Buddhism was introduced to Korea from China in the A.D. 372 and spread into Japan from Korea in the sixth century A.D. The religion originated in India. Buddhism was the dominate religion and had a profound influence on culture during the Three Kingdoms Period (57 B.C.-A.D. 668), the Silla Dynasty (A.D. 676-936), and Koryo Dynasty (A.D. 936-1392). During the Chosun Period (1392-1910), Buddhism was criticized by Neo-Confucianist and its influence declined.

Buddhism entered China in A.D. 64, Korea in A.D. 372, and Japan in A.D. 552. According to the Asia Society: “Mahayana Buddhism was introduced to the Korean peninsula from China in the A.D. fourth century. As in many countries that adopted Buddhism, the religion was first practiced and supported by elites, the royal courts and the aristocracy, but gradually it was adopted by all levels of society. By the late sixth century, Korean monks were traveling along the trade routes to China and even to India to receive training. They returned home bearing texts and images that played a decisive role in the formation of Korean culture and art. [Source: Asia Society Museum asiasocietymuseum.org ]

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Many of Japan's earliest Buddhist sites are thought to have been designed and influenced by Korean Buddhist advisors. Horyuji Temple, near the city of Nara in central Japan, is an example. Paekche was conquered by Silla and Koguryo in 668 and much of its cultural legacy was destroyed, but there are still important Buddhist artworks to be found in its royal tombs and the stone remnants of its temples. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

Buddhism flourished until the Chosun dynasty (1392 – 1910), when Neo-Confucianism became the state ideology. Buddhism, however, remained a spiritual force in Korean society, and private devotional objects and works for monasteries and temples continued to be made throughout the centuries.

Introduction of Buddhism into the Three Kingdoms

According to the Encyclopedia of Buddhism, “When Buddhism came to Korea in the latter half of the fourth century, the peninsula was divided into three kingdoms, each ruled by an ancient tribal confederation trying to expand its territory at the expense of the others. The religious beliefs and practices of the people were predominantly animistic; they believed in deities that resided in nature, and they worshipped the ancestral spirits of tribal leaders. With the establishment of monarchies, however, Korean society moved beyond its tribal stage and was ready to entertain a new religion with a universalistic ethos. [Source: Encyclopedia of Buddhism, The Gale Group Inc., 2004]

“Among the three kingdoms, Koguryo (37 B.C.– A.D. 618) in the north was the earliest to form a centralized state and was by far the most powerful. Although some evidence suggests that Buddhism had been known earlier, it was in A.D. 372, during the reign of King Sosurim (r. 371–384), that Buddhism was officially introduced into Koguryo. Sosurim maintained a tributary relationship with the Former Qin (351–394) in northern China, and its king, Fujian (r. 357–385), an ardent supporter of Buddhism, sent a monk-envoy named Sundo (d.u.), with Buddhist images and scriptures, to Koguryo. Significantly, in that same year Sosurim also established the T'aehak, an academy for Confucian learning. The following year he promulgated legal codes, laying the foundation for a centralized bureaucratic state.

“Around the time Buddhism came to Koguryo, the Paekche kingdom (18 B.C.– A.D. 660), which occupied the southwestern part of the peninsula, was introduced to Buddhism by the Eastern Jin in southern China, with which Paekche had a close diplomatic relationship. As with Koguryo, the new religion came to Paekche at the time the kingdom, in particular King Ku˘n Ch'ogo (346–375), was consolidating royal control over tribal powers.

“The kingdom of Silla (57 B.C.–A.D. 935), which held the southeastern corner of the peninsula, was the last of three kingdoms to be introduced to Buddhism. When Buddhism first came to Silla during the reign of King Nulchi (417–447), it met strong resistance from ruling aristocratic families that were deeply rooted in tribal religious practices. The martyrdom of Ich'adon, a loyal minister, provoked King Pophŭng (r. 514–540) to finally recognize the new religion in A.D. 527 Pophŭng had promulgated legal codes for the kingdom in 520, and he prohibited killing throughout the land two years after recognizing Buddhism.

“Buddhism introduced a number of new religious practices and ideas to Korea: Buddhist monks were clearly set apart from the rest of the society; images of buddhas and bodhisattvas offered a clear focus for devotion; and Buddhist scriptures contained soaring philosophical ideas with an expansive cosmology and advanced moral teaching. In addition, a host of new cultural phenomena accompanied Buddhism, including architecture, craftsmanship, a writing system, calendrics, and medicine. Buddhist monks were not simply religious figures, they were magicians, doctors, writers, calligraphers, architects, painters, and even diplomats and political advisers. Although many years passed before Korean Buddhists had a solid understanding of the philosophical subtleties of Buddhist teachings, its material culture alone was sufficient to win the hearts of the kings and nobles, as well as the common people.”

Buddhism in the Silla Dynasty

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: The Silla kingdom (668 – 935) “gave their country the nickname of "Buddha-Land." Their kings aspired to the ideal of compassionate Buddhist rulers and sponsored Buddhist monasteries and temples. The greatest Silla temple remains are those outside the ancient capital city of Kyongju at Pulguksa, which means "Temple of Buddha-Land." A Chinese visitor once reported that Kyongju was so full of Buddhist temples and pagodas that they seemed like "clouds in the sky." Silla aristocrats became Buddhists as did many of the common people. An elite corps of young Buddhist men became Korea's first organized martial artists, known as hwarang, or "Braves in the Flower of Youth." Their physical discipline was derived from the Buddhist idea that sacrifice and service were a noble calling, and they were some of Korea's best fighters.” [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

Son — Korean Zen Buddhism — was introduced to Korea in the A.D. 7th century by a Korean monk named Pomnang, who said to have studied under the fourth Chinese patriarch, but otherwise little is known about him or his time. By the 9th century, Son Buddhism had become the dominant form of Buddhism in Korea as a result of numerous Korean monks going to China to study Ch'an Buddhism and returning to Korea to teach. [Source: BBC]

According to the Encyclopedia of Buddhism: “The kingdom of Silla, which held the southeastern corner of the peninsula, was the last of three kingdoms to be introduced to Buddhism. When Buddhism first came to Silla during the reign of King Nulchi (417–447), it met strong resistance from ruling aristocratic families that were deeply rooted in tribal religious practices. The martyrdom of Ich'adon, a loyal minister, provoked King Pophŭng (r. 514–540) to finally recognize the new religion in A.D. 527 Pophŭng had promulgated legal codes for the kingdom in 520, and he prohibited killing throughout the land two years after recognizing Buddhism. [Source: Encyclopedia of Buddhism, The Gale Group Inc., 2004]

“It was Silla, the least developed of the three kingdoms, that benefited most from Buddhism after Silla leaders turned Buddhism into a powerful ideology of the state. As a source of religious patriotism, Buddhism played an important role in Silla's unification of the divided peninsula. King Chinhŭng (r. 540–576), the successor of Pophŭng, was the first Silla monarch who allowed his subjects to become monks. Pophŭng himself became a monk at the end of his life, taking the Buddhist name Pobun (Dharma Cloud), an act that demonstrated the unity of the state and the sa gha. Beginning of Pophŭng, many Silla rulers adopted Buddhist names, including Śuddhodana, Maya, and Śrīmala, for themselves and their families. Buddhism had clearly become a force for legitimizing royal authority.

“Beginning in the late eighth century, the unified Silla dynasty began to show signs of disintegration due to conflicts within the ruling class and the rise of local warlords. During this period of political turmoil the Son or Chan school of Buddhism was introduced into Korea from Tang China. Numerous Son centers were soon established, mostly in provinces far away from the Silla capital of Kyongju and under the patronage of local warlords and magnates. Most of the founders of the Nine Mountains school of Son (Kusan Sonmun) received transmission in China from members of the dharma-lineage of the famous Mazu Daoyi (709–788). Their new approach to Buddhism soon created conflict with the older schools of doctrinal Buddhism (Kyo), bifurcating the Korean sa gha.”

Clark wrote: “ An interesting example of the fusion of Buddhism and Confucianism in Silia-period Korea was the monk Won'gwang's "Five Precepts for Laypeople," which included basic Confucian ideas and actually sounds like some of the Confucian "five relationships": (1) Serve your king with loyalty, (2) Serve your parents with filial piety, (3) Treat your friends with trust and faith, (4) Do not retreat from combat, and (5) Do not take life carelessly. This merging of Buddhist compassion and Confucian social ethics is an important aspect of Korean intellectual history, for as Koreans were adapting Chinese ways of government they also sought religious satisfaction. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

Important Buddhist Monks in Silla Korea

According to the Encyclopedia of Buddhism: “Eminent monks, such as Won'gwang (d. 630) and Chajang (ca. seventh century), became spiritual leaders of both the sa gha and the state. Won'gwang is best known for his sesok ogye (five precepts for laypeople), which he presented at the request of two patriotic youths. The precepts stipulated that one must serve the sovereign with loyalty, serve parents with filial piety, treat friends with sincerity, never retreat from the battlefield, and not kill living beings indiscriminately. Instead of offering the traditional five precepts, Won'gwang adapted Buddhist ethics to the pressing needs of the Silla kingdom during a crucial period of its history. [Source: Encyclopedia of Buddhism, The Gale Group Inc., 2004]

“Chajang, a Silla nobleman, traveled to Tang China in 636 and spent seven years studying Buddhism. Upon his return, he was given the title of taegukt'ong (Grand National Overseer), one who supervises the entire sa gha. Chajang established the ordination platform for monks at T'ongdo Monastery and strictly enforced the Buddhist vinaya throughout the sa gha. He is also credited with building a magnificent nine-story pagoda in the compound of Hwangnyong Monastery, the national shrine of Silla.

“Although the rulers and aristocratic families were attracted to Buddhism mainly for its material benefits, such as the protection of the state and the welfare of the family, many monks avidly studied and lectured on important Chinese Buddhist texts. Almost all the major Mahayana texts, which had played an important role in the formative period of Chinese Buddhism, were introduced into Korea. Buddhist monks from Koguryo and especially Paekche subsequently played seminal roles in the transmission of Buddhism and Sinitic culture to Japan.

“Buddhist thought flourished in Korea once the Silla rulers unified the three kingdoms in 680. The contributions of the eminent monks Ŭisang (625–702) and Wonhyo (617–686) were particularly important. Ŭisang had traveled to China and studied under Zhiyan (602–668), the second patriarch of the Huayan school. Upon his return to Silla, he became the founder of the Korean Hwaom (Huayan) school, the most influential doctrinal school in Korean Buddhism. The founding of many famous monasteries in Korea, such as Hwaomsa, Pusoksa, and Pomosa, are attributed to Ŭisang, and his Hwaom ilsŭng popgye to (Chart of the One-Vehicle Dharma-Realm of Huayan) sets forth the gist of Hwaom philosophy in the form of 210 Chinese characters arranged in a square diagram.

“Wonhyo, commonly regarded as the greatest thinker in Korean Buddhism, was a prolific writer who produced no less than eighty-six works, of which twenty-three are extant either completely or partially. By his time, most of the important sūtras and treatises had flowed into Korea from China, and they were causing a great deal of confusion for Silla Buddhists, as they had for the Chinese. It was Wonhyo's genius to interpret all of the texts known to him in a way that would reveal their underlying unity of truth without sacrificing the distinctive message of each text. He found his hermeneutical key in the famous Mahayana text, the Awakening of Faith (Dasheng qixin lun). Wonhyo's commentaries on this text influenced Fazang (643–712), the great systematizer of Huayan thought.

“But Wonhyo was more than a scholar-monk. He tried to embody in his own life the ideal of a bodhisattva who works for the well-being of all sentient beings. Transcending the distinction of the sacred and the secular, he married a widowed princess, visited villages and towns, and taught people with songs and dances. Silla Buddhism fully matured during Wonhyo's time, not only in terms of its doctrinal depth but also its ability to engage the common people.”

Buddhism in the Koryo Dynasty

Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “ By the Koryo period (918-1392), when Korea had a new united government headquartered in Kaesong in west-central Korea, Buddhism was the state religion and Buddhist monks and leaders were important figures at court. In fact, the founder of the Koryo kingdom, Wang Gon (also known as King T'aejo), gave credit for his achievement by proclaiming that "Founding our dynasty is entirely owing to the protective powers of the many Buddhas." Eventually there were more than seventy Buddhist temples in the capital city alone. By this time a debate was in progress about the "right" way to be a Buddhist. Scholars of the "doctrinal sect" believed that people should seek enlightenment outside themselves by studying external things like the Buddhist scriptures. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“During the Koryo period, the kings kept Buddhist advisors close by their thrones and the country celebrated religious piety by building large temples. Noble people donated fortunes to monasteries and the Buddhist church grew rich. Common people, burdened by heavy taxes, often "commended" themselves to temples as "temple slaves" because they could live better under the generous protection of the monks than they could as free taxpayers. Temples acquired so much property, in fact, that certain groups of monks had to be trained in military arts to protect the property, an idea that seems a far cry from the self-denial so prevalent in earlier Buddhism.”

“Scholars of the "meditative sect" thought that enlightenment, or "Buddha-nature," was part of every person from birth and was waiting for discovery in a flash of enlightenment from within the mind, something like Buddha's own experience. Though there were more than ten Buddhist denominations in the Koryo period, these two — the doctrinal and the meditative — were the main ones.

According to the Encyclopedia of Buddhism, “The long political turmoil of the late Silla period ended with the redivision of the Korean peninsula into three kingdoms and the rise of Wang Kon (r. 918–943), a local warlord who founded a new dynasty, the Koryo (918–1392). Although the political climate had changed, the intimate relationship between Buddhism and the state did not. Buddhism became even more firmly established as the state religion. Wang Kon was a pious Buddhist and attributed his political success to the protective power of the buddhas. He was also a firm believer in geomancy, and he constructed numerous Buddhist monasteries according to geomantic principles with a view to curbing evil forces emanating from unfavorable places. Following his example, the succeeding Koryo monarchs became ardent supporters of Buddhism. During the reign of King Kwangjong (949–975), the state established a monks' examination system that was modeled on the civil service examination. Titles were conferred upon the monks who passed the examination, according to their ranks. The highest honor belonged to the royal preceptor (wangsa) and the posthumous national preceptor (kuksa). In short, the Buddhist san˙gha became part and parcel of the state bureaucracy, and the idea of hoguk pulgyo (state-protection Buddhism) became firmly entrenched during the Koryo dynasty. [Source: Encyclopedia of Buddhism, The Gale Group Inc., 2004]

“In the latter half of the eleventh century, a new school arose and changed the denominational dynamics of the Koryo sa gha. Ŭich'On (1055–1101), the fourth son of King Munjong, became a Hwaom monk at the age of eleven. At thirty-one he traveled to Song China, where he met many illustrious Chinese masters, who inspired him to establish a new order, the Ch'ont'aejong (TIANTAIschool) in Koryo, a decision rooted in his determination to resolve the severe conflict between Son and Kyo (doctrinal Buddhism) in the Koryo sa gha. Ŭich'on was critical of Son's iconoclastic rhetoric, which he believed ignored scriptural learning. He wanted his new school to balance doctrinal study (kyo) and meditation (kwan). Ŭich'on's leadership and royal background soon made Ch'ont'ae a flourishing order, but the conflict continued to intensify. Not long after Ŭich'on, the Nine Mountains school of Son began to consolidate under a new name, the Chogyejong.

“A century later, a Son monk named CHINUL (1158–1210) led a quiet monastic reform movement in order to purify the Koryo sa gha, which he believed was in a state of serious moral and spiritual decay. Convinced through his encounter with the writings of the Hwaom exegete Li Tongxuan (635–730) that Son's "sudden enlightenment" (tono) approach could also be found in Hwaom teaching, Chinul concluded that there was no discrepancy between Son and Kyo. Chinul established a comprehensive approach to Son that balanced "sudden enlightenment" with "gradual cultivation," and he permitted both a Hwaom method of "sudden enlightenment" and the "extraordinary" (kyogoe) method of hwadu (kŌan) meditation. Chinul's Son teaching, set forth in many of his writings, became the foundation for the thought and practice of Korean Son Buddhism to the present day.

“Koryo Buddhism is also noted for its monumental woodblock editions of the Chinese Buddhist canon, the first of which is said to have been commissioned by King Hyonjong (1009–1031) in the hope of protecting the country from invading Liao forces. This edition was burned by Mongols in 1232. King Kojong (1213–1259) commissioned another edition of the canon on Kanghwa Island, where he had fled after the Mongol invasion. This edition, which consisted of more than eighty thousand woodblocks, took sixteen years to complete (1236–1251); it is still preserved in the Tripi aka Hall of Haein Monastery near Taegu. Buddhism during the Chosun dynasty

“Supported by the court and the nobles, the Koryo sa gha enjoyed considerable economic prosperity. Large monasteries became major landowners after the donation of land and serfs by the kings and influential families, and many monasteries developed into financial powers by pursuing various commercial enterprises. The sa gha's economic power became so immense that it generated much complaint and criticism toward the end of the dynasty. Lesser bureaucrats were especially strong critics, influenced by neo-Confucianism, a new ideology introduced from Song China in the late thirteenth century.

Son Buddhism and the 13th Century Monk Chinul

The Korean word for Zen is Son. According to the BBC: “The largest Son sect today in Korea is the Chogye Order which includes about 90 percent of Korean Buddhists. Son was introduced there in approximately the 7th century CE by a Korean monk named Pomnang, said to have studied under the fourth Chinese patriarch, but little is known of him or of these early times. During the 9th century CE, Son Buddhism became the dominant form of Buddhism in Korea as a result of a steady stream of Korean masters going to China to study Ch'an Buddhism and returning to Korea to teach. [Source: BBC |::|]

“One of the most outstanding figures in the history of Son was a man by the name of Chinul. “As a young monk he passed examinations necessary to bring him into the monastic hierarchy, but rejected such a lifestyle and instead retreated to the mountains. He devoted himself to study and contemplation, deeply penetrating the Buddhist texts. In 1190, at the age of 32, Chinul formed a community called the Concentration and Wisdom Community which remained together in retreat for 7 years. Gradually, other monks joined him attracted by the seriousness of the group.

“The community grew and moved to a place (later renamed Mount Chogye) in about 1200 CE, enlarging a small hermitage into a monastery complex. This temple, Songgwang Sa, exists to this day as an active and thriving Son community.

“Son remained significant in Korea until 1392 CE, when a revolt replaced the pro-Buddhist government with one that favoured Confucianism and regarded Buddhism as an un-Korean influence. Buddhists were still allowed to practise, but official oppression drove them from the centres of power into remote mountain monasteries, changing Buddhism in Korea from a people's religion into a largely monastic practice. This also changed the nature of Buddhism, and the Son tradition moved away from textual study to focusing on meditation practice with the aim of reaching the same state that the Buddha had reached.

Buddhism in the Chosun Dynasty

According to the Encyclopedia of Buddhism, “With the collapse of the Koryo regime, Buddhism came under further attack. The new Chosun dynasty (1392–1910), which was built upon neo-Confucian ideology, severed its official relationship with Buddhism. Land holdings were confiscated and hundreds of monasteries were disbanded. As anti-Buddhist measures grew more severe, people were prohibited from ordaining, monks were not allowed to enter the capital city, the monks' examination system was abolished, and the various Buddhist denominations were forced to consolidate. Only two denominations, Sonjong and Kyojong, were left, all others being absorbed into them. In short, Buddhism was forced out of mainstream society, and monks were downgraded to the lowest social stratum. [Source: Encyclopedia of Buddhism, The Gale Group Inc., 2004]

“It was during this period of persecution that the denominational identities of the traditional Buddhist schools disappeared and the ascendancy of Son began. Less dependent, perhaps, upon institutional and doctrinal structures, Son withstood the persecution better than Kyo and managed to maintain its tradition deep in the mountain areas.

“On the whole, during the Choso˘n period, Buddhism fell from the place of high respect and honor that it had enjoyed during the Silla and Koryo˘ periods, and it remained largely confined to the countryside, isolated from mainstream intellectual and cultural life. Nevertheless, monks of high learning and character continued to flow into the san˙gha, providing leadership during a difficult period.

Clark wrote: “The founders of the Chosun kingdom attacked Buddhism and other folk religions as corruptions that only served to mislead the people. The founders of Chosun were Confucianists who wanted to redirect attention to state and society in the present instead of toward prayers to Buddha. The Confucianists were reformers who wanted to root out all kinds of evil that had flourished under the former dynasty. In their view, the wealth that was flowing to Buddhist temples would better be used by the state for education, defense, and public welfare. They believed that Buddhist monks and nuns were wrong to be celibate, never marrying or having children to carry on their ancestors' family lines. They thought that there were too many monks and nuns, in any case, and the new government ordered that these religious professionals, who had previously been honored as a kind of nobility, be treated like members of the lowest social class. And because they thought there were too many temples, they ruled that only temples in the mountains could remain standing. They pulled down many temples in towns and cities and when they built their new capital at what is now Seoul, they ordered that no temples be built within the city limits. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

Neo-Confucianist Hostility Toward Buddhism

Clark wrote: “Confucianists looked down on Buddhism as a tool for distracting the masses from the work at hand, which was building a society based on justice and propriety using humanity and conscience as guides instead of the spirits, or gods. Confucianists disliked the way Buddhist monks withdrew from society and lived in monasteries instead of providing examples of correct leadership and behavior. Monks did not marry or have children, for example, appearing to disrespect their parents by not carrying on their family lines. The Confucianists thought it wasteful for temples to use the hard-earned contributions of ordinary people to create luxurious displays, gilded images of Buddha, and expensive religious festivals. They were offended that some of the biggest Buddhist temples were so rich they had to train guards to protect their material assets. Thus, though some of the early Chosun reformers were actually Buddhists in their personal lives, they agreed that the organized Buddhist religion had to be suppressed, its temples confiscated, its monks and slaves "returned to their former occupations" (i.e., farming and taxpaying), and the remaining Buddhist clergy banished to a few temples in the mountains.” [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

Pak Ch'o, an Anti-Buddhist Memorial, goes: “I, His Majesty’s subject, have heard that it was after heaven and earth existed that the myriad things came into being; that it was after the myriad things existed that man and woman came into being; that it was after man and woman existed that husband and wife came into being; that it was after husband and wife existed that father and son came into being; that it was after father and son existed that king and minister came into being; that it was after king and minister existed that senior and junior came into being; and that it was after senior and junior existed that ritual and righteousness were established. This is the universal way of the world and the normal law of all times that cannot be disregarded even briefly. If it is abolished, heaven and earth will not tolerate its abandonment, the sun and moon will not shine, the ghosts and spirits will carry out executions jointly, and all the generations under heaven will concur with the joint beheading. [Source: translated by John Duncan, “Sourcebook of Korean Civilization”, edited by Peter H. Lee, vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 373-374]

“What kind of man is this Buddha who makes a son that should carry on the family line betray his father and sever the affection between father and son; who makes men resist the Son of Heaven and destroy the righteousness between lord and minister; who says that for men and women to live together is not the Way; who says that for men to plow and women to weave is not righteous, thus severing the way of generating life and blocking off the source of food and clothing; and who thinks that through his way he can transform all under heaven? If his way were really carried out, humanity would be finished in a hundred years. Heaven would carry on above and earth would bear below, but the only things to grow would be grasses and trees, birds and beasts, fishes and turtles, and dragons and snakes. How, finally, could the Way of the Three Bonds and the Five Relations endure?

“This Buddha was originally a barbarian whose language was not like that of China, whose dress was weird, whose mouth did not speak of the kingly way of old, and whose body did not wear the sacerdotal clothing of the kings of old. He gave false revelations of three unhappy ways (to the hell of fire, of blood, and to the asipattra hell of swords) and incorrectly propounded the six ways of sentient existence, ultimately leading the foolish and ignorant to seek senilely for merit, fearing not the norms and carelessly violating the basic law.

“Furthermore, although life and death and longevity and brevity originate in nature, although power and fortune and punishment and virtue are linked with the ruler of men, and although poverty and wealth and nobility and baseness derive from accumulated merit, foolish deceiving monks all attribute these things to Buddha, thus stealing the authority of the ruler of men, treating arbitrarily the power of creation, dimming the eyes and ears of the people, plunging all under heaven into corruption, living in intoxication and dying in a dream without ever realizing it. Thus they build palaces and halls, which they serve; they decorate them with stone,wood, copper, and iron which they form; and they shave off the hair of commoner men and women whom they make reside there. Even though the Buddhists’ palaces surpass the palaces and halls of Chieh of Hsia [trad. 2205.1766 B.C.], the beautiful palace and Deer Terrace of Chou of Shang [trad. 1766.1122 B.C.], the Chang.hua Terrace of King Ling of Ch’u [740.330 B.C.], and the Ap’ang palace of the First Emperor of Ch’in [221.209 B.C.], do they not all come from the resources of the people? How distressful! Who will correct this situation? It can only be set right after he who is above demonstrates propriety by cultivating himself with virtue and instructing those below and leads the people to know wherein the principle of heaven resides.”

Buddhism Hangs On in the Chosun Dynasty

Clark wrote:“The Confucian attack on Buddhism at the beginning of the Chosun dynasty was ironic since the dynasty's founder and his family, along with many of their associates, continued personally to revere the Buddha and to maintain their personal Buddhist faith. Indeed, the purge was more institutional than religious, breaking the political power of the Buddhist church. However, over the course of the dynasty it did succeed in diminishing the visibility of Buddhism in Korea and in relegating it to the status of folk religion. Buddhist believers continued to hike into the mountains to visit temples and pray. Women continued to practice Buddhism in greater numbers than men, and educated men with social ambition actively shunned any association with Buddhism so that it became a religion for the lower classes. Institutional Buddhism suffered a long period of repression that did not end until the twentieth century. Its eventual revival and resurgence is a major development in modern Korean history. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

According to the Encyclopedia of Buddhism, ““Buddhism experienced a short revival during the sixteenth century when HyujOng (1520–1604) became the most important leader of the Chosun sa gha, both Son and Kyo. Although a Son master, Hyujong demonstrated an accommodating attitude toward doctrinal studies. He argued that Kyo is the word of the Buddha, whereas Son is his mind. Although he believed in their essential unity, Hyujong taught that a monk's training should begin with Kyo, but eventually the trainee must move on to Son in order to attain perfection. Hyujong thus established the principle of "relinquishing Kyo So and entering into Son" (sagyo ipson), which is still followed among Korean monks today. [Source: Encyclopedia of Buddhism, The Gale Group Inc., 2004]

“Hyujong and his followers, especially YujOng (1544–1610) and Yonggwan (1485–1571), also played an important role in mobilizing the monks' militia against Japanese forces during the Hideyoshi invasion (1592–1599). Although Buddhist monks were held in contempt in the strongly anti-Buddhist Confucian society, they were ironically the salvation of the state during this national crisis. Many monks were subsequently given high honorific military titles, and their improved status continued for a while after the war.

Buddhism in the Late Chosun Dynasty and Japanese Colonial Period (1910-1945)

Clark wrote: “When Japan began to exert influence on Korea in the late 1800s, Buddhism became a channel for interaction between the Japanese and Koreans. In Japan, unlike India, China, and Korea, Buddhism had never undergone a period of political repression and flourished in many forms in temples that remain all over Japan to this day. In true Mahayana style, Buddhism in Japan accommodated many kinds of beliefs, and many sects permitted their monks to marry and raise families. The Japanese Honganji sect, for example, with a professional clergy that had families, was run in a congregational way with large-group worship services, hymn singing, and community collections for projects including charitable work. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“When Japanese officials and businessmen began moving to Korea at the turn of the twentieth century, they brought their forms of Buddhism with them and established temples. Korean Buddhists were encouraged to join in and follow Japanese modes of worship. Korean priests were told that it was not an abandonment of their promises to Buddha to marry and live more like the people in their communities. Some Korean clergy did so, and this touched off a bitter division within Korean Buddhism between the Chogye order, which remained celibate, and the T'aego order, which allowed monks to marry. The Buddhist revival in late twentieth-century Korea has come after several difficult passages. “

During the Japanese colonial occupation of Korea (1910 45), Japanese residents tended to dominate Buddhism in Korea. According to the Encyclopedia of Buddhism: “The Japanese policy toward Buddhism was inconsistent. Although the Japanese government lifted the ban on monks' entry into metropolitan areas and allowed most religious activities, the government-general also tried to control the Korean sa gha and to force its merger with one or another Japanese sect of Buddhism. The sach'allyong (Monastery Act) placed the Korean sa gha under political surveillance by imposing a hierarchical organization on the monasteries and by requiring state approval for the appointment of the abbots. An important development in Korean Buddhism under colonial rule was the emergence of married priests (taech'os ng), an influence of Japanese Buddhism, which eventually became a major source of conflict in the san˙gha after Korean independence. [Source: Encyclopedia of Buddhism, The Gale Group Inc., 2004]

“Government persecution during the Chosun period had forced the amalgamation of schools and sects, and the denominational identities of Korean Buddhism were essentially obliterated, with the exception of the distinction between Son and Kyo, although even this distinction became practically meaningless after the ascendance of Son. Efforts were made during the Japanese colonial period to define the character of Korean Buddhism by giving it a denominational name. In view of its predominantly Son character, it adopted in 1941 the name Chogyejong, after the old Koryo Son order.

Buddhism in Modern South Korea

Clark wrote: “After Japan's defeat in 1945, a Communist regime was established in North Korea that did not permit religious freedom at all, renewing its suppression and reducing it, in effect, to a cultural memory. In South Korea, American influence and a Christian president from 1948 to I960 also did little to help Buddhism recover as younger people and people who wanted to be "modern" and "Western" joined Christian churches instead. In the 1960s and 1970s, however, the South Korean government devoted substantial funds and efforts to reconstructing Korea's historic sites including many Buddhist temples. Buddhism went from seeming "old-fashioned" to being "traditional," something to honor and reclaim as part of modern Korea's identity. As a result, membership in Buddhist congregations has grown. The dispute between married and celibate monks has been settled (both types are permitted in their respective T'aego and Chogye sects). [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

According to the Encyclopedia of Buddhism: “After independence, a struggle broke out between celibate monks (pigus ng) and married clergy over control of the monasteries, resulting in the schism of the sa gha in 1962 into two denominations: the celibate Chogye order and the much smaller T'aego order for married priests. Although new sects such as Ch'ont'aejong and Chin'gakchong arose during the 1960s, the Chogye order represents virtually all of Korean Buddhism today. It is administered by its national office (ch'ongmuwon) based at the Chogye monastery in Seoul. A comprehensive program of ordination and training of monks is provided by four main Chogye monasteries: Haeinsa, Songgwangsa, T'ongdosa, and Sudoksa. Having separate quarters and facilities for Son meditation, doctrinal studies, vinaya studies, and Pure Land recitation, these comprehensive monasteries are called ch'ongnim ("grove of trees," referring to the large body of monks residing there), and they are distinguished from other large and small monasteries. [Source: Encyclopedia of Buddhism, The Gale Group Inc., 2004]

“At the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is estimated that more than ten million Buddhists live in Korea, mainly in the South. (Although some Buddhist monasteries exist in North Korea, the number of practicing Buddhists is negligible, if they do indeed exist.) Buddhism strengthened its urban presence considerably during the 1980s and 1990s in response to increased activity by Christian churches in South Korea. Many urban centers of Buddhism were established by the traditional influential monasteries, and some independent Buddhist centers have arisen, drawing large numbers of middle- and upper-class Koreans. Meanwhile, many monks with keen social consciences are leading movements dedicated to various social, political, and environmental causes, including the reconciliation of North and South Korea.

“Buddhism has left an indelible mark upon the Korean people and their culture. The vast majority of Korean cultural monuments and treasures derive from Buddhism, and many names of towns and mountains are of Buddhist origin. Stories and legends with Buddhist motifs abound, as do novels and films based on Buddhist themes. For centuries Buddhism has provided Koreans with a way to cope with major misfortunes or crises in life. The belief in the law of karma and the cycle of birth-and-death has become a part of the Korean psyche, and the Buddhist teaching that life is impermanent and full of suffering has been fundamental to the Korean worldview ever since the arrival of Buddhism in the fourth century.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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