Buddhism in Medieval Korea
(Vol.43. No.4 Winter, 2003 pp.30~58)
Nam Dong-shin
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Buddhism was the dominant system of thought in Korean society from the first half of the sixth century to the latter half of the fourteenth century. According to Buddhist belief, people transmigrated in accordance with the principle of cause and effect. The people of the Unified Silla and Goryeo, hoping for a happy future, were intent upon accumulating Buddhist merits. Buddhist clergy flourished, regarded as a "field of blessings," in which seeds of well-being can be harvested. Medieval Korean states enforced a policy of protecting but controlling Buddhism. The clergy was regarded as an entity sharing the same fate as the state; the "protection of Buddhism" and the "protection of the state" constituted a relationship like that of two wheels of a bicycle. When Buddhist clergy became a hotbed of corruption and degradation in Goryeo's later years, Neo-Confucian scholars demanded a drastic reform of the system. Unlike Buddhism, Confucianism accepted the independent existence of the objective world. The transition from Buddhism to Confucianism in Korea in the fourteenth century signifies the replacement of the dominant system of thought that had to adapt to social changes.
Keywords: Buddhist view of state and king, cause and effect theory, monk administration system, salvation through Buddhist merits (guna),
Types: Articles
Subject: Religion , History
About the author(s) Nam Dong-shin (Nam, Dong-sin) is Assistant Professor of Department of History at Duksung Women's University. He received his Ph.D. in Korean History from Seoul National University. His publications include "Unification of Three Kingdoms and Buddhism: Focusing on the Relationship between the State and Buddhist Community during the Middle Period of Silla" (in Korean) (2001) and "Choe Chi-won, an Intellectual at the Turn of Goryeo" (in Korean) (2002). E-mail: dsnam@duksung.ac.kr.
The Predicament of Modern Discourses on Gender and Religion in Korean Society

Buddhism in Medieval Korea



Nam Dong-shin






Buddhism was the dominant system of thought in Korean society from the first half of the sixth century to the latter half of the fourteenth century. According to Buddhist belief, people transmigrated in accordance with the principle of cause and effect. The people of the Unified Silla and Goryeo, hoping for a happy future, were intent upon accumulating Buddhist merits. Buddhist clergy flourished, regarded as a "field of blessings," in which seeds of well-being can be harvested.

Medieval Korean states enforced a policy of protecting but controlling Buddhism. The clergy was regarded as an entity sharing the same fate as the state; the "protection of Buddhism" and the "protection of the state" constituted a relationship like that of two wheels of a bicycle.

When Buddhist clergy became a hotbed of corruption and degradation in Goryeo's later years, Neo-Confucian scholars demanded a drastic reform of the system. Unlike Buddhism, Confucianism accepted the independent existence of the objective world. The transition from Buddhism to Confucianism in Korea in the fourteenth century signifies the replacement of the dominant system of thought that had to adapt to social changes.

Keywords: Buddhist view of state and king, cause and effect theory, monk administration system, salvation through Buddhist merits (guna), state Buddhist policy in Goryeo period





Buddhism was first introduced to Korea in the latter half of the fourth century, and it was in the first half of the sixth century that the Three Kingdoms, Silla being the last among them, gave full official recognition to Buddhism. The Three Kingdoms introduced Buddhism from China as a more universal religion than shamanism, when they were expanding their territories and competitively strengthening their political systems. Buddhism gradually took root in Korean society and experienced an accommodation period in the late Three Kingdoms era until it functioned as the dominant system of thought in Unified Silla and Goryeo. This period is considered the medieval era in Korean history.

In India, Buddhism was originally a teaching for truth seekers to forsake the world. In a bid to construct a state with centralized power, however, secular rulers in East Asia treated Buddhism preferentially because it had influence among the people. At the same time, they kept Buddhism under tight control. By cooperating with secularism, Buddhism enjoyed the glory of becoming the dominant system of thought. The legacy of Buddhist culture, accounting for more than a half of Korea's state-designated cultural properties, vividly reminds us of traces of Korea's Buddhist past.

This article attempts to systematically discuss the structure and functions of Korean Buddhism when it secured the position of dominant ideology during the medieval period. First, I will discuss the Buddhist sentiments that dwelt deeply among the people in a most persistent manner and for the longest period of time in Korean history. These sentiments constituted the base of Buddhism in medieval Korea. Next, I will discuss the superstructure of Buddhism, i.e. the state's Buddhist policy and the Buddhist clergy's view of the state and king. Lastly, I will discuss the relationship between "protection of the state" (hoguk), and "protection of Buddhism" (hobeop) in the context of the debate on the nature of Buddhism in medieval Korea.



Theory of Cause and Effect and Belief in Salvation through Buddhist Merits


Buddhism is a system of thought designed to teach people to overcome their suffering. According to Sakyamuni, no creation in the universe, including human beings, is independent or of an inherent substance, and the objective world is not permanent and constant but ceaselessly changing. Being unable to see the changes, however, people mistakenly assume that the objective world is constant and fixed and therefore create attachments to that world. Thereby, contradictions arise between the changing objective world and constant subjective cognizance, which in turn fills life with suffering. People become obsessed with the idea of a fixed self or substance, and engage in karmic activities throughout their lives, which accumulate and determine fates in future existence. All sentient beings, including human beings, transmigrate between six paths of life (yukdo: heaven, humans, hell, hungry ghosts, shambles, and beasts) like a constantly spinning wheel; no path is free from suffering, different as the paths are. To break the chain of endless suffering, Sakyamuni taught that people must sever their attachments to life and cultivate wisdom through ascetic training, instead of offering sacrificial rites to gods or spirits.

In contrast, shamanism, which dominated early Korean religious thought, is based on a spirit-centered worldview that sees people's fortune or misfortune as determined by the spirits of nature and the ancestors. According to shamanism, to avert misfortune and gain fortune, one must offer sacrificial rites to the spirits. Only a small number of specialized people monopolize rites, and people are classified into three groups: agents of spirits (sinin), such as chief shamans, ordinary people, and lowly, beast-like people (biin). Shamans believe that life in the present world is repeated intact in future existence. Tombs from the Three Kingdoms preserved today clearly demonstrate how the ruling class, who subscribed to this view of life after death, aspired to sustain their wealth and rank after death.

Buddhism, on the other hand, teaches that truth, not gods or spirits, governs the world, and that all people are equal in principle before truth. One can change his or her future life through volitional deeds, not reliance on gods or spirits.[1] By embracing Buddhism in the late Three Kingdoms era, Koreans were able to cope with nature and history in a more subjective and positive way. Since then, the Buddhist view of life-that people transmigrate between six kinds of lives under the principle of "cause and effect concomitant in their retribution" (hetu-phala)- has greatly affected Korean people. A Buddhist monk in late Goryeo created the images of Taejo, the founding king of Goryeo, transmigrating between nine lives. According to the monk's theory, Taejo, having accumulated Buddhist merits in his previous existence by living as a monk and a temple cow, eventually ascended the throne in his lifetime, and became a bodhisattva after death. Just as farmers aspired to good harvest, people accumulated merit in their lifetime in hope for a better future.

In Buddhism, Good deeds are called "Buddhist merits" or guna. Construction of a temple, Buddhist statue or pagoda, financial donations to the Buddhist establishment, construction of roads and bridges, relief work for the poor, feeding and sheltering travelers, and assisting the needy with medical care and finances, help accumulate Buddhist merits. Legend depicts the prevalent belief in "salvation through Buddhist merits" among all classes by the eighth century. According to the legend, a poor mother and son living near Gyeongju in the mid-eighth century heard that a donation to their Buddhist clergy would reward them with tens of thousands times their gift. The mother and son donated a plot of land they were cultivating, hoping for a happy life after death in return. Some time later, the son was born again as a ranking official's son and became a top government official. In a tribute to his parents in his former and present lives, he built a temple known as Bulguksa, accompanied by the Seokguram grotto, both of which are vintage Unified Silla architecture and UNESCO-registered world cultural heritage.[2] Belief in "salvation through good deeds" prevailed among Goryeo people from the king down to the masses. Evidence can be found in history books like the Goryeosa (History of Goryeo) and monument inscriptions. King Munjong, one of the most revered Goryeo kings, proclaimed he would bring fortunes to the country with the aid of Buddha's grace (adhisthana).

Numerous Buddhas and bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism and monks with outstanding attainments were the objects of worship in the accumulation of Buddhist merits. Buddha originally means

"an enlightened person." Mahayana Buddhism that came to Korea through China, however, deified the Buddha. According to documents on the introduction of Buddhism into Korea, Koreans accepted from the outset the three treasures (trini-ratnani), including Buddha, as sacred beings with supernatural power. To Koreans of the medieval era, Buddhas were both "enlightened persons," something anyone could strive to become through ascetic training, and sacred beings with greater authority than spirits. Sacred beings satisfied people's religious needs more than enlightened persons did. Silla people held this belief from the beginning: "Each household worshipping Buddha enjoys prosperity, generation after generation."

The objects of Buddhist merit such as Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and temples are called "fields of blessings" (punnakkhetta) because gaining fortune through the accumulation of good deeds is likened to sowing seeds on a field and harvesting grains from it. In Silla and Goryeo, euphemisms were usually used for distinguished monks. Uicheon (1055-1101), who was the fourth son of King Munjong and represents the first half of the Goryeo era, became a monk at the young age of eleven under King Munjong's instruction that he become a field of blessings and benefit the nation.

The "cause and effect" principle and belief in salvation through good deeds comply with principles of farming, such as "People do not gather grapes from thorns" and "Reap as you have sown." Unified Silla and Goryeo Koreans believed that farming principles were of direct relevance in Buddhist faith. Buddhism, originally a product of commercial civilization, suited agricultural societies of both Silla and Goryeo. Buddhism promised the people a future of well-being, in return for which it flourished by winning religious devotion and material donations from the population.



 State Buddhist Policy: Protection and Control


For medieval rulers seeking a centralized power structure with the king at its helm, it was essential to control Buddhism, which had become dominant over public sentiments. Goguryeo and Baekje, who had accepted Buddhism as early as the late fourth century, had royal edicts instructing the people to "practice Buddhism, thus seek well-being." A Silla king in the early sixth century ordered the construction of a temple for the purpose of "ridding the state of sin and nurturing well-being." The Three Kingdoms thus embraced Buddhism with the explicit objective of seeking well-being under state encouragement.[3] As a result, the belief that seeking well-being by accumulating merit was able to spread.

King Taejo's thoughts well reflect how secular power viewed Buddhism at the time. He divulged his thoughts to one of his Confucian-official confidants.[4] He noted that Buddhist thoughts are so deeply embedded in the thoughts of Silla people that they believe that life or death, fortune or misfortune depend entirely on the Buddha. King Taejo advised against a tactless attempt to reform Buddhism, saying that having only just completed unification of the Later Three Kingdoms, Goryeo had yet to secure public acceptance. A lesson must be learned, he added, from the fact that the proliferation of monasteries precipitated the fall of Silla. In his deathbed injunctions, King Taejo instructed that the state must "protect but control" Buddhism, reasoning that decision-making on matters of great interest to the state requires the help of the "power of Buddha." This constituted the basic line of Goryeo's Buddhist policy. Eventually, the idea that Buddhism and the nation share a common fate became widespread. It is said that at Wangnyunsa temple- one of the ten temples built in Gaeseong during the second year of Taejo's reign and a temple with which the court maintained a special relationship- the main Buddha statue miraculously sweats in distress, thus forewarning people that disaster was to befall the state.

To "protect but control" Buddhism, the state placed the Buddhist community under secular control, and as a result the king exercised both secular and religious authority. Buddhist personnel and financial resources were controlled through the monk administration system and monastic finances. The monk administration system was created during the late Three Kingdoms period, underwent changes with changing times and was finally institutionalized in Goryeo.[5] The state established a semi-bureaucratic centralized monk administration instiution to exercise control not only over the religious institution as a whole but also over individual monks and their ideology. Goguryeo and Baekje, which had already accepted Buddhism in the fourth century before Silla, had a similar monastic control agency set up in the provinces as well as in the capital. After this, the Jeongbeopjeon (Buddhist Administration Office) in Unified Silla and the Seungnoksa (Buddhist Registration Office) in Goryeo were established, with the guktong and the doseungnok serving as the highest post in the hierarchical monk system in Unified Silla and Goryeo, respectively. Each temple had three posts: sangjwa (chief priest), juji (abbot), and yuna (rector). Through most of medieval Korea, the king exercised managing power over them.

Besides the religious institutions organized of monks, institutions organized of laymen posed another channel for the control of Buddhism. These laymen were placed in charge of a wide scope of clergy administration: monks renouncing the world or those quitting the priesthood, ordination, reception of the precepts, appointment of abbots, execution of funerals and memorial services, etc. The state administered the monk register. Also, the transfer of monks to sects other than those they were originally assigned to-considered generally impossible-had to be done with royal approval. At first, the responsibility of punishment for crimes lay with the religious institutions, with the exception of murder, which was punished by secular law; but with time, secular law took responsibility over punishing all cleric crimes.

The state established an examination for the Buddhist clergy on the model of the state civil service examination. Candidates who passed these exams successfully were assigned different ranks according to their Gyo (Textual) or Seon (Meditation) school, and placed in leadership positions. In the Goryeo period, ranks were divided into six levels. The Gyo school was headed by a patriarch position (seungtong) and the Seon school was headed by a great Seon master (daeseonsa). Theoretically, the highest spiritual leaders in each school-the national preceptor (guksa) and royal preceptor (wangsa)-were both superior to the king, but in reality the king was free to appoint or dismiss men in these positions.[6]

Because the state controlled the Buddhist institution in its entirety, the clergy lost extraterritorial rights that their counterparts enjoyed, for example, in India. As a result, monks would identify themselves to the king as "royal subject so and so." The two men in superior positions, the national preceptor and royal preceptor, were free of the identification as "royal subjects," but this too was a privilege granted by the king.[7]

In medieval Korea, the state regarded the Buddhism as collaborator to rule and offered it preferential treatment, and therefore the Buddhist clergy served as a ladder for social advancement equal to that of secular bureaucracy. While there were people who took the Buddhist mission upon themselves as a sincere calling, many turned to Buddhism as a means of obtaining honor, power and wealth. This trend was conspicuous especially during the Goryeo dynasty, during which Buddhism enjoyed its status as a state religion. Indeed, the custom of sending the eldest son to become a monk was common to all of Northeast Asia, exemplified in Yao and Yuan China. To reduce the excessive exodus of young men into monasteries, Goryeo had to place a quota in the mid-eleventh century limiting monk ordination to one out of four sons per family. This quota was eased later in the capital Gaegyeong and other provincial cities, permitting one out of three sons per family. Commoners, who were obligated to fulfill corvee duties from the age of sixteen, could begin the temples' five-year training course at fifteen, and monks were ordained upon the course's completion at the age of twenty. The state administered all processes, and the law dealt severely with those attempting to become monks in any other way.

In both China and Korea, Buddhism relied on land as its main economic foundation.[8] The state allotted land to registered monks, just as they allotted land to bureaucrats. Goryeo allotted 40 gyeol [9] of farmland and 10 gyeol of forests to monks of the highest rank, 35 gyeol of farmland and 8 gyeol of forests to the second highest ranking monks, and 30 gyeol of farmland to the lowest ranking monks. The Joseon dynasty later drastically cut the amount of land given to monks, allocated merely one gyeol of farmland and one serf per monk.

In addition to the real estate allotted by the state, monasteries were allowed to possess a huge quantity of farmland. Because monks were exempt from tax and corvee duties, most anyone with economic means in society attempted to utilize temples as their financial hideouts. Those in power, from royalty to the ruling classes, attempted to administer their wealth by consigning their properties to temples, and the ruled class attempted to gain economic protection by donating property to monasteries. However, the concept that all land belongs to the king was deeply rooted in Korean society, and already in the mid-seventh century the state banned unauthorized land contribution to temples. Even when monks intended to donate private land, they could not escape the formalities of obtaining official approval from the state.

In addition to land cultivation, monasteries increased their wealth by engaging in profitable businesses such as money loaning, commerce, winemaking, salt manufacture and printing. Under Goryeo, monasteries near Gaegyeong cultivated onion and garlic, vegetables traditionally banned in Buddhism for their smell, and even raised livestock. Despite chronic food shortage in the general population, monasteries boosted their wealth by reinvesting their capital by practicing usury and winemaking. Winemaking was so rampant in Goryeo that the rule about abstinence from alcohol, one of the five Buddhist precepts, was for all purposes ignored. Even Palgwanhoe (Festival of the Eight Vows), a national Buddhist ritual, became a lavishly entertaining celebration for the king and aristocrats lasting well into the night; in fact, many officials were reprimanded later for their drunken misbehavior at the festival. In search for inspiration, poets would frequent monasteries for their superb scenery and excellent wine.[10] In order to maintain stability in provision of grain, the state tried to strictly regulate winemaking in the temples, but these laws were enforced only loosely.

Buddhism in medieval Korea was thus incorporated into the all-controlling power of secular authority. Instead of curbing the malevolence of secular power as an entity seeking universal truth, Buddhism consequently exhibited an ideology justifying and sanctifying secular power.



Buddhist View of State and King


Buddhism is not a political ideology, but many Buddhist writings discuss ideal politics and ideal rule. A prime example is the Suvarna-prabhasa, which has been studied for centuries by Korean Buddhists. According to the Suvarna-prabhasa, if the king abides by the "just principle" (jeongbeop), then no calamities will take place, nature will cooperate and the harvest will be successful, providing the land and its people with ease and comfort. Here, true principle is not strictly Buddhist in implication, but rather refers to universal rules that govern all creation. In its advocacy of rule by just laws, and not force or machination, true principle is closer to the Confucian political ideology of the Kingly Way (wangdo).

As for the proper relationship between king and subjects, the Suvana-prabhasa provides an interpretation likening this relationship to that between parents an children, an interpretation long-engrained in Korean society. When a Silla king in the mid-eighth century, the height of Buddhist culture, asked a monk how to provide subjects with a comfortable existence, the latter responded with a song explaining that "The king must play the role of father, his ministers the mother, and the people, their children." This corresponds to the traditional Confucian view that sees the king as father and teacher.

An even clearer expression of Buddhist expectations of the king can be found in the Avatamsaka Sutra (Flower Garland Sutra), one of the most influential scriptures in the history of Korean Buddhism. The Avatamsaka Sutra deals concretely with the role of the ideal king. The notion of kingship held by Buddhists can be seen also in the Inwanggyeong (Benevolent Kings Sutra), a scripture based on the Assembly for Sutra Recitation by One Hundred Eminent Monks (Baekgo Jwahoe). The Assembly, a typical state ritual, was held from the period of the Three Kingdoms through the Goryeo dynasty. This vision is known also as the theory of "If a bodhisattva were to become king" (bosal wiwang). [11]

The Buddhist attempt to sanctify royal authority by identifying the king as Buddha or bodhisattva emerged around in China in the fifth century and in Korea in the sixth century. Prior to the unification of the Three Kingdoms, for example, the Silla royal household claimed to be of the Sakyamuni clan. King Jinpyeong of Silla named himself, his queen and younger brothers after Sakyamuni's parents and uncles. Queen Jinpyeong regrettably failed to give birth to a son, whom the royal family intended to call Gautama Siddhartha, Sakyamuni's name before his ordination. Indeed, the fact that the queen was able to make her princess the first queen of Silla despite strong objection owes largely to the fact that the royal household was consecrated by the Buddhist establishment. Sacred Buddhist lineage, or genuine lineage (jinjong), is a Buddhist version of the shamanistic theory of "offspring from heaven," which prevailed before the introduction of Buddhism. [12]

After the mid-seventh century, however, emphasis gradually shifted from the privileges given to those of inherent sacred blood to those who acquired the character and capabilities of bodhisattva. In early years of Unified Silla, when the royal household was reinforcing royal power, the need to contain the king's arbitrary rule increased: 

    If the king's administration is bright and benevolent, the people will not trespass so much as a line drawn on the ground but remain in the Kingdom to enjoy its blessings; if the king's administration is dark and tyrannical, even high walls of iron and stone will not restrain them, and there will be no way to avert evils from without. [13]

The above is advice eminent monk Uisang gave King Munmu (661-681) who completed the unification of the Three Kingdoms, when he, in a bid to glorify the royal achievements, indulged in constructing palaces and fortifications. Hearing this advice, the king promptly suspended the works.

In the middle period of Silla (654-780) the state attempted to place the Buddhist establishment under secular control, while the Buddhist order endeavored to tame secular power through religion. The hypothesis "If a bodhisattva were to become king" clearly reflects the clergy's approach. The bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism is the  ideal man who strives to fulfill his Buddhist calling, such as enlightenment and salvation, while living a secular life. But because secular principles like family lineage and power succession governed the rules of success to the throne, it was practically impossible for a bodhisattva to become king. Instead, Buddhist monks could cultivate the king or his heirs towards becoming bodhisattva. Rulers and aristocrats hence received bodhisattva precepts (bodhisattva sila). [14]

Bodhisattva precepts, which had gained influence in the Buddhist establishment after the mid-seventh century, emphasize internal motives over external deeds. The Brahmajala Sutra (Sutra of Brahma's Net), a representative scripture dealing with bodhisattva precepts, stipulates that kings and senior government officials must receive bodhisattva precepts before they assume official responsibilities. Another scripture notes that by adhering to the ten good deeds of the bodhisattva precepts, people increase their chances of being reborn into nobility and becoming king. Having long been exposed to the violence of war, the general population yearned for the emergence of an altruistic and compassionate bodhisattva. 

Although only three of the Silla kings are verified to have accepted bodhisattva precepts, most Unified Silla kings protected Buddhism. It became somewhat of a trend of the elite, with a considerable number of aristocratic officials, to receive the precepts. During the Goryeo dynasty, King Taejo referred to himself as a disciple of bodhisattva precepts, and it became customary for monarchs following him to do the same. According to the Goryeosa, all kings following King Deokjong in the mid-eleventh century received bodhisattva precepts, and in mid-Goryeo kings received bodhisattva precepts as many as five to six times during their reign.

By receiving bodhisattva precepts, monarchs were able to enhance their legitimacy of rule as bodhisattva acts of enlightenment, but they were also burdened with fulfilling religious duties such as observing the precepts and performing compassionate deeds. Most Goryeo kings received bodhisattva precepts at the Geondeokjeon (Virtue Nurturing Hall), and some received the precepts several times while on the throne, indicating that religious virtues were a required component of leadership.

Upon achieving the same level as Buddha, kings were exempt from bowing before Buddha statues, [15] but when ranked as bodhisattva, kings had to bow before statues of both Buddhas and bodhisattvas. A painting from the early fourteenth century, the Jijangbosaldo (Painting of Ksitgarbha Bodhisattva) on exhibit at the National Museum of Korea, depicts a shining mountain-sized bodhisattva and tiny-sized King Taejo, performing a deep bow on his knees. Such depictions are common in Goryeo paintings, and demonstrate how Buddhists of the period revered religious power over secular power.

As rulers assumed the merciful face of bodhisattva by accepting bodhisattva precepts, royal land was also consecrated as Buddha-land (buddha-ksetra). Buddha-land denotes the paradise of Buddha and bodhisattva, and so naturally, the king ruling such a land received bodhisattva precepts. Interestingly, Goryeo kings, who graced the spirits of major mountains and rivers with honorable titles, refrained from doing so to Buddha and bodhisattva, who were considered to be of equal or superior rank to royalty. [16]

The concept of Buddha-land that emerged in the late Three Kingdoms period contributed greatly towards pacifying the cultural resistance against this foreign religion and enforced the establishment of Buddhism in Korean society. Manjusri Bodhisattva was believed to reside in mountains Odaesan and Cheongnyangsan, and the Ava-lokitesvara (Buddhist Goddess of Mercy) was believed to reside in the Naksansa temple (Gangwon-do province), Naksan and Baekhwasan mountain, as well as Gwaneumbong peak. Many other mountains were named after Buddha or bodhisattvas. Most famous is Geumgangsan mountain or Mt. Diamond (vajra), a mountain famous for its beauty, to which all Koreans aspire to make a pilgrimage to at least once in their lifetime. A number of the mountain's major peaks, including the highest one, Biro (vairocana), have Buddhist names. As celebrated in a famous song for its "12,000 peaks and 89,000 hermitages," the mountain is home to countless monasteries and hermitages, and tantamount to a Buddhist paradise. Geumgangsan mountain became Korea's foremost Buddhist holy place in the late Silla period, peaking in importance in late Goryeo.

As secular and religious powers developed a close and mutual relationship, Buddhist clergy gradually became secularized and stratified. In principle, Buddhism advocated class equality; late in the seventh century, Uisang in fact achieved class equality within the Avatamsaka order. But the overall trend of the time was quite different. Since the state directly controlled the monastic system, only yangin (freeborn) were permitted to be ordained, and slaves were banned in principle. Even among yangin, monks hailing from aristocracy climbed the promotion ladder much faster than those from other backgrounds. Offspring of aristocracy were able to grab leadership positions in the clergy, and it became widely accepted that family background played a key role in determining ranks in the clergy. Uicheon, a prince in mid-Goryeo, entered the Buddhist monastic system at the age of eleven, was officially ordained a monk within five months and climbed to the top of the Buddhist hierarchy in two years. Also Sohyeon, a royal relative on the maternal side, entered the Buddhist hierarchy at the age of eleven was ordained as a monk the following year. These speedy promotions reflect the extent to which political power controlled Buddhism.

As Buddhist clergy became highly class-stratified, Buddhist theories on men such as indriya (inherent qualities) and buddhata (Buddha-nature) supplied the ideological grounds to justify social status. [17] The indriya theory was initially intended to narrow the shortcomings of the buddhata theory, which departed from reality. According to buddhata theory, all people are equal in that all have the potential to become Buddha. In reality, however, this was not the case. Holding that people's fates are determined by their inherent qualities, indriya theory classified men into three groups: those of superior basic qualities who are able to become Buddha on their own; those of inferior basic qualities who need help and guidance to become Buddha; and those in between. Those who can play the role of helping others attain enlightenment are Buddha, bodhisattva and people with superior qualities. Accordingly, those with inferior qualities were submissive and had to be educated by those with superior qualities. And it was the ruling class who received bodhisattva precepts to become Buddha, bodhisattvas or people with superior qualities. Even the second abbot of the Suseonsa community, an establishment that aimed at rectifying the abuses of the political-religious collusion of late Goryeo, identified military bureaucrats as having superior qualities. It was widely believed that noble blood and high posts were the result of pious deeds accumulated in their previous lifetimes.



Protection of the State and Protection of Buddhism


In discussing the historical nature of Buddhism in medieval Korea, scholars have cited "Buddhism protecting the state" (hoguk bulgyo) as one of its main trends. Hoguk bulgyo implies that Buddhism protects the state from crises such as natural disasters and invasions. This calls, however, for a review of the concept of state. A typical dictionary definition sees a state as being constituted of a territory, sovereignty and people. In Indian society, where religion's supremacy was voiced over politics, the state signified territory rather than a monarch, and this perception was established as the Buddhist view of the state. [18] Therefore, in Buddhist scriptures, the protection of the state involves the ruler protecting his territory from various disasters, with the understanding that a ruler's protection of Buddhism is prerequisite to the protection of territory. On his deathbed, Sakyamuni Buddha entreated the ruler to protect the Buddhist community.

Benevolent Kings Sutra best describes the Buddhist view of the state, putting clear emphasis on the protection of Buddhism over the protection of the state. According to the chapter on the protection of the state, a king must first protect Buddhism in order to protect his territory from enemies. To do so, the scripture emphasizes the importance of the Assembly for Sutra Recitation by One Hundred Eminent Monks. This magnificent Buddhist ritual required the state to hold a banquet for 100 distinguished monks, light 100 lanterns, burn an assortment of incense, and erect 100 statues each of the Buddha, bodhisattvas and arhats. The king attending the occasion had to personally read the scripture on a daily basis. The basic message of the scripture asks not what Buddhism can do for the state, but what the king can do for Buddhism.

In Chinese and Korean societies, which had long experienced centralized, authoritarian monarchy, the state became synonymous with the king, its sole sovereign. In the early seventh century, the Assembly for Sutra Recitation by One Hundred Eminent Monks was established in order to honor the war dead and continued by honoring the state or king over the 700 years until the mid-fourteenth century. In general, from the later years of the Three Kingdoms to the end of Goryeo, state protection of Buddhism and Buddhist protection of the state were two sides of the same coin. Particularly during Goryeo, intellectuals were aware that the state considered Buddhism as a collaborator in rule and treated it preferably. Accordingly, Buddhism enjoyed its status as the state religion and functioned as the dominant ideology during the Goryeo dynasty.

Buddhist rituals became institutionalized as state festivals, and were presided over by the king. As a result, the protection of Buddhism enhanced national interests and consecrated the royal power. The largest state Buddhist festivals were Yeondeunghoe (Lantern Festival) and Palgwanhoe.


    I [King Taejo] have great interest in Yeondeunghoe and Palgwanhoe. At Yeondeunghoe, the Buddha is worshipped, and Palgwanhoe celebrates the spirits residing in heaven, the five major mountains, other famous mountains, vast rivers, and dragons. No officials shall be allowed in future to recommend any additions to or deletions from the set rituals. I too have committed myself to seeing that Yeondeunghoe and Palgwanhoe won't breach state memorials, and that the king and his subjects enjoy the celebrations together. You shall observe the rituals as set forth. [19]


These two rituals began in Silla, and were held regularly in Goryeo under Taejo's deathbed injunction. The Yeondeunghoe festival was held nationwide for two days around the fifteenth day of the second lunar month, with the beginning of farming. Thousands of lanterns were lit and assorted delicacies were offered to the Buddha, in prayer for tranquility to the nation and happiness for the people. On that day, the king and his subjects paid respect to King Taejo's portrait at Bongeunsa temple. The Palgwanhoe festival was originally an occasion for layman practitioners to acquire Buddhist merits by residing at monasteries an entire day and observing Buddhist precepts. Later during the Goryeo dynasty, this festival was changed into a two-day ceremony in the eleventh lunar month of the year, in which offerings were given to the spirits of heaven, earth, mountains and rivers. On that day, the king accepted felicitations from subjects and foreign diplomats, displaying the nation's prestige at home and abroad. [20]

There is much evidence indicating that medieval Korean Buddhism identified the state with the king, and in a similar way conflated the protection of Buddhism with that of the state. Royal monasteries [21] of the Unified Silla and Goryeo primarily performed memorial services for late kings. Attached to all monasteries including the royal ones was an administrative office manned by high-ranking officials, and this office was responsible for memorial services for late kings as well as the construction, maintenance and management of the Buddhist temples, pagoda, and Buddha's statue. In 771, for example, Bongdeoksa temple cast the Divine Bell of King Seongdeok, or Emille Bell, to posthumously honor King Seongdeok and pray for the prosperity of the royal house and nation. Now classified as a national treasure, the bell is three meters tall, featured by elegant sculptures, engravings, and sublime and clear sound, and has moved the hearts of many in the past 1200 years. The Bongdeoksa temple administration was composed of top-level bureaucrats including a man who later ascended the throne through a coup d'tat. The administrative office for Hwangnyongsa temple, the largest temple in Silla, engaged in major repair and reconstruction of a nine-story wooden pagoda in 872. The wooden pagoda, presumed to have been between 67 and 80 meters high, is said to have been built in 645 at the peak of the wars over the unification of the Three Kingdoms under the divine message, "A nine-story pagoda built at Hwangnyongsa temple will repel invaders." The pagoda was one of Silla's three treasures. Members of the Hwangnyongsa temple administration office also included the king's younger brother and later the defense minister, among other senior bureaucrats.

The Tripitaka Koreana, a Buddhist canonical work made by woodblock printing and a representative of Goryeo culture and UNESCO world heritage, was also carved to protect the nation. The project began in 1231, and was aimed at repelling the Mongolian invasions with the help of the "power of Buddha." The first set of the woodblocks covering over 6,000 volumes of Tripitaka was carved under the order of the king, who took refuge from the Khitan invasions in the early eleventh century. This set was kept hidden at a temple, but was promptly burned by Mongolian invaders in 1232, after which the project was taken up again from the beginning. The project to resist a destructive Mongol invasion was initiated by the military regime that took refuge on Ganghwado island, off the southwest coast of Gaeseong. Over 17 years, 1,500 kinds, 6,800 volumes of Tripitaka, and 50 million characters were carved on both front and back of 80,000 woodblocks - a monumental achievement in the history of world printing.

Such Buddhist cultural heritage of Silla and Goryeo vividly demonstrates the extent to which Buddhism was protected under the banner of state protection. Incorporated into the ruling class under state protection and exempted from tax and corvee duties, the Goryeo Buddhist clergy expanded markedly in size and underwent secularization. Exact numbers are unavailable, but Goryeo is presumed to have had between 2,000 and 3,000 temples across the country, including some 300 in the capital. Large royal temples like Hyeonhwasa and Heungwangsa housed over 1,000 monks. A record of the early eleventh century notes that some monasteries fed 100,000 monks at a time; according to Chinese records, a third of Goryeo's 2.1 million population were monks; and a writer from late Goryeo remarked that more than half the population was wandering with shaved heads. Exaggerated as they may be, these descriptions indicate that the actual number of monks far surpassed the number of public officials, which stood at 4,400. Monasteries possessed huge tracks of land in order to feed all their monks, and one record notes that toward the end of Goryeo, temples owned 100,000 gyeol, or one sixth of the nation's land. By the end of Goryeo, moral degradation and corruption were rampant in the clergy. Monks were living with their wives and children in breach of the celibacy mandate, and were selling and buying monk titles. The Buddhist clergy had sunk deep into paradox -  the religion that preached for the renouncement of the material world in order to achieve true enlightenment had become secularized.

The concept of "protecting the state through the protection of Buddhism" was based on the common belief in salvation through good deeds. The common attitude of monks was that the construction of temples on behalf of Buddha accumulates boundless merit and virtue, and even if this puts people to hard labor, this could not possibly be seen as harmful. As a result, the ruling class' pious activities were often a source of great suffering for the population. Despite the fact that marriage and farming were forbidden under Buddhist precepts, the Buddhist clergy was still able to secure manpower and resources because it was believed they pursued righteous principles and attained a morality high enough to receive such resources. By the end of Goryeo, however, public trust in the Buddhist clergy had disintegrated. The clergy sought secular benefits while professing the renouncement of the secular world, and distanced itself from virtues while preaching them. When an attempt at internal reform failed, the Buddhist clergy became not only morally corrupt but also further aggravated social contradictions by expanding its farmland. The Buddhist clergy came to be seen as a group of good-for-nothing hypocrites.

Confucian scholars, who had always placed great importance on secular reality, were traditionally critical of the Buddhist cause and effect theory and belief in salvation through merits. Their criticism intensified toward the end of Goryeo:


    King Taejo's instruction to "practice Buddhism," issued in the third year of his reign, brought about enormous evils to posterity. Devout Buddhist practitioners offered Buddhist deities no less than 70,000 seok of rice; as many as 30,000 monks a year were offered meals; few temples and portraits lack gold or silver decorations; and few Buddhist scriptures are not gilded in gold or silver. The palaces have been converted into places of praying to Buddha; monks have become the kings' teachers. Buddhism, however, has failed to save the nation when it was unstable and destroyed. Buddhism has proved to be a curse to the state, and has wrought terrible harm to the population. How can we not guard against it? [22]


Above is a criticism of King Taejo's Buddhism protection policy made by Confucian officials in the early Joseon dynasty. Intellectuals who embraced Neo-Confucianism not only pointed out rampant evils perpetrated by the Buddhist clergy, but also attempted to uproot Buddhism. Citing numerous historical instances, they attempted to prove the failure in Buddhism's theories of cause and effect concomitant in retribution, transmigration, and salvation through good deeds. They attributed the fall of Goryeo to the excessive protection of Buddhism the state enforced since Taejo's rule. It became evident that the protection of Buddhism no longer guaranteed the protection of the state. Buddhism, to Neo-Confucianists, was an impediment to the well-being of individuals and the state. They began to attack Buddhism, basing their arguments on Confucian values and eventually degraded Sakyamuni Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, from a sacred being to a cultural barbarian. [23]

Because Neo-Confucian scholars played a vital role in inaugurating the Joseon dynasty, "suppression of Buddhism and promotion of Confucianism" (eokbul sungyu) became the state policy. Buddhism dominated Korean society for nearly a millennium, but Neo-Confucianism deprived it of its cultural hegemony, and Buddhist monks were degraded from their ruling class status to one of the eight lowly positions. Grounding itself in Confucian rationalism, the new ruling class suppressed Buddhism, calling it heretical and superstitious. Identified thus as a unstable, popular religion, Buddhism barely survived on the sidelines, conforming only to some basic religious needs of the masses. In this way, Buddhism proved itself to supplement the religious limits of Confucianism as the ideology of the upper classes.





Buddhism dominated Korean society for over eight centuries, from the first half of the sixth century to the second half of the fourteenth century. While shamanism was based on a spirit-centered worldview, advocated discriminatory views of people, and saw the next lifetime as a repetition of one's prior existence, Buddhism advocated a human-centered worldview, espousing people's equality and the transmigration in future life. Transmigration follows the principle of cause and effect; humans may expect happiness at a future date by accumulating pious acts in the present. The Buddhist clergy was regarded as a "field of blessings" where people sow the seeds of pious acts, and then harvest fruits of happiness. Buddhists believed that in this way, rewards multiply by tens of thousands. The "cause and effect theory" and the "idea of Buddhist merits" prevailed among the population most deeply and for the longest period of time in medieval Korea.

Over generations, monarchs relied on Buddhism in the construction and maintenance of centralized power. The state policy in medieval Korea was basically to protect but control Buddhism. By controlling the bureaucracy and clergy, the king became the only entity exercising both secular and religious power. Buddhism strove for an ideal in which a bodhisattva could become king. In reality, however, by providing bodhisattva precepts, Buddhism provided religious authority to secular rulers, noblemen and senior government officials. The clergy in return could expect secular rulers to perform religious duties befitting those of bodhisattva.

The Buddhist clergy cooperated with, rather than confronting secular power; it often shared the same fate with the state, as the protection of Buddhism and the protection of the state developed a mutual relationship. Bulguksa temple, Seokguram grotto, the Divine Bell of King Seongdeok, and Tripitaka Koreana, the zenith of Buddhist art, are all heritage of this period. By establishing Buddhist rituals such as Yeondeunghoe and Palgwanhoe as state festivals, the protection of Buddhism naturally enhanced national interests and deified royal power. Particularly during Goryeo, when Buddhism was the state religion, becoming a monk was a shortcut to social advancement, an equal alternative to the bureaucracy. Hence the aspirations to enter monastic life exploded among the entire population, from the royal household down to the common classes.

As corruption and hypocrisy in the Buddhist establishment peaked in the later years of Goryeo, Confucian scholars advocated a forceful reform of Buddhism. Confucian theorists, long critical of the Buddhist cause and effect theory and belief in well-being through the accumulated effect of pious acts, ascribed the fall of the Goryeo dynasty to its excessive protection of Buddhism. They advocated that the protection of Buddhism no longer protected the state, but rather prompted its destruction. The Joseon dynasty suppressed Buddhism and promoted Confucianism for five centuries to follow. Buddhism was deprived of its status as a dominant philosophy by Neo-Confucianism and Buddhist monks fell from ruling class status to a status of one of eight kinds of lowly people.

Buddhism and Confucianism share spiritual idealism in that both attach the greatest emphasis on moral and religious self-cultivation. Buddhism is founded on the dualism of sanctity and secularity, denying the independence of any kind of objective world that transcends man's subjective cognition. By contrast, Confucianism, in its unitary worldview, accepts the independent existence of the objective world. The transition from Buddhism to Confucianism in the second half of the fourteenth century, accordingly, represents an immense shift in the country's history of the dominant system of thought, reflecting drastic socioeconomic transformations that took place in this period.







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Nam Dong-shin (Nam, Dong-sin) is Assistant Professor of Department of History at Duksung Women's University. He received his Ph.D. in Korean History from Seoul National University. His publications include "Unification of Three Kingdoms and Buddhism: Focusing on the Relationship between the State and Buddhist Community during the Middle Period of Silla" (in Korean) (2001) and "Choe Chi-won, an Intellectual at the Turn of Goryeo" (in Korean) (2002). E-mail: dsnam@duksung.ac.kr.



  1.    On differences between shamanism and Buddhism and the process of Korea's embrace of Buddhism, see Ko Ik-jin (1989).

  2.    Kang U-bang (2001).

  3.    Yi Gi-baek (1986).

  4.    Han Gi-mun (1983); Sem Vermeersch (2001).

  5.    In the late Three Kingdoms period, monk-officials (seunggwan) played a key role in the monk administration system. In Unified Silla, however, they were replaced by secular officials (sokgwan). Toward the end of the Unified Silla kingdom, the role was shared by monk and secular officials. Goryeo's monk administration system was a developed version of the Unified Silla system. See Nam Dong-sin (2000).

  6.    Heo Heung-sik (1986a; 1986b).

  7.    Nam Dong-sin (1997).

  8.    Yi Byeong-hui (1992).

  9.    It is not clear what the precise dimensions of one gyeol are, but it is assumed that one gyeol of farmland was a size adequate enough to support a five-member family a year, equivalent roughly to one hectare in Western society.

10.     A prominent poet in late Goryeo, Yi Gyu-bo, wrote a poem about drinking, known as "Banter following with a Monk in Winter," in Dongguk Yi sangguk jip (Collected Works of Yi Gyu-bo), gwon 16, which follows:

                Liquor protects from the cold

                this world calls a monk's head "winter crown."

                No reason that your baldness

                cannot protect you from the cold. 

11.     Nam Dong-sin (2001a).

12.     Choe Byeong-heon (1984), pp. 369-370.

13.     "Munmuwang" (King Munmu), in Samguk yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms), gwon 2, trans. Tae-Hung Ha and Grafton K. Mintz (Seoul: Yonsei University Press, 1972).

14.     Chinese emperors began referring to themselves as "disciples receiving bodhisattva precepts" in the sixth century. Among them are King Wudi of Liang, who converted from Taoism to Buddhism and is reputed to have enthusiastically protected Buddhism, and King Taizong of Tang, who is said to have both realized Confucian political ideology and maintained Taoist policy. See Yokocho Enichi (1958), pp. 326-381.

15.     A famous Chinese tale recalls how King Taizu of Song visited a temple, and asked a senior monk accompanying him, "Must I bow before the Buddha statue?" to which the monk replied, "An incumbent Buddha does not bow before a past Buddha." The incident prompted the formalization of the practice. Linjinglu (),  juan 1, episode 15.

16.     Kim Gi-deok (1998): p. 15.

17.     Views conflict on the historical nature of the "Buddha-nature theory." A Chinese scholar representing China's Buddhist academic circle criticizes that the theory advanced in the Southern Dynasties period (420?89) was merely the ideology of the feudal ruling class. Ren Jiyu (1988), pp. 392-393. On the other hand, a Korean scholar asserts that the "Buddha-nature theory" by Wonhyo is progressive on grounds that it advocates equality in men. Kim Yeong-mi (1994).  

18.     Kaneoka Hitetomo (1978), pp. 118-119; Nakamura Moto (1993), pp. 204-208.

19.     "King Taejo," in Goryeosa (History of Goryeo), gwon 2.

20.     In a study of Goryeo Buddhist rituals, Kim Jong-myeong criticizes the established concepts of "Buddhism protecting the state" and "Buddhism as a state religion," noting that these should be reevaluated as royal Buddhism. See Kim Jong-myeong (2001). His book is a revised and supplemented version of the author's unpublished Ph.D. dissertation of the University of California, Los Angeles, "Buddhist Rituals in Medieval Korea (918-1392)." On the other hand, some studies further stress the role Buddhism played as a state religion. See An Ji-won (1999); Sem Vermeersch (2001).

21.     Yi Yeong-ho (1983); Yun Seon-tae (2002).

22.     Goryeosa jeoryo (Essentials of Goryeo History), gwon 1, 2nd lunar month of the 2nd year of King Taejo's reign.

23.     Jeong Do-jeon, who led a dynastic transformation from Goryeo to Joseon, was the most adamant critic of Buddhism. His ideas are presented in his "Bulssi japbyeon" (Array of Critiques against Buddhism) in Dongmunseon (Anthology of Korean Literature), gwon 105. See Han Yeong-u (1989); Do Hyeon-cheol (1999), pp. 156-173.