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Buddhist philosophy, Korean

DOI
10.4324/9780415249126-G201-1
DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G201-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 04, 2022, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/overview/buddhist-philosophy-korean/v-1

1. Three Kingdoms period (372–668 ad)

When Buddhism arrived on the Korean peninsula, Korea was in a period of transition, changing from loose tribal societies to states ruled by centralized kingships. Buddhism was strongly patronized by the kings, as it provided them with a valuable political ideology, but nevertheless it had to face the challenge of countering the indigenous belief system based firmly on shamanistic ritualism. In response to this challenge, certain Buddhist doctrines which tended to undermine animistic beliefs received special emphasis in Korea. An example of these is the doctrine of karma, which asserts the importance of ethical action by humans and denies the power of gods and spirits in shaping human destiny. However, Buddhism also resorted to the tactic of assimilation. The heavenly being Hanunim, a shamanistic deity, was absorbed into the Buddhist conception of heaven. Similarly, the indigenous shamanistic worship of mountains, earth deities and dragons all became integrated into the Buddhist religious system.

Only fragmentary bits of information are available concerning Buddhist philosophy during its early existence in Korea. As previously discussed, the development of Buddhist studies in Korea ran almost parallel to that in China. Both Mahāyāna schools, such as Tientai, Huayan and Dilun, as well as Hīnayāna schools, including Abhidharma and the Sarvāstivāda and Vinaya traditions, were introduced. However, it seems that Mādhyamika philosophy formed the mainstream of Buddhist doctrinal thought during this period. Names of Korean monks from the Kokuryô and Paekche kingdoms are often mentioned, particularly in Japanese records, as masters of Mādhyamika theory or as founders of the Sanron (in Chinese, Sanlun) school in Japan (the Sanlun school was based on the sinicized interpretation of the Indian Mādhyamika).

We can learn much about the Korean interpretation of Mādhyamika theory by investigating the contributions of Sûngnang, an eminent Korean monk. Although we have no exact record of his date of birth, according to the Biography of Fadu in the Liang Gaosengzhuan (The Liang Biographies of the Eminent Monks), Sûngnang succeeded to the lineage after the Master Fadu passed away in 500 ad. Sûngnang’s unique interpretations represented a turning point not only for Sanlun studies but for Chinese Buddhist studies as a whole. Through the decisive contributions of Sûngnang, Sanlun was established by Jizang (549–623 ad) as one of the major schools in Chinese Buddhist history. Sûngnang’s own works have not been transmitted, but his philosophical ideas are cited throughout Jizang’s writings.

During Sûngnang’s time, Chinese Buddhist studies were divided into Northern/Abhidharma and Southern/Satyasiddhi. Sanlun was considered part of the Satyasiddhi school, whose doctrine was based on Abhidharma theory and centered around the Hīnayāna concept of the Four Noble Truths. Sûngnang, however, made a distinction between Satyasiddhi and Sanlun, and he demarcated a boundary between the Old and New Sanlun. He is best known for his two-truth theory, in which he distinguished between conventional and ultimate truth. In his view, these are not ontological truths, but represent rather a convenient pedagogical device for teachers. In discussions concerning truth, some say that it is existence, some say that it is nonexistence, others say that it is either existence or nonexistence, while still others say that it is neither existence nor nonexistence. Sûngnang claimed, however, that none of these statements represent the complete truth, but merely indicate one aspect of it. Thus, in his view, the two truths represent different expressions of the excellent teaching of the Middle Path.

For Sûngnang, the Middle Path was not a state situated between existence and nonexistence, or duality and non-duality. Rather, he saw it as consisting of three levels: on the first level, the existence of all beings is considered as conventional truth, and the emptiness of all things is regarded as ultimate truth. Here, emptiness is called ultimate truth in response to the followers of Abhidharma who advocated the existence of dharmas. On the second level, the existence and emptiness of the first level are both viewed as conventional truth while the denial of both is seen as ultimate truth. This is Sûngnang’s rebuttal to the Satyasiddhi school, which admits the dualism of existence and emptiness, positing emptiness as ultimate truth. Finally, on the third and last level, it is recognized that both truths as well as all three levels, are merely teaching devices. Thus, the three gates or three levels are expounded only in order to realize the truth of not three. This non-acquisition of, and non-abiding in, one level or one truth is initially named the ultimate.

The structure of Sûngnang’s theory indicates a process of continuing dialectics to a level of infinity. As such, it negates any fixed concepts which regard the ultimate as a state arrived at through progression. For Sûngnang and his followers, a highest level does not exist; rather, this dialectic method of denial continues endlessly. The ultimate truth, then, cannot be the ultimate; it is not an absolute reality. This is why Sûngnang asserted that the two-truth theory was not a principle but only a pedagogical tool. He showed clearly that it is not possible to verbalize or conceptualize about ultimate truth. Any attempt to do so will only bring one back to the level of conventional truth. This unique philosophy marked the beginning of the New Sanlun school and was elaborated on first by Zhouyong and then by Jizang, who finalized its ideas in the latter half of the sixth century.

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Citing this article:
Cho, Sungtaek. Three Kingdoms period (372–668 ad). Buddhist philosophy, Korean, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G201-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/overview/buddhist-philosophy-korean/v-1/sections/three-kingdoms-period-372-668-ad.
Copyright © 1998-2022 Routledge.

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