Buddhism: Buddhism in Korea

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In any examination of the Korean Buddhist tradition, it is essential to recall that in no way was Korea isolated from neighboring regions of Northeast Asia. During its prehistory, Korean culture was most closely akin to that of the seminomadic tribes of the Central and North Asian steppes. From the Warring States period (403221 bce) on, however, when refugees from the northern Chinese states of Yan, Qi, and Zhao immigrated to the peninsula to escape the ravages of the mainland wars, Han civilization began to eclipse that indigenous culture at an ever-increasing pace. It is for this reason that Korean Buddhism must be treated as part and parcel of a larger East Asian Buddhist tradition. Indeed, Korea's later appellation as the "hermit kingdom" notwithstanding, there was in fact an almost organic relationship between the Korean, Chinese, and, during its incipient period, the Japanese Buddhist traditions. Admittedly, the Silk Route afforded China closer ties with the Buddhism of India and Central Asia, and China's overwhelming size, both in territory and population, inevitably led to its domination of the doctrinal trends within East Asian Buddhism. This does not deny, however, that 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 Tiantai, Huayan, and Chan. 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.

Three Kingdoms Buddhism (c. late fourth century668 ce)

According to such traditional Korean historical sources as Samguk sagi (Historical record of the Three Kingdoms), Haedong kosŭng chŏn (Biographies of eminent Korean monks), and Samguk yusa (Memorabilia and mirabilia of the Three Kingdoms), Buddhism was transmitted to Korea from the Chinese mainland during the (Korean) Three Kingdoms period. The introduction of Buddhism into Korea is presumed to have occurred in 372 ce, when King Fujian (r. 357384) of the Former Qin dynasty (351394) sent a monk-envoy, Shundao (Kor., Sundo), to the Koguryŏ court with scriptures and images. Former Qin hegemony over the remarkably cosmopolitan region of eastern Turkistan had brought Chinese culture into intimate contact with Indian, Iranian, and Hellenistic civilizations, ultimately engendering a new, sinified form of Buddhism. Fujian's defeat, in 370, of the Former Yan state, which had for decades laid siege to Koguryŏ, initiated close ties between Fujian and his Koguryŏ contemporary, King Sosurim (r. 371383). These contacts allowed this vibrant northern Chinese culture, which included the Buddhist religion, to be introduced into Korea. While a paucity of information remains by which we can evaluate the characteristics of the Buddhism of this early period, it is probable that it was characterized by thaumaturgic practices, a symbiotic relationship between the ecclesia and the state, Maitreya worship, and the study of scriptures affiliated with the Mahāyāna branch of Buddhism. A monastery is said to have been erected for Sundo in 376, the first reference to a formal Buddhist institution on Korean soil.

Sundo was followed in 384 by the Serindian monk Maranant'a (*Mālānanda; *Kumārānandin), who is reputed to have come via sea to Paekche from the Chinese state of Eastern Jin (317420). His enthusiastic reception by the royal court initiated the rapid diffusion of Buddhism throughout the Paekche kingdom. Less than a year after his arrival a monastery had been founded on Mount Han for Maranant'a and the first Korean natives ordained as Buddhist monks. In both Koguryŏ and Paekche, there is evidence that such schools as Samnon (Mādhyamika), Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma, Nirvāa, Satyasiddhi, and Ch'ŏnt'ae (Chin., Tiantai) flourished, though few works from this period are now extant. Of vital importance for the dissemination of Buddhism throughout East Asia, however, was Paekche's nautical skill, which made the kingdom the Phoenicia of medieval East Asia. Over its well-developed sea lanes, Paekche began in 554 to dispatch Buddhist doctrinal specialists, psalmodists, iconographers, and architects to Japan, thus transmitting to the Japanese the rudiments of sinified Buddhist culture and laying the foundation for the rich Buddhist culture of the Asuka and Nara periods. Silla expansion 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 Japansuch as the development of paddy fields, the construction of palaces and temples, and town planningwere direct results of the expertise introduced by these successive waves of emigrants. These advancements ultimately paved the way for Japan's first constitution, purportedly written by Prince Shōtoku in 604, and led to the Taika reform of 646, which initiated a sinified bureaucracy in Japan.

It was not until 529, following the martyrdom of Ich'adon (Pak Yŏmch'ŏk), that Silla, the last of the three kingdoms to consolidate its power, officially embraced Buddhism. Political exigencies were probably the catalyst for the acceptance of Buddhism in Silla. The Silla nobility, who continued their drive for peninsular unification, found strong incentive to embrace Buddhism in an effort to accommodate the newly conquered Koguryŏ and Paekche aristocracy, which had embraced Buddhism long before. The vital role played by the Buddhist religion as a conduit through which Chinese civilization was introduced into Silla closely parallels the sinification of non-Chinese tribes that occurred throughout Chinese history.

Three Kingdoms Buddhism seems to have been a thoroughgoing amalgamation of the foreign religion and indigenous local cults. Autochthonous snake and dragon cults, for example, merged with the Mahāyāna belief in dragons as protectors of the Dharma, forming the unique variety of hoguk pulgyo ("state-protection Buddhism") that was thereafter to characterize Korean Buddhism. One of the earliest examples of this amalgamation was the vow of the Silla king Munmu (r. 661681) to be reborn as a sea dragon after his death in order to guard his country and its new faith from foreign invasion. Buddhism and the state subsequently evolved a symbiotic relationship in which the monks entreated the buddhas and bodhisattvas to protect the state and the state provided munificent support for the dissemination of the religion throughout the empire. Many of the most visible achievements of the Korean church throughout its history, such as the xylographic carvings of the Buddhist canon undertaken during the succeeding Koryŏ dynasty, were products of this concern with state protection. Buddhist monks also sought to demonstrate correspondences between Korean ancestral heroes and the new religion, thereby accelerating the assimilation of the religion among Koreans. Attempts were made, for example, to prove that Hwanin, the Celestial Emperor, was identical to Śakro Devāām Indra (Chesŏk-ch'ŏn), the Indian and Buddhist king of the gods, and that Tan'gun, the progenitor of the Korean race, was the theophany of Śrī Mahādevī (Kilsang-ch'ŏn). Vestiges of the dispensations of previous buddhas were alleged to have been uncovered in Korea, and the advent of the future Buddha, Maitreya, was prophesied to occur in the south of the peninsula. Modern-day visitors to a Korean monastery will notice on the perimeter of the campus shrines devoted to the mountain god or to the seven stars of the Big Dipper, the presence of which is indicative of the synthesis of common sinified culture with Buddhism.

One of the most prominent institutions of Three Kingdoms Buddhism that is commonly assumed to have been indicative of this interaction between Buddhism and indigenous Korean culture was the Hwarang (Flower Boy) movement. According to the Samguk sagi, this movement was instituted around 576 by the Silla king Chinhŭng (r. 540575), and was patterned upon a more primitive association of shamanesses. The formation of the Hwarang movement is considered to have been part of the expansionist policies of the Silla court, and was intended to instill in the sons of nobility a regard for ethical virtues and an appreciation of refined culture. A later Silla writer relates that they were trained in Confucian filial piety and national loyalty, Daoist quietism, and Buddhist morality. The prominent religious orientation of the Hwarang as related in this and other accounts militates against the popular notion that it was a paramilitary organization. The group aesthetic celebrationssuch as singing and dancing out in the openthat are commonly associated with the Hwarang has suggested to a number of scholars the shamanistic activities of initiation journeys and pilgrimages. While the Hwarang's Buddhist affinities are far from certain, their eventual identification with Maitreya assured that tradition would regard the movement as one intended to disseminate the Buddhist faith among Koreans.

Unified Silla Buddhism (668935)

After the unification of the peninsula under the Silla banner in 668, the fortunes of the new religion expanded on an unprecedented scale. It was during this period that the major schools of scholastic Buddhism that had developed in China were introduced into Korea. The doctrinal teachings that had begun to be imported during the Three Kingdoms period were consolidated during the Unified Silla into five major ideological schools: the Kyeyul-chong, which stressed the study and training in Buddhist monastic discipline (Vinaya); the Yŏlban-chong, which promulgated the teachings of the Mahāparinirvāa Sūtra; the Pŏpsŏng-chong (Dharma Nature), a uniquely Korean school of Buddhism that stressed a synthetic outlook toward Buddhist doctrine; the Wŏnyung-chong, which was the early Korean branch of the Flower Garland (Kor., Hwaŏm; Chin., Huayan) school; and the Pŏpsang-chong, derived from on the "consciousness-only" (vijñāptimātratā ) teachings of Yogācāra. Some of the greatest achievements of early Korean philosophy occurred during this period, and such important scholiasts as Wŏnhyo (617686) and Ŭisang (625702) forged approaches to Buddhist philosophy that would become the hallmarks of the Korean church from that time onward. Korean exegetes working in China also played major roles in the development of Chinese schools of Buddhism. Both Wŏnhyo and Ŭisang were important vaunt-couriers in the Huayan school, as reflected in their influence on the systematizer of the Chinese Huayan school, Fazang (643712). Wŏnch'uk (613696), a close disciple of Xuanzang (d. 664), was a prominent exegete in the Chinese Faxiang school, whose commentaries on such texts as the Sadhinirmocana Sūtra exerted profound influence on early Tibetan Buddhism.

It was during this era of ardent scholarly activity that one of the most characteristic features of the mature Korean Buddhist tradition developed: that of "ecumenism" or "synthesis." From the 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. For this reason, the Chinese church became characterized by a loosely structured sectarianism. The various extremes each of these factional divisions took led 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 synthetic tendency of the religion. Owing to the smaller size of Korea and its monastic population, there was little hope that Buddhism could continue as a stable and influential force within the religious arena if it was divided into contentious factions. In addition, the constant threat of foreign invasion created the need for a unified, centrally organized ecclesiastical institution. The quest to discover the common denominators in all of these sectarian interpretationsand subsequently to use those unifying elements in order to establish an interdenominational approach (t'ong pulgyo ) to the religion that could incorporate all elements of Buddhist philosophy and practicewas to inspire the efforts of all major Korean Buddhist philosophers. This attitude prompted the Koreans to develop what remains one of the more ecumenical traditions of Buddhism to be found anywhere is Asia.

One of the most momentous developments in the history of Korean Buddhism occurred during the Unified Silla period: the introduction of the Chan teachings, known in Korea as Sŏn. The earliest transmission of Sŏn to the peninsula is attributed to the monk Pŏmnang (fl. 632646), a Korean who is said to have trained with the fourth patriarch of the Chinese Chan school, Daoxin (580646). While little is known of Pŏmnang's life or thought, there are indications that he attempted to combine the teachings of two distinct Chinese Chan lineagesthat of Bodhidharma (c. fifth century), Huiguo (487592), and Sengcan (d. 606) and that of Daoxin and Hongren (688761)with the synthetic tathāgata-garbha theory of the Dasheng qixin lun (Awakening of Faith). A successor in Pŏmnang's lineage eventually founded the Hŭiyang-san school, the oldest of the Korean Sŏn schools. During the eighth and ninth centuries, other Korean adepts returning from the mainland established eight other mountain Sŏn sites, forming what came to be known as the Nine Mountains school of Sŏn (Kusan Sŏnmun). Of these eight, seven were affiliated with the Hongzhou lineage of the Middle Chan period, which eventually evolved into the Linji school of the mature Chan tradition; one, the Sumi-san school, was derived from the lineage of Qingyuan Xingsi (d. 740), from which developed the Caodong school. Korean masters on the mainland, however, also played major roles in the development of Chinese Chan. Perhaps the most prominent of these Koreans was the monk Musang, also known as Kim Heshang (680756; alt. 684762), who was regarded as a patriarch of the Baotang school of the Sichuan region, and was the first Chan master known to the Tibetans. Despite the continued traffic of Sŏn adepts between China and Korea, the entrenched position of the scholastic schools within the Korean ecclesia thwarted the propagation of Nine Mountains Sŏn. Continued frustration at their inability to disseminate their message led such Sŏn adherents as Toŭi (d. 825) and Muyŏm (799888) to attack the scholastic schools directly, leading ultimately to a bifurcation of the Korean Buddhist church into two vociferous factions.

KoryŎ Buddhism (9371392)

The principal contribution of Koryŏ Buddhists to the evolution of the Korean church was the reconciliation they effected between the Sŏn and scholastic schools. It was Ŭich'ŏn (10551101) who made the first such attempt, by seeking to combine both the Nine Mountains and scholastic schools into a revived Ch'ŏnt'ae school. Ch'ŏnt'ae teachings are known to have been present on the peninsula prior to Ŭich'ŏn's time. A century before, for example, Ch'egwan (d. 971), a renowned Korean Ch'ŏnt'ae adept, had been invited to Tang China to reintroduce long-lost Tiantai manuals; during his expatriation Ch'egwan systematized the school's philosophies in his Tiantai sijiao yi, one of the most important of Chinese Tiantai exegetical writings. Ŭich'ŏn's efforts to revitalize the school, however, have led to his being considered the effective founder of its Korean branch. It appears that Ŭich'ŏn regarded the meditative emphasis of the Ch'ŏnt'ae teachings as the ideal vehicle for accommodating the varying concerns of the Sŏn and scholastic schools. Unfortunately, his premature death at the age of forty-six brought a sudden end to his endeavor and left the sectarian scene still more unsettled.

Ŭich'ŏn's efforts were followed some three generations later by those of Chinul (11581210), a charismatic Sŏn master who was similarly motivated by a synthetic vision of the unity of Sŏn and the scholastic teachings. Unlike Ŭich'ŏn's scholastic orientation, however, Chinul sought to merge the various Buddhist schools of his time into a new Sŏn school that would synthesize a disparate variety of Buddhist soteriological approaches. Chinul introduced into Korean Sŏn practice the investigation of the "critical phrase" (Kor., hwadu ; Chin., huatou ), better known by the closely synonymous term kongan (Chin., gong'an ; Jpn., kōan ), as it had been developed in China by Dahui Zonggao (10891163). Chinul then sought to incorporate this investigation into the soteriological scheme of sudden awakening/gradual cultivation taught by Zongmi (780841), and finally to amalgamate this approach to Sŏn with the interpretation of Hwaŏm thought given by Li Tongxuan (635730). Chinul's synthesis of Sŏn and the scholastic teachings came to be regarded as a distinctively Korean school of Sŏn, called the Chogye-chong. His efforts revitalized the enervated Koryŏ church, and marked the ascendancy of Sŏn thought in the Korean Buddhist tradition.

It was Chinul's disciple, Chin'gak Hyesim (11781234), who assured the acceptance of hwadu practice as the principal meditative technique in Korean Sŏn Buddhism. Following the model of Chinese thinkers of the Song dynasty (9601279), Hyesim examined the points of convergence between the three religions of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism. This attempt to extend the embrace of Chinul's synthetic outlook so as to accommodate still other religions was to inspire a series of such investigations by later Korean authors. A Sŏn master of the later Koryŏ period, T'aego Pou (13011382), worked prodigiously to merge the remnants of the Nine Mountains Sŏn schools with the new Chogye-chong, and sought to graft onto this ecumenical school the Chinese Linji (Kor., Imje; Jpn., Rinzai) lineage, into which he had received transmission in Yuan-dynasty China. The efforts of these and other teachers assured that the Chogye-chong would remain the predominant school of Korean Buddhism, a position it has retained down to the present.

ChosŎn Buddhism (13921910)

With the advent of the Chosŏn dynasty in 1392 the fortunes of Buddhism began to wane. While the official policies of the Chosŏn dynasty are commonly considered to have been Confucian in orientation, many of the kings continued to give munificent personal support to Buddhism. For example, the founder of the dynasty, Yi T'aejo (r. 13921398), appointed the renowned monk, Muhak Chach'o (13271398), to the official post of preceptor to the royal family (wangsa ), and the account of T'aejo's reign in the Yijo sillŏk (Veritable record of the Chosŏn dynasty) teems with references to his sponsorship of temple construction projects, maigre offerings to monks, and various Buddhist rites. Confucian bureaucrats, however, continued to pressure the throne for stricter selection procedures for Buddhist monks, limits on the number of monasteries and hermitages, reduction in the number of officially sanctioned sects, and reorganization of the ecclesiastical system, all in order to effect more centralized supervision of the religion. Such policies were formally adopted by T'aejong (r. 14001418), the third Chosŏn sovereign, and carried out on a massive scale by his successor, King Sejong (r. 14181450). In Sejong's proclamation of 1424, the Chogye, Ch'ŏnt'ae, and Vinaya schools were amalgamated into a single Sŏn (Meditative) school, and the remaining scholastic schools were merged into the Kyo (Doctrinal) school. New regulations were adopted for obtaining monk's certificates, making ordination much more difficult, and many monks already ordained were defrocked. The official ranks of national master (kuksa ) and royal master (wangsa ) were abolished. Temple paddy lands and forest properties were confiscated by the state and the legions of serfs retained by the monasteries were drafted into the army. Buddhist monasteries were no longer permitted within the capital or major cities. It is not surprising that during this dire period, Buddhist activities were as much concerned with the very survival of the tradition as with novel scholarly and meditative endeavors.

During this extremely difficult period in Korean Buddhist history, it is Sŏsan Hyujŏng (15201604) who epitomizes the continued Sŏn orientation of the church. Drawing his inspiration from Chinul's earlier vision of the unity of the Sŏn and scholastic schools, Hyujŏng produced a succinct manual of practice, titled the Sŏn'ga kugam (Mirror of the Sŏn School). His other guides to Confucianism and Daoism were intended to sustain the reconciliation between Buddhism and its rival religions that was begun during the mid-Koryŏ and to outline their many similarities of purpose. Despite all the attempts of Hyujŏng's lineage, however, Buddhism's creative drive continued to wane.

Buddhism during the Modern Era

Japanese inroads on the peninsula from the late nineteenth century onward presented both new opportunities and new pressures for the Korean Buddhist tradition. Following the ratification of the Korea-Japan treaty of 1876, Japanese Buddhist sects, beginning with the Higashi Honganji sect of Pure Land, began to proselytize among the increasing number of Japanese immigrants resident in Korea, an activity that soon spread to the native Korean populace as well. Remonstrations by Japanese Nichiren missionaries compelled the impotent Chosŏn court in 1895 to lift the centuries-old prohibition against the presence of Buddhist monks in the capital of Seoul. During the same period, a resurgence of Sŏn practice was catalyzed by the Korean Sŏn master Kyŏnghŏ (18571912) and his disciples, and successors in his lineage continue to teach today.

After the annexation of Korea in 1910, some Korean monks felt that the fortunes of the religion were dependent upon arranging a merger with a major Japanese sect. Yi Hoegwang went so far as to negotiate a combination of the Korean church with the Japanese Sōtō sect, but most Korean Sŏn monks regarded the gradualistic teachings of the Sōtō sect as anathema to the subitist orientation of their own tradition, and managed to block the merger. Another movement threatened to further divide the Buddhist church. As early as 1913, Han Yongun (18791944), a Buddhist signatory to the 1919 Korean independence declaration and major literary figure, had shocked his contemporaries by advocating that monks be allowed to marry, a move he felt was necessary if Buddhism were to maintain any viable role in modern secular society. While this position was diametrically opposed to the traditional celibate orientation of the Korean ecclesia, the Japanese colonial government ultimately sustained it in 1926 with its promulgation of new monastic regulations that legalized matrimony for monks. Within a decade, virtually all monastery abbots were married, thereby producing a dramatic change in the traditional moral discipline of the Korean church. Other reform movements designed to present Buddhism in a way that would be more relevant to modern concerns arose with increasing frequency. Among the most prominent of these was Wŏn Buddhism, founded in 1916 by Pak Chung-bin, Sot'aesan (18911943), which combined Buddhist teachings with a disparate variety of elements drawn from Confucianism, Daoism, Tonghak, and even Christianity.

After independence in 1945, Korean Buddhism was badly split between two irreconcilable sects. The T'aego-chong, a liberal sect of married monks, had flourished under Japanese patronage and was based principally in the cities where it catered to the lay Buddhist population. The Chogye-chong was a smaller, religiously conservative faction of monks who had managed to maintain their celibacy during the long years of Japanese occupation; their concern was to restore the meditative, scholastic, and disciplinary orientations of traditional Korean Buddhism. Only after years of intense conflict did the Chogye-chong finally win government support for its position in 1954 and virtually all of major monasteries have reverted to its control. Now the predominant sect of Buddhism in Korea, the Chogye-chong has had considerable success in attracting a new generation of lay believers and monastic postulants to the teachings and practices of Buddhism.

See Also

Chan; Chinul; Confucianism in Korea; Fazang; Huayan; Korean Religion; Tathāgata-garbha; Tiantai; Ŭichŏn; Ŭisang; Wŏnhyo; Worship and Devotional Life, article on Buddhist Devotional Life in East Asia; Xuanzang; Zongmi.


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Buddhism: Buddhism in Korea