Buddhist philosophy, Korean

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G201-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 24, 2024, from

Article Summary

Buddhism was transmitted to the Korean peninsula from China in the middle of the fourth century ad. Korea at this time was divided into three kingdoms: Kokuryô, Paekche and Silla. Both Kokuryô and Paekche accepted Buddhism as a state religion immediately after it was introduced, to Kokuryô in 372 ad and to Paekche in 384 ad. However, it was not until two centuries later that Silla accepted Buddhism as a state religion. This was because Silla was the last of the three kingdoms to become established as a centralized power under the authority of one king.

It is not coincidental that Buddhism was accepted by these three states at the very same time that a strong kingship, independent of the aristocracy, was created. These newly established kingships needed a new ideology with which to rule, separate from the age-old shamanistic tradition which had been honored among the previous loose confederations of tribes. Buddhism fulfilled this need. It became a highly valued tool which kings used shrewdly, not only to provide their societies with a political ideology but to give them a foundation from which to build a viable system of ethics and philosophical thinking. Given this historical legacy, Korean Buddhism came to possess a feature which set it apart from the other East Asian traditions: it became ‘state-protection’ Buddhism. Although this was not a particularly sophisticated phenomenon on a philosophical level, this feature had a lasting influence on all aspects of Buddhist thought in Korea. In general, Korean Buddhism has followed a course of development more or less parallel to that of the greater East Asian context, although with notably closer ties to China than to Japan. There is no historical evidence which indicates any direct intellectual transmission from India, Buddhism’s birthplace; rather, most of the philosophical development of Buddhism in Korea occurred as Korean monks travelled to China to study and obtain Buddhist texts which had either been written in or translated into Chinese. Despite such close ties to China, however, Korean Buddhism has developed its own identity, distinct from that of its progenitor.

Compared to Indian and Central Asian Buddhism, which developed along clear historical lines, the development of Buddhism in China was largely dependent on the personalities of individual monks, and was thus affected by such factors as their region of origination and the particular texts which they emphasized. Thus, in the process of assimilating Indian Buddhism, the Chinese created and developed a number of widely varying schools of Buddhist thought. In Korea, however, such a diverse number of philosophical traditions was never established. Rather, one of the distinct features of Korean Buddhism has been its preference for incorporating many different perspectives into a single, cohesive body of thought.

    Citing this article:
    Cho, Sungtaek. Buddhist philosophy, Korean, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G201-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
    Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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