Korean Buddhism Magazine
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
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 Ichadons 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 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 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
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
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 TODAY
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 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 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
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
Source: Korean Buddhism
Magazine, Seoul 1997
Computer typing: Lydia Quang
Update : 01-12-2001