Monday, March 12, 2012

Buddhism - Acceptance and Denial in Korea

Fulbright Junior Researcher Inga Diederich gave a presentation on Buddhism in her lecture "Moving towards Stillness: Modern Buddhism through the eyes of a twentieth-century monk". With so much information presented, I only offer the bare bone outline of Inga's lecture on Buddhism's eclectic acceptance and denial into Korean culture over the past several centuries. {The lecture was given November 15, 2010.}

Buddhism was initially introduced to Korea in 372 AD from the Qin dynasty (pronounced 'Chin'; Marco Polo introduced Qin to the world ... as "Chin-a"). Shamanism was the religion of Korea and over time the two religious beliefs took on aspects of each other, although they appeared to be functionally different through where and how followers worshipped with Confucism defining more how to conduct one's self socially and Buddhism offering spirtual practices. Underlying the Korean religious culture also was Taoism, which had been so embedded within the Korean culture and for so long that it is difficult to say when Taoist beliefs were brought into Korea and subsumed into the culture. Needless to say, the religous layers before much written documentation leaves an unclear picture of the early religous melding of the three religions.

Many schools or orders of Buddhism were introduced to Korea - some existed for a marginal period of time, some lingered and were slowly snuffed out, but all were changed based on cultural acceptance and cultural adaptation. Some of the styles of Buddhism introduced were:

Hwaom - the Hwarang (the "flower boys") or an elite group of male youths in the early Shilla Dynasty (57 BC ~ 935 AD) were significant and prestigious followers
Yogacara - yoga and awareness of conscientiousness were principle belief-practices
Sutra Buddhism - read and read and read sutras ... and get enlightenment
Seon Buddhism - "seon" translates as "meditation" and justly so for this type of Buddhism, unlike Sutra Buddhism, focuses on think and think and think ... and get enlightenment
(plus other styles of Buddhism)

Interestingly, Seon (Buddhism), called Chán (禪) in the Qin from where it was brought, became culturally altered in Korea to better facilitate religious acceptance. It is believed that Seon Buddhism was then introduced to Japan, through Korea and not directly from Qin, and the Japanese also took the religious belief and altered it to better suit their own cultural beliefs and acceptance. Thus was born Zen Buddhism in Japan with Zen being derived also from Chán (禪) or Seon meaning "meditation". And because the West knows much more about Japan, the West knows only about Zen Buddhism while in actuality, Seon and Chán existed before.

Initially Confucism (not neo-Confucism which exists in Korea today) and Buddhism co-existed. Some reasons that Buddhism wasn't eagerly accepted was due to the Confucist beliefs defining social practices. A few were:

- the Buddhist practice of shaving heads was an affront to Confucism in which the hair was not cut as it represented a metaphysical link to one's ancestors to whom all respect and obedience must be given
- translation of qi concepts were in opposition, especially as in Confucism the qi concepts had taken centuries to "perfect"
- universality of enlightenment didn't make sense at all in the strict heirarchical structure of Confucism that gave preference and privilege to only a small elite

Yet, Buddhism did take hold and became the religion of the Korean peninsula during the Goryeo Dynasty (918~1392). By the time of the Chosun Dynasty (1392~1897?), the fourth king, Sejong the Great (1418~1450), reduced the number of Buddhist monasteries, all part of the state control over Buddhism and the growth and development of the new state religion, Confucism. Though public practice of Buddhism was declining because of politics and the removal of Buddhist temples from walled towns, private devotions didn't seem to decline so much and even kings sometimes turned to Buddhism in their old age.

In 1876 when the Japanese forced open the doors of Korea (the Hermit Kingdom) for trade, the coerced Kangwha Treaty between the countries was advantageous for the growth once again of Buddhism. The treaty was for the establishment of missionary schools, which included Buddhism; the treaty was also an attempt to create a unified Buddhist order (but this wasn't successful); and the treaty revoked the law preventing Buddhists from entering and practicing Buddhism within cities. However, some negative aspects also resulted from the forced culture change: a temple law was imposed and according to the law, all temple grounds would revert to the Japanese which resulted in establishing a strangle-hold on Buddhism; and the point that made bile rise in Koreans throat was the dispensation for Buddhists to marry and beget children. Some earlier forms of Buddhisms had not involved celibacy but those orders of Buddhism had long since died out due to thoughts of cultural purity particularly influenced by the "righteous man" concept of Confucism, and so Korean monks had for the past several centuries been celibate.

Here I'll stop with the introduction and acceptance of Buddhism into Korea. However, it must be said that after the Japanese left and the two types of Buddhist monks remained (celibate and non-) the argument became vocalized again calling for only celibate monks within Korea, and that is now pretty much the case. There are still a remnant few monks who are married with children, but they keep a very low profile within the Korean society. Now the Jogye order is the strongest and comprises the majority of Buddhist monks, and in fact, they also have one of the most visited and active temples with press next door as well as neighboring senior care center ... all located in the heart of Seoul.

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