Interactions between Buddhism and Confucianism in Medieval Korea

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Buddhism and Confucianism were in close relationship from the Three Kingdoms period of Korea (first century B.C.E.-668).[2] However, the relationship between the two in Korean history was different by period: The two made a dialogue from the fourth to the thirteenth centuries; they came into conflict with each other from the thirteenth to the fourteenth centuries; Confucianism dominated from the fifteenth to the early twentieth centuries; and they still coexist in contemporary Korea. The purpose of this article is to examine interactions between Buddhism and Confucianism in medieval Korea, which is equivalent to the Koryŏ dynasty (918-1392).

There are only some fragmentary materials for understanding the Koryŏ people’s views on Buddhism and Confucianism (Pak 2004, 91) and as a result, scholarly achievements of the relationship between the two religious traditions are few both in Korea and overseas.[3] In addition, active negotiations between Buddhism and Confucianism in the history of Korean philosophy were realized after the late thirteenth century, when Neo-Confucianism (Sŏngni hak) was introduced to Korea (Ch’oe 2001, 7-28; Pak 2004, 91-105; Pyŏn 2005, 43-81), producing some works on the relationship between Buddhism and Confucianism during the latter period of the Koryŏ dynasty (Pyŏn 2005, 43-81).[4] Therefore, this study is crucial for a better understanding of the nature of Korean religious traditions, and by extension, the relationship between politics and religion in East Asia. The Koryŏ period is also important in that it connects ancient Korea to modern Korea, but has attracted less attention among scholars than the other periods. In this context, Korean history needs a new history, or a “third path” beyond nationalist history (Park 2013, 1).

Following the previous tradition,[5] Buddhism and Confucianism coexisted during the Koryŏ period, but their influence on Koryŏ society was different by period.[6] This article will primarily focus on the role of the ruler[7] in the development of the religious traditions from the reign of King T’aejo (918-43), when the dynasty was founded, to that of King Hyŏnjong (1009-31), when Confucian bureaucracy was firmly established in Koryŏ society.[8] In particular, the reign of King T’aejo will be the focus of analysis because the vicissitudes of state customs depended on the ruler in pre-modern Korea (Kim 2013b, 6-7); the king was the founder of the Koryŏ kingdom; he was the final arbiter who decided the nature of Buddhism and Confucianism in medieval Korea, enabling the two religious traditions to coexist as major ideologies (Yun, et. al 2002, 31); and his Buddhist activities developed in close relation to his Confucian statecraft, which had become the time-honored tradition until the demise of the Koryŏ kingdom.[9]

Composed of three sections, this study will examine first, “The Position of Buddhism and Confucianism,” second, “The Role of Buddhism in Confucian Statecraft,” and finally, “An Analysis of the Relationship between Buddhism and Confucianism.” To this end, this study will employ text criticism of extant sources, focusing on the Koryŏ sa (History of the Koryŏ Dynasty, hereafter, KRS).[10] This research will argue that as far as extant materials are concerned, Confucianism was the ruling ideology of Koryŏ and Buddhism was a dominant religious force to support Confucian morals such as humanity (Kor. in; Ch. jen) or filial piety (Kor. hyo; Ch. xiao).[11]

I. The Position of Buddhism and Confucianism

Koryŏ society was a multicultural society and a variety of religious traditions coexisted. From its initial period the Koryŏ kingdom accepted diverse religious or philosophical traditions, which included Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, shamanism, astrology, and geomancy (Kim 1994, 3), thus forming a pluralist society (Breuker 2010, 48-84) characterized by unity within variety and openness (Park 2013, 1-31). Instead, no state religion existed in Koryŏ (Yun, et al. 2002, 50). In this aspect, Koryŏ was quite different from the Christian and Islamic kingdoms during the contemporary period (Yun, et. al 2002, 24) as well as Chosŏn (1392-1910) Korea. King T’aejo’s religious policy was in the context of religious pluralism in the modern sense of the term and other Koryŏ kings were not an exception in this regard (Yi 2011, 242). Among these religious traditions, the two most important ones were Buddhism and Confucianism.

Prior to medieval Korea, Buddhism was regarded as more important than Confucianism in governing the state. However, the political position of the two was reversed during Koryŏ, i.e., Confucianism over Buddhism. In Koryŏ Buddhism was a dominant religious force whereas Confucianism was the state ideology. While eminent monks until the eleventh century viewed that Buddhism was superior to Confucianism, Confucian scholar-officials in general criticized Buddhism.

1. Buddhism as a Dominant Religious Force

Buddhism in Koryŏ was a dominant religious force (Yun, et. al 2002, 24).[12] Koryŏ kings engaged in Buddhist events in various ways, receiving Buddhist precepts, constructing temples, instituting monastic offices, and performing Buddhist rituals. As a lay Buddhist follower, King T’aejo emulated EmperorWu (502-49) of Liang China (NYK 1996, 1: 268) and respected Buddhism and monks (NYK 1996, 1: 192-5).[13] In particular, through his Injunctions[14] King T’aejo said that Buddhism was the foundation of his kingdom,

The success of every great undertaking of our state depends upon the favor and protection of the Buddha. Therefore, the temples of both the Meditation and Doctrinal schools should be built and monks should be sent out to those temples to minister to the Buddha (KRS 2, 15a1-3).[15]
In particular, one of the most intriguing aspects of Buddhism during the Koryŏ period was the abundance and variety of Buddhist rituals (Vermeersch 2008, 313) and more Buddhist rituals were held during the period than any other time in Korean history, a frequency also unprecedented in China or Japan (Kim 1994, xiii; Kim 2001, 8-9).[16] Regarding this, King T’aejo admonished his successors to value the Assembly of Eight Prohibitions (P’algwanhoe) and the Lantern Festival (Yŏndŭnghoe) (KRS 2, 16a1-5), the two most significant Buddhist rituals in medieval Korea.[17] The engraving of Korean Buddhist canons[18] was another of representative Buddhist cultural achievements of Korea, and by extension, of East Asia. Throughout the history of Korea, Buddhist canons were engraved twice and both of them were products of the Koryŏ dynasty: The Ch’ojo Koryŏ taejanggyŏng (First Korean Buddhist Canon) was engraved in the eleventh century, but most of it burnt to ashes due to Mongol invasions in midthirteenth century; and the Chaejo Koryŏ taejangyŏng (Second Korean Buddhist Canon) was a product of the thirteenth century and is still preserved in Haein Monastery as a UNESCO Memory of theWorld.[19]

It is also a characteristic feature that Buddhism in medieval Korea was interpreted in the context of Confucianism, which included the concepts of loyalty and filial piety and yin (negative cosmic energy) and yang (positive cosmic energy), and the Theory of HeavenlyWarning (Kor. ch’ŏn’gyŏn chaei sŏl or ch’ŏnin kamŭng sŏl; Ch. tianqian zaiyi shuo), traditional Confucian system of thought systematized by the Chinese ideologue Dong Zhongshu (ca. 179-104 B.C.E.) during the Han dynasty, in which Heaven warns the misgovernment of the ruler through natural calamities.[20]

2. Confucianism as the State Ideology

From the very beginning of the Koryŏ dynasty, Confucianism was the state ideology (Yi 1984, 1; Yun, et. al 2002, 27)[21] and state administration and social order during the Koryŏ period were in principle based on Confucian thought (Yi 2011, 225). In addition, royal ancestor worship ritual had been one of the most significant state events performed from the initial period of the Koryŏ dynasty to its final stage. Must texts for kings and princes to read to gain necessary knowledge in governing the state were all Confucian texts, giving prime emphasis on the Shu jing (Book of History) and the Li ji (Book of Rites). In particular, the Book of History had been used throughout the Koryŏ dynasty as a book of political ideology, which was based on the idea of the unity between heaven and man and emphasized the ruler’s morality (Kim 2001, 277). Most of Koryŏ kings were also buried after their death in accord with Confucian mores (Kim 2010, 276-82).

The time of King T’aejo was in a high tide in the acceptance of the Chinese system and civilization and the king took Confucianism as his political ideology, which was a characteristic feature of the political system of the Koryŏ dynasty (Pak 2011, 171-220). The king personally composed works with emphasis on Confucian leadership such as “Chŏnggye” (Political Admonitions) and “Kye Paengnyo sŏ” (Admonitions for All Officials) to promote the Confucian ideas of loyalty and filial piety (Pyŏn 2005, 49). In his Injunction, King T’aejo also admonished his successors to be well-informed of the chapter of “Wui” (“Again Luxurious East”) in the Book of History (KRS 2, 7a6-9).[22] The king also established the National Academy (Kukhak) and fixed the Royal Ancestral Shrine (Chongmyo) (Cho 2006, 16). Therefore, for King T’aejo, politics referred to reforming public morals and pacifying the people (Chŏng 1992, 115) based on the Confucian ideology.[23]

King Kwangjong (949-75) adopted the Confucian civil service examination from Song (960-1279) China for the first time in the history of Korea. King Sŏngjong (981- 97) was so eager to accept Chinese culture that he was under criticism due to his extreme pursuit of it (KRS 94, 3b5-6). It was during his reign that Confucianism was fully accepted in Koryŏ history (Yi 1984, 39-50). Regarding this, Ch’oe Sŭngno (927- 89), an influential scholar-official, said, “Behavior based on Confucianism is the foundation of governing the state… Governing the state is what we have to do today” (KRS 93, 114-5), signifying that the ruling class of the time regarded Confucianism as the principle of their politics (Yi 2009, 321; Pak 2011, 198-9). During the reign of King Sŏngjong the National Confucian Academy (Kukchagam), a possible reorganization of the National Academy, was established (Yi 1984, 1).

Following precedent Confucian politics (Yi 2011, 226), King Hyŏnjong was in pursuit of kingcraft (Kim 2008, 246). His reign saw the completion of Confucian bureaucracy. In particular, the king developed reform politics, which aimed at the fulfillment of Confucian politics for the strengthening of kingship and a rich country with strong army, heavily supported by his Confucian scholar-officials (Kim 2008, 132- 54), who appeared on the political arena through the Confucian civil service examination and constituted the core of the political circles of the time. Regarding this, Ch’ae Ch’ungsun (?-1036), who played a significant role in driving the political direction during the reign of King Hyŏnjong, argued that Confucianism served as orthodoxy of his time,

Your Majesty’s subject [Ch’ae Ch’ungsun] is told that the ultimate mirror of a sage is hidden in Confucian texts. Therefore, if one cultivates it diligently with firm will, the orthodox teaching will be set (HKC, 1984, 447: 12-3).
In addition, royal edicts show the direction of national politics. The number of the royal edicts granted during the reign of King Hyŏnjong was 39 and many of them were of Confucian character (Yi 2011, 228).

In sum, Confucianism had remained the political ideology until the demise of the Koryŏ dynasty in the late fourteenth century.

3. Intellectuals’ Understanding of Buddhism and Confucianism

Buddhism was a dominant religious force in medieval Korea. However, the religion lost its position as an autonomous entity at that time. Instead, Buddhism existed to support Confucian morals, but not vice versa. In that context, Koryŏ kings took the stick and carrot policy toward Buddhist circles.[24] While eminent monks until the eleventh century, who included Ŭich’ŏn (105-1101), viewed that Buddhism was superior to Confucianism or they were not interested in Confucianism,[25] Confucian scholar-officials viewed Buddhism as a strategic partnership in governing the state or criticized it.

For Koryŏ royal families, the transfer of royal lineage for generations had been regarded as the most important benefit received from their ancestors (Kim 1994, 33; Kim 2001, 72). Therefore, religious traditions, including Buddhism, were also requested to fulfill this goal in Koryŏ (Yun, et. al 2002, 49-50). To that end and following the idea of Ch’oe Ch’iwŏn of Silla Korea, Confucian scholar-officials in early Koryŏ viewed that both Buddhism and Confucianism were important in the execution of royal governing. Regarding this, Ch’oe Sŭngno said,

The Three Teachings [[[cbe:Buddhism|Buddhism]], Confucianism, and Taoism] all have their own special qualities, and those who follow them should not be confused, but keep them separate. Practitioners of Buddhism take spiritual cultivation as the basic principle. Practitioners of Confucianism take governing the nation as the basic principle. Spiritual cultivation is valuable for the afterlife, but governing the country is the task of the present. The present is here and the afterlife is extremely distant. How could it not be wrong to sacrifice the present for the distant? (KRS 93, 19a3-6).[26]
According to this entry, Ch’oe Sŭngno viewed that Buddhism was a religion for spiritual cultivation for the afterlife, whereas Confucianism was the political ideology for governing the state in this life, thus giving primacy to Confucianism. King Hyŏnjong also shared the same idea with Ch’oe Sŭngno and said, “Buddhism is for inner cultivation and Confucianism is for outer governing” (HKC, 1984, 448: 7). Ch’ae Ch’ungsun also maintained,

Your Majesty’s servant [Ch’ae Ch’ungsun] is told that a sage is an extremely exemplary man… Buddhism is none other than teaching about the mind. If we cultivate it ourselves with utmost sincerity, a blessing will naturally ensue. The so-called Three Religions [[[cbe:Buddhism|Buddhism]], Confucianism, and Taoism] look disparate, but their origin is the same…They all teach benevolence and filial piety. Therefore, the previous king said, ‘Filial piety is the root of virtue and all teachings are derived from it. Accordingly, my kingly predecessors regarded it as the principle of governing the state…As a result, the world was peaceful and calamities did not occur. There is a Buddhist text titled Pumo ŭnjung kyŏng (Ch. Fumu enzhong jing, Book of Parental Gratitude) and its core emphasizes filial piety. Therefore, both Confucianism and Buddhism regard the concept of filial piety as their essence (HKC 1984, 447: 12-448: 2).
This quote manifests that both Buddhism and Confucianism are necessary in governing the state. In particular, King Hyŏnjong valued the Book of Parental Gratitude, which focused on filial piety in content. In his “Kaesŏng Hyŏnhwa-sa pi” (Epitaph of Hyŏnhwa Monastery in Kaesŏng), Ch’ae Ch’ungsun also said,

We follow Buddhism internally and educate people with Confucianism outwardly. The unity of the ins and outs is well communicated both in the past and in the present (HKC, 1984, 448).
Therefore, in Koryŏ Confucianism served as political ideology in this life while Buddhism did as a means to spiritual cultivation (susin chi to) for the afterlife or as a religion for blessings. In this sense, the role of Buddhism and Confucianism in Koryŏ can be drawn as Table 1.

II. The Role of Buddhism in Confucian Statecraft

1. The Political Position of Buddhism

As far as extant sources are concerned, the political position of Buddhism and Confucianism in medieval Korea was not equal and the latter was over the former.

Koryŏ kings considered themselves to be bodhisattvas. The identity of the ruler with the Buddha or a bodhisattva emerged, in particular, in Northern Wei (386-534). Empress Zetian (625-705) claimed that she was an incarnation of the Maitreya Buddha. It was during the period of Tang (618-907) China that the regulation that monks should bow to the ruler was established (Zhang 2014, 74-5) and Shizu (1260-94) of Yuan was identified with a Buddha. Confucian scholars during the Northern Song period (960- 1126) insisted that the emperor should be identified with the Buddha and should not bow in front of a Buddhist image. In particular, the idea that the emperor was a bodhisattva developed in Liusong (420-79) China and the ruler received the bodhisattva precepts. This tradition was popular during the Sui (581-618) and Tang dynasties. In Korean history, Kungye (?-918), the founder of Later Koguryŏ (901-18) was the only ruler who identified him with a Buddha. He composed Buddhist texts in person and lectured on them by himself, which was rare in China and Korea (Nam 2005, 85-6). In Korean history kings received Buddhist precepts before the seventh century. King T’aejo of Koryŏ followed suit and it had been tradition throughout the dynasty, which was different from pre-modern China, where the tradition was intermittently repeated in history (Nam 2005, 83-7).

Some eminent Korean monks were respected as bodhisattvas or even as Buddhas from the ninth to the tenth centuries. The tradition that the ruler made a bow to an eminent monk and took him as National Master (kuksa) began in Korea from the ninth century and it was firmly rooted in tenth-century Korea, which was unique to Korea not found in coeval China.[27] That tradition was transmitted to Koryŏ. The system of National Master and Royal Master (wangsa) was executed from the beginning of Koryŏ, symbolizing that secular power gave special treatment of Buddhist monks spiritually and ethically. In particular, the system of Royal Master was unique to Koryŏ and it was probably a product of King T’aejo’s policy that attempted to embrace various Buddhist circles of his time (Nam 2005, 88-99). The monastic examination was also executed in the tenth century and the monastic ladders (sŭnggye) was firmly set up after the tenth century (Wŏn 2010, 58).

However, the actual aim of the appointment of high monks in medieval Korea was to make them devote themselves to the benefit of the state. Regarding this, King T’aejo said,

The reason why the state regulated the grade of temples is to treat eminent monks well… How can I as the ruler be stingy in selecting such figures who will bring happiness to the state? (KMC 1, 1986, 367).
In addition, from the initial period of Koryŏ, kings received bodhisattva precepts and they were considered bodhisattvas. However, these facts do not mean that monastic power was superior to secular power in medieval Korea. This is because the king had the power to appoint National Master and Royal Master.[28]

Koryŏ rulers controlled the monastic circles for their political purposes and had much more effective control over the appointment of abbots than their Chinese counterparts (Vermeersch 2004, 9).[29] From the very beginning of Koryŏ the king claimed the right to appoint abbots. Korean monastic communities were also not an autonomous entity, as was the case for the Catholic Church in medieval Europe. King T’aejo’s policy of Buddhist offices was different from that of Silla. In Silla temples served as venues for state-supporting cults and constituted the backbone of the administrative system supervising all temples in the country. However, the system of temple-based overseers in Silla was replaced by a completely new system under King T’aejo (Vermeersch 2008, 203-19).

In short, the political position of Buddhism in medieval Korea was not independent of secular power and the religion was under its control.

2. The State and Buddhism

Buddhist circles in medieval Korea were under the direct and indirect control of the state (Wŏn 2010, 82).[30] In that context, Koryŏ Buddhism served as a political tool, a supporter of Confucian morals, and a religion for good fortune.

(1) Koryŏ Kings’ Attitude toward Buddhism

In traditional Korea, including Koryŏ, kings in general understood the Buddha as a divine figure with compassion, Buddhism as the teaching for praying for blessings with emphasis on loyalty and filial piety (Kim 2013b, 359-92). In particular, Koryŏ society in general depended on Buddhism (Ro 2002, 63) and most of Koryŏ kings were not Confucianized due to their concern with Buddhism, following the tradition from Silla.[31] However, their Buddhist policies were not the same and[32] Koryŏ kings were different from some of Silla kings toward the attitude of Buddhism. Kings Pŏphŭng (514-40) and Chinhŭng (540-76) of Silla took Buddhism as their political ideology and became Buddhist monks after dethronement. However, Koryŏ kings, including King T’aejo, were never ordained as monks. In addition, Confucian scholars in medieval Korea viewed Buddhism as a religion for spiritual cultivation for this and the next life rather than as a “life education system.”[33]

(2) Buddhism as a Political Tool

In China Buddhism came to be under the control of the state from around the seventh century and such a relationship was firmly established during the Song period (960- 1279) (Nam 2005, 81). Korea was not an exception in this regard. Already from the initial period of their development on Korean soil in the fourth century, Buddhist circles were under the control of the state and this tradition was transmitted to Koryŏ. However, King T’aejo prohibited from founding temples by his opponents. The king said, “If villainous courtiers attain power and come to be influenced by the entreaties of bonzes, the temples of various schools will quarrel and struggle among themselves for gain. This ought to be prevented.” (KRS 2, 15a4-5)[34] In addition, the primary goal of Koryŏ kings in supporting Buddhism was for the expectation of the eternity of the royal court, which was an expression of filial piety. Regarding this, Ch’ae Ch’ungsun said,

The great performance of Buddhist events is to prolong the achievements of our forefathers… The filial piety of my lord [[[cbe:King|King]] Hyŏnjong] will continue down to ten thousand generations (HKC 1984, 447: 1-3).
In that context, King Hyŏnjong used Buddhism actively to win the hearts of the people, depending on the Buddha’s miraculous power (Yi 2011, 239). Buddhist events, including the engraving of the First Korean Buddhist Canon, were also products to fulfill his political purposes. It is highly possible that King Hyŏnjong’s special life career as a monk before his enthronement made him interested in Buddhism. Therefore, regulations to control monks were stronger during the reign of King Hyŏnjong than during that of King Sŏngjong, who professed to take Confucianism as his political ideology, and their contents included prohibition from brewing wine in monastic areas, transforming one’s house into a temple, women’s ordination as a nun, and seizure of the people’s property (KRS 85, 8b3-10a1). King Hyŏnjong also requested monks to observe Buddhist precepts through the control of the monastic community and regulated control when the monastic circles could not fulfill their duties or had problems with Buddhist precepts (Yi 2011, 239). Except for such regulations, King Hyŏnjong supported the Buddhist circles in various ways and the primary reason for his support was political.[35]

Koryŏ Kings also appear to have encouraged monks to participate in war. For example, King Hyŏnjong rewarded a monk who died in war with the office of Chief Abbot (sujwa) (Kim 2013b, 136).

Koryŏ kings admitted that Buddhism was a makeshift to gain the hearts of the people, whom they viewed as “crass” (NYK 1996, 1, 34) and “childlike” (NYK 1996, 1, 117).[36] As an example, King T’aejo used Buddhism as part of his political tactics. He noted that Buddhist thoughts were so deeply embedded in the thoughts of the Silla people that they believed that life or death and fortune or misfortune depended entirely on the Buddha (Nam 2003, 35). In response, King T’aejo’s Counselor Ch’oe Ŭng (898-932) remonstrated against the king’s dependence on Buddhism and the king said that Buddhism was just a makeshift to gain the hearts of the people (KMC 2, 106).[37] Yi Chibaek (fl. 983-95) also emphasized to perform indigenous events of the Lantern Festival, the Assembly of Eight Prohibitions, and Sŏllang (TheWay of Immortal Youth) to maintain national security and peace (KRS 94, 1b16-3b5).

Koryŏ kings were, in particular, affiliated with many Sŏn (Ch. Chan; Jp. Zen) monks. It was not because the king had a special interest in their teaching, but because the Sŏn monks were connected with local strongmen. Yi Kyubo (1168-1241), a representative man of letters in Koryŏ, also asserted that the reason why King T’aejo favored Sŏn over other Buddhist schools was because it was more effective in repelling invaders,

The path to Sŏn is the path to victory. The efficacy of Sŏn is very fast and it is a great carrier beyond comparison. Because of this, the Great King [T’aejo], our great ancestor, sought [[[cbe:teaching|teaching]]] from a bright master in secret and respected the supreme teaching. He established 500 Sŏn temples to widely spread the teaching of the mind. After that, the army from the north was retreated by itself and there were no longer thieves in the border areas. [Therefore,] the benefit of Sŏn is excellent (KMC 1, 1986, 268).
Yi Kyubo also argued that a Sŏn monk was better than property and provisions in efficacy in belligerency,

To raise a Sŏn monk is better than to use property and parched rice as provisions for ten thousand soldiers. (KMC 1, 1986, 270).
In addition, diplomatic relations of Koryŏ were closer to the Liao dynasty (907- 1125), which played a significant role in the development of East Asian Buddhism, than to Sung China. However, the Buddhist policy of Koryŏ was different from the case of the Liao kingdom, where Buddhist canonical texts were used to educate the Crown Prince, and monks were encouraged to be faithful to their regular business without engaging in war even in national difficulties (Wittfogel and Feng 1961, 294).

(3) Buddhism as a Supporter of Confucian Morals

The ritualization of Confucian values in Koryŏ emerged as ancestor worship ritual and other religious or philosophical traditions such as Buddhism, Taoism, shamanism, geomancy also served as a means to materializing those Confucian values. Conventional scholarship argued that the religious traditions of the Koryŏ kingdom were worn by Buddhist integuments (Ro 2002, 63). However, I rather say that in traditional Korea Buddhism was influenced by Chinese philosophical or religious traditions, including Confucianism in particular, and instead, principles that contain the essence of the Buddha’s teachings such as the Four Noble Truths[38] were not highlighted. As a result, Buddhism in medieval Korea served as a supporter of Confucian morals, but not vice versa.

Kings in pre-modern Korea used Buddhism for the promotion of the social and political virtues of their times. Loyalty and filial piety were the most important ethical virtues in traditional Korea. Regarding this, Hŭmch’un, who was a high ranking official in seventh-century Silla, said, “Loyalty and filial piety include to risk one’s life in national difficulties,” “Loyalty is the primary virtue of a subject” (Kim, 1986b, 375a6- 7). Monks were not an exception in this regard. In his “Anmin ka” (Song of Pacifying the People) of 765, the monk and later Royal Master Ch’ungdam (868-940) said, “King is father, subjects are lovely mother, and the people are silly children” (Iryŏn 1993, 67: 12).[39] This tradition was transmitted to Koryŏ.

Koryŏ kings viewed that the primary function of Buddhism was to promote filial piety and many eminent monks sympathized with it. For example, in his admonitions on the death bed, Great Master Chin’gong (855-937) said, “Monks and men of manners should respect their seniors as their parents and love their juniors like their children” (NYK 1996, 1, 66), emphasizing filial piety and brotherly love, which were important Confucian virtues.

(4) Buddhism as a Religion for Good Fortune

The single most important role of Buddhism from its inception in Korean history was its service as a religion for good fortune, which included protection from natural calamities, prevention from foreign invasions, pursuit of secular blessings, and making a wish for a better rebirth. Koryŏ Buddhism was also characterized by this tradition.

1) Protection from Natural Calamities

Natural calamities were considered warning to misgovernment in traditional Korea. Therefore, they were perforce recorded in historical texts. Solar eclipses, droughts, floods, earthquakes, hail, and heavy snow were all recorded in the Historical Records of the Three Kingdoms.[40] The KRS was not an exception in this regard. When natural calamities occurred in Koryŏ, kings reflected on themselves and held religious rituals, including Buddhist rituals.

2) Prevention from Foreign Invasions

Yi Kyubo’s (1168-1241) “Taejang kakp’an kunsin kigo mun” (Prayer by the King and Subjects for Engraving the Second Korean Buddhist Canon) indicates the motive of engraving the First Korean Buddhist Canon. According to this record, King Hyŏnjong began engraving it for repulsing foreign enemies depending on the miraculous power of the Buddha,

In 1011, the second year of the reign of King Hyŏnjong, the ruler of Khitan mobilized his army in large numbers and invaded the Koryŏ kingdom. As a result, the king fled to the south of Korea. The Khitan army rather stationed in Songak and did not retreat. [The king] issued the greatest wish along his subjects for engraving the First Korean Buddhist Canon. Thereafter, the Khitan army withdrew from the Koryŏ kingdom for themselves (KMC 1, 1986, 272-3).

3) Pursuit of Secular Blessings

Koryŏ kings, including, King T’aejo, understood Buddhism as a religion for invoking blessings. For them, Buddhist scriptures were not for learning Buddhist doctrine, but for making a merit. Ch’ae Ch’ungsun also said that the Koryŏ people of his time understood Buddhism as a religion for blessings,

Your subject [Ch’ae Ch’ungsun] was told that… Buddhist teaching is mind. Therefore, sincerity in it and respect for it will bring blessings (pongnok) (HKC, 1984, 447: 12-3).
In his “Chŏn Taejanggyŏng so” (Commentary to the Reading of the First Korean Buddhist Canon), Chŏng Chisang (?-1135), a scholar-official and one of the twelve poets in Koryŏ, also observed that partial readings of Buddhist literature (chŏndok) aimed at secular blessings (Kim 2013b, 140-1).

4) Making a Wish for a Better Rebirth

Koryŏ kings wished for a better rebirth based on the Theory of Karma.[41] For example, quoting from the Jin guangming jing (Scripture of Golden Glow), King Hyŏnjong said, “One’s collected karma causes him to be reborn as a human” (HKC 1984, 448: 2-3). Ch’ae Ch’ungsun also said that Buddhist texts were printed for making a wish for a better rebirth,

Your Sacred Highness wished to pray for the heavenly bless of your deceased parents… ordered his men to print 600 fascicles of the Tae Panya kyŏng (Great Scripture of Wisdom, Skt. Mahāprajñāpāramitā Sūtra), the Hwaŏm kyŏng (Flower Garland Scripture, Skt. Avataṁsaka Sūtra), the Kŭm kwangmyŏng kyŏng (Scripture of Golden Light), and the Myobŏp yŏnhwa kyŏng (Lotus Scripture, Skt. Saddharmapuṇḍarīka Sūtra) and to put the printing plates at this monastery [Hyŏnhwa-sa] (HKC, 1984, 450: 11-6).[42]
In sum, Koryŏ kings viewed the Buddha as a divine being, his teaching as a magic pearl, and the Saṃgha as a group of thaumaturgies and Buddhism in Koryŏ served as a political tool, a supporter of Confucian morals, and a religion for good fortune in the context of Confucian statecraft.

IV. An Analysis of the Relationship between Buddhism Confucianism

In the context of Confucian statecraft in medieval Korea, kings used Buddhism for their secular purposes. Based on the tradition from Sinicized form of Buddhism, their views on the Three Treasures of Buddhism –the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Saṃgha– were not in agreement with their original meaning in early Buddhism.[43] In addition, many monks ingratiated themselves with royal Buddhist policies developed in such context, often violating Buddhist doctrine for their subsistence.

1. Royal Buddhist Policies

Unlike the commonly accepted idea that the Koryŏ kingdom was the Buddhist state (Yi 2007, 453; Li 2011, 353), Buddhism in Koryŏ was not the state ideology, but a dominant religious force. State policies toward Buddhism in medieval Korea aimed at using Buddhism as a political expedience to support Confucian morals. To that end, the rulers employed carrot-and-stick policies: They not only protected it, but also controlled it. However, the state control of Buddhist circles was tradition not from India, home to Buddhism, where Buddhist circles enjoyed the privilege of extraterritoriality from secular power, but from China.

Koryŏ kings allowed the coexistence of Buddhism and Confucianism, but they differed from some Chinese and Korean monarchs in that they did not take Buddhism as their political ideology. In China Emperor Da (Sun Quan , 222-52) of theWu dynasty and Cao Cao (155-220), an influential general of Later Han (25-219) and the father of EmperorWen (220-6), the founder of theWei dynasty (220-65), attempted to establish a new ideology through Buddhism. In particular, the latter attempted a systematic approach to Buddhism in order to set up a ruling ideology. EmperorWu (502-49) of the Liang dynasty promulgated Buddhism as the ruling ideology, received bodhisattva precepts, and kept Buddhist precepts, prohibiting five spicy vegetables and meat (Kim 2010, 63-74). Also in Korea, King Pŏphŭng (514-40) of Silla prohibited the killing of living beings in 555 (Kim, 1986a, 81a8). King Pŏp (599-600) of Paekche (18 B.C.E.- 660 C.E.) did the same and ordered the release of domestic hawks and sparrow hawks and burned fishing tools (Iryŏn 1987, 206-7). King Sejo (1455-68) of the Chosŏn dynasty took Buddhism as the political ideology even in an era of strong anti-Buddhist sentiment (Kim 2013b, 256-85). However, in regard to Koryŏ kings, such records are hardly found. For them, Buddhism was little more than a political tool to support Confucianism, orthodoxy of their time.

Koryŏ kings’ understanding of the Three Jewels were also different from their meaning in early Buddhism. Buddhism was originally “a life education system”[44] and was not a religion for the invocation of blessings. In addition, the Buddha rejected making miracles. However, the nature of Buddhism has changed in time and space. Buddhism was first introduced to Korea not from India, but from China. Buddhism was transmitted to China around the first century C.E. and thereafter, its nature had changed in accommodation with indigenous Chinese philosophical systems of thought such as Confucianism and Taoism. The Buddhism that was transmitted to Korea was such Sinicized form of Buddhism. As a result, Koryŏ kings viewed Buddhism as a religion for fortune and used it as a tool to fulfill their political goals along with Confucianism, the political ideology of the time.

The Buddha was originally not regarded as a divinity. His direct disciples viewed him as their great teacher. However, the position of the Buddha changed and was deified in history. Koryŏ kings’ views on the Buddha were no exception. They considered the Buddha to be a deity of mercy and miraculous power. They understood the Buddha’s teachings from the perspective of Chinese philosophy and their understanding of them was not in depth.

The essential teachings of Buddhism, which are best represented by the Four Noble Truths, is clear in saying that ignorance, greed, and blind desires are the sources of man’s bondage and man can be released from this bondage with the cultivation of the mind. However, for Koryŏ kings, Buddhist texts, which are in general regarded as records of the oral teachings of the Buddha, were not for learning Buddhist teachings. Instead, they were used as a tool to fulfill their political goals or as an object of worship to invoke blessings.

Koryŏ kings often favored particular parts of Buddhist texts. For example, the Koryŏ royal blood, including King Hyŏnjong, paid particular attention to the Fahua jing (Lotus Sūtra) from the eleventh century and this canon was the basic text for understanding Buddhism at that time (Pak 2009, 74-87).[45] The essence of the Lotus Sūtra is that there is no contradiction in noumenon, phenomenon, and the principle which unifies both (Soothill and Hodous 1990, 276). However, the reason why King Hyŏnjong paid attention to it was not due to the doctrine itself, but due to the will of his father, who was impressed by the story of the donation of a resting place for travelers in the scripture, but failed at an attempt to put it into action (HKC 1984, 469-70).[46] The Buddhist saṃgha in India was independent of secular power. King T’aejo did not want to make his kingdom a Buddhist country and put the monastic circles under his control (Chŏng 1992, 119). Therefore, by controlling the bureaucracy and clergy, the king became the only entity exercising both secular and religious power (Nam 2003, 53) and held full authority on personal matters of the Buddhist circle (Nam 2005, 101-6).

In addition, the temples in Koryŏ primarily served as places for prayer invoking blessings of a royal house and sometimes as a military ground. In addition, Koryŏ kings’ attitude toward the Buddhist community was different from that of Liao (907-1125), a contemporary state that exerted a significant influence in the development of Koryŏ Buddhism. Unlike in Koryŏ, in Liao, it was customary for Buddhist believers to ordain their eldest sons. Even in its decay when the government needed to mobilize all its manpower, the Liao government still admonished Buddhist monks and nuns against breaking their vows (Wittfogel and Feng 1961, 294-5). However, in Koryŏ oldest sons were hardly ordained and monks were even rewarded for their brilliant war results. Like other religious traditions, Buddhism is also against war and emphasizes peace.

Therefore, the fact that Koryŏ kings rewarded monks for their military merit means that the rulers in medieval Korea utilized Buddhism for their non-Buddhist but political purposes.

2. The Saṃgha’s Response to Royal Buddhist Policies

Buddhist temples were originally places for spiritual cultivation and kept separate from secular powers and Buddhist monks are those who took an oath, dedicating their lives to following what was actually taught by the Buddha.

However, in medieval Korea the monastic circles were under the control of the state that attempted to fulfill its secular wishes relying on Buddhism. Eminent monks played as political advisors, subjects to the ruler, thaumaturgies, entrepreneurs, and even as warriors, power-oriented monks ingratiated with royal Buddhist policies[47] for their sustenance on “practical considerations,”[48] often violating the basic teachings of the Buddha.

In China monks began calling themselves subjects from the eighth century and became tradition in the eleventh century. The first example that a Korean monk called himself a subject emerged in 886 and Great Master Kwangja (864-945) said that he was a subject to the king and accepted royal order (NYK, 1996a, 193: 4), which became tradition in the tenth century. In particular, monks of early Koryŏ who were associated with the Buddhist schools that could not produce national masters or royal masters began calling themselves subjects to the ruler.

In addition, unlike monks of the Liao dynasty, who were faithful to their monastic duties even in national difficulties, many eminent monks in medieval Korea actively collaborated with royal Buddhist policies. For example, the monk Haerin (1038-96), National Master of Chigwang, made a serious effort to attract royal attention (Pak 2009, 88). This tradition was continued down to later generations, including Hyesim, Wŏno (?-1286), and Wŏnŭng (1301-82), all of them were National Masters of their time (Kim 2013a, 24).

3. Transformation of Buddhist Doctrine in Confucian Statecraft

Buddhist events in medieval Korea were interpreted in the Confucian context, which included the concepts of loyalty and filial piety, those of yin and yang, and the Theory of HeavenlyWarning. In addition, Buddhist doctrine that attracted royal attention was not the essential teachings of the Buddha, including the Four Noble Truths, but skillful means such as the Theory of Karma and the Mt. Sumeru cosmology.

The concept of filial piety was not among the basic things of the Buddha. It was clearly valued in Confucianism and its use in politics was prominent particularly in China and Korea. The Koryŏ kingdom was not an exception in this regard and it was one of the most significant ethics emphasized in the then Buddhist circles in relation to the Theory of Karma. The Theory of Yin and Yang, which was non-Buddhist but Confucian ideology along with the Theory of HeavenlyWarning,[49] was applied to the founding of temples (HKC 1984, 443: 5-13).

In tenth-century Korea, the Theory of Heavenly Warning had a strong element of divination and natural calamities were attributed not to the misgovernment of the king, but to that of subjects. A typical way of resolving natural calamities was that the king blamed himself for his misgovernment, determined to govern the state well, and alleviated penal administration (Yi 1984, 9-54).

The Mt. Sumeru cosmology[50] served as an underlying ideology behind the carving of Korean Buddhist Canons. However, the Mt. Sumeru cosmology is a symbolic expression based on the mythic cosmology of pre-Buddhist Indian people and Buddhism views that everything is not a substantial entity, but a representation of one’s mind.

The Theory of Karma, which is juxtaposed by the concept of rebirth, had been the philosophical underpinning behind most Buddhist events in Korean history, including the Koryŏ period, such as Buddhist rituals and the Korean Buddhist canons on woodblocks. However, this theory is still in debate among Buddhist scholars whether it is among the essential teachings of the Buddha. In his What the Buddha Taught, Richard F. Gombrich argues that based on the Pali canon as evidence, the Buddha was one of the most brilliant and original thinkers of all time, and takes karma as central to his thought (Gombrich 2009, 11-6). In contrast, Johannes Bronkhorst is not as decisive. In his article, “Did the Buddha Believe in Karma and Rebirth?,” he argues, “In so far as the texts allow us to reach an answer, seems to me an unambiguous ‘yes’” (Bronkhorst 1998, 16).

Gombrich, however, also argues that the oldest extant Pali canon is a product of the latter period of the first century B.C.E. (Gombrich 2009, 98), several hundred years apart from the lifetime of the Buddha, which makes us difficult to accept their contents as they are. Moreover, the Theory of Karma is not in agreement with the Buddhist concept of no-self, Buddhist epistemology, which is represented by the Theory of Twelve Abodes of Sensation, the idea that there is nothing without perception, and the Buddha’s silence to fourteen unanswerable questions asked by his disciples (Skt. caturdaśa).[51] Scholars of Buddhism also have characterized what the Buddha actually taught to be practical, rational, scientific, and democratic in nature. Therefore, I argue that the Theory of Karma is not among the essential teachings of the Buddha, but a skillful means developed in later times to attract people of diverse spiritual faculties.

Some Koryŏ kings were interested in Buddhist canonical texts. However, what they focused on was not the major contents in them, but on parts relevant to their secular interest. Unlike Kungye of Later Koguryŏ and Prince Shōtoku (?-622) of Japan who delivered a lecture on Buddhist scriptures such as the Lotus Sūtra, records rarely indicate that Koryŏ kings did the same.

In sum, unlike conventional scholarship that has argued that Buddhism in Koryŏ was the state religion, it was a dominant religion among other religious traditions to support Confucian ethics. Koryŏ Kings’ attitude toward Buddhism was for both support and control. From the beginning of the dynasty, King T’aejo did not allow his entire kingdom to convert to Buddhism and instead, took Buddhist policies in terms of religious pluralism (Yun, et al. 2002, 18). In addition, Koryŏ kings’ prime concern was not with Buddhist doctrine, but with Buddhist events; and their views on Buddhism, the Buddha, the Dharma, and the saṃgha were not in conformity with their original meaning. Conventional scholarship also argued that traditional religions in Koryŏ were covered by Buddhist integuments. Rather, this argument needs to be revised as follows: Buddhism in Koryŏ was interpreted in the context of Chinese philosophical systems of thought such as Confucianism. For Koryŏ kings, Buddhism was a tool for fulfilling their secular purposes rather than a life education system as taught by the Buddha. They made a thorough use of Buddhism as a means to accomplish their earthly goals, which included longevity of their royal houses, based on the Confucian ideology.


This article examined interactions between Buddhism and Confucianism in early Koryŏ. To this end, the position of Buddhism and Confucianism and the role of Buddhism in Confucian statecraft were examined and the relationship between Buddhism and Confucianism was critically analyzed.

As far as extant records are concerned, in medieval Korea Confucianism was the state ideology and Buddhism was a dominant religion to support Confucian morals such as loyalty and filial piety. In that context, Koryŏ kings understood Buddhism primarily through the lens of Confucianism. However, their prime concern was not with the essential teachings of the Buddha, but with skill-in-means such as the Theory of Karma and Buddhist events. They used Buddhism for their secular purposes, including royal longevity, putting Buddhist circles under their control. The Buddhist circles ingratiated themselves with royal Buddhist policies in exchange for their sustenance, whose tradition had continued down to the end of the Koryŏ dynasty and even thereafter. Korean scholars have viewed in common that most contents of the KRS are accurate. However, the KRS was compiled by the Confucian scholars of the Chosŏn dynasty in the fifteenth century and those Confucian compilers disparaged traditional customs, including Buddhism, and spoke high of Confucian culture (Ro 2002, 63-72). In spite of the importance of Buddhism in Koryŏ society,[52] the Confucian compilers neglected recording Buddhist music and monastic economy and reduced the role of eminent monks and major Buddhist rituals in Koryŏ (Kim 1994, 13-6; Kim 2001, 34-8). A similar example of revision is also found in the Historical Records of the Three Kingdoms.[53] Therefore, records on Buddhism in the KRS have points in question and a greater scholarly scrutiny of the nature of the KRS remains for further research, which will provide a more in-depth understanding of the relationship between Buddhism and Confucianism in medieval Korea.



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