History of Korean Buddhism
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 Perild(668-935) was followed by ritualistic Koryo(935-1392).
Persecution ran high in the Choson Period as Neo Confucianism gained the favor
of the ruling families. In 1945, after thirty-six years, the Japanese colonization
of Korea came to an end: Korean Buddhism underwent a renewa
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 will as natural
forces and inanimate objects all 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
time 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 Ch'ilsong (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 Korean.
Three Kingdoms period
In the 4th century A.D., at the time when Buddhism was first
introduced to Korean, 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 statues 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 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 accompanied 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, Kaya 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 Ich'adon, during the
reign of King Pophung (514-540)in 527 A.D., that Buddhism gradually became
recognized as the national religion of Shilla.
Ichiadon 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 Kuongju honors
King Chinhung (540-557 A.D.) particularly encouraged the
growth of Buddhism. During his reign, a special training institution, the
Hwarangdo, was formed. Selected young men were trained physically and spiritually
according toBuddhist principles so that they could govern and defend the nation.
Towards the end of his life, King Chinhung became a monk. (Several Shilla
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 Kuongju (see the cover of this book and
it is also designated as World's 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.
The story of Won-hyo's Awakening
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 represents
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 the world.
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 Buddha.
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!
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 by 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 country's Buddhist Heritage. The famous rock statue of
the Buddha in Sokgur-am cave ( see the cover 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 Ch'an School ( Son to 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
Koryo (935- 1392 AD)
After the glory of Shilla faded, the Koryo Dynasty assumed
power in the 10th century A.S. 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 (Ch'ont'ae, 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 Master 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 sown 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 Koran 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 country's 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 people's respect
for Buddhism. Following the defeat of the 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 Korean. After Liberation
in 1945, the celibate ordained members of the main sect of Kordan 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.
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