- Korean Buddhism in the East Asia:
- A note on significant points
- Soon Keum Kim
The Korean peninsula is by no means isolated from neighbouring region
of Northeast Asia owing to its territorial contiguity. There was in fact an almost organic
relationship among the East Asian countries in culture, politics and religion. It is
essential to recall that in no way was Korean Buddhism neglected in the development of
Mahaayaana Buddhism in the East Asia. R. E. Buswell has given enough proof in support of
the above statement in the following words:
"Korean exegetes working on both the peninsula and the Chinese
mainland made seminal contributions to the development of what are commonly considered to
be distinctively "Chinese" schools of Buddhism, such as Tien-t'ai, Hua-yen and
Ch'an. At the same time, many Chinese Buddhist theological insights were molded into new
forms in Korea, innovations comparable to the Chinese syntheses of Indian and Central
Asian Buddhist teachings. Hence, any appraisal of characteristically East Asian
developments in the Buddhist tradition cannot neglect to take into account the
contributions made by Koreans. 
Nevertheless, the vital value of Korean Buddhism has not been much
exposed to the outside world due to lack of material in English. Besides, the exposure
that it has received at the hands of Japanese scholars, has been, surprisingly, filled
with a great deal of misguided concepts. J. N. Takasaki, for example, expresses concepts
regarding Korean Buddhism in the book entitled 2500 Years of Buddhism as follows:
"The chief significance of Korean Buddhism lies in the role it
played as an intermediary between China and Japan, for, although Buddhism received royal
patronage almost throughout its history in Korea, there was no notable development in its
In the present article, the significant points of Korean Buddhism are
proposed to be explained utilising just two aspects, firstly the influence of Korean
Buddhism inland and also abroad throughout the history of Buddhism, secondly the
particular features of Korean Buddhism as Mahaayaana. Efforts will not only be made to
disprove the above statement, but a fairly clear concept of Korean Buddhism will be
According to Korean tradition, the transmission of Buddhism into Korea
occurred in 372 A. D. from China by the monk Sundo (Chin. Shun-tao) during the three
kingdoms in Korea . Sundo as an envoy sent by King Fu Chin (357-384) of the
former Ch'in dynasty (351-394) arrived in Koguryo court  with Buddhist
image and scripture. In 384 A.D. Paekche court  favourably received the Indian
monk Malananda (Skt. Maalaananda) who had come via sea from the Chinese state of Eastern
In 554 Paekche began to dispatch Buddhist doctrinal specialists,
psalmodists, iconographers, and architects to Japan, thus transmitting
to the Japanese the rudiments of Buddhist culture and laying the foundation for the rich
Buddhist culture of the Asuka and Nara periods.
During King Nuichin's reign (417-458) Buddhism was introduced into
Silla by a famous Indian monk Mukhoja (Skt. 'Sramana) from Koguryo but it was not until
527 A.D. that it was officially accepted. The expansion of the Silla throughout southern
Korea also prompted massive emigration of Koreans to Japan (where they were known as
Kikajin) and many of the cultural and technical achievements of early Japan such as the
development of paddy fields, the construction of palaces and temples, and town planning
were direct results of the expertise introduced by these successive waves of emigrants.
These advancements ultimately paved the way for Japan's first constitution. 
The Korean immigrants not only transmitted Buddhism from Korea to
Japan, but also contributed to the cultural and technical development of Japan. Buddhism
in the period of the three kingdoms contributed much to the development not only in the
field of spiritual advancement, but also in cultural field such as sculpture,
architecture, construction, painting and industrial art, etc. 
The most outstanding point to be noted with regard to the spiritual
influence throughout the country was that the centre of court of the statute of Buddhism
transferred itself from the aristocracy to the common people with the emergence of the
monks Hyesuk, Hyegong (in the period of 579-647) and wonhyo  (617-686).
Thus for the first time Buddhism achieved the status of a religion of
the masses, especially, for instance, in the later period when Wonhyo doffed off his
monk's robe and put on secular dress, adopting punning nickname 'Sosung Kosa' (little
hermit). He made a utensil in the shape of a gourd and called it 'Mu-ae' (Boundless); this
is as allusion to the Hwaom (Chin. Heu-yen) sect scriptural phrase, "Both life and
death are Nirvaa.na and paradise when a sage king rules within the bounds of decorum and
music". He composed a song about the gourd for this dance. Wearing the mask and
carrying the gourd he performed his dance in every corner of the country, so that even
usurers and poor old bachelors (both much despised) could understand the golden sayings of
Buddha and the Buddhist invocation, Nanuamitabul (Skt. Namo Amitabuddhaaya). 
It was during this period that some of the greatest achievements of
early Korean philosophy occurred, such as those of Wonhyo and Uisang (625-702) which
became the hallmark of the Korean Buddhism from that time onward. Wonhyo is indisputably
the greatest Buddhist exegete produced by the Silla kingdom's Buddhist tradition. He was a
prolific writer and commentator, authoring some one hundred works, of which over twenty
are still extant. His interest ran the gamut of Buddhist materials then available in East
Asia from Maadhyamika to Yogaacaara, and to pure land. Wonhyo played a major role in
introducing to the Korean intelligentsia Buddhist scriptures and commentaries which, prior
to his time had been virtually non-existent in Silla . Uisang although may not have
been a prolific writer, his mastery of Hua-Yen thought was highly regarded throughout East
Asia. Fa-tsang (643-712), for example, the third patriarch of Hua-yen) continued to
correspond with Uisang even after the latter's return to Korea. In one of his letters to
Uisang in 692, he asks for correction and suggestions for one of his manuscripts. Uisang's
Hwaom thought is epitomized in his Hwaom il sung popkedo (Diagram of
the Avata"msaka, one vehicle realm of reality), a short poem of 210 logographs in a
total of 30 stanzas written in 668 which is highly appreciated in the philosophy of Hwaom.
The thriving of Korean Buddhism in this period played major role in the
development of Chinese schools of Buddhism. After Chih-yen's (602-668) death in 668 Uisang
became one of the leaders of the Chinese Hua-yen tradition . Fa-tsang in this respect
had been highly influenced in his thoughts of Hua-Yen by Wonhyo and Uisang . The most
influential works of Wonhyo were his commentaries to the Ta sheng chi shin lun (The
Awakening of Faith in Maahaayana) and Hua yen ching (Avata"msaka
suutra, Flower Garland Suutra). Both these texts had profound effect on the philosophical
development of Fa-tsang. I.J. Kho explained the exact point on how Fa-tsang's thought had
been influenced by Wonhyo through comparative analysis with their work of the Awakening of
the Faith (see Korea Journal, Vol. 23, Aug. 1983) Wonchuh (613-696), a close disciple of
Hsuan-tsang (664) was a prominent exegete in the Chinese Fa-hsiang school. His
commentaries on such texts as the Sandhinirmocana Suutra exerted profound influence on
early Tibetan Buddhism. 
It is to be noted here that during this period the meditative school
called 'Kusan Sonmun', (Nine Mountains School of Son, (Chin. Ch'an, Jap. Zen) had been
raised (flourished next Koryo, (937-1392) period after it's transmission by the Korean
monk Pomnang (632-646), who is said to have been trained with the fourth patriarch of the
Chinese Ch'an school, Tao-hsin (580-646).
Of these eight, seven were affiliated with the Hung-chou lineage of the
middle Ch'an period, which eventually evolved into the Lin-chi school of the mature Ch'an
tradition, the remaining one, the Su-mi-san school, was derived from the lineage of
Ching-Yuan Hsing-ssu (740) from which developed the T'sao-tung school. Korean masters on
the mainland, however, played major role in the development of Chinese Ch'an. Perhaps the
most prominent of these Korean monks was Musang, also known as Kim-ho-shang (694-762), who
was regarded as a patriarch of the Pao-t'sang school of the Szechwan region, and was the
first Ch'an master known to the Tibetans.
Thus, Korean Buddhism played an important role in the development of
Buddhism in China and elsewhere. Another remarkable point in this regard is that Korean
Buddhism also played a role in protecting the nation. But this aspect of Buddhism in
protecting the nation is by no means confined to Korea as Henrick H. Sorensen points
out. However, the importance of this aspect throughout the history of Korea, has no
parallel in any other East Asian country. In China and elsewhere this aspect of Buddhism
played a leading role only for a limited period, whereas in Korea it became a continuous
and dominant characteristic of Buddhism.
In Silla kingdom, king Chinhung (540-576) recruited sons of good
families within the age group of 14 to 18. This group is called Hwarang order (Flower boy)
a Buddhist military unit, whose purpose was to ensure for the nation the divine protection
of the Buddha and to instill in its youth a "religious" fighting spirit. Kukson
(nation hermit), the head of Hwarang was selected from amongst them. He became not only
the chief of Hwarang, but was honoured by the king. Kukson is the symbol of Maitreya, and
was treated as Maitreya of Silla or Baby-Buddha of the country.
During the Koryo dynasty (937-1392) the most famous Korean Tripi.taka
was carved in wood as means of protecting the country against invaders like the nomads and
the Mongols. This was done twice by king Hyunjong (1010-4031) and Kojong (1232). This
marvellous work took 16 years to complete. There were as many as 81258 wooden boards (both
sides) each measuring 2 feet 3 inches in width, 8 inches in length and 11 inch in
thickness. There are 23 lines and 14 letters on each board. The Suutras carved in it total
1512 in number, 6791 volume.
During Yi dynasty (1392-1910), though the fortunes of Buddhism declined
a great deal due to the Confucian bureaucrats' pressure on the Buddhist monks, the monks
Sosan Taesa (15021606) and Samying Yujong (1543-1610) fought against the Samurai armies of
Japan during the Hideyosh invasion. Thus throughout the history of Korea, Buddhism always
exerted its influence in order to protect the country.
The second point, the most characteristic features of Korean Buddhism
as Mahaayaana is that of syncretism. From the very inception of Buddhism in East Asia, the
religion had formed around a number of disparate scriptural and commentarial traditions
that had developed first in India and later in Central Asia. R.E. Buswell remarks on this
point as follows :
"The various extremes each of these factional divisions took lead
to an attempt, begun first in China and considerably refined later in Korea, to see these
various approaches, each ostensibly Buddhist yet each so different, in some common light,
so as to find some means by which their discordant elements could be reconciled. Certain
features of the Korean tradition contributed to the syncretic tendency of the
The tendency of synthesis is a common feature in Mahaayaana Buddhism.
But the way of syncretism is different from what other traditions have done. For example,
T'ien-tai, Hua-yen schools to some extent, and Ch'an school in Chinese Buddhism clearly,
show this attempt. The syncretism of these schools, however, is usually, focused upon
one particular text or doctrine, which is regarded as the most perfect among the teachings
of the Buddha. So T'ien-t'ai doctrine is founded upon a particular reading of the Lotus
Suutra, to which is imported a wide variety of teachings associated with other texts
and traditions and an organizational principle whereby the disparate texts and teachings
of Mahaayaana. Buddhism are seen in the context of an overarching scheme of revelation and
levels of textual interpretation. The founder of the Tien-t'ai school, Chih-i (538-597)
felt that while the various suutras sometimes differed in opinion they had all been spoken
by the historical Buddha 'Saakyamuni and were, therefore, all true, However, according to
Chih-i, some of the suutras contained only provisional teachings, whereas a scripture like
the Lotus Suutra contained the whole truth. For this reason he placed this suutra above
all other suutras, arranging them hierarchically according to the depth of content. In
this way Fa-tsang in Hua-yen school (7th century) also holds Avata"msaka Suutra as a
consummate teaching of the Buddha.
On the contrary, Korean Buddhism has a different aspect from the way
they syncretised. Wonhyo and Uisang, who were most influenced by T'ien-t'ai and Hua-yen
doctrines as we have seen, however, had created "new" type of synthesis whereby
all the doctrines were given equal importance. In one of Wonhyo's principal works devoted
to his syncretic philosophy, Simmun Hwaiaengnon (Ten Approaches to the
Reconciliation of Doctrinal Controversy), Wonhyo states that his fundamental intent is to
harmonize the differences that characteriz the various schools of Buddhist philosophy and
merge their views into two all-inclusive perspectives. These were, first, the dependent
origination approach (saenggimun), in which myriads of qualities wore shown to be the
products of a perdurable causal process, and, second, the return to the source approach
(Kwiwon-mun) in which all such phenomenal characteristics were abandoned, so that one
could return to their ultimate, eternal source, the one mind.
Wonhyo's commentary to Ta-sheng chi-hsin lun (the Awakening of
the Faith in Mahaayaana) is also best known as the unified divergent doctrine of the
Buddhist text into one consistent doctrinal system. It is necessary to look at this point
with regard to a great thought of Wonhyo.
According to the extant writings available today, Wonhyo classified the
various teachings of Buddhism in two form : One is to take all suutras such as Praj~naa,
Saddharmapu.ndarika, Avata"msaka or Nirvaana to be the same supreme
teaching and the other is to differentiate these suutras. In the case of the
latter, the following fourfold classification is widely known as his representative
(1) Separate teaching of three vehicles ... such as Aagama
(2) Common teaching of three vehicles...such as Praj~naapaaramitaa
or Sandhinirmocana Suutras,
(3) Partial teaching of one vehicle (Ekayaana) ... such as
(4) Consummate teaching of one vehicle.. such as AvatamÈ saka and Samantabhadra Suutras.
This fourfold grouping of Wonhyo reveals that he classified the
lifetime teachings of the Buddha according to the theory of "three vehicles and
one-vehicle" expounded in the Lotus Suutra. The terminology of the separate and
common teaching of three vehicles are found in Wonhyo's Synoptic Writing on the Lotus
Suutra. The division of the one-vehicle into partial and consummate teachings is noted
as a salient characteristic of Wonhyo's classification method. Wonhyo says that
one-vehicle teaching can be differentiated according to the fact whether it has the
Universal Truth or not. Here, the Universal Truth is where all truths can be equal and
mutually transmutable regardless of space (whether big or small), time (whether summarized
or expounded), movement (whether dynamic or stationary) and amount (whether one or many).
In the preface of Wonhyo's Commentary on AvatamÈ saka
Suutra, a similar passage can be found. 'Mutual equality and reciprocal
transmutability' of everything is one of the salient aspects of the AvatamÈ saka Suutra .
In this way Wonhyo's view point of Hua-yen is different from the theory
of Chinese Hua-yen school . Though Wonhyo has assigned AvatamÈ saka Suutra to the consummate teaching of Ekayaana, his
thought cannot be considered identical to the Hua-yen thought.
Thus, as we have seen, Wonhyo was influenced by Hua-yen and T'ien-t'ai
schools of Chinese Buddhism, his views on the Saddharmapu.n.dÈ
arika and Avata.msaka Suutra are different from what their schools assert.
Furthermore, this view is extended as a particular feature to the syncretism of Buddhist
Another point regarding reconciliation of the Buddhist doctrine is that
of syncretisrn of Son and Kyo (meditative and scholastic teachings) by the famous Korean
monk Chinul. Chinul (1158-1210) was a great master who sought to merge various Buddhist
schools of his time into a new Son school that would synthesize a disparate variety of
Buddhist soteriological approaches. His view of Buddhism as a harmonized doctrine of Son
and Kyo has become the mainstay of the present day Korean Buddhist tradition-the order of
Thus, it is clear that the Korean Buddhism in East Asia can by no means
be ignored. The two main reasons for this assertion are first, its heavy influence upon
China and Japan not only in its role of transmission but also in theoretical ideology,
second, the most characteristic feature of Mahaayaana Buddhism had been refined in the
form of syncretism.
1. Robert Evans Buswell, Buddhism in Korea, Encyclopedia of Religion,
Vol. 1, p. 421. (E.R.).
2. General Editor P. V. Bapat, "2500 Years of Buddhisrn"
(p. 61), Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, 1986. (4th
reprint). See also "The Path of the Buddhism" edited by Kenneth W. Moragam, p.
234-236, chap. 5,
'Buddhism in China & Korea' written by Zenryu Tsukamoto, translated
by Leon Hurutz, Indian Print 1986, Motilal Banarsidass. In this monograph, the author
conveyes a distorted view of Korean Buddhism by exaggerating minor social aspect of Korean
Buddhism which existed only during the end of Yi dynasty that is around 1900. As a result,
Korean Buddhism had been portrayed in the manner similar to J. N. Takasaki's
3. Written by Ilyon, Translated by Ha-tae-hung, Grafton K. Mintz
"sangukyusa" (legends and history of the three kingdoms of Ancient Korea),
Yonsei University Press, 1972 (SGYS). See also translated by Peter H. Lee, Lives of
Eminent Korean Monks: "The Haedong Chon", Cambridge, Mass. 1969.
4. The traditional founding dates of three kingdoms are 57 B.C. for
Silla, 37 B.C. for Koguryo and 18 B.C. for Paekje. Koguryo was initially the largest and
the most powerful of the three. The tribes which originally composed it live along the
bank of the Yalu river, which forms the present north western boundary of Korea. When they
emerge upon the scene of history we find them ruling an area which extended from South of
the Han River (Middle of Peninsula) across the present Korean boundary and far north into
Manchuria and West to the Liaotung Peninsula.
The two kingdoms of the south are thought to have been founded by
migrants from the north, Paekje in the south-west is known to have been dominated by a
northern tribe called Puyo, which had come originally from Manchuria and had been
dominated for a time by Koguryo. Paekje played an important part in the transmission of
Chinese civilization to Japan. Silla in the south east was for a time relatively small
area, known as Kaya at Karak, which persisted as a kingdom until it was absorbed by Silla
in 562 A.D.
- 5. E. R. Vol. II, p. 422.
- 6. SGYS, p. 179.
- 7. E.R. Vol. II, p. 422
- 8. Yung- tae, Kim, "An Outline of History of Korean Buddhism", p. 58.
Kyungsowon 1986. (3rd enition) Seoul.
- 9. Ibid., pp. 53, 54, SGYS. p. 294-298.
- 10. SGYS., p.307
- 11. E.R. vol. 14, p.440.
- 12. Ibid. Vol. 15, p. 114.
- 13. Ibid.
- 14. Ibid. Vol. 15, p. 114 299.
- 15. Ibid. Vol. 2, p. 423.
- 16. Ibid.
- 17. Henrick H. Sorensen, "Korean Buddhism in the Far East", Korean
Culture, Vol. 8, No. 1, March 1987, p. 8.
- 18. Ibid.
- 19. Y. T. Kim. "An Outline of Korean Buddhism", p. 45-46.
- 20. Ibid , p. 161-162
- 21. E. R, Vol. 2, p. 423.
- 22. R. Joseph Edkins, "Chinese Buddhism-, Chap. VIII, pp. 175, 187,
Chaukhamba A mara Bharati Prakashan, Varanasi. 1975.
- 23. The following classification and explanation on it have been quoted exclusively, I.
J. Kho's "Wonhyo's Hua-yen Thought", Korean Journal, Vol. 23, Aug. 1983,
p. 32. (K.J.).
- 24. Ibid.
- 25. E.R. Vol.
- 26. K. J. Vol. 23, (1983). p. 32.
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