Buddhism in Ancient Korea


Mark Cartwright
published on 15 November 2016
Available in other languages: Italian

Buddhism, in Korean Bulgyo, was introduced by monks who visited and studied in China and then brought back various Buddhist sects during the Three Kingdoms period. It became the official state religion in all Three Kingdoms and subsequent dynasties, with monks often holding important advisory roles in governments. Korean Buddhism came to be much more inclusive than in other cultures with significant attempts made by important Buddhist scholars to reconcile the many diverging branches of the religion. Buddhism would have a profound influence on Korean art, literature, and architecture from bells to pagodas, ceramics, sculpture, and even developments in printing techniques.

Introduction From China

According to tradition, Buddhism was introduced first to the kingdom of Goguryeo (Koguryo) in 372 CE, followed by Baekje (Paekche) in 384 CE, and finally in the Silla kingdom between 527 and 535 CE. The first monk to bring Buddhist teachings was Sundo, who was sent for that purpose by the ruler of Eastern Qin, Fu Jian. It was hoped that stronger cultural ties with Goguryeo would lead to more practical cooperation in meeting the military threat posed by hostile Manchurian tribes. A decade later, Marananta, an Indian or Serindian monk, came from the Eastern Jin state and taught Buddhism in the Baekje kingdom. In both states, the new faith received a favourable reception. In the Silla kingdom, though, Buddhism was seen as a threat to the traditional religions of shamanism, animism, and ancestor worship, and not until the martyrdom of the monk Ichadon was Buddhism finally accepted and then promoted by the royal court.

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Unified Silla Kingdom Gold Buddha
Unified Silla Kingdom Gold Buddha
National Museum of Korea (CC BY)

Political Endorsement

The Korean states likely adopted Buddhism and other aspects of Chinese culture as a way to ingratiate themselves with their powerful neighbour. Still in their infancy, the Three Kingdoms faced incursions from Manchurian tribes, each other, and the latent threat of further Chinese expansion into the peninsula when they already held commanderies in the north. Korea, naturally, had its own indigenous culture and typically added its own stamp of identity to those influences which came from abroad, but nevertheless, ideas on religion, government, court rituals, language, tomb architecture, ceramic production, sculpture, coinage, and classic literature all came from China. Korean states, in their turn, would spread Buddhism, and some of these other features of culture, to Japan. Korean monks would also continue to travel to China in the following centuries in order to acquire new knowledge, texts, and discover new branches of the religion.

There were other advantages for Korean rulers to promote Buddhism besides keeping good relations with China. As most monks came from the aristocracy, the religion became an endorsement of the status quo and gave rulers a certain prestige of association. Many monks became advisors to monarchs over the centuries, giving governments extra authority in the eyes of the people. As the historian Jinwung Kim summarises,

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The Buddhist teaching of an endless cycle of reincarnation, a rebirth based on karma, retribution for the deeds of a former life, justified strict social stratification. Buddhism was a doctrine that justified the privileged position of the establishment, and for this reason, it was adamantly welcomed by the king, the royal house, and the aristocracy. (67)

The appeal of Buddhism for the poor was the message that the suffering of this life could be avoided in the next one but the positions of authority within it were largely reserved for the well-educated scholars who had the time and means to pursue enlightenment. In the Silla kingdom, aristocratic youths were trained in the Hwarang or 'Flower Boys' system, which despite its Buddhist teachings, emphasised martial prowess and heroism. During the Goryeo dynasty, there were also entrance examinations for monks based on sacred texts, further limiting access by the under-privileged.

Three Kingdoms of Korea Map
Three Kingdoms of Korea Map
Ashraf Kamel (CC BY-NC-SA)

Buddhism, although the state religion, existed side-by-side with the other three main religions practised in Korea: Confucianism, Shamanism, and Taoism. Confucianism was largely observed in the realm of government, but the others remained popular with the lower classes, and there was also much borrowing of iconography in the arts with Buddhist paintings incorporating shamanistic elements and gods, and vice-versa. However, Buddhism, with its state-backing, was made ever more popular, especially by the rulers of the Goryeo dynasty, starting with their founder Wang Geon (aka Taejo, r. 918-943 CE) who credited his success in defeating Goryeo's enemies to his faith in Buddhism:

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The success of the great enterprise of founding our dynasty is entirely owing to the protective powers of the many Buddhas. We must therefore build temples for both Son and Kyo Schools and appoint abbots to them, that they may perform the proper ceremonies and themselves cultivate the way. (Portal, 81)

Once established as the official state religion, Buddhist temples and monasteries sprang up across Korea, and these, with their landed estates, royal patronage, and exemption from tax, became so wealthy that the whole religious apparatus rivalled that of the state itself. Many such monasteries even had their own armed forces recruited from warrior-monks and the general populace. It is also true that such institutions helped the poor by offering regular feasts and accommodation to those in dire straits.

The faithful would recite sutras, light incense sticks, & walk around the pagoda of a temple.

Rites, Rituals & Festivals

Buddhist temples may have one, three, or five main halls and these house statues (or sometimes just paintings) of Buddha or Bodhisattvas (beings which refrain from joining nirvana in order to assist the living) which receive worship, prayers, and dedications from devotees. The faithful would recite sutras (the sermons of Buddha), light incense sticks, and walk around the pagoda of a temple. Such rites tend to be performed by the individual rather than congregations of believers. Important festivals in the calendar, when group activities did occur, included the Buddha's birthday (chopail) when worshippers visited temples in lantern-lit processions while chanting mantras and hung paper lanterns in their homes and in the streets. Another major festival was Palgwanhoe or the 'Eight Vows Festival' which commemorates departed spirits and was linked to the harvest in farming communities.

Developments in Korean Buddhism

As Buddhism evolved in China with the creation of various sects, so too in Korea the faith branched out, either from direct imitation via travelling monks such as Beomnang who brought back Seon (Zen) Buddhism in the first half of the 7th century CE, or through Korea's own adaptation. The monk Uicheon (1055-1101 CE) famously attempted but ultimately failed to bridge the gap between the two major branches of Buddhism – the Son and Kyo sects, which stressed the importance of meditation and scriptures respectively. Jinul (1158-1210 CE) was more successful in this endeavour, epitomised by his famous maxim: 'sudden enlightenment followed by gradual cultivation.' Jinul's unifying and inclusive form of Buddhism is known as Jogye Buddhism, and it became the official state religion of Korea with its centre at the Sonnqqwangsa temple near modern-day Sunchon. From the 15th century CE, Buddhism would be replaced in importance by the rise of Neo-Confucianism, at least in terms of state endorsement. Jogye Buddhism continues today in South Korea to be the most popular form of Buddhism.

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Unknown Artist (Public Domain)

Buddhist Art

Buddhism in Goryeo Korea was directly responsible for the development of printing for it was to spread Buddhist literature that woodblock printing improved and then movable metal type was invented in 1234 CE. Indeed, the entire corpus of Buddhist texts, the Tripitaka, was printed in 1251 CE using over 80,000 woodblocks, partly in the belief that this would help protect Korea from Khitan invasions. Another Buddhist contribution to the arts is illuminated manuscripts. These sagyong are usually of texts from the sutras (sermons) attributed to Buddha and formed scrolls and folded books. They were written by monk-scribes on indigo hanji paper using bright dyes and sometimes even silver and gold. Buddhist monks also painted frescoes and silk wall hangings to decorate temples, with bodhisattvas and water-flowers being the most popular subjects.

The entire corpus of Buddhist texts, the Tripitaka, was printed in 1251 CE using over 80,000 woodblocks.

Stone and gilt-bronze sculptures were produced, especially of the Buddha, bodhisattvas, and the future Buddha, Maitreya. Figures of Buddha as Maitreya (the coming Buddha) were popular and some are massive such as the 17.4 metre (57 ft.) high one at Paju and the 18.4 metre (59.3 ft.) tall figure at the Kwanchok temple in Nonsan which were both carved out of natural boulders in the 11th century CE. Another area of metalwork was the production of bells for Buddhist temples in both the Unified Silla and subsequent Goryeo kingdom. These and pottery used Buddhist motifs such as the lotus flower, cranes, and clouds. Finally, Buddhism was an important subject in hyangga, the poetical 'country songs,' which were written in the Silla and Goryeo kingdoms.

Buddhist Architecture

Buddhist temples were built in great numbers across the peninsula, but the 7th-century CE Miruk temple at Iksan (now lost) is worth special mention. Built by the Baekje king Mu, it was the largest Buddhist temple in East Asia and had two stone pagodas and one in wood. One stone pagoda survives, albeit with only six of its original 7-9 storeys. The only other surviving Baekje pagoda is also of stone and located at the Chongnim temple at Buyo. Stone pagodas are Korea's unique contribution to Buddhist architecture (in Japan they are of wood and in China of brick).

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Dabotap Pagoda, Gyeongju
Dabotap Pagoda, Gyeongju
rinux (CC BY-SA)

Notable surviving Buddhist structures at Gyeongju, the Silla capital, include two more surviving stone pagodas – the Dabotap and Seokgatap – which both date to the 8th century CE, traditionally 751 CE. This pair was originally part of the magnificent 8th-century CE Bulguksa temple ('Temple of the Buddha Land'), which now stands restored but only a fraction of its original size. The complex, as its name suggests, was designed to represent the Land of Buddha, that is paradise. For this reason, there are three principal zones: Birojeon (Vairocana Buddha Hall), Daeungjeon (Hall of Great Enlightenment and main temple), and Geungnakjeon (Hall of Supreme Bliss). This architectural representation of paradise, which rises symmetrically from a lotus lake, is symbolically entered via two stone bridges and a large staircase, reminding the visitor that they are leaving the earthly realm behind them and stepping into the sacred realm of Buddha.

One of the outstanding Buddhist structures from the Unified Silla period is the Buddhist cave temple at Seokguram east of Gyeongju. Constructed between 751 and 774 CE, it contains a circular domed inner chamber within which is a massive 3.45-metre-high seated Buddha. The walls are decorated with 41 large figure sculptures of disciples and bodhisattvas.

A good idea of the architectural style prevalent during the later Goryeo dynasty (918-1392 CE) is seen in the 13th-century CE Hall of Eternal Life (Muryangsujeon) at the Buseoksa temple in Yeongju. It is one of the oldest wooden structures surviving in the whole of Korea.

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This content was made possible with generous support from the British Korean Society.

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About the Author

Mark Cartwright
Mark is a full-time writer, researcher, historian, and editor. Special interests include art, architecture, and discovering the ideas that all civilizations share. He holds an MA in Political Philosophy and is the WHE Publishing Director.



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Cite This Work

APA Style

Cartwright, M. (2016, November 15). Buddhism in Ancient Korea. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.worldhistory.org/article/973/buddhism-in-ancient-korea/

Chicago Style

Cartwright, Mark. "Buddhism in Ancient Korea." World History Encyclopedia. Last modified November 15, 2016. https://www.worldhistory.org/article/973/buddhism-in-ancient-korea/.

MLA Style

Cartwright, Mark. "Buddhism in Ancient Korea." World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 15 Nov 2016. Web. 23 Jun 2024.