- 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 Chilsong (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.
THE THREE KINGDOMS PERIOD
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 Ichadon, during
the reign of King Pophung (514-540) in 527 A.D., that Buddhism gradually became recognized
as the national religion of Shilla.
Ichadon 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
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 Worlds 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
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!
BUDDHISM FROM UNIFIED SHILLA PERIOD TO
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 countrys 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 Chan 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 (Chontae, 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
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
In the late 16th century A.D.,
during the Japanese invasion by the armies of Hideyoshi, Buddhism came to the
countrys 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 peoples
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.
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.
FEATURES OF KOREAN BUDDHISM
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.
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 Koreas
spirit and her strong patriotism.
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.
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