Buddhist philosophy, Korean

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G201-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 08, 2023, from

6. Unified Silla period: introduction of Sôn

A new epoch occurred in Korean Buddhism upon the transmission of Sôn (Chan) Buddhism from China. This new movement, with its strong emphasis on meditational practice, entered Korea not long after it was introduced into China. According to traditional accounts, it was Pômnang (fl. 632–46) who first introduced Chan Buddhism to Korea, following his study under Daoxin (580–651), the fourth patriarch of the Chinese Chan school. His lineage was passed down through Sinhaeng, Chunbôm and Hyeûn until it reached Chisôn Tohon (824–82), who founded the Mount Huiyang school, the oldest Sôn lineage in Korea, in 879. Within a hundred-year period, from the eighth to the ninth centuries, eight other mountain schools were founded. From this time onwards, the term Nine Mountains has come to represent Korean Sôn schools in general, and this number remained unchanged during the early Koryô period.

In contrast to the Chinese Chan schools, which were categorized as the Five Schools and Seven Orders and which maintained sharp sectarian distinctions, the Korean Nine Mountain schools were classified according to the identities of their founders. Only a monk who had originally studied in China was entitled to be the founder of a new school. Furthermore, in the Korean tradition, the relation between teacher and disciple was considered more important than the philosophical doctrine espoused. This differed sharply from the Chinese Chan tradition, in which lineage affiliation was based directly on doctrine. The Korean approach was to regard what they called the Five Schools and Seven Orders not as different schools, but rather as different families of the same school. For this reason, the Nine Mountain schools, regardless of their founders, were all considered to belong to the Chogye order. The name Chogye (in Chinese, Zaoxi) was taken from the mountain associated with Huineng, who was regard as the progenitor of Chan before its division into five schools and seven orders.

Eight of Korea’s nine mountain schools (the exception was the Mount Sumi school) were derived from or related to the Chinese Hongzhou school. As noted by Zongmi (780–841), the noted Chinese Buddhist commentator and philosopher, the Hongzhou school had a close doctrinal affiliation with Huayan. Most of the Korean monks who came to China to study Buddhism were already familiar with Hwaôm philosophy, as it was the predominant school in Korea at that time. Therefore it is not surprising that they were attracted to the Hongzhou school. However, the fundamental difference between Huayan and Chan must not be overlooked: while the former emphasizes scriptural study, the latter rejects it, choosing rather to espouse ‘a separate transmission outside the scriptures’. This crucial difference may also have attracted the Silla monks, who were perhaps frustrated with the philosophically elaborate and priest-centred Hwaôm school.

Immediately upon Sôn’s introduction to Unified Silla, an antagonistic tension was created between the new Sôn and the old doctrinal schools, particularly Hwaôm. Sôn masters perceived the scripture-based Hwaôm school as antithetical to their practice-oriented mission. Later, however, they altered their approach in an effort to synthesize the messages of the two schools.

Citing this article:
Cho, Sungtaek. Unified Silla period: introduction of Sôn. 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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