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A BRIEF COMPARISON
OF KOREAN AND VIETNAM BUDDHISM

Robert Topmiller & Long Kim



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As relative newcomers to Korea and students of Vietnamese Buddhism, we have naturally drawn comparisons between Korean and Vietnamese Buddhism. Unfortunately, we have discovered a Buddhism in Korea racked by internal divisions, under assault from Christian extremists on one hand and in danger of being eclipsed by Christian activists on the other, with temples that seemed deserted, and monks and nuns who are reluctant to talk to Westerners. In many ways, Korean Buddhism seems hidden and kept out of the view of many observers while Christianity has very high visibility in this society. These conditions have lead us to conclude that Buddhism is in serious decline in Korea.

In contrast, Vietnamese Buddhism appears alive and vibrant with many pagodas in all of the major cities, an active and committed clergy and much popular support. During a recent visit to HCMC, moreover, we noted large construction projects at a number of Buddhist sites. Interestingly, we have found Vietnamese Buddhist monks and nuns far more open and willing to talk about Buddhism and its role in Vietnam even though Buddhism suffers significant persecution in Vietnam from the Communist government.

One of our initial surprises was the large proportion of Christians in Korea compared to Vietnam. The high percentage of Christians resulted mainly from the differing nature of the colonial experience in each area. Whereas Christianity acted as an organ of French imperialism in Vietnam utilized by despots like Ngo Dinh Diem to establish hegemony over Vietnamese Buddhists, Korea was colonized by a non-Western power, Japan. Thus, Christian missionaries served as a liberating force in assisting Korean nationalists to resist the extreme cruelty of Japanese imperialism. In fact, Christian missionaries often supported the revolutionary movement by establishing schools and hospitals that later became the seeds of many of today’s modern institutions and produced many of today’s elites in Korean society. Thus, Christianity managed to avoid the imperialist label which is reflected in the fact that 24.1% of Koreans follow Christianity. Buddhists, however, still make up the largest religious group in South Korea with 24.4% adherence. Interestingly, 50.1% of Koreans profess to follow no religion at all which may be a manifestation of the growing secularization of Korean society and the incredible changes that have occurred in the last 25 years as it has become a modern industrial society. More ominously, one Buddhist scholar has recently detailed numerous attacks by Christian militants on Buddhist temples in recent years.

In Vietnam, 80 to 90% of the population adhere to Buddhism in some form and many see Buddhism as part of the essence of Vietnam. In addition, the courage and commitment of Buddhist monks and nuns in Vietnam has created conditions where many Vietnamese look to Buddhist clerics as the moral guides of the nation. Thus, Buddhism has been able to maintain its strength in Vietnam despite server hardships and impediments at times.

The preponderance of Christianity in Korea is also reflected in efforts to ameliorate human suffering, a crucial component of Buddhist ideology. In Vietnam, one Buddhist organization works to carry out altruistic projects and the government often channels funds through the official Buddhist church to relieve human misery in the county. In Korea, on the other hand, charitable works are carried out mainly by Christians although some Buddhist temples have their own local outreach efforts. Nevertheless, Christian efforts to relieve human suffering remain far more visible.

Ancestor worship once constituted an important aspect of Korean society but has also been diluted because of the Christian predominance. Many Koreans believe in ancestor worship, and the day on which they commemorate their ancestors is the most important holiday of the year. But most Korean homes do not have family altars because Christianity rejects the concept of Ancestor worship. Just about every home in Vietnam, by comparison, has an altar in the center with pictures of earlier generations who receive esteem for their wisdom and respect for the wrath that can descend on a household that fails to pay the proper homage to its ancestors. By worshipping one’s ancestors, moreover, a person becomes linked to the past and made extremely conscious of the importance of tradition in society. At the same time, a culture that venerates its ancestors naturally places the family at the center of society and shows great respect for elderly people since they speak with the wisdom of experience and history. Many Koreans decry the deterioration in family values and the lack of respect for old people that has occurred here in recent years. Usually, they blame it on the dramatic changes that have accompanied economic growth in Korea but it also could be occurring because of the decline in Ancestor worship.

Like Vietnam, Korea is a very old society reaching back about 4000 years. The initial religious influence was Shamanism, a form of animism similar to the religion of ethnic minorities (dan toc thieu so) in Vietnam. Buddhism came to Korea in 372 AD mainly from China and was instituted in the Koguryo kingdom at that time. In 384, it was introduced to Paekche and later entered Shilla in the 5th century. Buddhism soon flourished in Shilla and became the religion of the monarchy and nobility. By the 7th century, Buddhism served as the dominant religion in Korea and a force that allowed the court to unify the country. Buddhism had a critical influence on Korean culture both in terms of philosophical development and language. During the early years of Buddhism, many monks traveled back and forth between Korea and China facilitating a great cultural exchange and introducing Chinese culture into Korea. Koreans later established Buddhism in Japan.

Buddhism came to Vietnam in the early part of the Christian era by way of China and India. Vietnamese Buddhism, heavily influenced by China, absorbed elements of Taoism, Confucianism and Ancestor worship along with the veneration of local deities. The emphasis in northern and central Vietnam came mainly from the Mahayana school of Buddhism which predominated in Vietnam, China, Korea and Japan. Theravada Buddhism, which prevails in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos, Burma, and Cambodia came into the southern part of present day Vietnam before the beginning of the Christian era.

Historically, Korean Buddhists tended to equate the welfare of the nation with the well-being of Buddhism and thus, monks labored assiduously to advance the interests of the state and to serve as defenders of the country. In some locations, Buddhist temples even created monk armies charged with defending the nation. Eventually, Buddhism became the official religion of the state although it remained an amalgamation of Buddhist, Taoist, and Shamanistic beliefs. Great wealth and power, including exemption from taxes, led later Emperors to suppress the religion abetted by neo-Confucians who wanted to enhance their growing power in the state.

In similar fashion, Vietnamese Buddhist clergy have equated the survival of Buddhism with the fate of the nation. Buddhist monks and nuns traditionally led the battle against foreign invaders. Pagodas served as supply depots and centers of resistance during the long struggle with the French, and Vietnamese monks traditionally took an active role in political affairs, particularly in the long campaign to expel the Chinese. In fact, the high point of Vietnamese dynastic history, the Ly era, coincided with the greatest period of Buddhist influence.

Unlike Vietnamese Buddhism which exhibits great variety, Korean Buddhism has always focused on the Mahayana school and for several centuries has been split into three predominate sects: Chogye, Taego and Chontae. The Chogye sect has recently been plagued by severe internal divisions and open warfare between competing factions that have spilled into public view and further diminished the image of Buddhism in the country. Taego, established by the Japanese, allows it priests and nuns to marry while Chontae also does not require chastity from its clerics. However, seven major groupings of Buddhism exist in Vietnam: the Vien Hoa Dao (VHD); Chinese Buddhists; Vietnamese Theravada Buddhists; Khmer Theravada Buddhists; Hinayana Buddhists; Hoa Hao; and non-VHD Buddhists.

Finally, dissimilar to Vietnam, urban temples are relatively rare in Korea further confirming the impression of severe decline while Christian churches are ubiquitous in the cities. Most temples are in the country because Buddhism was driven out of the cities during the neo-Confucian persecutions of the Yi dynasty. Many mountains have temples, however, since early monks used Shamanistic and animistic beliefs in mountain deities to co-opt the local religion and implement them into the Buddhist pantheon as Bodhisattvas. Many rural temples, moreover, sit in fantastic natural settings with bamboo trees, rose bushes and wild flowers. In fact, the rural quality of Korean Buddhism allows temples to achieve a lovely symmetry and balance with the natural surroundings. Most Buddhists, however, only visit pagodas on feast days determined by the lunar calendar while many temples are run by nuns during the summer because monks go to the mountains to study.

While Buddhism has prospered and grown in Vietnam, it seems to have stumbled in Korea mainly due to Christian influences and the growing secularism that has accompanied Korea’s spectacular economic growth since the 1960s. While we have met some Buddhist monks and nuns who are willing to describe the impact of Buddhism on their lives, most seem to shun contact with outsiders. Although great historical similarities exist between Korean and Vietnamese Buddhism, many people in Korea have ceased to look to Buddhism for their spiritual needs although Buddhism holds the key to what ails this society deeply mired in a severe economic recession. Interestingly, to many Koreans, Buddhism represents tradition and rural values while to many Vietnamese it represents freedom and the spirit of Vietnam.

South Korea, June 28, 1999

 



Update : 01-12-2001

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