Korean Buddhism is said to be the only remaining Zen school with an unbroken lineage of transmission stretching back to the original Five House of Zen in T’ang Dynasty, China. This means that the Korean Zen tradition is far closer to the original Chinese (Chan) style in both method and spirit than its Japanese counterpart.
Buddhism was first transmitted to the Korean peninsula during the Three Kingdoms’ period of Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla. During the Unified Silla period it was embraced as the official state religion. Since that time, Buddhism has done much to shape the development of Korean culture and over the years it has been intimately related to the fortune and destiny of the Korean people. Consequently throughout the country you still find many Buddhist temples in which have lived many eminent monks who have done much to enrich the spirit of the Korean people.
During the Unified Silla and Goryeo Dynasties, the importing of Buddhism from T’ang China contributed heavily to the creation of an advanced culture and social order. Buddhism however suffered a strong reversal of fortune during the Neo-Confucian Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), when it was oppressed by the state. It was gradually prohibited to enter monastic life, and the construction and renovation of temples became very difficult. Despite the endeavors of a number of great masters to propagate and keep the teachings alive during this period, Buddhism existed within a very narrow ambit. Nevertheless throughout this period of repression and even during the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945), Buddhism continued to make an enormous contribution to the development of the nation’s culture and spiritual life.
During the mid 50’s the reformation of Korean Buddhism began. Great strides were taken throughout the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. Many temples were reconstructed and repaired, and the reformation of Buddhist cultural life was initiated. Furthermore, after many years of hardship, Buddhist aspirants began to show a renewed interest in seeking after the truth. Furthermore, in all temples throughout the country, the fundamental Buddhist principles of compassion towards all living beings and salvation are again being taught. Meanwhile since the 1990’s, Korean Buddhism has gradually been achieving a higher profile and greater worldwide recognition. Nevertheless, despite Korea’s long Buddhist history and the numerous eminent masters who have been produced, there still remains an insufficiency of well-written materials in English, which convey the essence of the Korean Buddhist tradition.
The habitation of early mankind in Korea appears to have started about half a million years ago. The first kingdom, named Gojoseon (Ancient Joseon), lasted from 2333 – 108 BC. After which the three ancient kingdoms of Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla ruled the ruled the entire Korean Peninsula and much of Manchuria; they were by far the most powerful and eminent kingdoms in the area. The period of their rule, 57 BC – 668 AD, is known as the Three Kingdoms period. Goguryeo and Baekjae were ultimately taken over by Silla in 668 and 660, respectively. In 676, Silla unified the peninsula for the first time. The Unified Silla period, 676 – 935, was a golden age for Korean culture and advancements in Buddhist art are especially noteworthy.
The Joseon Dynasty (1392 – 1910) was the peninsula’s last dynasty. During this period, various political and economic reforms were enacted. The most prominent of these was the adoption of Confucianism as the state ideology. The surge of creative literary endeavors and the invention of hangeul (the Korean alphabet) in 1443 make this cultural period very significant. Hanyang, now known as Seoul, was established as the dynasty’s capital city in 1394. Palaces and gates constructed during thie period can still be seen in the city today.
Throughout the history of Korean…