Articles and Commentaries |
November 8, 2023

BUDDHIST THOUGHT AND CULTURE IN KOREA-WITH SPECIAL REFERENCE TO GAYA BUDDHISM

Written By: S. R. Bhatt

The introduction, assimilation, absorption and trans-creation of Buddhism in Asia in general and in Korea in particular have been remarkable and notable events in the world history which require serious cultural study with regard to cultural encounters and confluences between India and Korea. In the past the two countries traded not only in material goods as they do now but also shared Dharma for human and universal wellness. It will definitely be useful and interesting to review in depth, the cultural ties between the two countries and foment them further. The cultural interface between India and Korea has been ancient and significant but unfortunately, we do not have much recorded evidence for the earliest contacts.  There are traces of early knowledge of Buddhism but they need to be investigated. (Kim, Young-tae, The History and Culture of Buddhism in Korea, p. 38, Dongguk University Press) History writing was not in fashion earlier.  Oral traditions were in vogue which crystallised into myths and legends.

Some of them may be half- truths but they should not be dismissed as unreliable. In the want of reliable evidences which need to be discovered why to doubt or deny the veracity of the legends. The mode and time of introduction of Buddhism in Korea is shrouded in mystery and there are no definite historical records available in this respect but according to one tradition it reached there by sea route around first century B.C. Whatever be the case it is significant that Buddhism reached Korea much earlier than its official recognition. Prof. En –su Cho writes, “As the originating location of Buddhist teachings, India, as seen through the Korean Buddhist tradition, is a timeless place that transcends history, a symbol of truth itself.” (P. 42).

This apart, in the process of acceptance, appropriation, advancement and propagation of Buddhism, the contribution of Korea has been significant but again there has not been much recognition of that. There has been remarkable welding together of the teachings of the Buddha with indigenous culture giving rise to new form of Buddhism.

It is significant to note that while entering Korea, Buddhism was willingly accepted by the rulers and the masses, not compulsively but willingly. It was not a coercive imposition. Prof. Yong –kil Cho in his paper “Exchange of Buddhist Thought and Culture between India and Korea” writes, “The assimilation of indigenous religion and its gods into Buddhism was advanced not compulsively but peacefully. It was not coercive subjugation by a foreign religion but the logical necessity of the universality of Buddhist teachings.”  He further writes, “Owing to its comprehensive culture –rich characteristics, Buddhism in Korea played an important role not only as a religion but also as an embryo of the Korean cultural phenomenon.” (p. 34, Buddhist Thought and Culture in India and Korea, Ed. S.R.Bhatt)

Korea has been an important Buddhist country practicing Mahayana form of Buddhism        but having Hinayana elements interspersed in it. It has reformulated Zen, Lamaism of Tibet and Mongolia, Tantrayana (Vajrayana) etc. to suit Korean indigenous culture. Introduced first from India by sea route and thereafter influenced by Chinese form of Buddhism, there has been tremendous impact of Buddhism on the Korean national life and culture for about 2000 years. Prof. Suh yoon-kil, Director of the Korean Buddhist Research Institute, in his preface to the book “Buddhist Thought in Korea” writes, “So great has been the influence of Buddhism on Korea that it is impossible to speak of Korean culture without considering Buddhism. In spite of this, the history of the development of Korean Buddhist thought is little known and the materials that are available are poorly organised.” Undoubtedly, Buddhism became the ideological foundation and cultural backdrop of the Korean people influencing every stage of history and every aspect of culture.

In ancient times, Korea was divided among several small kingdoms. There was a kingdom by the name Gaya (or Karak/Garak) existing before Christian era which embraced Buddhism. Prof. Yong-kil Cho in his paper “Exchange of Buddhist Thought and Culture between India and Korea” (p.39,) alludes to “Samgookyusa’/  Samkuksaki (Records of Three kingdoms, Book 3, Chapter 4) written by Master Ilyeon of Goryo dynasty wherein it is recorded that an Indian princess from Ayodhya, then a Buddhist stronghold in India, was married to King Suro (42-199) of Korea in the year 48 CE. She was given the name “Queen Heohwangok’. She went to Korea by sea and took with her, the statue of the Buddha and materials to build a stone pagoda which was constructed in Hogyesa Temple in Kimhae/ Gimhae, then the capital of Gaya kingdom. Later on, this temple was renovated by King Chilji in 452 CE. The princess also took Buddhist literature along with her. This information is of vital significance so far as cultural contacts between India and Korea are concerned.

The marriage of an Indian bride to a Korean bridegroom definitely implies a close and well-developed socio-cultural linkage between India and Korea. No Indian king will marry his daughter to an unknown and unfamiliar king at a faraway place unless there existed close contacts, personal acquaintances and intimate social relations. Such an event must have been preceded by socio-cultural interface of quite a few centuries between the people of the two countries. In ancient times such marriages among ruling classes in particular have not been uncommon in India and Indian epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata are evidence of this, but they were never among the strangers unless they were forced ones. There are legends and dream stories about the marriage and they may be half- truths. But efforts should be made to get archeological and historical evidences. Folk tales, folk songs and other literary evidences can be collected as part of cultural heritage. These can be supplemented by genetic affinity and other facts discovered through modern scientific techniques and tools. There is a story that General Kim Yoo-shin, a famous descendent of Queen Heo, unified the Korean kingdom. Twin fish symbol is another evidence as it was adopted both by Garak state and Ayodhya state. We are told that there are seven million descendants of Queen Heo in Korea who fondly remember their great grandmother. KimhaeKims, KimhaeHuhs and Incheon Lees are the clans in Korea who are descendants of King and Queen. Thus, many people of India and Korea are cultural cousins with kinship relationship having the same blood in their veins. We are told that. There is a tomb in Hogye-sa in Kimhae and a stone pagoda in front of the temple where the King Suro and Princess Heo met. We are further told that near the tomb there is a house of brother of the Queen and the pagoda seems to be a replica of Ashokan pillar.

In recent times people and scholars of South Korea have taken interest in discovering old ties and this is an appreciable effort. In the year 1954 Mr. Hyeon Dong Hwa came to India for this purpose and he became the pioneer of Indo-Korean relations. In the year President Kim Dae Jung and Prime Minister Jong Pil Kim who belong to Kimhae Kim clan came to India and suggested construction of a memorial. In the year 2000, a memorial in honour of Queen Heo was erected in Ayodhya in Korean style, with a huge stone specially shipped from South Korea. It has become a place of pilgrimage for Korean people. In the year 2001, Chancellor Kim Jong June visited as President of Central Karak Clan Society.  Since then, many people have visited Ayodhya from South Korea and also some from India to South Korea. There is a need to promote cultural tourism. In this context the significant contribution of Princess of Ayodhya in fomenting Indo-Korean cultural ties needs to be emphasised.

Unfortunately, very few historical documents and evidences on Buddhism in Gaya are available and there is a need to discover them. Much of the evidences are lost and archeological remains are yet to be fully explored. Referring to Santosh Kumar’s “A Bridge between Indian and Korea “Prof.Sankaranarayan writes that King Suro founded Kaya (Gaya) dynasty in the first century CE. She gives a symbolic interpretation of the marriage of King Suro with princess Ho. She also refers to recent genetic discovery by Korean scientists of relationship of India and Korea further corroborated by DNA matching.

Prof. Eun-su Cho writes, “A long history of cultural connectedness surrounds the two nations of Korea and India. Regardless of the veracity of the legend that the founder of the Gaya nation of Korea Kim Suro, took as his bride a princess of Ayuta Kingdom in India, it is nevertheless a symbol of the first encounter between India and Korea. Whether this connection persisted, or perhaps were variations in frequency and intensity of this connection, the motive of the encounter has been rehashed again and again through history in Korean literature and art. Recently, the tale of the princess of Ayuta has surpassed the boundaries of mere myth into a cultural icon and the theme that has taken concrete form in local festivals and even an envoy from Korea to visit India.” Cultural Interflow between Indian and Korea, Seoul National University, 2006.)

The pertinent point is, Buddhism reached Korea directly through sea route around first century B.C.E or a little earlier. Prof. Young-tae Kim refers to it but regards it as legendary. (The History and Culture of Buddhism in Korea, p.38, published by The Korean Buddhist Research Institute). He also talks of traces of earlier knowledge of Buddhism in Koguryo before Christian era (p.40). There is a need to explore further, and archeological remains need to be attended to.

There are also some evidences of Indian settlements in Korea practicing the Vedic faith. It is reported by Prof. Cho (p. 43, fn.1) that in ancient Korea worship of Hwanin or Cheonie has something to do with the Vedic god Indra. Prof. Cho points out etymological affinity of Sanskrit word ‘Agni’ with Korean word ‘Agungi’ both representing the god of fire. The mode of fire worship was also similar in both the countries. He also hints at the influence of caste system of India on Korean society. He points out the inflow of Indian music and influence of Bharata’s Natya Sastra venturing a suggestion of common origin of ‘Natya Sastra’ and Korean ‘Youngsanhoesang’. Prof. Seo Yoon-gil (in the same book edited by me) reports about popularity of Indra belief in the paper entitled “Characteristics of Indra belief in Koryo Dynasty”. Prof. Rhi Ki-Yong an eminent scholar in his paper entitled “Buddhism and National culture in Korea” writes that the word ‘Seoul’ has come from the Pali word ‘Savatthi (Skt. Sravasti) through its changed form ‘So-Ra-Bo’. Unfortunately, Indo-Korean scholars have not paid needed attention to these records which would definitely change our understanding of the dating and nature of Indo-Korean interface. There is a dire need to have a re-look at ancient Indo-Korean history taking help of different literary, artistic, archaeological and cultural resources which have remained untapped. If this is done, it will surely open up new vistas in Indo-Korean cultural relationship.

Though Buddhism and prior to that Vedic dharma existed in Korea before Christian era, it is generally believed that Buddhism was officially introduced in Korea in the year 372 CE, Shilla Kingdom adopted it as official religion in 527 CE. This need not dispute the record that unofficially Buddhism was introduced in Korea much earlier, and royal acceptance is not the same as peoples’ acceptance. In the propagation of Buddhism in Korea, China and later on Japan, played an important role but initially there was direct exchange between India and Korea. For example, Master Gyeomic came to India by sea in 526 CE, studied Sanskrit for five years and went back with an Indian monk. There were several other monks who visited India to learn Buddhism. In 6th century Buddha’s statues and monasteries were constructed in Korea with steel and other material taken from India, particularly during the reign of Asoka.

The influence of Buddhism on Korean life has been tremendous and unmitigated, in so far as it provided ideological foundation, cultural backup and socio-political solidarity and integration. In the words of Prof. Cho, “The influence of Buddhism on Korean thought and culture was so extensive that it can be said that we cannot think of Korean thought without a reference to Buddhism, which is in reality the very foundation of Korean thought and culture.“In addition to this, Buddhism in the early days in Korea provided a socio-political ideology for national integration, and inspired intellectual quests, academic activities, and creative arts of various genres. The aesthetic and spiritual values inspired by Buddhism predominated in the fine arts, artistic creations and the intellectual works in the kingdoms of those times” (p.35). It also provided the needed socio-political ideology for national integration.”

The Korean contribution to propagation and reformulation of Buddhism has been quite significant. Once receptive of Buddhist thought, Korea became its innovator and exporter. It will be very apt and appropriate to mention here as to how Buddhism got an entry into Japan from Korea. In 522 CE, Buddhism was officially introduced to Japan from Korea at the behest of the King of Paekche, a former kingdom in South-West Korea, who sent a mission to the emperor of Japan which is as follows:

“The religion (Ho, Skt. dharma) is the most excellent of all teachings, though difficult to master and hard to comprehend, even the sages of China would not have found it easy to grasp. It brings endless and immeasurable blessings and fruits (to its believers) even the attainment of supreme enlightenment (bodhi). Just as the Cintamani Jewel is said to fulfil every need according to desire, so the treasures of this glorious religion will never cease to respond in full to those who seek for it. Moreover, this religion has come to Korea from India and the people of the two countries are now ardent followers of its teachings and none are outside its pale” (Masaharu Anesaki, History of Japanese Religion P. 53, italics mine). This passage is significant in so far as it points out that Buddhism reached Korea from India and that it was held high in great reverence in Korea.

Though the fundamental teachings of the Buddha remained the same, there are certain salient characteristics of Korean Buddhism which make it uniquely Korean. In fact this is so in all Asian countries which have adopted Buddhism, as the local culture and traditions transformed it. The reciprocal relationship between Buddhism and indigenous culture and faith has been of peaceful mutual adjustment of tolerance and assimilation. That is why Buddhism could make immense contribution to Korean national development and harmony. It has been regarded as ‘Nation-protecting’ religion in Korea. It received loyal patronage in all kingdoms and provided a socio-political framework to Korean rulers. The concepts of ‘cakravartin’ and ‘Buddha-ksetra’ were handy to them for national unification and solidarity. It was recognised as state religion by many rulers. They firmly believed that their country was the land of the Buddha. The pursuit of harmony and unification were constant focal points of Korean Buddhism and therefore it was referred to as Tong bulkyo’. The Buddhist influence in general and the Bodhisattva ideal in particular, motivated Korean youths to patriotic and altruistic service. There were groups of young elites known as Hwarang(Flower Boys) who were builders of a new nation inspired by the Bodhisattva ideal. They helped in bringing about unification of the three kingdoms into one nation. Won-Kwang, a pioneer of Buddhist philosophy and an advocate of SaddharmapundarÏka’s  Ekayana, was their guide.

The doctrines of duhkha, karma, samsara, nirvana, karuna etc. attracted the Korean mind and appealed to the literati and illiterates alike. The hope of freedom from suffering and enjoyment of eternal bliss of nirvana was quite fascinating. The Korean mind appreciated the Buddhist conception of universal benevolence as distinguished from the Confucian conceptions of filial piety and propriety. The Buddhist ideals of eradication of egocentricity and cultivation of existential openness based on the principle of interdependence and interconnectedness of all phenomena (pratityasamutpada) as enunciated in the Flower Ornament sutra with the analogy of Indra’s jewel-net, the doctrine of universality of Dharmakaya, the emphasis on realising the Buddhist truths within the concrete human nexus by establishing unity with the ultimate truth in daily life etc. are of great interest to Korean mind and they are of great relevance and significance to the whole world in contemporary times and in the new millennium to bring about universal peace, prosperity and well-being.

Among several Buddhist thinkers of Korea Won-Hyo and Ji-nul deserve special mention. Won-Hyo was a great Buddhist Korean thinker who advocated holistic, integral and harmonised approach to reality and life. He was also inspired by Won-Kwang’s writings and his advocacy of ‘Secular Pancasila’. Won-hyo was revered nation-wide as a spiritual figure. He wrote 82 books, most of which were commentaries on Mahayana scriptures. He was a proponent of peace and unity. He propounded the famous principle of Hua-jaengi.e. peaceful integration through harmonisation of disputes. He regarded pratityasamutpada as the basic principle of cosmic process. He believed that Dharmadhatu is one, and all dharmas are its manifestations within it. There is harmonious integration everywhere. For this view he relied upon the Avatamsaka Sutra according to which “one is all, all is one; one is in all, all is in one.” His exposition of the term ‘Atman’ one of the four gunas of Mahaparinirvana (the other three are nitya, sukha,vimala), is really wonderful. Atman is Mahesvara which is the nature of ultimate Reality as “Great self-existence”. It is ‘Hana’ which means ‘one unitary whole’. He emphasised meditation to experience oneness and altruistic service as its expression.

The goal of life is establishment of such a society or samgha where there is harmonious integration without any conflict or disorder, where nobody is deprived or alienated. This is Mahaprajna and Mahakaruna. This is overcoming of the feeling of narrow selfish ego. This is anatmavada. Won-Hyo cherished great faith in Bodhisattva Maitreya and Amitabha Buddha residing in Tusita. But these are all symbolic for him and not ontological. Expressing deep appreciation for Won-Hyo Prof. Rhi ki- Yong writes, “He was really a wonderful fruit that was grown on the Korean soil after the dissemination of the Indian grain. I personally hope as one of his unfitting disciples that once again this fruit grain could grow and flourish in order to illuminate this dark age of selfish materialism.” (p.55). The same sanguine hope is voiced by Prof. Cho who wishes that the religious tradition of India and Korea may be a major force in the future world playing an important part in furthering happiness of the human race with the spirit of non-violence. (p43).

While concluding it must be pointed out that such an interface like the present one and a research study of this sort is highly useful. For Indians it is interesting and significant to know as to how and why Buddhism could get such a strong foothold in Korea with notable impact on Korean thought and culture. For the Koreans it is instructive to be aware of the Indian roots of their Buddhist view and way of life. In the present times our traditional cultures are facing the danger of extinction under the impact of western materialism and consumerism and we do not care to share a common platform to meet the challenge. Strengthening of cross-cultural interactions will help build up mutual understanding, mutual empathy and mutual enrichment. It is hoped that this conference will help cross-cultural interactions resulting in mutual affinity and understanding involving large number of scholars of the two countries to interact with one another more closely, to discover our commonalities and to learn from each other’s experiences. Apart from mutual material advancement it will also consolidate common spiritual roots and resources so that we may march together into the future as partners in universal well-being, as intimate cultural cousins.

Author Brief Bio: Prof. S. R. Bhatt is Chairman, Indian Philosophy Congress; Chairman, Asian-African Philosophy Congress; National Fellow, Indian Council of Social Science Research, Government of India Former Chairman, Indian Council of Philosophical Research, and Former Professor & Head, Department of Philosophy, University of Delhi.

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