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Korean Buddhism in the East Asia:
A note on significant points
Soon Keum Kim

The Korean peninsula is by no means isolated from neighbouring region of Northeast Asia owing to its territorial contiguity. There was in fact an almost organic relationship among the East Asian countries in culture, politics and religion. It is essential to recall that in no way was Korean Buddhism neglected in the development of Mahaayaana Buddhism in the East Asia. R. E. Buswell has given enough proof in support of the above statement in the following words:

"Korean exegetes working on both the peninsula and the Chinese mainland made seminal contributions to the development of what are commonly considered to be distinctively "Chinese" schools of Buddhism, such as Tien-t'ai, Hua-yen and Ch'an. At the same time, many Chinese Buddhist theological insights were molded into new forms in Korea, innovations comparable to the Chinese syntheses of Indian and Central Asian Buddhist teachings. Hence, any appraisal of characteristically East Asian developments in the Buddhist tradition cannot neglect to take into account the contributions made by Koreans. [1]

Nevertheless, the vital value of Korean Buddhism has not been much exposed to the outside world due to lack of material in English. Besides, the exposure that it has received at the hands of Japanese scholars, has been, surprisingly, filled with a great deal of misguided concepts. J. N. Takasaki, for example, expresses concepts regarding Korean Buddhism in the book entitled 2500 Years of Buddhism as follows:

"The chief significance of Korean Buddhism lies in the role it played as an intermediary between China and Japan, for, although Buddhism received royal patronage almost throughout its history in Korea, there was no notable development in its doctrine". [2]

In the present article, the significant points of Korean Buddhism are proposed to be explained utilising just two aspects, firstly the influence of Korean Buddhism inland and also abroad throughout the history of Buddhism, secondly the particular features of Korean Buddhism as Mahaayaana. Efforts will not only be made to disprove the above statement, but a fairly clear concept of Korean Buddhism will be presented.

According to Korean tradition, the transmission of Buddhism into Korea occurred in 372 A. D. from China by the monk Sundo (Chin. Shun-tao) during the three kingdoms in Korea [3]. Sundo as an envoy sent by King Fu Chin (357-384) of the former Ch'in dynasty (351-394) arrived in Koguryo court [4] with Buddhist image and scripture. In 384 A.D. Paekche court [4] favourably received the Indian monk Malananda (Skt. Maalaananda) who had come via sea from the Chinese state of Eastern Ch'in (317-420).

In 554 Paekche began to dispatch Buddhist doctrinal specialists,

psalmodists, iconographers, and architects to Japan, thus transmitting to the Japanese the rudiments of Buddhist culture and laying the foundation for the rich Buddhist culture of the Asuka and Nara periods.[5]

During King Nuichin's reign (417-458) Buddhism was introduced into Silla by a famous Indian monk Mukhoja (Skt. 'Sramana)[6] from Koguryo but it was not until 527 A.D. that it was officially accepted. The expansion of the Silla throughout southern Korea also prompted massive emigration of Koreans to Japan (where they were known as Kikajin) and many of the cultural and technical achievements of early Japan such as the development of paddy fields, the construction of palaces and temples, and town planning were direct results of the expertise introduced by these successive waves of emigrants. These advancements ultimately paved the way for Japan's first constitution. [7]

The Korean immigrants not only transmitted Buddhism from Korea to Japan, but also contributed to the cultural and technical development of Japan. Buddhism in the period of the three kingdoms contributed much to the development not only in the field of spiritual advancement, but also in cultural field such as sculpture, architecture, construction, painting and industrial art, etc. [8]

The most outstanding point to be noted with regard to the spiritual influence throughout the country was that the centre of court of the statute of Buddhism transferred itself from the aristocracy to the common people with the emergence of the monks Hyesuk, Hyegong (in the period of 579-647) and wonhyo [9] (617-686).

Thus for the first time Buddhism achieved the status of a religion of the masses, especially, for instance, in the later period when Wonhyo doffed off his monk's robe and put on secular dress, adopting punning nickname 'Sosung Kosa' (little hermit). He made a utensil in the shape of a gourd and called it 'Mu-ae' (Boundless); this is as allusion to the Hwaom (Chin. Heu-yen) sect scriptural phrase, "Both life and death are Nirvaa.na and paradise when a sage king rules within the bounds of decorum and music". He composed a song about the gourd for this dance. Wearing the mask and carrying the gourd he performed his dance in every corner of the country, so that even usurers and poor old bachelors (both much despised) could understand the golden sayings of Buddha and the Buddhist invocation, Nanuamitabul (Skt. Namo Amitabuddhaaya). [10]

It was during this period that some of the greatest achievements of early Korean philosophy occurred, such as those of Wonhyo and Uisang (625-702) which became the hallmark of the Korean Buddhism from that time onward. Wonhyo is indisputably the greatest Buddhist exegete produced by the Silla kingdom's Buddhist tradition. He was a prolific writer and commentator, authoring some one hundred works, of which over twenty are still extant. His interest ran the gamut of Buddhist materials then available in East Asia from Maadhyamika to Yogaacaara, and to pure land. Wonhyo played a major role in introducing to the Korean intelligentsia Buddhist scriptures and commentaries which, prior to his time had been virtually non-existent in Silla [11]. Uisang although may not have been a prolific writer, his mastery of Hua-Yen thought was highly regarded throughout East Asia. Fa-tsang (643-712), for example, the third patriarch of Hua-yen) continued to correspond with Uisang even after the latter's return to Korea. In one of his letters to Uisang in 692, he asks for correction and suggestions for one of his manuscripts. Uisang's Hwaom thought is epitomized in his Hwaom il sung popkedo (Diagram of the Avata"msaka, one vehicle realm of reality), a short poem of 210 logographs in a total of 30 stanzas written in 668 which is highly appreciated in the philosophy of Hwaom. [12]

The thriving of Korean Buddhism in this period played major role in the development of Chinese schools of Buddhism. After Chih-yen's (602-668) death in 668 Uisang became one of the leaders of the Chinese Hua-yen tradition [13]. Fa-tsang in this respect had been highly influenced in his thoughts of Hua-Yen by Wonhyo and Uisang [14]. The most influential works of Wonhyo were his commentaries to the Ta sheng chi shin lun (The Awakening of Faith in Maahaayana) and Hua yen ching (Avata"msaka suutra, Flower Garland Suutra). Both these texts had profound effect on the philosophical development of Fa-tsang. I.J. Kho explained the exact point on how Fa-tsang's thought had been influenced by Wonhyo through comparative analysis with their work of the Awakening of the Faith (see Korea Journal, Vol. 23, Aug. 1983) Wonchuh (613-696), a close disciple of Hsuan-tsang (664) was a prominent exegete in the Chinese Fa-hsiang school. His commentaries on such texts as the Sandhinirmocana Suutra exerted profound influence on early Tibetan Buddhism. [15]

It is to be noted here that during this period the meditative school called 'Kusan Sonmun', (Nine Mountains School of Son, (Chin. Ch'an, Jap. Zen) had been raised (flourished next Koryo, (937-1392) period after it's transmission by the Korean monk Pomnang (632-646), who is said to have been trained with the fourth patriarch of the Chinese Ch'an school, Tao-hsin (580-646).

Of these eight, seven were affiliated with the Hung-chou lineage of the middle Ch'an period, which eventually evolved into the Lin-chi school of the mature Ch'an tradition, the remaining one, the Su-mi-san school, was derived from the lineage of Ching-Yuan Hsing-ssu (740) from which developed the T'sao-tung school. Korean masters on the mainland, however, played major role in the development of Chinese Ch'an. Perhaps the most prominent of these Korean monks was Musang, also known as Kim-ho-shang (694-762), who was regarded as a patriarch of the Pao-t'sang school of the Szechwan region, and was the first Ch'an master known to the Tibetans.[16]

Thus, Korean Buddhism played an important role in the development of Buddhism in China and elsewhere. Another remarkable point in this regard is that Korean Buddhism also played a role in protecting the nation. But this aspect of Buddhism in protecting the nation is by no means confined to Korea as Henrick H. Sorensen points out[17]. However, the importance of this aspect throughout the history of Korea, has no parallel in any other East Asian country. In China and elsewhere this aspect of Buddhism played a leading role only for a limited period, whereas in Korea it became a continuous and dominant characteristic of Buddhism.[18]

In Silla kingdom, king Chinhung (540-576) recruited sons of good families within the age group of 14 to 18. This group is called Hwarang order (Flower boy) a Buddhist military unit, whose purpose was to ensure for the nation the divine protection of the Buddha and to instill in its youth a "religious" fighting spirit. Kukson (nation hermit), the head of Hwarang was selected from amongst them. He became not only the chief of Hwarang, but was honoured by the king. Kukson is the symbol of Maitreya, and was treated as Maitreya of Silla or Baby-Buddha of the country.[19]

During the Koryo dynasty (937-1392) the most famous Korean Tripi.taka was carved in wood as means of protecting the country against invaders like the nomads and the Mongols. This was done twice by king Hyunjong (1010-4031) and Kojong (1232). This marvellous work took 16 years to complete. There were as many as 81258 wooden boards (both sides) each measuring 2 feet 3 inches in width, 8 inches in length and 11 inch in thickness. There are 23 lines and 14 letters on each board. The Suutras carved in it total 1512 in number, 6791 volume.[20]

During Yi dynasty (1392-1910), though the fortunes of Buddhism declined a great deal due to the Confucian bureaucrats' pressure on the Buddhist monks, the monks Sosan Taesa (15021606) and Samying Yujong (1543-1610) fought against the Samurai armies of Japan during the Hideyosh invasion. Thus throughout the history of Korea, Buddhism always exerted its influence in order to protect the country.

The second point, the most characteristic features of Korean Buddhism as Mahaayaana is that of syncretism. From the very inception of Buddhism in East Asia, the religion had formed around a number of disparate scriptural and commentarial traditions that had developed first in India and later in Central Asia. R.E. Buswell remarks on this point as follows :

"The various extremes each of these factional divisions took lead to an attempt, begun first in China and considerably refined later in Korea, to see these various approaches, each ostensibly Buddhist yet each so different, in some common light, so as to find some means by which their discordant elements could be reconciled. Certain features of the Korean tradition contributed to the syncretic tendency of the religion".[21]

The tendency of synthesis is a common feature in Mahaayaana Buddhism. But the way of syncretism is different from what other traditions have done. For example, T'ien-tai, Hua-yen schools to some extent, and Ch'an school in Chinese Buddhism clearly, show this attempt[22]. The syncretism of these schools, however, is usually, focused upon one particular text or doctrine, which is regarded as the most perfect among the teachings of the Buddha. So T'ien-t'ai doctrine is founded upon a particular reading of the Lotus Suutra, to which is imported a wide variety of teachings associated with other texts and traditions and an organizational principle whereby the disparate texts and teachings of Mahaayaana. Buddhism are seen in the context of an overarching scheme of revelation and levels of textual interpretation. The founder of the Tien-t'ai school, Chih-i (538-597) felt that while the various suutras sometimes differed in opinion they had all been spoken by the historical Buddha 'Saakyamuni and were, therefore, all true, However, according to Chih-i, some of the suutras contained only provisional teachings, whereas a scripture like the Lotus Suutra contained the whole truth. For this reason he placed this suutra above all other suutras, arranging them hierarchically according to the depth of content. In this way Fa-tsang in Hua-yen school (7th century) also holds Avata"msaka Suutra as a consummate teaching of the Buddha.

On the contrary, Korean Buddhism has a different aspect from the way they syncretised. Wonhyo and Uisang, who were most influenced by T'ien-t'ai and Hua-yen doctrines as we have seen, however, had created "new" type of synthesis whereby all the doctrines were given equal importance. In one of Wonhyo's principal works devoted to his syncretic philosophy, Simmun Hwaiaengnon (Ten Approaches to the Reconciliation of Doctrinal Controversy), Wonhyo states that his fundamental intent is to harmonize the differences that characteriz the various schools of Buddhist philosophy and merge their views into two all-inclusive perspectives. These were, first, the dependent origination approach (saenggimun), in which myriads of qualities wore shown to be the products of a perdurable causal process, and, second, the return to the source approach (Kwiwon-mun) in which all such phenomenal characteristics were abandoned, so that one could return to their ultimate, eternal source, the one mind.

Wonhyo's commentary to Ta-sheng chi-hsin lun (the Awakening of the Faith in Mahaayaana) is also best known as the unified divergent doctrine of the Buddhist text into one consistent doctrinal system. It is necessary to look at this point with regard to a great thought of Wonhyo.

According to the extant writings available today, Wonhyo classified the various teachings of Buddhism in two form [23]: One is to take all suutras such as Praj~naa, Saddharmapu.ndarika, Avata"msaka or Nirvaana to be the same supreme teaching and the other is to differentiate these suutras. In the case of the latter, the following fourfold classification is widely known as his representative classification :

(1) Separate teaching of three vehicles ... such as Aagama Suutra,

(2) Common teaching of three vehicles...such as Praj~naapaaramitaa or Sandhinirmocana Suutras,

(3) Partial teaching of one vehicle (Ekayaana) ... such as Brahmajaala Suutra

(4) Consummate teaching of one vehicle.. such as Avatam saka and Samantabhadra Suutras.

This fourfold grouping of Wonhyo reveals that he classified the lifetime teachings of the Buddha according to the theory of "three vehicles and one-vehicle" expounded in the Lotus Suutra. The terminology of the separate and common teaching of three vehicles are found in Wonhyo's Synoptic Writing on the Lotus Suutra. The division of the one-vehicle into partial and consummate teachings is noted as a salient characteristic of Wonhyo's classification method. Wonhyo says that one-vehicle teaching can be differentiated according to the fact whether it has the Universal Truth or not. Here, the Universal Truth is where all truths can be equal and mutually transmutable regardless of space (whether big or small), time (whether summarized or expounded), movement (whether dynamic or stationary) and amount (whether one or many). In the preface of Wonhyo's Commentary on Avatam saka Suutra, a similar passage can be found. 'Mutual equality and reciprocal transmutability' of everything is one of the salient aspects of the Avatam saka Suutra [24].

In this way Wonhyo's view point of Hua-yen is different from the theory of Chinese Hua-yen school [25]. Though Wonhyo has assigned Avatam saka Suutra to the consummate teaching of Ekayaana, his thought cannot be considered identical to the Hua-yen thought.[26]

Thus, as we have seen, Wonhyo was influenced by Hua-yen and T'ien-t'ai schools of Chinese Buddhism, his views on the Saddharmapu.n.d arika and Avata.msaka Suutra are different from what their schools assert. Furthermore, this view is extended as a particular feature to the syncretism of Buddhist doctrine.

Another point regarding reconciliation of the Buddhist doctrine is that of syncretisrn of Son and Kyo (meditative and scholastic teachings) by the famous Korean monk Chinul. Chinul (1158-1210) was a great master who sought to merge various Buddhist schools of his time into a new Son school that would synthesize a disparate variety of Buddhist soteriological approaches. His view of Buddhism as a harmonized doctrine of Son and Kyo has become the mainstay of the present day Korean Buddhist tradition-the order of Chogye.

Thus, it is clear that the Korean Buddhism in East Asia can by no means be ignored. The two main reasons for this assertion are first, its heavy influence upon China and Japan not only in its role of transmission but also in theoretical ideology, second, the most characteristic feature of Mahaayaana Buddhism had been refined in the form of syncretism.


1. Robert Evans Buswell, Buddhism in Korea, Encyclopedia of Religion, Vol. 1, p. 421. (E.R.).

2. General Editor P. V. Bapat, "2500 Years of Buddhisrn" (p. 61), Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, 1986. (4th reprint). See also "The Path of the Buddhism" edited by Kenneth W. Moragam, p. 234-236, chap. 5,

'Buddhism in China & Korea' written by Zenryu Tsukamoto, translated by Leon Hurutz, Indian Print 1986, Motilal Banarsidass. In this monograph, the author conveyes a distorted view of Korean Buddhism by exaggerating minor social aspect of Korean Buddhism which existed only during the end of Yi dynasty that is around 1900. As a result, Korean Buddhism had been portrayed in the manner similar to J. N. Takasaki's statement.

3. Written by Ilyon, Translated by Ha-tae-hung, Grafton K. Mintz "sangukyusa" (legends and history of the three kingdoms of Ancient Korea), Yonsei University Press, 1972 (SGYS). See also translated by Peter H. Lee, Lives of Eminent Korean Monks: "The Haedong Chon", Cambridge, Mass. 1969.

4. The traditional founding dates of three kingdoms are 57 B.C. for Silla, 37 B.C. for Koguryo and 18 B.C. for Paekje. Koguryo was initially the largest and the most powerful of the three. The tribes which originally composed it live along the bank of the Yalu river, which forms the present north western boundary of Korea. When they emerge upon the scene of history we find them ruling an area which extended from South of the Han River (Middle of Peninsula) across the present Korean boundary and far north into Manchuria and West to the Liaotung Peninsula.

The two kingdoms of the south are thought to have been founded by migrants from the north, Paekje in the south-west is known to have been dominated by a northern tribe called Puyo, which had come originally from Manchuria and had been dominated for a time by Koguryo. Paekje played an important part in the transmission of Chinese civilization to Japan. Silla in the south east was for a time relatively small area, known as Kaya at Karak, which persisted as a kingdom until it was absorbed by Silla in 562 A.D.

5. E. R. Vol. II, p. 422.
6. SGYS, p. 179.
7. E.R. Vol. II, p. 422
8. Yung- tae, Kim, "An Outline of History of Korean Buddhism", p. 58. Kyungsowon 1986. (3rd enition) Seoul.
9. Ibid., pp. 53, 54, SGYS. p. 294-298.
10. SGYS., p.307
11. E.R. vol. 14, p.440.
12. Ibid. Vol. 15, p. 114.
13. Ibid.
14. Ibid. Vol. 15, p. 114 299.
15. Ibid. Vol. 2, p. 423.
16. Ibid.
17. Henrick H. Sorensen, "Korean Buddhism in the Far East", Korean Culture, Vol. 8, No. 1, March 1987, p. 8.
18. Ibid.
19. Y. T. Kim. "An Outline of Korean Buddhism", p. 45-46.
20. Ibid , p. 161-162
21. E. R, Vol. 2, p. 423.
22. R. Joseph Edkins, "Chinese Buddhism-, Chap. VIII, pp. 175, 187, Chaukhamba A mara Bharati Prakashan, Varanasi. 1975.
23. The following classification and explanation on it have been quoted exclusively, I. J. Kho's "Wonhyo's Hua-yen Thought", Korean Journal, Vol. 23, Aug. 1983, p. 32. (K.J.).
24. Ibid.
25. E.R. Vol.
26. K. J. Vol. 23, (1983). p. 32.

Buddhism Today Edition 2000
This electronic edition is offered for free distribution
via Buddhism Today by arrangement with the author.
Transcribed for Buddhism Today by Bhikkhuni Lien Hoa


Updated: 1-9-2000

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