Buddhist philosophy, Korean

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G201-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 29, 2023, from

11. Chosôn period (1392–1910)

The Chosôn dynasty was founded on the basis of neo-Confucianism, which combined a strong political ideology with a practical ethics emphasizing the importance of the family. Neo-Confucianism was strongly antagonistic towards Buddhism, as Buddhist monks left their families and maintained strict celibacy. During the Chosôn dynasty Buddhism was not only suppressed by those in political power but also largely ignored by intellectuals. In terms of social stratification, monks were ranked in the same class as the servants and were not allowed to enter the capital city. Amidst such harsh circumstances, Buddhism became completely marginalized.

The Buddhists of this period used their adverse circumstances as an opportunity to systematize a harmonized perspective which reconciled the philosophical conflicts among neo-Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism (the three systems were often called samgyo or the Three Religions.) This synthesis in turn served once again to set Korean Buddhism apart as a unique system of thought.

Kihwa (1376–1433), otherwise known as Hamhô Tûkt’ong, continued the syncretic view of Korean Sôn systematized by Chinul, and was also the first Buddhist monk to advocate Buddhism against the neo-Confucian attack. He was also the first Buddhist monk to assert the intrinsic unity of the three religions, Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism. Kihwa’s life and times are reflected in his philosophical system. He was a prolific writer of Buddhist exegeses, in which he freely used Confucian concepts as well as citations from Confucian texts in order to clarify Buddhist ideas: he saw Buddhism and Confucianism as supplementary and not contradictory systems. He objected not only to the exclusivist attitude of Sôn practitioners toward the doctrinal schools, but also of Confucianism toward Buddhism. Before he studied Buddhism he was educated, like most sons from upperclass families, in the Confucian classics. He often used poetry, both from his own pen and from the classics, as a means of elucidating Buddhist texts (see Chinese Classics).

His syncretic approach is well demonstrated in his Hyônjông non (Treatise on Manifesting Righteousness). In this apologetic essay on the unity of Buddhism and Confucianism, he not only defends Buddhism using the language of Confucians, but he goes one step further and advocates Buddhism using scriptural evidence from the Confucian classics. In this treatise, Kihwa identifies the various mental functions, which he termed usually as the arising of dharma, with emotions, often described as the obstruction of the true nature of mind in neo-Confucianism. In so doing, he is pointing out the similarities between Buddhism and Confucianism in the sense that both attempt to eliminate the arising of dharma or obstructions of the mind so that the true nature will be manifested. Buddhists call this the ‘enlightened state’, while Confucians call it ‘being a saint’. Kihwa stressed that in terms of the final goal there is no discrepancy between them, and in fact there exists an intrinsic unity between the two. Further, as the title Treatise on Manifesting Righteousness implies, Kihwa saw that both ultimately reveal the truth. He also demonstrated that Buddhist cultivation does not differ from the Confucian principle of cultivating the mind, step by step, beginning with cultivation of the personal life, continuing with regulation of the family and national order, and finally ending with world peace (see Daxue). Moreover, he claimed that the Buddhist teaching allowed people to pursue different levels of practice according to their capacity, from the bodhisattva path to the merit-making of ordinary people. With this, Kihwa intended to demonstrate the superiority of the Buddhist teaching, which in his view embraces a universality that includes all kinds of people, in contrast to the soteriology of Confucianism, which is often limited to the highly educated.

Regarding the social aspect of the two systems, Confucianism was often considered to be superior to Buddhism. Kihwa believed otherwise. He felt that the Confucian system, by using tactics of reward and punishment in governing the people, enforced a mere superficial obedience. In contrast, as Buddhism based its teachings on the law of cause and effect, and as it further propagated the value of silence through meditation, it promoted a more spontaneous response.

Kihwa also developed the issue of social ethics, including filial piety, the most important aspect of Confucian ethics, into the greater context of truth itself, which he termed to (in Chinese, dao), or the Way. He defined the Buddhist perspective of the truth, the Way, as consisting of two aspects, the unchangeable principle and temporary expediency. According to him, only by both maintaining principle and adapting to change through the use of expedients can one achieve completion of the Way. However, the formalistic and family-centred ethics of Confucianism cannot achieve both of these goals. Similary, he felt that one who is still subject to passions is not able to be loyal to the state and, at same time, to be filial at home. Only when one becomes free from one’s own passions and conceptual boundaries can one extend oneself to universal altruism, as represented in the Confucian concept of humanity, in (in Chinese, ren), or the great compassion of Buddhism. Residing in the mountains away from home is neither unfilial nor disloyal, but is a greater form of filial piety and loyalty to the state, unimpeded by any particular phenonema. The Buddhist aim of achieving an unimpeded state between principle and phenomena, as well as among phenomena, was focused not on leaving society or the world, but rather on realizing the perfection of society.

Unlike the fourth and fifth century Chinese apologetic defenses of Buddhism, Kihwa defended Buddhism more positively and often advocated its superiority. However, before he became a Buddhist he was well known as a promising young Confucian scholar. One of his biographical accounts tells us that his interest in Buddhism was motivated by the sudden death of a friend, and also by a monk who questioned him about the Confucian practice of encouraging people to serve their parents meat, yet espousing universal affection toward all living beings. As this account illustrates, his spiritual and intellectual quest was more concerned with ontological and soteriological issues. Although he seems to have found some insight through Sôn meditation, his quest did not stop there, but further impelled him to discern an intrinsic unity among the various philosophical and religious teachings of his time. His pseudonym was Tûkt’ong, which means attainment of interpenetration; it is an apt title, as he diligently pursued this goal not merely in regard to Sôn and the Buddhist doctrinal teachings, but also in connection to all the existing teachings of his time. Dismissing the question as to which of the three teachings, Confucianism, Buddhism or Daoism, was superior, he instead felt that they were intrinsically identical. For Kihwa, the Daoist teachings of non-action and the Confucian teachings of being responsive but always calm were no different from the teaching of Sôn Buddhism, which espouses being: ‘Calm but always illuminating; illuminating but always calm.’

Wônhyo’s synthesis of the various doctrinal disputes was succeeded and developed by Chinul’s syncretic view attesting to the unity of Sôn and scriptural teaching; this in turn was followed by Kihwa’s harmonization of the three religious teachings. This tradition of the syncretic perspective in Korean Buddhism was further developed by Hyujông (1520–1604), known as Sôsan Taesa (Great Master of the Western Mountain) (see Sôsan Hyujông).

Hyujông was not only the central Buddhist figure during the Chosôn period, but also one of the most influential figures in the entire history of Korean Buddhism. He not only continued to propagate the syncretic perspective of the unity of Sôn and doctrinal teachings as formulated by Chinul, but he also attempted to reconcile the three teachings in terms of their ultimate message of truth.

By Hyujông’s time, the various doctrinal schools had been reconfigured into one unified school, called Kyo, or scriptural teaching, while the Sôn schools were categorized under the single, unified name of Sôn. The conflict between Sôn and the doctrinal teachings still existed as an active point of controversy among Korean monks. As the titles of his major works, such as Sôn’ga kwigam (The Mirror of the Sôn school), Sôn’gyo sôk (An Interpretation of Sôn and Kyo) and Sôn’gyo kyôl (The Secret on Sôn and Kyo), illustrate, Hyujông’s major concern was to reconcile Sôn and the scriptural teachings by incorporating the doctrinal schools into Sôn. While generally agreeing with Chinul’s syncretic teachings, Hyujông contrasted Sôn practice more sharply with Kyo and ultimately espoused Sôn’s supremacy. He felt that since the intrinsic unity of Sôn and Kyo had already been clarified by the efforts of Chinul, his mission was not to reassert this point, but rather to establish a correct relationship between the two in terms of the means of attaining ultimate enlightenment.

According to Hyujông, the source of both Sôn and Kyo are the Buddha, but one refers to his mind and the other to his words. Regarding the relation between Sôn and Kyo, he asserted that Kyo is what reaches wordlessness from the word, while Sôn is what reaches wordlessness from wordlessness itself. Wordlessness means here the true nature of mind or the enlightenment state which cannot be reached through any verbal, logical description. By saying that both Kyo and Sôn reach wordlessness, however, Hyujông did not mean that one can reach the ultimate state through Kyo. Rather, he meant that Kyo, beginning with the word (that is, scriptural teaching), should be applied and then continued ultimately for the purpose of attaining the state of wordlessness. In other words, one may begin practice by studying Kyo, but in the process of attaining enlightenment, Kyo must be discarded and Sôn must be practised. This relation between Sôn and Kyo is well elaborated in his theory of sagyo ipson, the principle of abandoning Kyo and entering Sôn, which is still followed in present day Korean Buddhism. In this way, Hyujông acknowledged the efficacy of Kyo as a part of Buddhist practice, yet he also asserted the supremacy of Sôn practice by postulating the limitations of intellectual understanding. Thus, he refused to recognize the possibility of attaining enlightenment through the use of Kyo alone. Of course, not every practitioner needs to follow both Kyo and Sôn practices successively. According to Hyujông, the person of high capacity may not find it necessary to follow both practices, but the person of middle or low capacity cannot omit doctrinal study, Kyo.

In his other work, Samga Kwigam (Mirror of the Three Teachings), Hyujông’s purpose was to demonstrate that all of the three East Asian intellectual traditions, Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism, ultimately lead to the truth, to, or the Way. The intrinsic unity of the three teachings was first expostulated by his predecessor, Kihwa. However, while Kihwa’s approach can be said to incorporate Confucianism and Daoism into Buddhism, especially Sôn Buddhism, and thus ultimately to advocate the superior position of the Buddhist teaching, Hyujông’s approach was different. He shows us the core or the essentials of the three teachings, and by doing so he reveals the similarities among the three, although he does not ignore their differences. He felt that to espouse the superiority of one teaching over another was to be guilty of sectarianism. In interpreting each teaching of the three religions, he used a higher perspective to reconcile their minor differences into the greater context of their intrinsic unity. His approach, the synthesis of discrepancies into a higher perspective, immediately reminds one of Wônhyo’s method of kae (unfolding) and hap (folding): by unfolding discrepancies, the various functions of the truth are displayed, and by folding them, the discrepancies are reconciled into the essence of the truth itself. In the epilogue of the Samga Kwigam, he mentions that his intention is to provide a communication channel while overcoming the limits of sectarian views. He called the three teachings ‘three gates’, indicating his perception of them as different means of attaining the ultimate goal. This goal, which is the realization of the ultimate truth, has often been termed to, or the Way, in the East Asian tradition, and carries no sectarian connotation. To realize this to, one’s mind-eye, or wisdom, is the key. Hyujông’s all-inclusive spirit, which perpetuates the long syncretic tradition of Korean religious thought, continues to have a great impact on contemporary Korean Buddhism.

Citing this article:
Cho, Sungtaek. Chosôn period (1392–1910). Buddhist philosophy, Korean, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G201-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2023 Routledge.

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