Buddhist Philosophy 12: Buddhism in Korea & Vietnam

While China and Japan dominate most views and surveys of Buddhism, in this lecture we will be studying the Buddhist and Zen traditions in Korea and Vietnam.  Please watch the videos of Thich Nhat Hanh that follow this lecture on YouTube.

Buddhism in Korea

Korea has a long and celebrated tradition of shamanism and nature worship which blended together with Buddhism when it was introduced in 372 CE and after by missionaries from China and India bringing Mahayana texts, teachings and practices.  For a long time after the Korean peninsula, an “almost island” in the Latin, was divided into three kingdoms during what is now appropriately known as the Three Kingdoms Period, which lasted until 668 CE.  

In the north was the kingdom of Goguryeo, which received the monk Shundao (Korean: Sundo) from China in 372.  In the southwest kingdom of Baekje, they received Buddhism from the Indian monk Malananda in 384.  The first two kingdoms embraced Buddhism, but in Silla Buddhism had a much harder time taking root.  In 527, over a century and a half after Shundao brought Buddhism from China, a prominent court official named Ichadon announced he was a Buddhist to the royal court of Silla and was beheaded by command of the king.  According to legend, milk spilled out of his neck, not blood, showing the miraculous and nutritious powers of the new faith.  The next few kings of Silla gradually embraced Buddhism as well, after much missionary work from the other two kingdoms.

The Korean monk Beomnang (632 – 729) is said to have studied Chan in China and first brought Chinese Chan to Korea, a student of the Chinese master Daoxin.  Seon (pronounced ‘Sown’, like a seed, just as the South Korean capital city Seoul is pronounced ‘Soul’) is the Korean word for Chinese Chan, much like the Japanese word Zen, which is the English term for the entire sect worldwide.  The meditation and contemplation approach riled the feathers of the study-based Mahayana schools already established, but by the time the three kingdoms were unified in 918, the Nine Mountain Schools of Korean Seon were traditionally established, eight of the schools claiming the lineage of Mazu, like the House of Linji, and one claiming the lineage of the House of Caodong, like Dogen, the same as the Rinzai and Soto as they are known in Japan.  While Seon was seen as strange and untrustable at first, during the Goryeo period (918 – 1392), from which get the name Korea the Nine Mountain Schools of Seon became the dominant spiritual tradition of the state, just as the Five Houses had in Song China, producing many talented figures, scholars and artists.

Bojo Jinul (1158 – 1210, Chinul in Wade-Giles), whose name means Knowing Reservation, is the central influential patriarch of Seon in the Goryeo period, the founder of the Jogye order who continue today to unify various Buddhist teachings and practices from Indian, Chinese, Japanese and Korean traditions into a common form of meditation, chanting, study and lectures for the ordained and commoner alike, still one of the most powerful religious groups in Korea today.  Like Dogen and Hakuin, Jinul was upset by the corruption that was rampant in Buddhist involvements with money and power, including selling fortune telling, prayers and rituals for success of those who would pay, regardless of self-development.  Jinul founded the Samadhi and Prajna Society, which established a community deep in the mountains away from the eyes of others.  He carefully analyzed Chinese Chan practices and texts in his own writings, and developed a sudden enlightenment followed by gradual practice system based on the work of Dahui and the Huayan master Guifeng.

Jinul’s greatest work, his magnum opus, is his Excerpts from the Dharma Collection and Special Practice Record with Inserted Personal Notes, known in the Korean Buddhist tradition far more simply as the Excerpts (the Choryo, 1209), a practice manual for Jinul’s students which was completed within a year of his death.  The Dharma Collection and Special Practice Record is itself the work of the Chinese master Guifeng (780 – 841) who held positions in both the Chan and Huayan sects in China.  Jinul pays particular attention to the traditions that follow what he called the “sudden awakening, gradual cultivation,” method of Buddhist practice, which he argues is best for the vast majority of people and is superior to those who teach that awakening is gradual or cultivation is sudden.  Sudden leaps in enlightenment must be followed by sustained practice that incorporates and expands this leap into the everyday life of the practitioner.  Jinul argues that this is the best way of bringing Buddhist teachings into the lives of everyone, the ordained and commoner, as well as bringing different Buddhist traditions into line with each other.

Jinul argues in his Excerpts that concentration and wisdom, samadhi and prajna in Buddhist Pali, are intertwined in Zen practice, functioning in two interconnected ways and developed simultaneously, and adds excerpts at the end of the work from Dahui, who lived only a generation before Jinul, introducing his method of gong-an practice, called koan in Japanese and gwanhwa in Korean.  By focusing on particular doubts and misgivings (samadhi) we can develop wisdom which shows us what lies outside our particular perspectives (prajna).  Instead of using entire koan cases, Jinul, like Dahui, taught students to focus on one particular turning moment, as the essence of Chan can be found in a single line of a single case.

Unlike Dahui, Jinul did not feel limited to the particular cases of the classic record collections such as the Blue Cliff Record and Gateless Gate, perhaps because he wasn’t involved with a long-standing Chan tradition in his native Korea.  While Jinul would have students contemplate the Nothing of Zhaozhou, as well as Huineng’s original face before one had parents, the sorts of “turning words” that Dahui and others of the House of Linji found transformative, Jinul also had students contemplate questions that cannot be found explicitly in the classic cases but which can also produce doubt, particularly questions that involve self-doubt.  This remains the core practice of Korean Seon monks and nuns, rather than extensive interviews between masters and students about various aspects of koan cases.  An individual nun or monk can spend their entire lifetime contemplating a single question rather than a system of cases, including questions such as:

Who am I?

Who is repeating the Buddha’s name?

Who is dragging this corpse around?

In 1388 the powerful general Yi Seonggye (1335 – 1408) seized the empire and brought Neo-Confucianism into power, sidelining Buddhism.  Seon was barred from state affairs, but continued to thrive on its own.  Buddhism suffered extreme repression in the Joseon period (1392 – 1897), reduced by the government to a single Seon sect, hundreds of monasteries and temples disbanded, and Buddhist begging for food from the community forbidden, until 1592, when Korean Buddhist warrior monks, like the sohei of Japan, played a key role in repelling Japanese invasions over a period of eight years (1592 – 1598).

These several thousand “righteous monks” were the Uisa Movement led by Seosan Hyujeong (1520 – 1604), who worked to unify and support Buddhist study and practice following in the footsteps of Junil.  Like Hakuin of Japan, who lived a hundred years later, Seosan revitalized Seon Buddhism such that Seon Buddhists all trace their lineages back to him, and from him back to Jinul.  For three centuries after Seosan led his warrior monks against the Japanese invasions, Buddhism was still controlled tightly by the Neo-Confucian imperial court, but no longer persecuted.

Unfortunately, the Japanese did eventually seize Korea just after the end of the Joseon period, fully annexing the peninsula in 1910.  Japanese culture, including Buddhist sects and movements, began taking over and eclipsing Korean local Buddhist leadership, shipping many priceless works of Korean Buddhist art to Japan, many of which are still involved in legal disputes and have yet to be returned.  When Japan surrendered in 1945, Korea was liberated from Japanese control, only to find itself in the years soon after split between the American “liberators” controlling the South and Chinese backed Communists controlling the North.

Americans often ignore the Korean War, sandwiched uncomfortably between popular World War II and the unpopular Vietnam War.  Americans had brought Zen back home after WWII, and in the increasing American confusion and hopelessness that followed during the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, which was kicked off by the Korean War and fell further into Vietnam, the Beat Generation of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg got into Zen Buddhism, partly to freak out the squares, featured centrally in Kerouac’s novel Dharma Bums.  While the Beatniks were discovering Zen Buddhism from Japan, South Koreans were discovering evangelical Christianity from America.  Christian missionaries, many from America, began to evangelize quite successfully in the area, such that in 1945 only 2% of Koreans identified as Christian, but today almost a third (30%) of Koreans identify as Christian, Catholic and Protestant combined, while only one quarter (25%) identify as Buddhist.  Only 1% of Japan identifies as Christian.

While Communists and Buddhists are not the best of allies, they both have felt under attack by Christianity since WWII.  Christian Evangelicals have openly called for the destruction of both Buddhism and Communism, lighting temples on fire in the 1980s and 1990s, painting red crosses and graffiti on temples, murals and statues.  Evangelicals have aggressively recruited at Korean universities and schools, including those of Buddhist denominations.  Buddhists have been accused of promoting immorality by Korean Christian figures in government, violence has broken out at events and statues have been decapitated.  Some Buddhists protested when recent president Lee Myung-back, a Presbyterian, had 12 Christians and 1 Buddhist in his cabinet.  It was reported that Lee himself sent a video prayer message to a Christian rally in which he prayed, “Lord, let the Buddhist temples in this country crumble!”

North Korea discourages religion in general, although the country claims to have 10,000 active Buddhists.  Because Buddhism was fundamental to Korean culture for over a thousand years, Buddhists have fared better under government control and scrutiny than Christians.  North Koreans look at anti-Buddhist Christian evangelism in South Korea as a cultural incursion of Americans into the lives and culture of Koreans, an extension of the American military occupation of the South.

Seongcheol (1912 – 1993, pronounced, “Sowng-chowl”), a modern Seon master who many Koreans considered a living Buddha.  His father was a Confucian scholar, and as a boy Seongcheol was so obsessed with philosophy that he is said to have traded a sack of rice for a copy of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.  It is not clear if the text was in the original Korean, or if this made the text any more comprehensible to Seongcheol.  Personally, I would have kept the rice.  After studying all sorts of religion and philosophy and becoming disheartened about finding truth, a Seon monk gave him a Chinese Tang text known as the Song of Enlightenment, highly valued by Dahui and many other Chan masters of China.  Seongcheol read it and said he felt as if a bright light had suddenly been lit in complete darkness.

Seongcheol began meditating on Zhaozhou’s Nothing in a local temple so intently that the main temple Haeinsa heard of him and invited him to come study and be ordained.  Seongcheol came to study at Haeinsa but refused ordination as a monk, saying that only intensive meditation is important, not official ordination.  A year later, in 1937, he heard a wonderful lecture by a Seon master that changed his mind, and he was ordained a monk.  Like many masters, including Dogen and Hakuin, Seongcheol turned back to Huineng’s idea of sudden enlightenment and awakening, pushing back against Jinul’s gradual practice.  He became quite successful at popularizing Buddhist teachings in lectures, and was a great influence on Korean Buddhism from the 1950s until his death in 1993.

After WWII ended, Seongcheol joined several other Korean Buddhist leaders at Bong Am Sa Temple on Mount Heui Yang where they made a pact to reform Buddhism, but their plans for a community of purified Buddhism with no reliance on the outside world was ended with the Korean War.  Afterwards Seongcheol spent ten years in a hermitage he surrounded with barbed wire to keep everyone else out and himself inside.  He became famous for his Jangjwa Bulwa meditation technique, “Long Sitting, No Lying,”  sleeping while seated in the lotus position, not lying down.  Supposedly Seongcheol practiced this and claimed to never lie down to sleep.

In 1965 he broke this isolation and began preaching Buddhism in lectures that were aimed at revitalizing public interest and appreciation of Buddhist teachings, bringing in general relativity and quantum mechanics and current political events.  For a time he said that no one could speak with him about matters unless they had prostrated 3000 times in front of the statue of the Buddha at his temple, which he thought destroyed the ego, and also cut down on the number of visitors demanding an audience.  His final verse before death reads:

Deceiving people all my life, my sins outweigh Mount Sumeru.

Falling into hell alive, my grief divides into ten thousand pieces.

Spouting forth a red wheel,

It hangs on the blue cliff.

Buddhism in Vietnam

Vietnam is the only Mahayana Buddhist country of Southeast Asia, formerly known in colonial times as Indochina, as the other countries on the peninsula, Burma, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia, are of the original Buddhist Theravada tradition along with Sri Lanka.  In Southern Vietnam, there are Khmer people, like those in Cambodia, who practice Theravada Buddhism, unlike the rest of the Vietnamese population.  As in India, Tibet, China, Japan and Korea, when Buddhism arrived with missionaries it became central to Vietnamese culture, blending with local folk traditions and legends.  It is debated when Vietnam first received Buddhist teachings or missionaries, but they had certainly arrived and flourished by the time they had in China near the end of the Han dynasty around 200 CE, arriving by Indian trade routes in the Bay of Bengal and South China Sea.

Vietnamese Buddhism incorporates Indian Mahayana schools, Chinese Chan (Thien in Vietnamese), Tiantai, Huayan and Pure Land traditions.  Daily sutra readings and walking meditations are common Vietnamese practice.  North Vietnam was part of China from 111 BCE to 939 CE.  Much like the Latin mass that some conservative Catholic Christians want to bring back, the sutras chanted by Vietnamese Buddhists are often in classical Chinese and thus incomprehensible to most of those chanting.  According to Vietnamese tradition, the Indian monk Vinitaruci brought Chinese Chan to Vietnam in 580 CE, where the Thien school, as in other lands, became powerful and influential, attracting talented students for legendary masters.

While the House of Linji was coming to power in Song China, the Dinh dynasty (968 – 980) of Vietnam was supporting Buddhism as the state faith, as did the Le (980 – 1009), Ly (1009 – 1225), Tran (1225 – 1400) dynasties, but by this time Neo-Confucianism had become a strong rival in the royal court.  The Bamboo Grove school (Truc Lam in Vietnamese), a Thien school native to Vietnam, was founded by one of the Tran Emperors, Tran Nhan Tong (1258 – 1308), which blended Chan with Neo-Confucian and Daoist teachings.  After a period when Confucianism and other traditions put it out of royal favor, Buddhism was again given central support by the Nguyen dynasty (1804 – 1945, pronounced “New-Wen”).

French began to colonize Vietnam in the mid-1800s and spread evangelical Catholicism, angering the Buddhist native population and contributing to uprisings.  After the Japanese occupation of Vietnam in the 40s during WWII, French occupation quickly turned into the Indochina War (1946 to 1954), after which Vietnam, like Korea, was split between North and South, with the Communists versus the Americans.  In 1963, when president Ngo Dinh Diem’s pro-Catholic policies, including permitting Catholics but not Buddhists to publicly celebrate religion led to the self-immolation of Buddhist monk Thic Quang Duc (1897 – 1963).  Diem was deposed later that year in a coup, which eventually led to the Vietnam War (1965 – 1975).

At the time, 50 to 70% of Vietnamese identified as Buddhist.  However, under Communist rule, which typically discourages religious practices as abusive and misleading, only 16% of Vietnamese identify as Buddhist today, with far more (45%) identifying with indigenous folk traditions and 8% as Christian, most Roman Catholic, like the French.  The United Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam pushed back and forth with the Communist government, with much power in the South.  Since 1986 reforms have allowed most Buddhists to be unrestricted, but the state is still involved in religious orders.

One of the most prominent Buddhists of Vietnam and popular figures in Buddhism today around the world is Thich Nhat Hanh (b. 1926), who trained in Thien and Mahayana Buddhism, became chief editor of the academic periodical Vietnamese Buddhism, a professor of comparative religion at Princeton and Columbia during the Vietnam War.  Organizing for peace, he was accused of being a communist sympathizer.  He met with Martin Luther King Jr. and urged him to denounce the Vietnam War, which King did and then nominated Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967.  Nhat Hanh established communities, monasteries and institutes in France, America and Germany.  I saw him give a talk at Lake Merritt in Oakland, in which the very slow talking teacher took forever to say, “When… we…. practice… the… way… of… the… Buddha… it… is… like… we… are… walking… on… the… moon…”