Religion of the People - Korean Buddhism

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Buddhism, along with Confucianism, is one of the two pillars of Korean history of thought. It was introduced to the Korean peninsula through Chinese Buddhist monks during the 3rd to 6th centuries CE. Buddhism first spread among the common people but later gained official recognition and support by the governments of the Three Kingdoms. Buddhism was a unifying force as Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla – which were initially small local city-states – incorporated nearby city-states to become powerful regional kingdoms.

Buddhism prospered during the Unified Silla and Goryeo periods. It was continuously supported by the royal family and many monks were sent to study in China. Many Buddhist temples found across Korea today were first established with support of the royalty at this time and Buddhist statues, pagodas, and old documents from these periods remain today. UNESCO World Heritages such as Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram Grotto, as well as UNESCO Memories of the World such as the Tripitaka Koreana woodblocks and the Jikji were created during this period of flourishing Buddhism.

However, Buddhism was suppressed during the Joseon Dynasty, which was founded on the basis of Neo-Confucianism. Buddhism lost its authority and monks were discriminated against. However, women and commoners continued to practice the faith. Following the Japanese invasions of 1592 and 1598, the government’s anti-Buddhism policies were weakened. This was because Buddhist monks had played a significant role in defending against the Japanese invaders. Many Buddhist temples were destroyed during the war. The fact that they were rebuilt in the latter half of the Joseon period attest to the weakening anti-Buddhist policies.

Three of Korea’s most representative Buddhist monks are Wonhyo (元曉, 617-686), Uicheon (義天, 1055-1101), and Jinul (知訥, 1158-1210). Wonhyo, who lived during the period when Silla unified the Three Kingdoms, was on his way to study in China when he was caught in a downpour in the night and found a place to take shelter. In the morning, he realized he had been in an ancient tomb filled with skulls – one of which he had even unknowingly drank from. He was shocked to realize that such a horrifying place had been site of welcome shelter, and this experience led him to become enlightened to the truth that all things are of "One Mind" (一心). Wonhyo’s concept of One Mind became a defining feature of Korean Buddhism. In the Goryeo period, monk Uicheon, a member of the royal family, sought to unite the doctrinal (gyojong) and meditation schools (seonjong) of Korean Buddhism. Monk Jinul was an exemplar of following the path to enlightenment and worked to unify various Buddhist sects. Jinul's teachings became the basis of the Jogye Order of Buddhism which comprises the majority of Korean temples today.

Today, according to the government census, 965 traditional Buddhist temples can be found in Korea – most hidden, nestled on the slopes of one of Korea's countless mountains. These temples are not only visited by tourists, but are home to practicing monks and are places of worship for many locals. Some of the more well-known temples also host temple stay programs, which allow people to experience Buddhist culture. Buddha's birthday is a national holiday in South Korea and lanterns are hung in celebration around this time not only at temples but on city streets. Unlike Confucianism, which outwardly disappeared from Korean life at the end of the Joseon Dynasty, Buddhism – a faith of the people – still has a great deal of influence on Korean society today.

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