Buddhist philosophy, Korean

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

7. Koryô period (918–1392): parallel cultivation of doctrinal study and contemplation

Upon the collapse of the Silla dynasty, the Korean peninsula reverted back to three kingdoms, until King T’aejo unified the country and subsequently founded the Koryô dynasty. Under the Koryô, Buddhism was fully supported not only by the royal family but by the entire apparatus of the Korean government. The price, however, was tight government control.

Despite these controls, discord between the radical Sôn schools and the more conservative doctrinal proponents continued, and it was not till Ûich’ôn (1055–1101) that a serious attempt was made to reconcile these conflicts. Although his background was in Hwaôm, Ûich’ôn studied various schools of Buddhist thought throughout his career. Most notably, he travelled to China in 1085 and studied with renowned teachers of the Huayan, Tientai, Pure Land, Vinaya and Chan sects there. Upon returning to Korea, he attempted to incorporate Sôn into the system of Tientai (in Korean, Ch’ônt’ae). He felt that meditation was essential not only for followers of Sôn but for members of all Buddhist schools, and he criticized the polarization of the two approaches, doctrinal and meditational. From his perspective, which favoured scriptural study yet also emphasized meditational practice, although dharma is devoid of words and appearances, it is not separate from them. Similarly, doctrinal study and meditation do not oppose each other but should be seen as complements; each is a requisite tool for the attainment of awakening.

Yet Ûich’ôn was unable to accept the radical doctrine of the Sôn of his time. He acknowledged the validity of Sôn only on the condition that it remained based on scriptural teachings. For him, the Sôn dictum of ‘transmission outside the scriptures’ was not acceptable as a valid Buddhist teaching. He believed that the practitioners of his time, by abandoning the scriptures, were veering dangerously towards heresy. He felt that his own kyogwan kyomsu, or ‘parallel cultivation of doctrinal study and contemplation’, was the correct approach. Viewing the system of Ch’ônt’ae as one which harmonized Sôn and scriptural study, Ûich’ôn attempted to consolidate the Sôn school into the Ch’ônt’ae order. However, he was unable to accomplish this, thanks not only to his early death, but also to of his narrow understanding of Sôn.

It was Chinul (1158–1210) who effectively assimilated Sôn into the mainstream Korean Buddhist tradition, if not in its entirety, at least in the area of doctrine. Chinul lived during one of the most difficult times in the history of Koryô Buddhism. Having become dependent on the support of the government, Koryô Buddhism had lost most, if not all, of its earlier spiritual vitality; corruption was at its peak and discipline in the monasteries was increasingly lax. Chinul perceived the Buddhism of his day as subject to ‘ten kinds of disease’, and his endeavours to effect a rapprochement between the Sôn and doctrinal schools were founded on his deep concern about this decline.

If Wônhyo’s philosophy of harmonization was aimed at ending the doctrinal disputes among the various schools, Chinul’s intent was to provide a theoretical scheme for harmonizing Sôn with the scriptural schools, and to offer a radical approach to the issue of final enlightenment based on the doctrinal teachings of Mahāyāna. He attempted ultimately to provide a systematic, theoretical framework which would incorporate both theory and experience. Being a Sôn monk, he was deeply aware that only through one’s own experience can one attain final, ultimate liberation. The primary value of his theory, then, was that it clearly displayed an understanding of the necessity of practice.

Unlike Ûich’ôn, whose viewpoint was rooted in the doctrinal teachings, Chinul’s foundation was in Sôn. His syncretic vision was therefore to establish a new Sôn school which would incorporate not only various teachings of the traditional Chan schools in China, but various doctrinal teachings as well. His primary intent was to systematize a comprehensive soteriological scheme for Sôn which would be pertinent to practitioners of various levels of capacity. He was inspired in this task by the great Chinese Buddhist thinker Zongmi, a patriarch of both the Huayan and the Heze school of Chan. Chinul, deeply frustrated with the deterioration of Sôn in his time, was especially attracted by the balanced approach of the Heze school, which encompassed both the intellectual understanding of the scriptural teachings and the radical, anti-intellectual spirit of Chan. Chinul’s soteriological scheme of sudden enlightenment followed by gradual self-cultivation reflects the Heze approach.

In an inscription written by Kunsu Kim (fl. 1216–20), it is said that Chinul established three main approaches to Sôn practice, directly reflecting his own enlightenment experiences: the balanced practice of meditation and wisdom, inspired by the Platform Sutra (see Platform Sutra); faith and understanding according to the complete and sudden teachings, inspired by the Li Tongxuan’s Exposition of the Huayanjing (Avatamsaka Sūtra); and finally, the shortcut approach of hwadu (in Chinese, huatou) investigation. We can elucidate Chinul’s philosophical system by examining these three approaches.

Citing this article:
Cho, Sungtaek. Koryô period (918–1392): parallel cultivation of doctrinal study and contemplation. Buddhist philosophy, Korean, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G201-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2022 Routledge.

Related Searches




Related Articles