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Surprising World of Korean BuddhismKorean Buddhism has unique forms of Buddhism that are different from other East Asian countries

 

 

   
 
  The picture  above is the main  gate of  Jogye-sa.  Jogye Order  is  one of  representative Buddhism Orders  in  South Korea.                                                            / Extracted  from Google  
 

 

Can sunims (Buddhist monks) get married? Can they grow their hair? What kind of images do you have of sunims? The most wide-spread impressions are that they have shaved heads, do not consume alcohol or meat, and can never get married. However, it is not true that all sunims must follow the same rule. Depending on their particular religious sect, some sunims can marry, grow their hair, and wear different robes and so on here in South Korea.

 

In addition, Korean Buddhism is not only different from Southern Asian Buddhism, which is called Hinayana Buddhism, but also different from other forms of East Asian Buddhism. East Asian Buddhism, which is known as Hanayana Buddhism, advocates salvation for all people. In Hanayana Buddhism, religious sects can be divided depending on the forms of Buddhist scripture they emphasize and methods of enlightenment they seek more, for instance, Zen one of the ways to be awaken truth. Most well known Zen is meditation.


 Korean Buddhism is also divided by these differentiations. Nevertheless, all factions share similar characters which make Korean Buddhism different from other forms of Buddhism in East Asia. There are two important characteristics. One is “Hwajaeng Ideaology” started by Great Master Wonhyo.

 

   
 
 

Great Master Wonhyo

 
 

 There is a famous story how Wonhyo achieved the true meaning of truth. During his lifetime, he took a journey to study Buddhism in China, which was common because Buddhism from India travelled through China. A night arrived while he was making his way to China, so he decided to take a rest. He went into an underground cave to spend the night. Because he was tired from days of walking he woke up from thirst. There was a tiny bowl nearby where water was collected, so he drank it and fell asleep again. When he woke up the next morning, he was shocked to find out that the bowl he drank water from was actually a skull. Moreover, it was not an underground cave he slept in-it was a tomb.


This experience awakened him how things appear as they are thought to be. He realized that he does not need to go China to achieve the real truth; he could achieve it anywhere he wanted. He continued his studies in Buddhism in Korea which began the spread of his ideology called “Hwajaeng Ideaology”; it means unifying various arguments with a peaceful method in salvation of people.


The story emphasized that there is no wrong way to achieve one truth. Zen Buddhism itself has merit, and non- Zen Buddhism also has its own merit. Therefore, it is not wrong to follow Zen, which Buddha did and also, it is not wrong to focus on what Buddha said. There is only Buddha, not words and actions separately. Through Wonhyo, Korean Buddhism also tends to unify, and it is one of the central values of Korean Buddhism today.


The other major characteristic of  Korean Buddhism is a patriotic spirit, which could be found ever since Buddhism arrived in Korea. According to Jahyun sunim, it is because ancient Korean Buddhism was led by patriotic noblemen like Uicheon sunim in the Goryeo dynasty. Many examples of this spirit can be found throughout Korean history. For example, many temples which were built during the Unified Silla and Goryeo dynasty were built with hope that their countries would be prosperous.


In the past, this spirit was shown as a resistance movement against foreign invasion. During the foreign invasion, many people were killed and lost their dignity as they became slaves. To solve this chaotic situation, there was only one way, which was to finish the war by expelling invaders from the country. In other words, the goal of Korean Buddhism was to help the country become prosperous and powerful, so that foreign countries cannot have the intention to invade. Monks were armed to protect their country. That is why Korean monks still carry out their military duty.


Patriotic spirit is also shown in a different way. Korean people suffered under a Japanese militarism. To escape this one-sided brutal exploitation, many people thought that a movement to enlightenment, including education, was needed. Agreeing with this, Korean Buddhists participated in this enlightenment movement through newspapers, building schools, and education.


Dongguk University was also founded with this intention and acted as a cradle for students who are eager to study more for their country. Han Yong-un, who graduated from Dongguk University was one of those students, who worked hard for Korea’s freedom and development. His famous poems show a strong belief in independence, and he participated in the March First Independence Movement day on behalf of Korean Buddhism. It remains until modern time.

 

   
 
 

Manhae Han Yong-un

 
 

  Within the different sects of Korean Buddhism, there are also interesting histories and characters. Currently, the biggest religious sect is Jogye Order. This is the order that has given the most common image of monk. Monks have shaven heads and cannot marry. Jogye Order has its origin in the Silla era. It was one of the famous nine orders. However, during the Japanese colonial era, many orders of Korean Buddhism suffered and disappeared.

The modern Jogye Order starts from this sad history. At that time, Japanese government promoted and sometimes forced Korean monks to follow the Japanese Buddhism. Unlike Korean Buddhism’s prohibition of monks’ marriage, most of Japanese Buddhism allows marriage. Therefore, conflicts between Korean monks were started between those who submitted to Japanese Buddhism and who did not. Conflicts include not only marriage but also many kinds of processes on how to serve Buddha, ownership of temples and so on.


After the Buddhism cleanup movement during 1954 to 1962, Jogye Order finished  its movement and restarted its order with a rule which accepted only unmarried monks, called Bhikku (male monk) and Bhikkhuni (female monk). It was a small portion in the beginning but soon, many people advocate its intention, and has become the representative order in Korea. It also possesses the biggest Buddhism foundation university in Korea, Dongguk University.

 

   
 
 

▲ Jogye-sa

 
 

 In Korea, there are also other different Buddhism Orders. There are 27 influential Buddhism Orders today, which have their unique characteristics.


One is the Taego Order. It separated from the Jogye Order after the Buddhism cleanup movement. It accepts monks who married during Japanese colonial era, along with monks who do not marry.


The second one is Jingak Order. It follows the Esoteric Buddhism. Esoteric Buddhism is simply the Buddhism, which emphasizes unique ceremony. It follows the teachings of a less famous Buddha, and observes different rituals, saying that with those things, people can find the truth. In Jingak Order, growing hair is allowed and marriage is accepted. Unlike other Buddhism orders, couple monks preach together and emphasize the teachings of Virocana (also a type of Buddha, who is known to have existed) more than Sakyamuni Buddha. It is the biggest Esoteric Buddhism Order in Korea.

 

   
 
 

Jingak Cultural Transmission Hall

 
 

Cheontae Order is also one of the unique orders in Korea. The modern Cheontae Order in Korea was founded in 1967. Originally, Cheontae Order was the biggest order in China, as one of the thirteen biggest orders, and it is representative of Chinese Buddhism just as the Jogye Order is in Korea. The Korean Cheontae Order emphasizes Buddhism in daily life. Its head temple, Guin-sa, is well-known for its ability to accommodate many decent people in Korea. It is also known as a place worth visiting for tourists for  beautiful modern style appearance and huge size temples with amazing view of Sobaek Mountain and the biggest four bronze Devas. However, people should know that the modern Cheontae Order is different from previous Cheontae Order.

 

   
 
  ▲ Guin-sa has beautiful and modern-style temples with a wonderful view of Sobaek Mountain.                                    /photograph by Ryu-joon  
 

 

From country to country and even inside of one country many Buddhism sects exist. However, as the Great Master Wonhyo realized, no matter which religion, no matter which sect, the truth that everybody wants to know could be in one small thing, which can be found by small changes of perspective. Buddha is not here, but maybe is here. Buddhism believes that all human beings have the potential to achieve what they want, and therefore all are precious.

Kim Du-hyeon  kimduhyeon51@dongguk.edu

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