A BRIEF COMPARISON
OF KOREAN AND VIETNAM BUDDHISM
Robert Topmiller & Long
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
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 todays modern
institutions and produced many of todays 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
ones 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 Koreas 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