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Buddhism in Korea
Korean Buddhism Magazine, Seoul 1997

KOREA, SOUTH, officially known as the Republic of Korea, country in northeastern Asia that occupies the southern portion of the Korean Peninsula. South Korea is bounded on the north by North Korea; on the east by the Sea of Japan; on the southeast and south by the Korea Strait, which separates it from Japan; and on the west by the Yellow Sea. It has a total area of about 98,480 sq km (about 38,023 sq mi), including numerous offshore islands in the south and west, the largest of which is Cheju (area, 1829 sq km/706 sq mi). The state of South Korea was established in 1948 following the post-World War II partitioning of the peninsula between the occupying forces of the United States in the south and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in the north. The capital and largest city of South Korea is Seoul.

In order to understand Korean Buddhism, we must first take a look at its history. Introduced from China in 372 A.D., Buddhism combined with indigenous Shamanism. During the Three Kingdoms period, Buddhism slowly developed. After the unification of the peninsula in 668 by Shilla, the golden age of the unified Shilla Period (668-935) was followed by ritualistic Koryo (935-1392). Persecution ran high in the Choson Period as Neo Confucianism gained the favour of the ruling families. In 1945, after thirty-six years, the Japanese colonization of Korea came to an end: Korean Buddhism underwent a renewal.


Shamanism and Buddhism

When Buddhism was first introduced to Korea from China in 372 A.D., Shamanism was the indigenous religion. Shamanism is the ancient religion of animism and nature-spirit worship. The origin of Shamanism in Korea is unknown. It is based on the belief that human beings as well as natural forces and inanimate objects al possess spirits.

Since Buddhism was not seen to be in conflict with the rites of nature worship, it was able to naturally blend in with Shamanism. And so many of the special mountains believed to be the residence of spirits in pre-Buddhist times soon became the sites of Buddhist temples.

Korean Shamanism regarded three spirits with special reverence and importance: the Mountain Spirit, Sanshin (who is usually depicted as an old man with a tiger at his feet), Toksong, or the Recluse, and Ch’ilsong (the spirit of the seven stars, the Big Dipper). Buddhism accepted and absorbed these three spirits and, even today, special shrines are set aside for them in most temples. The Mountain Spirit, in particular, receives due veneration following the ceremonies honoring the Buddha in the main hall. This is in case the local mountain spirits, on whose land the temple stands, should become angry.

And thus Chinese Buddhism blended with Korean Shamanism to produce a unique form: Korean Buddhism. As in other Buddhist countries, the fundamental teachings of the Buddha remained the same, even though the form was uniquely Korean.


In the 4th century A.D., at the time when Buddhism was first introduced to Korea, the Korean peninsula was divided into three separate kingdoms: Koguryo, Paekje and Shilla. Buddhism arrived first in the northern kingdom of Koguryo and gradually spread to Paekje, in the southwest, finally reaching southeastern Shilla in the 5th century A.D.


In 372 A.D., a monk was invited from China to the northern Kingdom of Koguryo. He brought Chinese texts and statutes with him. Buddhism was quickly accepted by the Koguryo royalty and their subjects. The Buddhism in China at that time, was elementary in form. The people believed in the law of cause and effect - "as you sow, so shall you reap" - and the search for happiness. This simple philosophy had much in common with the indigenous Shaman beliefs and may have been a reason for the quick assimilation of Buddhism by the people of Koguryo.


Buddhism was carried from Koguryo to the southwestern kingdom of Paekje in 384 A.D. and there, too, the royal family received it. The teaching seems to have been similar to that in Koguryo. King Asin (392-450 A.D.), for example. Proclaimed that Korean "people should believe in Buddhism and seek happiness". During the reign of King Song (523-554 A.D.) there is record of a monk, Kyomik, returning from India with new texts. He is considered the founder of one of the main schools of Buddhism of that period. Beginning to 530 A.D., Korean monks traveled to Japan to teach the Japanese people about Buddhism. Architects and painters often accompained the monks. These craftsmen constructed great temples in Japan.


For a short time, a small, separate federation known as Kaya emerged. Situated on the southern coast between mighty Paekje and fast-growing Shilla, Jaya could not repel an invasion in the mid-sixth century. And thus the federation fell before reaching full maturity and was annexed to Shilla.


In Shilla, it was the common people who were first attracted to Buddhism. Among some of the aristocrats, there was considerable resistance to the new culture. It was only after the martyrdom of Ich’adon, during the reign of King Pophung (514-540) in 527 A.D., that Buddhism gradually became recognized as the national religion of Shilla.

Ich’adon was a prominent court official. One day he presented himself to the king and announced that he had become a Buddhist. The king had him beheaded. When the executioner cut off his head, milk poured out instead of blood. Paintings of this miracle can be seen on temple walls (at Haein-sa Temple for example). A stone monument in the National Museum of Kyongju honors Ich’adon’s death.

King Chinhung (540-575 A.D.) particularly encouraged the growth of Buddhism. During his reign, a special training institution, the Hwarangdo, was formed. Selected young men was trained physically and spiritually according to Buddhist principles so that they could govern and defend the nation. Towards the end of his life, King Chinhung became a monk. (Several Silla kings were ordained and their queens and families often followed the example and entered monasteries.)

The arts flourished during the Shilla Period. Some of the finest statues-Sokgur-am Buddha in Kyongju (see the cover of this book and it is also designated as World’s cultural Heritage in 1996) for example - were made a huge temple, Hwangnyong-sa was built during this period. This temple was the center of Buddhism of Shilla. Many famous monks emerged from this temple, including Won-gwang (531-630 A.D.), Cha-jang (608-686 A.D.), Won-hyo (617-686 A.D.), and Ui-sang (620-660 A.D.).

Won-hyo, a great scholar, was born in a simple family. He renounced his religious life in order to better serve the people. Married for a short time to a princess, he had one son. As a scholar, he wrote many important treatises. His philosophy revolved around the unity and the interrelatedness of all things. Searching for a teacher at that time, many monks went to China to study Buddhism. Won-hyo and his close friend, Ui-sang, also set out for China together. Both wanted to study Buddhism there. On the way to China Won-hyo awoke one evening thirsty and searching around, he found a container with delicious cool water in it. His thirst quenched, he went back to sleep. In the morning, he found that the vessel from which he drank the delicious water was a human skull. At that moment he realized that everything depends on the mind and attained enlightenment. Realizing that it was no longer necessary for him to go to China in search of a teacher, he returned home.

Master Ui-sang continued the journey. After ten years studying in China under a great master, Ui-sang offered a special gift to his teacher: a poem in the shape of a seal which, when written down, geometrically represented infinity. This poem contained the essence of the Avatamsaka Sutra (an extremely long text explaining the universe) and it is one of the greatest offerings of the Korean people to the world.

During the Shilla Period, the people were so devoted that some kings became Buddhists and took on Buddhist names and gave them to members of their families. Places too, were renamed according to the places famous at the time of the Buddha.

It is interesting to note that incense was introduced from China during this period. The people, not knowing its use, thought it magical and so employed it for curing disease!


Unified Shilla Period (668-935 A.D.)

In 668 A.D., Shilla conquered the other kingdoms and Buddhism became the central cultural force uniting the peninsula. This period came to be known as the Unified Shilla Period. Various rituals were developed and performed as spiritual requests for protection from foreign invasion. National sentiment was strong and the people worked hard for unity and understanding and everything ended towards the realization of the patriotic aspirations of the people. From the very beginning, Korean Buddhism developed using the unified approach - the "One Mind," the universal interrelatedness of everything - as taught be Won-hyo.

Throughout the Unified Shilla Period, Buddhism continued to prosper and grow both academically and culturally. During this era some of the finest Korean Art were created: the main temples of Korea were built, pagodas were erected; beautiful statues fashioned - all of this was of profound significance to the country’s Buddhist Heritage. The famous rock statue of the Buddha in Sokgur-am cave (see the picture of this book) in Kyongju was carved in 732 A.D.; today it still evokes a sense of wonder.

The Avatamsaka Sutra and the Lotus Sutra were much studied while the people worshipped Amitabha (the Buddha of Light) and Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva (the Bodhisattva of Compassion). Towards the end of the Unified Shilla Period, the Ch’an School (Son of Korean, Zen in Japanese) was introduced from China and this added a new dimension to Korean Buddhism. Meditation and direct experience were emphasized over concentration on studying the texts. Nine different schools emerged and they were known as the Nine Mountains of Son.

Koryo (935-1392 A.D.)

After the glory of Shilla faded, the Koryo Dynasty assumed power in the 10th century A.D. Buddhism continued to be the national religion, with the kings establishing shrines and temples throughout the country. However, excessive focus was placed on rituals and this created an unfavorable atmosphere for spiritual development. In an attempt to purify and renew the spiritual aspect of Buddhism, several monks struggled against the ritualistic trend. One of these monks was Master Ui-chon (1055-1101 A.D.), son of King Munjong (1047-1083 A.D.) who collected about 4,000 volumes of Buddhist texts while studying in China; from these texts the Tripitaka Korean (see note on Haein-sa Temple p.57) was produced. This eminent Koryo monk emphasized the importance of bringing Contemplative Son (Zen) and Textual (Avatamsaka) traditions together under a Chinese school, Tientai (Ch’ont’ae, in Korean). The formation of this school gave new life to Koryo Buddhism.

Buddhism remained the dominant intellectual influence during the latter past of the Koryo Dynasty. Confucianism, introduced to the peninsula at the same time as Buddhism, had not yet gained much popularity.

Master Chi-nul (1158-1210), usually known as Pojo-kuksa, became the leading monk of Korea. He founded Songgwang-sa temple on Mt. Chogye, and this large temple remained the headquarters of the Son sect for over 300 years. The nine school of Son (Zen) were unified by Mater Tae-go (1301-1382 A.D.) under the name Chogye which has remained the main sect to this day (see p.24).

Choson (1392-1910 A.D.)

With the downfall of the Koryo Dynasty in 1392 A.D., Buddhism slowly declined as the new rulers of the Choson Dynasty adopted Neo-Confucianism. Prior to this, many Buddhist monks had become overly involved in politics, resulting in royal strife. The new interest in Confucianism led to the oppression and restriction of Buddhism by some Choson kings. Temples could not be built near towns and had to be constructed in the mountains; many temples were pulled down; monks were looked down on and, for some years, not permitted to enter the capital city. While some kings persecuted Buddhism, the common people continued to go to the temples. At the beginning of the Choson Dynasty, geomancers were consulted in order to find the ideal site for a new capital. They chose an ancient place called "Hanyang" which was then renamed "Seoul" and which has been the center of culture and learning for the peninsula since that time. The name means "capital" in Korean and was probably derived from the ancient Indian place most dear to the Buddha: Sravasti. In Chinese, "Sravasti" became "Sarobol" and finally "Seoul" in Korean.

In the late 16th century A.D., during the Japanese invasion by the armies of Hideyoshi, Buddhism came to the country’s rescue. At the age of 72, Master So-san (1520-1604 A.D.) and his disciple Sa-myong (1544-1610 A.D.), led a band of 5,000 Buddhist monks against the people’s respect for Buddhism. Following the defeat of Hideyoshi invasion, his disciple, Master Sa-myong, was sent as chief delegate to Japan and in 1604, he completed a peace treaty.

Modern Times

In 1910, the Choson Dynasty came to an end with the annexation of the country to Japan. During the Colonial Period, Buddhism was greatly favored and supported by the Japanese government. However, the celibate sects were discouraged and monks were encouraged to take wives. Heads of temples were appointed by the Japanese occupation authorities. Unfortunately, during this period, many Buddhist art treasures were taken to Japan; even today the Buddhists, in co-operation with the Korean government, are negotiating with Japan in order to have these stolen treasures returned to Korea. After liberation in 1945, the celibate ordained members of the main sect of Korean Buddhism, Chogye, superseded the married monks who had taken over the main temples during the Japanese Occupation. Large numbers of men and women were ordained and there was a great revival of Korean Buddhism.

Recently, many new temples and centers have opened in the town. Programs for people of all ages include learning to chant, studying, all night meditation classes, and social gatherings. About half the population of Korea is Buddhist. Most Koreans, even though they may not call themselves Buddhists, maintain a Buddhist view of life and the afterworld.


Let us now consider four special features of Korean Buddhism:


1. Bodhisattva Principles

From the beginning, the way of the Bodhisattva became a central feature in the development of Korean Buddhism. A Bodhisattva is a being who postpones his or her own final enlightenment in order to help all beings, for she is the perfection of altruism, perfect in wisdom and compassion.

Bodhisattva are the embodiment of the Six Perfections: Generosity, Good Conduct, Vigor, Patience, Meditation and Wisdom. Initially, generosity is considered the most important perfection for the negation of the self: the first step on the spiritual path. Eventually all are interrelated and equally important on the path to becoming a Bodhisattva.

Let us look at a practical example of the intermingling of these six perfections. As long as giving is selfish, it is not truly generous. However, in order to practice perfect generosity, one must practice the other perfections. One has to observe good conduct in order to give a pure gift. Then patience is necessary in order to choose the time and determination so that you do not give up. Finally meditation helps you to let go of your greed, so that you can offer the gift selflessly and wisdom helps you to choose the "right" gift! Just as all are linked in generosity, each one is related to the other in all aspects of our life. Perfection in these factors lead to a perfect being: one who lives for all.

With the advent of Buddhism these values became fundamental and central to the Korean way of life. The youth corp (Hwarangdo) of the Unified Shilla period (seep.14) lived according to these ideas, and the teachings of the great Korean masters all emphasized the importance of the Bodhisattva path.

In Korean temples, there are many statues and painting of Bodhisattvas representing various aspects of compassion and wisdom. Throughout the history of Korean Buddhism, different Bodhisattvas have been especially popular at different times: Maitreya, the Future Buddha, and Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, in particular (see p.97 for more details). Special shrines were built for them or they were placed in the main Buddha hall next to the principal statue.

2. Unification

Buddhism was the force which originally brought the people of the peninsula together forming the Unified Shilla Period. After the unification in 668 A.D., social harmony, so necessary to maintaining defense, was fostered by Buddhism. Buddhist monks led the Korean people against the Japanese in the sixteenth century. Great Buddhist writers promoted this unity by amalgamating the different schools and teaching "Returning to the One Mind", "All is One" or "One Mindedness" (Won-hyo). Peace, harmony and unity became the foundation of Korea’s spirit and her strong patriotism.

3. Openness

Although Buddhism has always mixed with local culture, in Korea this is especially true. For example, Buddhism was open to Shamanism and Confucianism. Even today, new elements are constantly being added. A lot of music has entered Buddhist life nowadays. There are Buddhist songs and concerts as well as singing groups. There also seems to be a growing vogue for Buddhist themes woven into modern stories; many old stories have been made into plays for television and movies.

4. The Mundane

From early on in history, Korean Buddhism emphasized mundane benefits over spiritual benefits for the people - the monks of course, being primarily interested in spiritual growth. The people, constantly threatened by invaders and calamities, were much drawn to a teaching promising present prosperity rather than future salvation.

Source: Quang Duc HomePage


Updated: 1-2-2001

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