Buddhist philosophy, Korean

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G201-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 04, 2022, from

12. Conclusion

Since Buddhism was introduced into the Korean peninsula during the latter half of the fourth century, Korean Buddhism has undergone three major paradigm shifts. The first occurred as a response to Korea’s indigenous belief system, which may be characterized as shamanistic animism; this period extends from Buddhism’s incipient stage to the Three Kingdoms period. The second shift represents the Korean effort to understand various doctrines and corresponds to the Unified Silla and Koryô periods. The third shift involved the defense of Buddhism from the criticisms of neo-Confucianism during the Chosôn period. Each paradigm shift represented a Buddhist response to challenges from either within or outside itself; in this way, Korean Buddhist philosophy developed continually. The new understandings which occurred at each shift did not disappear with the next shift, but rather remained as integral aspects of the Korean Buddhist tradition.

Buddhism’s first challenge came from the indigenous shamanistic beliefs which had helped to consolidate the various tribes of the peninsula into unified kingdoms. The Korean Buddhist response was hoguk pulgyo, or state-protection Buddhism. Lectures on Buddhist sūtras as well as ceremonies to ensure national security were held regularly during the Koryô period. Even during the Chosôn period, when Buddhism was suppressed, the tradition of hoguk pulgyo continued in modified form as armed monks organized into armies to resist the Japanese invasion. Although the concept of hoguk pulgyo was never elaborated into a sophisticated philosophy, it is nevertheless a pervasive element in the development of Korean Buddhism.

In the second shift characterizing the Koreanization of Buddhism, both Wônhyo and Chinul played pivotal roles. By Wônhyo’s time, the major Buddhist texts, as well as the doctrines of the numerous Chinese Buddhist schools, had been introduced to Korea. Wônhyo, using his own hermeneutics of kae (unfolding) and hap (folding), and his hwajaeng (reconciliation of disputes) theory, attempted to reconcile the various doctrinal disputes. In doing so, he neither accepted nor denied any one sectarian perspective. While refusing to accept any one particular doctrine as the whole truth, he recognized all doctrines as the unfolding of one mind, or the Buddha-nature. On the other hand, by ‘folding’ the various disputes, he synthesized them into a higher perspective of the truth. This approach reflected the fundamental spirit of Korean Buddhism, which preferred to emphasize the similarities rather than the discrepancies among Buddhist schools and among other religions. Thus the primary characteristic of Korean Buddhism, t’ong pulgyo, the Buddhism of total interpenetration, began with Wônhyo. It was Chinul, during the Koryô period, who attempted to reconcile the disputes between Sôn and Hwaôm, the latter representing the scriptural tradition in Korean Buddhism. To establish a new approach to Sôn, he assimilated the theoretical framework of Hwaôm, long considered to be the anithesis of the Sôn approach.

The third shift came from the challenge of neo-Confuciansm, which became the new state ideology of the Chosôn dynasty. Kihwa, and later Hyujông, attempted to maintain the tradition of Chinul’s syncretic approach to Sôn while at the same time creating the theoretical framework for the intrinsic unity of the three major intellectual traditions of Korea and all East Asia: Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism. Continuing the approach, begun by Wônhyo and Chinul, of reconciling disputes by way of a higher perspective, Hyujông suggested that each of the three teachings is a gate leading to the same goal, that is, the to, or Way.

In the early twentieth century Korean Buddhists, together with the rest of their countrymen, suffered from colonization by Japan. During this time, from 1910 to 1945, many Korean Buddhist monks such as Master Yongsông (1864–1940), Master Hanyông (1870–1948) and, most notably, Master Manhae (1879–1944) became engaged in a variety of political activities. These worldly involvements, which pulled them away from their practice in the mountains, were undertaken in the bodhisattva spirit, that is, as a means of helping to directly alleviate the suffering of others. Due to their participation in these activities, philosophical study was also undermined. Those monks who wished to study Buddhism on a scholarly level travelled to Japan and enrolled in universities there. Japanese Buddhists in turn left their own country for Europe and absorbed the Western perspective from such countries as England, Germany and France. They gradually incorporated this new knowledge into their previous systems of understanding, and in the process Japanese Buddhist philosophy was significantly altered. The Korean monks who visited Japan were exposed to this new perspective and dutifully introduced it to their fellow Buddhists upon returning to Korea. From this time also, Buddhism began to be taught in the universities. This period marks the beginning of a bifurcation between monks and scholars, the significance of which became increasingly reflected in Buddhist scholarship.

In the 1970s and 1980s the philosophical study of Buddhism began to re-appear with renewed interest and energy. This was due to both external and internal factors: externally, Korean Buddhism faced new challenges from the West, primarily in the forms of Christianity and Western philosophy, while internally, the division between monks and scholars had become even more pronounced. In the 1980s a debate arose among monks and scholars over the issue of ‘sudden’ versus ‘gradual’. Although this debate centred around the age-old conflict between direct experience and intellectual understanding, and thus between Sôn and doctrinal schools, due to the above-mentioned influences the conflict has become a new focus for modern Korean Buddhist thought. The debate itself has become well known not only throughout Korea but internationally as well. Yet to this day, no satisfactory resolution has been reached: some emphasize the importance of direct experience while others stress the necessity of intellectual understanding. Perhaps the conflict cannot be resolved, and this may be a reflection of our modern times. Yet what seems to be called for is a new methodology with which to consider the problem. The t’ong pulgyo’s perspective is unique to Korea and has served well in the past. Can Korean Buddhists find another way to embrace the understanding which it signifies, or do they need to discover an altogether different means of confronting the issue, one that stands outside of t’ong pulgyo? The times are unique; certainly any approach towards resolving the difficulties must be unique as well.

Citing this article:
Cho, Sungtaek. Conclusion. Buddhist philosophy, Korean, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G201-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2022 Routledge.

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