korean Buddhist sangha. However, another key factor that has been underestimated in the historiography of Korean Buddhism is that Korean monks were socially stigmatized during the colonial period (1910–1945). The rhetoric of stigmatism was so ubiquitous in the personal writings of monks and lay people, as well as in journals and newspapers in colonial Korea, that it begs a closer analysis to determine a correlation between the perception of monks in society at this time and its influence on the development of lay Buddhism in Korea. Thus, I would like to provide a preliminary explanation of this correlation by highlighting three interrelated aspects of Korean monastics in colonial Korea: (1) the stigmatization imposed on Korean monastics during the Neo-Confucian Joseon dynasty; (2) the persistence of these stigmas in the minds of Koreans; and (3) their internalization among Korean monastics themselves.