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Buddhism in Korea

Compared with other religions, Buddhist thought is oriented towards the practical. Its aim, at the individual level, is to attain Buddhahood, and at the social level, to save living beings. All measures used to achieve this goal are no more than "skillful devices" to attain this end. The object of salvation, no matter what it may be, falls within the category of living beings. Therefore, regardless of what religion people believe in, they are neverthless regarded as an object of Buddhist salvation. In this way, Buddhism is inclusive and tolerant, and Korean Buddhism is no exception.

Wonhyo (617-686) stands at the pinnacle of Korean intellectual history as a thinker embodying the particular characteristics of Korean Buddhist thought. Warning against doctrinal rigidity as well as the aristocratic monopoly on Buddhism, he attempted to create a practical Buddhism that was oriented towards the common people. At the same time, his work to systemize and integrate Buddhism's diverse doctrines became a model for critical Buddhist research. As a part of his effort to bring together all Buddhism's profound doctrines, he emphasized the teaching that all phenomena are merely products of the mind. According to Wonhyo, if one could merely awaken to the fact that all phenomena are produced from the mind, all doctrinal disputes would become meaningless. For this reason, he felt that doctrine and disputes were less important than the ideal of practice contained within them. Wonhyo therefore emphasized the "harmonization of disputes," meaning that one could only approach truth by putting a stop to conflict. In this way, he demonstrated an intellectual attitude which sought to harmonize strict adherence to doctrine with a practical orientation.

Eisang (625-702) firmly established the Hwaom (Chinese "Huayen") ideal of a "Buddha land" in order to create solid foundations for the Unified Shilla Kingdom. According to Hwaom doctrine, all things have their place within the harmony of the universal order. If one awakens to this order, anguish and contentions instantly disappear and the world is seen as full of harmony and peace. The Buddha triad that represents the blessed Hwaom realm are enshrined within the main hall of Buddhist temples. Taeil Yorae (Skt. Mahavairocana) sits in the center as the symbol of the sun and light, Kwanum Posal (Skt. Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva) sits on the right as the representation of compassion and Munsu Posal (Skt. Manjusri Bodhisattva) sits on the left, as the symbol of wisdom. Due to Eisang's teachings, all of Korean came to be thought of as a Buddha land and various areas came to be thought of as sacred places in which Kwanum or Munsu Posal resided. In this way, Eisang enlisted Hwaom thought, with its optimistic and comprehensive character, to establish organized Buddhism and provide a new vision for the integrated society of Unified Shilla. Even today, his teachings concerning Kwanum Posal continue to have an important influence on Buddhist practice.

Eich'ion, a National Master during the Koryo period, attempted to restore organized Buddhism. In doing so, he hoped to reform the Buddhist order which had become corrupt during the late-Shilla and early-Koryo period. During the latter part of the Unified Shilla period, a movement centered around the "Nine Mountains" meditation schools led to a sudden expansion of son (Ch.‘Chan,' Jap. ‘Zen') Buddhism. Emphasizing personal cultivation, son Buddhism rejected the centralized control of the royal house and doctrinal orders and thus advanced the trend towards regional power centers. Doctrinal Buddhism, on the other hand, required massive funds from the royal house in order to publish Buddhist sutras and written works. son Buddhism's expansion thus intensified the decline of the doctrinal orders. EUich'iCon, seeking to alter this dangerous trend, advocated religious practice based on both doctrinal learning (Kyo) and meditation (son). However Eich'won's approach actually amounted to just a superficial acceptance of son within the tradition of doctrinal studies. Eich'won thus sought to unify Koryo society by restoring the organization of Buddhism around the royal house.

Chinul (1158-1210), unlike Eich'lon, attempted to reform Buddhism from within the son sect. With the military coup of 1170, Korean society fell into hopeless chaos and the Buddhist world likewise fell prey to ongoing power struggles. In this troubled atmosphere, Chinul gathered together a group of seekers who had renounced fame and profit and went to live a secluded life devoted to pure religious cultivation. Since the group's practice included both meditation and doctrinal studies, it was called the Samadhi and Prajna (Concentration and Wisdom) Community. Thus, Chinul sought to reform the Buddhist world by developing a small but ardent community of religious practitioners devoted to the dual cultivation of son (meditation) and Kyo (doctrine). This small community, with its strict commitment to religious practice, serves as a model for most of the Korean son school even today. After Chinul, Korean Buddhism actually began to favor son Buddhism, but still accepted doctrinal studies as being in harmony with son. Combining the comprehensive ideals of Hwaom thought with the strict practice of son meditation, Chinul made the Korean son school much more inclusive and integrated than its Chinese or Japanese counterparts.

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Both Eich'lon and Chinul expounded philosophies that were primarily concerned with the unification of son and Kyo, and both thinkers sought to reform Buddhism from the standpoint of their particular historical surroundings.

With the advent of the Choson Dynasty (1392-1910), the government adopted a policy of oppressing Buddhism while promoting Confucianism. As a result, concern shifted from reform to preservation of the Buddhist order. Due to this systematic oppression, the Buddhist order radically decreased in size. By the time of the Hideyoshi invasions in the late 16th century, Korean Buddhism had retreated into the mountains where it existed totally outside of any institutional system. As the traditional sectarian divisions ceased to exist, it fell into a state of anarchy. Hyujong (Grand Master Sosan) is the thinker who best epitomizes the Buddhism of this period.

Hyujong (1520-1604) emphatically claimed that the basic teachings of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism were in agreement, and that son and Kyo were mutually compatible. In particular, he claimed that since Confucianism and Buddhism were mutually complementary, not only at the philosophical level, but at the social level as well, the two teachings could function together to establish social harmony. He claimed that the policy of Buddhist suppression was therefore misguided, and thus sought public protection of the religion. By the Choson period, the doctrine of son and Kyo harmony was common. HyujCong, however, claimed that son was superior to Kyo, a position that demonstrates how Choson Buddhism had become associated exclusively with the son school. Even so, Hyujong continued to promote a syncretic Buddhism that included doctrinal study. Thus, syncretism was a philosophical attitude that even Hyujong was unable to disregard.

In the section above, we have looked at five Buddhist thinkers who spanned more than ten centuries, from the time of Wonhyo to the time of Hyujong. Each of them attempted to solve a problem particular to his era; yet they all sought to reform Buddhism through a syncretic approach.

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Information provided by the Korean Embassy


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