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...... ... .  . .  .  .
A Glimpse of Buddhist Developments
in China and Korea
Phra Rajavaramuni

I. A Short-Lived Buddhist Reform in China

In China, Tibet and Nepal, political events have also come into prominence and the progress of Buddhism has been checked or obscured. China which was for long centuries a stronghold of Buddhism and the main source of the Buddhist tradition of the Northern School came into the period of decline with the end of the 13th Christian century. There were some short intervals of revival but long days of exploitation, suppression and destruction. Throughout this period, the ruling school was Chan, but it was the Chan whose practice had fallen into habit and which placed a low value on intellectual pursuits. It was just in the early part of the present century that a remarkable reform was undertaken by the modernist monk Tai-Hsu (2432-2490/1889-1947).

The destruction of monasteries and scriptures by the rebels who professed Christianity during the Tai-ping rebellion (2393-2407/ 1850-1 864) stimulated both monks and laymen to begin a revival. But it was after the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty and the founding of the Republic of China in 1911 that an active reform started. In response to the challenge of a new intellectual climate in which traditional and conservative ideas and institutions were rejected and Marxist ideas were introduced, the monk Tai-Hsu led his followers in a movement to defend the religion, propagate the faith, reform the order and promote education. Schools with Western-style classroom instruction were set up. Welfare and economic development work was taken up. The Chinese Buddhist Society was organized in 2472/1929. New contacts with Buddhists of other Asian countries were opened up. Institutes for the training of Buddhist leaders were founded in various parts of China. The study of Buddhist texts was revived and reformed. Numbers of Buddhist periodicals were increased. And there was a great revival of interest in Buddhism of the Pure Land school. It is said that in 2473/1930 there were 738,000 monks and nuns and 267,000 Buddhist temples in China and about 60 or 70 percent of China's lay Buddhists belonged to Pure Land groups. In the meantime, Chan abbots took to traditional lines for the revival of their institutions.

The Communists took over China's mainland in 2492/1949 and then Buddhist activities fell into obscurity. It is said that a Chinese Buddhist Association was organized in 2496/1953 to bring the large Buddhist community under government control. Many monks fled to Hong Kong and Taiwan to continue their free activities. The Chinese government took measures to preserve famous and beautiful old temples, Buddhist sacred places and art works. Under the Great Cultural Revolution, however, an unrevealed number of Buddhist buildings and monuments were destroyed by the Red Guards.

In 2521/1.978, as an attempt to render more precisely the sounds of Mandarin Chinese, China adopted a new system for spelling most Chinese names in the Roman alphabet, called the Pinyin system. According to this new spelling, Mao Tse-tung becomes Mao Zedong, Chou En-lai becomes Zhou Enlai, Chu Teh becomes Zhu De and Peking becomes Beijing.

Although the constitution of the People's Republic of China provides for religious freedom, religious practice is not encouraged. Under Mao, many restrictions were placed on traditional rituals and religious observances. After the death of Mao Zedong in 2519/1976 and under Deng Xiaoping's modernization programme, many restrictions have been removed and the people have been much more free to observe custom and tradition. However, though many famous old temples have been restored, foreign visitors meet with very few Chinese monks. Buddhist activities of real significance have been unheard of. To many, Buddhism in Communist China has been a kind of 'Showcase Buddhism.'

II. The Reform of Korean Buddhism

Korean Buddhism with its major sect of Chan ran the same course of development and decline [1] as in China until the annexation by the Japanese in the year 2453/1910. Then, under Japanese rule (2453-2488/1910-1945), Korean Buddhism underwent a great change.

The Japanese brought with them Japanese Buddhism together with the beliefs, practices and activities of the different sects. They set up their temples and introduced social and educational programmes. Buddhism seemed to be restored to life. But, to the Korean Buddhists, the Japanese brought also the worst corrupting element, that is, the practice of married monkhood which they encouraged by policy and which completely destroyed the Korean Buddhist tradition.

Therefore, with the end of Japanese rule, leading Buddhists united in a movement to purify monastic life, to return the monks to the proper monastic discipline, and to restore their religious life and traditions. They established a well-organized celibate order of Korean Buddhist monks called the Chogye Order of Korean Buddhism and created a hierarchy of administration headed by a Patriarch or chief executive. From its headquarters at the Chogye temple, the Korean Sangha supervises all provincial councils that administer its 1,700 temples [2] in the 9 provinces of South Korea.

The Korean Sangha is dedicated to education. The Dongguk Buddhist University, which in 2509/1966 had an enrolment of about 6,000 students, is open both to monks and to lay students. The Korean Sangha also operates independent colleges, high schools, middle schools and kindergartens of its own. Monks have been sent to pursue their studies in other Buddhist countries. There has been an increasing interest in Theravada Buddhism during recent years. Besides sending Korean monks to study in Theravada countries, the Korean Sangha welcomes Theravada ordination in its own country. In 2516/1973, a group of Theravada monks from Thailand went on invitation to hold an ordination ceremony in Seoul, admitting about 40 Korean monks into the Theravada Order.


[1] Buddhism was introduced into Korea in 915/372 and molded the national culture of Korea for about 12 centuries before it entered a dark period of 500 years from the beginning of the Yi dynasty.

[2] Of this number (2510/1967), 1,400 were monasteries with 8,925 monks and novices (monks numbering about 7,000) and 300 were nunneries with 3,326 nuns and female novices (nuns numbering about 2,000).


[Originally published in Rajavaramuni, Phra Prayudh Payutto. Thai Buddhism in the Buddhist World. (Bangkok: Mahachulalongkorn Buddhist University, 1st Ed. 1984), pp. 94-97].


Thanking Phramaha Somnuek Saksree for his retyping this article.


Updated: 3-5-2000

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