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History of Buddhism in Korea

History of Buddhism in Korea

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Buddhism was reportedly introduced to Korea from China in 372. As it has done in other places, Buddhism incorporated elements of the local religion, Shamanism, into its ideology. Three of the most important spirits - Sanshin (the Mountain Spirit), Toksong (the Recluse) and Chilsong (the Spirit of the Seven Stars, the Big Dipper) – became part of Korean Buddhism and special shrines are set aside for them in many temples. That said, the fundamental teaching of Buddhism remained.

Buddhism flourished during the Goryo Dynasty (918 to 1392), but the arrival of the Joseon (aka Chosun) Dynasty (1392 to 1910) resulted in expression repression of Buddhist monks and believers as it was replaced by Neo-Confucian ideology.

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. The number of Buddhist 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.

When the final restrictions were in place, monks and nuns were prohibited from entering the cities. Buddhist funerals, and even almsgiving, 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 Queen Munjeong

However, the persecution stopped around the end of the 16th century when monks helped repel the Japanese invasion of 1592-98. 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" movement spread during this eight-year war, finally including several thousand monks, led by the aging Seosan Hyujeong (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.

Buddhists kept a low profile, however, until the end of the Joseon period. During the Japanese Colonial period (1910 to 1945) some of remaining restrictions were lifted. Japanese Buddhists demanded the right to proselytize in the cities, lifting the five-hundred year ban on monks and nuns entering cities. The formation of new Buddhist sects, such as Won Buddhism, and the presence of Christian missionaries during this period led to further turbulence in traditional Korean Buddhism. Japanese Buddhism allowed priests to marry (contrary to the celibacy of Korean monks and nuns) and the Japanese occupational authorities encouraged this practice in Korea.

After liberation, a deep rift opened up between the married and celibate monks. Physical fights broke out between the so-called Japanised Buddhists and those who considered themselves to be the true Korean Buddhists as the latter started taking over temples from the married priests, who had been appointed by the Japanese. During the post colonial struggle, members of the Jogye Order, which sees itself as the representative sect of traditional Korean Buddhism, threatened to kill themselves if the 'interlopers' did not give up control of the temples. As riots and fights between the various factions continued, Koreans began listening more and more to Christian missionaries.

Various presidents involved themselves in the conflict. In the 1950's, Syngman Rhee campaigned against the Japanised Buddhists, while Park Chung Hee (1961-1979) allied himself with the celibate faction, although he did try to settle the dispute by building a pan-national Buddhist organisation. In the  1980's, President Chun Doo-hwan sent troops to raid temples and had hundreds of monks arrested and tortured.

As Christianity grew stronger, sectarian tensions have increased. Incidents of temple burnings and attacks on Buddhist artworks have been reported. Both Buddhist and Christian cemeteries have been vandalised. Students at Buddhist universities are sometimes subjected to aggressive attempts to convert them to Christianity, while people attending celebrations of Buddha’s Birthday are sometimes harassed by Christians outside the venue. Tensions appear to have quieted down in the late 1990's and early 2000's, but have risen again somewhat with the election of  President Lee Myong-bak, a devout Christian who is perceived to have surrounded himself with equally devout officials, some of whom have been accused of removing temples from certain maps and other biased behaviour according to media report in 2008.

Today, Buddhists account for about 23% of the population. It is stronger in the southern provinces. Some of the school of Buddhism present in Korea include Seon Buddhism (closely related to Zen Buddhism) and the Wonbulgyo movement, which emphasises unity in all things.

K4E Editor: We try to make the information on Korea4Expats.com as complete and accurate as possible, so if you notice any errors or omissions in the content above, please let us know at info@korea4expats.com.

Last Updated on 2022-02-25

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