A Brief History of Korean Buddhism

Hi all,

This is another reference post. Recently, I was curious about Korean Buddhism, and read this article, which provided a nice, concise overview. But I noticed that this, and other sources on Korean Buddhism were somewhat light on details, or only focus on certain periods of time or people.

So, because I like to do reference posts sometimes, I decided to do one on Korean Buddhist history. Especially since Korean Buddhism is becoming more popular in the West. My information comes from a book titled Korea Old and New: A History, which I’ve read here and there, plus additional information from Wikipedia and this article.

Just as I am fascinated with Buddhist history in Japan and Okinawa, I have been curious lately about Korean Buddhist history too. This is just a brief history, and I hope to post more later.

Three Kingdoms Period

During the Three Kingdoms Period (1st – 7th century) when Silla, Baekje and Goguryeo fought for control, Buddhism was first introduced from China and Central Asia. Buddhism at this time intrigued the Korean kingdoms, because it was closely related to other aspects of Chinese civilization and technology, and each kingdom rapidly adopted it in order to modernize their country and to provide a spiritual means of protecting the state. According to Buswell’s book Tracing Back the Radiance, Buddhism at this time in Korea was centered around ritual, worship of Maitreya Bodhisattva and scholastic study of Mahayana classics from India.

Goguryeo was physically closest to China, and not surprisingly adopted it first as the state religion in 372 when Emperor Fu Jiān of the Former Qin Dynasty (前秦) sent a monk named Shundao (順道) to meet King Sosurim.

Baekje adopted it in 384, when a Serindian monk named Marananta came from Former Qin and was greeted by King Asin of Baekje. Marananta made great contributions toward establishing the Vinaya in Korea which persists to this day.

Silla didn’t adopt Buddhism until much later in the 6th century because of some resistance by its own aristocracy plus physical isolation away from China. Buddhism was first introduced by Goguryeo monks

This period was critically important for Korean Buddhism history as well, because Korean monks (bhikkhus) were critical in foreign relations, and introducing Buddhism and Chinese culture further to Japan. As mentioned previously, monks from Silla, Baekje and Goguryeo all had a presence in the early Japanese court, and they all depended on Japan as a military ally against their enemies, just as they depended on China.

Thus, Buddhism had a civilizing influence on Korea because of its political and cultural association with China, and helped to accelerate the flourishing kingdoms on the peninsula. Buddhism at this time was centered around the Buddhist notion of righteous kings, and the welfare of the nation. Texts such as Sutra of the Benevolent Kings were highly prized, and the monastic order in the Korean kingdoms was organized and controlled by the state, with an important role to help protect the state.

Unified Silla

After Silla unified the peninsula in the 7th century, Buddhism flourished further and was no longer a political tool by this point. Buddhism was now accepted by all levels of society, and also compelled Koreans monks to make many trips to Tang Dynasty China (another high-point in Buddhist culture). During this time two very popular strains of Buddhist thought took root in Unified Silla (Korea):

  • The “Flower Garland” School (Hwa-eom jong 화엄종) which was based on the famous Chinese Hua-Yan School, and with the Flower Garland Sutra as its main text. Unified Silla was greatly fascinated by the Flower Garland Sutra’s teachings on the total inter-depedence of all things (lit. “one contained in all, all contained in one”).
  • The “Pure Land” School (jeongto jong 정토종) which is centered around the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha and his vow to welcome all beings, even if they only recite his name 10 times, which in Korean is namu amita bul (나무아미타불) and is called the yeombul (염불). Because of its accessibility, the Pure Land School gained a great following among the masses, but also among the elite monks of the era such as Wonhyo (617-686, 원효).

During this time however, Confucian thought in Korea also matured, and came to rival Buddhism as a state ideology even as Buddhism became deeply woven in Silla society.

Meanwhile, the remnants of the Kingdom of Goguryeo had reorganized as the Kingdom of Balhae, and once again flourished briefly for a few centuries under a distinctly Buddhist culture before succumbing to invasion once and for all.

Kingdom of Goryeo

In time, Unified Silla declined in the 10th century, and a new kingdom emerged called Goryeo. Goryeo, compared to the previous kingdom of Unified Silla, politically favored Confucianism just as their neighbors did in Sung Dynasty China. However, Confucianism and Buddhism reached a kind of balance, wherein Confucian teachings focused on culture and politics, and Buddhism provided teachings on achieving peace of mind, and the afterlife.

Wood-block printing was prolific in Goryeo by the 11th century, which helped to systematize Buddhist texts and monastic codes more effectively than in the past. The entire Tripitaka, the sum-total of the Buddhist teachings, was now available in wood-block print, but sadly was destroyed later during the Mongol invasions. After the invasions, new versions were printed, and highly prized in East Asia for their accuracy, and quality of wood-block printing.

Buddhism itself suffered a tension at this time between the textual schools, and the new contemplative schools called Seon (선) which is related to Chinese Chán and Japanese Zen schools. Also, the Tian-tai school from China took root in Goryeo as the Cheontae School (천태종). Similar to Tian-tai in China, or Tendai in Japan, the Cheontae school attmped to provide a broader framework for Buddhism that encompassed both the textual and contemplative schools, with the Lotus Sutra as its central text. A monk named Uicheon (1055–1101, 의천) was among the most outstanding figures of the Cheontae school, after returning from China where he studied its doctrines in 1086.

The Seon schools, traditionally nine at that time, were drawn to the Chongtae teachings, and invigorated by it, leading to the emergence of the Jogye Order (jogye jong 조계종).

The Jogye Order, founded by one of Korea’s most famous monks Jinul (or more properly Bojo Jinul 보조지눌) attempted to bring together both the doctrinal sects and the meditation sects into a single, cohesive order that was comprehensive, well-disciplined, but respected the various aspects of Buddhism. Jinul’s teachings on Buddhism still remain standard curriculum in training clergy today, and the Jogye Order is by far the largest sect of Buddhism in Korea even in modern times.

The Joseon Dynasty

With the collapse of the Goryeo Kingdom in 1392, Korea was reunited under the Yi Family and the Joseon Dynasty, the longest and most culturally significant. Like many new dynasties in history, the early Joseon was dynamic and many areas of society flourished. With the promulgation of the new Hangeul alphabet, many Buddhist texts were actively published in Hangeul for wider dissemination, including prayers and important texts.

But by and large, Buddhism suffered more and more during the Joseon Dynasty because of the rise of Neo-Confucianism among the ruling family and literati.1 Where Confucianism was originally focused on secular, social matters, Neo-Confucian thought in China and elsewhere dealt with broader and more philosophical matters too, leading to a rivalry with Buddhism. Within generations, the Kings of the Joseon Dynasty forced harsher and harsher measures to control and suppress Buddhism. Occasionally, a ruler would take an interest in Buddhism, and Buddhism would revive briefly, but the overall trend toward suppression continued for generations. Buddhism was increasingly seen as a “woman’s faith” and backwards or inferior compared to Neo-Confucian thought.

During the final waning days of the Joseon Dynasty, new religious movements, often in parallel with peasant revolts or social unrest, rose. These religions often synthesized Confucian, Buddhist and newly imported Christian teachings, though traditional Buddhism fared no better during this era.

Annexation by Japan

In the late 1800’s, Japan sought to achieve power and parity with the Western colonial powers, and took an increasingly aggressive stance toward Korea (as well as China), culminating in Korea’s government being forced to become a protectorate of Japan in 1905, later signing away all remaining power of the Joseon Dynasty to Japan’s Imperial government in 1910.

As the book mentioned above, Korea Old and New, explains, Japan’s colonization of Korea was different in some ways than Western powers colonizing parts of the world because 1) Korea was Japan’s immediate neighbor, not a remote part of the world, 2) Korea was already taking steps toward modernization of its own and 3) Korea had a long history repelling foreign invaders. Thus, Japan’s efforts to assert control over Korea were more heavy-handed than those in European colonies like Indochina (France), Dutch East Indies (Holland), the Philippines (Spain), Hong Kong/Malaysia and Burma (Britain).

Japan’s Imperial government was already hostile to the Japanese Buddhism since the 1800’s and sought to break up the Buddhist establishment there with the new Nikujiku Saitai Law (肉食妻帯), which pressured Buddhist priests to marry and eat meat (violating established celibacy and dietary traditions). Similar policies and pressures were instituted in Korea, as a means of eroding resistance from Buddhist establishments there. In response, Buddhism and Korean religion in general became increasingly nationalistic as it sought to resist Japanese control.

As documents, records and policies from that era show, Japan intended to incorporate Korea as much as possible into the homeland, under such slogans as naisen ittai (内鮮一体) or “The Interior [内 Japan] and Korea [the sen in 朝鮮] as one body”. From the 1910’s onward, schools taught Japanese as a first-language, and religion increasingly followed the same model (State Shinto) as Imperial Japan itself especially starting in the 1930’s. Under General Ugaki, for example, starting in 1935, all Korean students and government employees were required to attend Shinto ceremonies (typically in honor of the Emperor of Japan), leading to protests by Christian and Buddhists groups. In the 1940’s further efforts to assimilate Korea into Japanese culture and society continued until the end of World War II in 1945.


As Japan ceded control of Korea, the Soviet Union and the US armed forces both occupied part of Korea, but were unable to resolve Korea’s future, while various Korean factions who had once opposed Japan now opposed each other, gradually leading to the disastrous Korean War. The War’s inconclusive ending lead to the partition of Korea we know today.

Buddhism in North Korea

With the founding of the DPRK, North Korea took on a Stalinist-Communist style of government, but Kim Il-Sung promoted his own Juche (self-reliance) teachings that were intended to replace all pre-existing religions and philosophies in Korea. Thus, Buddhism has all but disappeared in the North, apart from a token number of followers and state-run institutions mainly centered around historical sites (e.g. Bohyeonsa).

Because of the DPRK’s efforts to make a pure Korean society free of foreign influences (even down to loan-words in Korean language), Buddhism fares better than other religions such as Christianity, but mainly for cultural reasons, not religious ones.

Buddhism in South Korea

Under a series of military dictatorships until the 1980’s, life in South Korea gradually stabilized and Buddhism in South Korea gradually recovered as well. During the 1950’s and 1960’s, monks from the Seon school reorganized and re-asserted traditional Buddhist monastic institutions that were suppressed during Japanese rule, which led to the formation of the Jogye Order, descended in large part from the ancient Jogye sect from the Kingdom of Goryeo.

The Jogye Order is by far the largest and most organized Buddhist sect in South Korea, and currently administers most of the major temples in South Korea. Another related group, the Taego Order, branched off the Jogye Order in 1970 and is the second largest in Korea. One of the most notable differences between the two orders is the issue of celibacy of its priests (married priests are allowed in the Taego Order), while both retain their Seon heritage.

Other ancient Korean schools have gradually revived (including the Chongtae sect from the same era), and some Vajrayana movements, as Koreans rediscover their past, but these are comparatively smaller than the Jogye Order and Taego Order.

Because of the continued tension between Buddhists and Christians in South Korea, Buddhism continues to be politicized and rallies against President Lee Myung-Bak show that although Buddhism has revived in Korea, it’s role in the larger Korean society are still being worked out.


This post is an attempt to aggregate information on Korean Buddhism and Buddhist history for reference purposes and provide context to those who would like to know more. I wish I had more, and varied sources, but this page was the best I could do. Also, I wanted to limit political discussion as much as possible so I could focus on Buddhist history only, but it is harder to do this in the modern era, because Japan’s annexation of Korea had such a profound effect.

In summary though, Korea’s Buddhist history has parallels with its neighbors Japan and China. Trends in Buddhist schools and thought emerged at the same time in all three, and both Japanese and Korean Buddhism suffered during the militaristic years of Japan’s Imperial government, as well as the pre-industrial period while competing with Neo-Confucianism.

But post-war era is gradually becoming a time of healing, and hopefully continued revival.

1 A similar trend occurred in Japan during the Edo Period.

About Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

6 thoughts on “A Brief History of Korean Buddhism

  1. Nice pocket summary. Although a bit dry at times, I’d suggest folks looking for a bit more detail on Korean religious history check out: James Grayson’s excellent work “Korea: A religious history” and for a good account of Korean Zen Robert Buswell’s “The Zen Monastic Experience.”

  2. Noto que mi curiosidad me ha llevado al punto que cada día espero (ansioso) éste correo. Gracias

  3. Thank El_D! Exactly what I was looking for. I’m trying to balance out my bookshelf so I appreciate the advice.:-)

  4. I went to Korea in 1959 at the age of 17 it was shortly after the war it was to mold my lifesytle through out the rest of my life. I new very little about nothing at the time some of the lessons were harsh ( Such as Japanese/ Korean relations) others were quite beautiful, i didn’t know anythig about Buddhism but i remember being really attracted to monesteries that seemed to be promanent on jagged mountain peaks i could see them as we traveled along the roads in our armored personel carriers. Later in the seventies two sisters who were friends of mine took around the world juant and i remember them telling me the Buddhist monks in Korea treated them with equality more than other countries that they had visited, Thanks for the wonderful post.

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