As it now stands, Korean Buddhism consists mostly of the Seon lineage. Seon has a strong relationship with other Mahayana traditions that bear the imprint of Chinese Ch'an teachings, as well as the closely related Japanese Zen. Other sects, such as the Taego, the modern revival of the Cheontae lineage, the "Jingak" order (a modern esoteric sect), and the newly formed Won, have also attracted sizable followings.
When Buddhism was originally introduced to Korea from China in 372, or about 800 years after the death of the historical Buddha, Shamanism was the indigenous religion. As it was not seen to conflict with the rites of nature worship, it was allowed to blend in with Shamanism. Thus, the mountains that were believed to be the residence of spirits in pre-Buddhist times became the sites of Buddhist temples.
Korean Shamanism held three spirits in especially high regard: Sanshin (the Mountain Spirit), Toksong (the Recluse) and Chilsong (the Spirit of the Seven Stars, the Big Dipper). Korean Buddhism accepted and absorbed these three spirits and, even today, special shrines are set aside for them in many temples. The Mountain Spirit receives particular recognition in an attempt to appease the local mountain spirits, on whose land the temple stands. This blend of Buddhism and Shamanism became known as Korean Buddhism, although the fundamental teachings of the Buddha remained.
Though it initially enjoyed wide acceptance, even being supported as the state ideology during the Goryeo period, Buddhism in Korea suffered extreme repression during the Joseon dynasty, which lasted for several hundred years. During this period, Neo-Confucian ideology overcame the prior dominance of Buddhism.
Only after Buddhist monks helped repel a Japanese invasion at the end of the 16th century (see Seven-Year War) did the persecution of Buddhism and Buddhist practitioners stop. Buddhism in Korea remained subdued until the end of the Joseon period, when its position was strengthened somewhat by the Japanese occupation, which lasted from 1910 to 1945. After World War II, the Seon school of Korean Buddhism once again gained acceptance.
As Christianity has become increasingly influential in Korea, it is estimated that the declining proportion of the religious population among self-professed Buddhist community in South Korea now accounts for about 23% of the country's population. In officially atheist North Korea, Buddhists make up 2% of the population.
Buddhism did not enter the kingdom of Silla until the 5th century. The common people were first attracted to Buddhism here, but there was resistance among the aristocrats. In 527, however, a prominent court official named Ichadon presented himself to King Pophung and announced he had become Buddhist. The king had him beheaded, but when the executioner cut off his head, it is said that milk poured out instead of blood. Paintings of this are in the temple at Haein-sa and a stone monument honoring his martyrdom is in the National Museum of Kyongju.
During the reign of the next king, King Chinhung, the growth of Buddhism was encouraged — eventually being recognized as the national religion of Silla. Additionally, selected young men were physically and spiritually trained at Hwarangdo according to Buddhist principles to be able to defend the kingdom. King Chinhung later became a monk himself.
Many Korean Buddhist monks traveled to China in order to study Buddhism in the late Three Kingdoms Period, especially in the late 6th century. The monk Banya (波若; 562–613?) is said to have studied under the Tiantai master Zhiyi, and Gyeomik of Baekje (謙益;) and travelled to India to learn Sanskrit and study Vinaya. Monks of the period brought back numerous scriptures from abroad and conducted missionary activity throughout Korea and Japan. The date of the first mission to Japan is unclear, but it is reported that a second detachment of scholars was sent to Japan upon invitation by the Japanese rulers in 577. The strong Korean influence on the development of Buddhism in Japan continued through the Unified Silla period; only in the 8th or 9th century did independent study by Japanese monks begin in significant numbers.
Several schools of thought developed in Korea during these early times:
Toward the end of the Three Kingdoms Period, the Wonyung (圓融宗, or Yuanrong in Chinese) school was formed. It would lead the actualization of the metaphysics of interpenetration as found in the Huayan jing(華嚴經) and soon was considered the premier school, especially among the educated aristocracy. This school was later known as Hwaeom (華嚴宗, or Huayan in Chinese) and was the longest lasting of these "imported" schools. It had strong ties with the Beopseong (法性宗), the indigenous Korean school of thought.
The monk Jajang (慈藏) is credited with having been a major force in the adoption of Buddhism as a national religion. Jajang is also known for his participation in the founding of the Korean sangha, a type of monastic community.
Another great scholar to emerge from the Silla Period was Won-hyo. He renounced his religious life to better serve the people and even married a princess for a short time and had a son. He wrote many treatises and his philosophy centered on the unity and interrelatedness of all things. He set off to China to study Buddhism with a close friend, Ui-sang, but only made it part of the way there. The legend is that Won-hyo awoke one night very thirsty, found a container with cool water, drank, and returned to sleep. The next morning he saw the container from which he had drunk was a human skull and he realized all enlightenment depended on the mind. He saw no reason to continue to China, so he returned home. His companion, Ui-sang, continued to China and after studying ten years, offered a poem to his master in the shape of a seal that geometrically represents infinity. The poem contained the essence of the Avatamsaka Sutra.
Buddhism was so successful during this period that many kings converted and cities/places were even renamed after famous places during the time of Buddha.
In 668, the kingdom of Silla succeeded in unifying the whole Korean peninsula, giving rise to a period of political stability that lasted for about one hundred years. This led to a high point in the scholarly studies of Buddhism in Korea. In general, the most popular areas of study were Wonyung, Yusik (Ch. 唯識; Weishi; "consciousness-only"; the East Asian form of Yogācāra), Jeongto (Pure Land), and the indigenous Korean Beopseong ("dharma-nature school"). The monk Wonhyo taught the "Pure Land"-practice of yeombul, which would become very popular amongst both scholars and laypeople, and has had a lasting influence on Buddhist thought in Korea. His work, which attempts a synthesis of the seemingly divergent strands of Indian and Chinese Buddhist doctrine, makes use of the essence-function (體用, or che-yong) framework, which was popular in native East Asian philosophical schools. His work was instrumental in the development of the dominant school of Korean Buddhist thought, known variously as Beopseong, Haedong (海東, "Korean") and later as Jungdo (中道, "Middle way")
Wonhyo's friend Uisang (義湘) went to Changan, where he studied under Huayan patriarchs Zhiyan (智儼; 600–668) and Fazang (法藏; 643–712). When he returned after twenty years, his work contributed to Hwaeom and became the predominant doctrinal influence on Korean Buddhism, together with Wonhyo's tong bulgyo thought. Hwaeom principles were deeply assimilated into the Korean meditational school, the Seon school, where they made a profound effect on its basic attitudes.
Influences from Silla Buddhism in general, and from these two philosophers in particular, even crept "backwards" into Chinese Buddhism. Wonhyo's commentaries were very important in shaping the thought of the preeminent Chinese Buddhist philosopher Fazang, and Woncheuk's commentary on the Saṃdhinirmocana-sūtra-sūtra had a strong influence in Tibetan Buddhism.
As was the case in Tang China, as well as the Nara and early Heian period in Japan, which are roughly contemporary to the Silla period, the intellectual developments of Silla Buddhism also brought with them significant cultural achievements in many areas, including painting, literature, sculpture, and architecture. During this period, many large and beautiful temples were built. Two crowning achievements were the temple Bulguksa and the cave-retreat of Seokguram (石窟庵). Bulguksa was especially famous for its jeweled pagodas, while Seokguram was known for the beauty of its stone sculpture.
A new epoch in Korean Buddhism began during the latter Silla period with the birth of schools of Seon in Korea. In China, the movement toward a meditation-based view of practice, which came to be known as chan, had begun during the sixth and seventh centuries, and it was not long before the influence of the new meditational school reached Korea, where it was known as Seon. Meaning "meditation," the term is more widely known in the West in its Japanese variant zen. Tension developed between the new meditational schools and the previously existing academically oriented schools, which were described by the term gyo, meaning "learning" or "study."
Kim Kiaokak(630–729), a prince who became a monastic came to the region of Anhui to Mount Jiuhua in China. Many Chinese buddhists believe he was indeed the transformation body of Kṣitigarbha. Two uncles sent by his mum and wife to call him back also became a monastic there. His well-preserved, dehydrated body were seen at the monastery he built on Mount Jiuhua today. The two uncles, unable to resist wine and meat as they were official before becoming monastics, practise in another place in the mount. People built the palace of the two saints (二聖殿) in their practise place to memorize them. Many buddhists visited there.
Beomnang (法朗; fl. 632–646), said to be a student of the Chinese master Daoxin (道信; 580–651), is generally credited with the initial transmission of Seon into Korea. Seon was popularized by Sinhaeng (神行; 704–779) in the latter part of the eighth century and by Doui (道義; d. 825) at the beginning of the ninth century. From then on, many Koreans studied Chan in China, and upon their return established their own schools at various mountain monasteries with their leading disciples. Initially, the number of these schools was fixed at nine, and Korean Seon was termed the "nine mountains" (九山 or gusan) school at the time. Eight of these were of the lineage of Mazu Daoyi (馬祖道一; 709–788), as they were established through connection with either him or one of his eminent disciples. The one exception was the Sumi-san school founded by Ieom (利嚴; 869–936), which had developed from the Caotong (曹洞) lineage.
Initially, the new Seon schools were regarded by the established doctrinal schools as radical and dangerous upstarts. Thus, the early founders of the various "nine mountain" monasteries met with considerable resistance, repressed by the long influence in court of the Gyo schools. The struggles which ensued continued for most of the Goryeo period, but gradually the Seon argument for the possession of the true transmission of enlightenment would gain the upper hand. The position that was generally adopted in the later Seon schools, due in large part to the efforts of Jinul, did not claim clear superiority of Seon meditational methods, but rather declared the intrinsic unity and similarities of the Seon and Gyo viewpoints. Although all these schools are mentioned in historical records, toward the end of the dynasty, Seon became dominant in its effect on the government and society, and the production of noteworthy scholars and adepts. During the Goryeo period, Seon thoroughly became a "religion of the state," receiving extensive support and privileges through connections with the ruling family and powerful members of the court.
Although most of the scholastic schools waned in activity and influence during this period of the growth of Seon, the Hwaeom school continued to be a lively source of scholarship well into the Goryeo, much of it continuing the legacy of Uisang and Wonhyo. In particular the work of Gyunyeo (均如; 923–973) prepared for the reconciliation of Hwaeom and Seon, with Hwaeom's accommodating attitude toward the latter. Gyunyeo's works are an important source for modern scholarship in identifying the distinctive nature of Korean Hwaeom.
Another important advocate of Seon/Gyo unity was Uicheon. Like most other early Goryeo monks, he began his studies in Buddhism with Hwaeom. He later traveled to China, and upon his return, actively promulgated the Cheontae (天台宗, or Tiantai in Chinese) teaching, which became recognized as another Seon school. This period thus came to be described as "five doctrinal and two meditational schools" (ogyo yangjong). Uicheon himself, however, alienated too many Seon adherents, and he died at a relatively young age without seeing a Seon-Gyo unity accomplished.
The most important figure of Seon in the Goryeo was Jinul (知訥; 1158–1210). In his time, the sangha was in a crisis of external appearance and internal issues of doctrine. Buddhism had gradually become infected by secular tendencies and involvements, such as fortune-telling and the offering of prayers and rituals for success in secular endeavors. This kind of corruption resulted in the profusion of increasingly larger numbers of monks and nuns with questionable motivations. Therefore, the correction, revival, and improvement of the quality of Buddhism were prominent issues for Buddhist leaders of the period.
Jinul sought to establish a new movement within Korean Seon, which he called the "samādhi and prajñā society", whose goal was to establish a new community of disciplined, pure-minded practitioners deep in the mountains. He eventually accomplished this mission with the founding of the Seonggwangsa monastery at Mt. Jogye (曹溪山). Jinul's works are characterized by a thorough analysis and reformulation of the methodologies of Seon study and practice. One major issue that had long fermented in Chinese Chan, and which received special focus from Jinul, was the relationship between "gradual" and "sudden" methods in practice and enlightenment. Drawing upon various Chinese treatments of this topic, most importantly those by Zongmi (780–841) and Dahui (大慧; 1089–1163), Jinul created a "sudden enlightenment followed by gradual practice" dictum, which he outlined in a few relatively concise and accessible texts. From Dahui, Jinul also incorporated the gwanhwa (觀話) method into his practice. This form of meditation is the main method taught in Korean Seon today. Jinul's philosophical resolution of the Seon-Gyo conflict brought a deep and lasting effect on Korean Buddhism.
The general trend of Buddhism in the latter half of the Goryeo was a decline due to corruption, and the rise of strong anti-Buddhist political and philosophical sentiment. However, this period of relative decadence would nevertheless produce some of Korea's most renowned Seon masters. Three important monks of this period who figured prominently in charting the future course of Korean Seon were contemporaries and friends: Gyeonghan Baeg'un (景閑白雲; 1298–1374), Taego Bou (太古普愚; 1301–1382) and Naong Hyegeun (懶翁慧勤; 1320–1376). All three went to Yuan China to learn the Linji (臨濟 or Imje in Korean) gwanhwa teaching that had been popularized by Jinul. All three returned, and established the sharp, confrontational methods of the Imje school in their own teaching. Each of the three was also said to have had hundreds of disciples, such that this new infusion into Korean Seon brought about considerable effect. Despite the Imje influence, which was generally considered to be anti-scholarly in nature, Gyeonghan and Naong, under the influence of Jinul and the traditional tong bulgyo tendency, showed an unusual interest in scriptural study, as well as a strong understanding of Confucianism and Taoism, due to the increasing influence of Chinese philosophy as the foundation of official education. From this time, a marked tendency for Korean Buddhist monks to be "three teachings" exponents appeared.
A significant historical event of the Goryeo period is the production of the first woodblock edition of the Tripitaka, called the Tripitaka Koreana. Two editions were made, the first one completed from 1210 to 1231, and the second one from 1214 to 1259. The first edition was destroyed in a fire, during an attack by Mongol invaders in 1232, but the second edition is still in existence at Haeinsa in Gyeongsang province. This edition of the Tripitaka was of high quality, and served as the standard version of the Tripitaka in East Asia for almost 700 years.
The Buddhist establishment at the end of the Goryeo period had become ridden with excesses. There were too many monks and nuns, a large percentage of whom were only in the sangha as a means of escaping taxation and/or government service. There were also far too many temples being supported, and too many elaborate rituals being carried out. The support of Buddhism had become a serious drain on the national economy. The government itself was suffering from rampant corruption, while also struggling with wars on its northern and eastern borders. Moreover, a new and rapidly growing Neo-Confucian ideological movement of stridently anti-Buddhist inclination gained political power.
In 1388, an influential general named Yi Seonggye (1380–1400) carried out a coup d'etat, and established himself as the first ruler of the Joseon Dynasty under the reign title of Taejo in 1392 with the support of this Neo-Confucian movement. Subsequently, Buddhism was gradually suppressed for the next 500 years. The number of temples was reduced, restrictions on membership in the sangha were installed, and Buddhist monks and nuns were literally chased into the mountains, forbidden to mix with society. Joseon Buddhism, which had started off under the so-called "five doctrinal and two meditational" schools system of the Goryeo, was first condensed to two schools:Seon and Gyo. Eventually, these were further reduced to the single school of Seon.
Despite this strong suppression from the government, and vehement ideological opposition from Korean Neo-Confucianism, Seon Buddhism continued to thrive intellectually. An outstanding thinker was Giwha (己和; (Hamheo Deuktong 涵虚得通) 1376–1433), who had first studied at a Confucian academy, but then changed his focus to Buddhism, where he was initiated to the gwanhwa tradition by Muhak Jacho (無學自超; 1327–1405). He wrote many scholarly commentaries, as well as essays and a large body of poetry. Being well-versed in Confucian and Daoist philosophies, Giwha also wrote an important treatise in defense of Buddhism, from the standpoint of the intrinsic unity of the three teachings, entitled the Hyeon jeong non. In the tradition of earlier philosophers, he applied che-yong ("essence-function") and Hwaeom (sa-sa mu-ae, "mutual interpenetration of phenomena").
Common in the works of Joseon scholar-monks are writings on Hwaeom-related texts, as well as the Awakening of Faith, Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment, Śūrangama-sūtra, Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra. The Jogye order instituted a set curriculum of scriptural study, including the above-mentioned works, along with other shorter selections from eminent Korean monks, such as Jinul.
During the Joseon period, the number of Buddhist monasteries dropped from several hundred to a mere thirty-six. Limits were placed on the number of clergy, land area, and ages for entering the sangha. When the final restrictions were in place, monks and nuns were prohibited from entering the cities. Buddhist funerals, and even begging, were outlawed. However, some rulers occasionally appeared who looked favorably upon Buddhism and did away with some of the more suppressive regulations. The most noteworthy of these was the Queen Munjeong, who, as a devout Buddhist, took control of the government in the stead of her young son Myeongjong (r. 1545–67), and immediately repealed many anti-Buddhist measures. The queen had deep respect for the brilliant monk Bou (보우, 普雨; 1515–1565), and installed him as the head of the Seon school.
One of the most important reasons for the restoration of Buddhism to a position of minimal acceptance was the role of Buddhist monks in repelling the Japanese invasions of Korea, which occurred between 1592 and 1598. At that time, the government was weak from internal squabbles, and was not initially able to muster strong resistance to the incursion. The plight of the country encouraged some leaders of the sangha to organize monks into guerrilla units, which enjoyed some instrumental successes. The "righteous monk" (義士; uisa) movement spread during this eight-year war, finally including several thousand monks, led by the aging Seosan Hyujeong (서산대사, 西山休靜; 1520–1604), a first-rate Seon master and the author of a number of important religious texts. The presence of the monks' army was a critical factor in the eventual expulsion of the Japanese invaders.
Seosan is also known for continuing efforts toward the unification of Buddhist doctrinal study and practice. His efforts were strongly influenced by Wonhyo, Jinul, and Giwha. He is considered the central figure in the revival of Joseon Buddhism, and most major streams of modern Korean Seon trace their lineages back to him through one of his four main disciples: Yu Jeong (1544–1610); Eongi (1581–1644), Taeneung (1562–1649) and Ilseon (1533–1608), all four of whom were lieutenants to Seosan during the war with Japan.
The biographies of Seosan and his four major disciples are similar in many respects, and these similarities are emblematic of the typical lifestyle of Seon monks of the late Goryeo and Joseon periods. Most of them began by engaging in Confucian and Daoist studies. Turning to Seon, they pursued a markedly itinerant lifestyle, wandering through the mountain monasteries. At this stage, they were initiated to the central component of Seon practice, the gong'an, or gwanhwa meditation. This gwanhwa meditation, unlike some Japanese Zen traditions, did not consist of contemplation on a lengthy, graduated series of deeper kōans. By contrast, the typical Korean approach was that "all gong'an are contained in one" and therefore it was, and still is, quite common for the practitioner to remain with one hwadu during his whole meditational career, most often Zhaozhou's "mu."
Buddhism during the three centuries, from the time of Seosan down to the next Japanese incursion into Korea in the late nineteenth century, remained fairly consistent with the above-described model. A number of eminent teachers appeared during the centuries after Seosan, but the Buddhism of the late Joseon, while keeping most of the common earlier characteristics, was especially marked by a revival of Hwaeom studies, and occasionally by new interpretations of methodology in Seon study. There was also a revival, during the final two centuries, of the Pure Land (Amitābha) faith. Although the government maintained fairly tight control of the sangha, there was never again the extreme suppression of the early Joseon.
See also: Yongseong
When Korea was liberated from Japanese occupation in 1945, the celibate monastics of what has become the main sect of Korean Buddhism, Chogye or Jogye, began to take over for the married monks who ran the temples during the occupation. This order sees itself as the primary representative of traditional Korean Buddhism in existence.
Starting in the 1950s, Syngman Rhee and others worked to further divide and weaken the Buddhist Sangha in the country. Rhee campaigned in 1954 against the so-called "Japanized Buddhists". Western education and scholarship, and the empowerment of women and the poor, caused divisions among Koreans. Specifically, a deep rift opened between married priests and celibate monks. The differences were so great that fistfights over the control of temples became frequent. Monks, mostly belonging to the celibate Jogye order, threatened to kill themselves. Many of them were against the Japanized Buddhists. As the Buddhist riots continued, the influence of Buddhism lessened. Buddhism continued to lose followers to Christian missionaries, who were able to capitalize on these weaknesses.
President Park Chung Hee unsuccessfully attempted during his rule (1961–1979) to settle the dispute by building a pan-national Buddhist organization. However, he did succeed in allying himself with the celibate faction of the sangha. In the 1980s, President Chun Doo-hwan also used politics and intrigue to attack Buddhism. He sent troops to raid temples, and had hundreds of monks arrested and tortured.
During the 1990s, conflicts between the South Korean government and Buddhist leaders, and Christian denominations continued. The government accused Buddhist monks of immorality and some Christians used this to forward their missionary work. Some religious gatherings have even turned violent, with statues of Buddha and Dangun, the founder of Korea, being vandalized.
There was also a rash of temple burnings in the 1980s and 1990s, and attacks on Buddhist artwork have continued. In one instance, a Christian minister used a microphone on a cord as a bolo weapon and smashed temple paintings and a statue. In other instances, red crosses have been painted on temple walls, murals, and statues. Buddha statues have also been decapitated. Furthermore, students at Buddhist universities report aggressive attempts to convert them to Christianity on campus, especially near campus temples. See Frank Tedesco's "Questions for Buddhist and Christian Cooperation in Korea," Buddhist-Christian Studies 17 (1997).
The Seon school, which is led by the dominant Jogye order, practices disciplined traditional Seon practice at a number of major mountain monasteries in Korea, often under the direction of highly regarded masters.
Modern Seon practice is not far removed in content from the original practice of Jinul, who introduced the integrated combination of the practice of Gwanhwa meditation with the study of selected Buddhist texts. The Korean sangha life is markedly itinerant: while each monk has a "home" monastery, he will regularly travel throughout the mountains, staying as long as he wishes, studying and teaching in the style of whatever monastery is housing him. The Korean monastic training system has seen a steadily increasing influx of Western practitioner-aspirants in the second half of the twentieth century.
Currently, Korean Buddhism is in a state of slow transition. While the reigning theory behind Korean Buddhism was based on Jinul's "sudden enlightenment, gradual cultivation," the modern Korean Seon master, Seongcheol's revival of Hui Neng's "sudden enlightenment, sudden cultivation" has taken Korean Buddhism by storm. Although there is resistance to change within the ranks of the Jogye order, with the last three Supreme Patriarchs' stance that is in accordance with Seongcheol, there has been a gradual change in the atmosphere of Korean Buddhism.
According to many Korean Buddhists, Christian persecution of Buddhism has increased in recent years. Recently Christians have been destroying temples, statues of the Buddha, and 'praying for the destruction of all Buddhist temples'' , and persecuting Buddhist monks.
The current government of Lee Myung-bak has been accused by major Buddhist groups, including the Jogye order, of discriminating against and promoting hostility toward Buddhism. A presidential secretary showed the government's hostility and intolerance toward Buddhism when he compared the protesters against religious discrimination to “Satan’s minions.”