Korean, Buddhist Influences on Vernacular Literature in

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Buddhism had an enormous impact on the development of Korean vernacular literature, primarily in premodern Korea. Buddhism's influences on the Korean language and vocabulary are also noteworthy, a legacy still apparent in contemporary Korea. Buddhist literature constituted the mainstream of Korean literature before the Chosŏn dynasty (1392–1910) and a substantial part of Korean literature during and after that period. The development of the Korean script, Korean verse and prose forms, and the Korean language were all closely associated with Buddhism.

Yongbi ŏch'ŏn'ga (The Songs of the Flying Dragons According to Heaven, 1445), a eulogy of the founding of the Chosŏn dynasty, was the first literary work composed in the indigenous Korean script. This phonetic script was originally promulgated in the edict Hunmin chŏngŭm (Correct Sounds to Instruct the People) and it came to be known as Han'gŭl (one and great letters) during the twentieth century. Heavily influenced by Buddhism, the Songs of Flying Dragons became a model for epic poems in vernacular Korean. Buddhism also had an impact on writing style. The interpretive text outlining the Han'gŭl writing system, Hunmin chŏngŭm, was published around 1446 and was modeled after Buddhist canonical scriptures in its use of prose narration followed by reiteration in verse. Numerous Buddhist texts were translated into Han'gŭl, including Buddhist miracle tales and classical Chinese and Sanskrit mantras. In addition, a number of narrative songs (kasa) and short lyric poems (sijo), novels, Confucian edification works, and textbooks were composed in vernacular Korean under Buddhist influence.

Examples of Buddhist vernacular literature in Han'gŭl

The promulgation of Han'gŭl in 1446 signaled the blossoming of Korean vernacular literature. Prior to devising its own writing system, Korea had used Chinese characters for transcription, even though they were not always appropriate to a Korean setting. A Korean alphabet was thus devised under the leadership of King Sejong (1418–1450). However, Confucian scholar-officials of the Chosŏn government, led by Ch'oe Malli (ca. mid-fifteenth century), strongly opposed the use of Korea's own script on the grounds that it would violate the policy of respecting the senior state, China. They even labeled the Korean alphabet a "debased" writing system that was inferior to that of China, calling it ŏnmun (vulgar language) or amk'ŭl (language for women), a tradition that continued into the twentieth century. As a result, the Korean alphabet became marginalized and for many years it was primarily used by women and commoners who could not read classical Chinese.

The translation of important Mahāyāna Buddhist texts, such as the Lotus SŪtra (SaddharmapuṆḌarĪkasŪtra), marked the first major use of Han'gŭl. A wide range of Buddhist texts were rendered into vernacular Korean in order to propagate Buddhist teachings while, at the same time, diffusing the newly invented Han'gŭl. Translated works included Sŏkpo sangjŏl (A Detailed Biography of the Buddha Śākyamuni, 1447); Wŏrin ch'ŏn'gangjigok (The Songs of the Moon's Reflection on a Thousand Rivers, 1449); Wŏrin sŏkpo (The Moon's Reflection on the Buddha's Lineage, 1459); and Pumo ŭnjung kyŏng (The Sūtra of Parental Gratitude,1563). A Detailed Biography of the Buddha Śākyamuni depicted the eight principal stages in the Buddha's life, and it catalyzed the development of vernacular Korean literature from the fifteenth to the sixteenth centuries. The earliest Buddhist poem written in vernacular Korean, The Songs of the Moon's Reflection on a Thousand Rivers, is comparable to one of the masterpieces of Indian literature, Buddhacarita (Acts of the Buddha), a narrative of the life of Śākyamuni. The Moon's Reflection on the Buddha's Lineage is a combined publication of the aforementioned two works. A Chinese Buddhist apocryphal work, The Sūtra of Parental Gratitude was translated to promote the pan-Asian ideal of filial piety. Han'gŭl was also used to transliterate anthologies of Sanskrit mantras, including Odae chinŏn (The Five Great Mantras, 1485).

Another important area of Korean Buddhist literature in Han'gŭl is vernacular novels. Ku unmong (TheCloud Dream of the Nine, 1687–1688) by Kim Manjung (1637–1692) is a typical Buddhist novel that portrays all the fame and glory of the human world as a dream, making the Buddhist notion of ŚŪnyata (emptiness) its primary theme. Sassi namjŏng ki (The Story of Lady Sa, ca. 1689–1692) serves as a prototype for later novels, taking the promotion of virtue and reproval of vice as its main theme. Onggojip chŏn (The Tale of a Stubborn Person Ong), Sim Ch'ŏng chŏn (The Tale of Sim Ch'ong), and Hŭngbu chŏn (The Tale of Hŭngbu), all composed in the late Chosŏn period, adopted the Buddhist motifs of karmic fruition and promotion of virtue. Korean vernacular literature gained wider readership in the mid-nineteenth century, about the time that the classical Confucian novel in Chinese entered its period of decline.

Koreans composed literature in classical Chinese before the invention of the Korean alphabet. Unlike China and Japan, however, Korea did not have a strong tradition of fictional prose narratives before the seventeenth century. The promulgation of the Korean script brought popular literary forms, including fiction, to prominence. In particular, political, social, and economic diversification resulting from the invasions of Japan and Qing China from the end of the sixteenth century to the mid-seventeenth century was matched by cultural diversification, and the vernacular novel was a product of this milieu. Han'gŭl versions of the novel came to be particularly popular among women and lay readers, who were unfamiliar with Chinese writing, and vernacular novels gained a wide readership. Buddhist vernacular literature did not appeal to the literati, however, due in part to the dominance of Confucianism during the Chosŏn period.

Buddhist influences on Korean language and vocabulary

Buddhism also exerted considerable influence on the Korean language and vocabulary. Contemporary scholars have argued that Han'gŭl originated from symbol letters (puhoja), a kind of signifier used in Buddhist literature in classical Chinese during the Koryŏ dynasty (918–1392). Some Korean and Japanese scholars have begun studying puhoja as the possible origin of the Korean alphabet and they have noted its use in Buddhist canonical texts during the Koryŏ period. An ardent debate in Korean academe rages over this issue.

Many Korean geographical names are associated with Buddhism. For instance, Mount Sŏrak (Snowy Peak), one of the most beautiful mountains in Korea, is considered the Korean counterpart of the Himalayas, the birthplace of the Buddha. Much of Korean cultural language involves Buddhist words or is associated with Buddhism. A representative example is the word ip'an sap'an, which originally referred to practicing monks who studied both doctrine and meditation (ip'an) and to administrative monks (sap'an). In addition, there are some difference in the way similar terms are used in China and Korea. For example, the terms pigu (Chinese, biqiu; monk) and piguni (Chinese, biqiuni; nun) are still used in Korea, but they are no longer recognized in China. Moreover, the meaning of some Buddhist terminology has changed. For instance, the meditative term musim (no mind, or no false mind) today means "heartlessness." The original meaning of ŏp (karma) referred to both good and bad actions; now it signifies only evil actions. Furthermore, the Buddhist terms that entered everyday parlance often had derogatory meanings, a product of the Confucian dominance of premodern Korea. Since the Chosŏn period, in particular, the meaning of certain Buddhist terms has become derogatory; thus, ip'an sap'an came to signify "a brawling situation." Originally the term yadan pŏpsŏk referred to "an outdoor sermon"; it is now used in a negative sense to mean "an extremely noisy situation."

Historically, Buddhist literature played a leading role in the formation of vernacular Korean literature. By the late nineteenth century, the importation of Western civilization and culture caused traditional verse and prose forms to give way to new forms. Although the Nim ŭi ch'immuk (Silence of Love, 1926) by monk Han Yongun (1879–1944) is considered one of the masterpieces of modern Korean poetry, vernacular Buddhist literature in Han'gŭl was not generally perceived as literary. It is only in recent years that Buddhist literature has regained a growing readership in Korea.

See also:Chinese, Buddhist Influences on Vernacular Literature in; Korea; Languages; Poetry and Buddhism


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Jongmyung Kim

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