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History of Korean Buddhism: Its Transmission and Development
Korean history usually is divided into four periods: the Three Kingdoms (?-668 A.D.), the Unified Silla Kingdom(668-935 A.D.), the Goryeo Dynasty(935-1392 A.D.), and the Joseon Dynasty(1392-1910 A.D.). Although there is evidence of earlier contact with Buddhism, the official date for the introduction of Buddhism to Korea from China is 372 A.D. Since that time Korean Buddhism has been spread throughout the world and developed for 1,600 years. Korean Buddhism developed its distinctive characteristics and shaped its unique form of Buddhism based on social and political circumstances in each period.
Buddhism was first introduced in the Three Kingdoms period. According to the name of the Three Kingdoms, the land was composed of three different Kingdoms: Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla. Each kingdom accepted Buddhism at a different time and by a different route. First, the kingdom of Goguryeo -located in the northern area- invited a monk from China with Chinese Buddhist texts and Buddha statues in 372 A.D. Later, Buddhism was introduced to the kingdom of Baekje, located in the southwestern area- from Goguryeo in 384 A.D. In the case of the above two kingdoms, the royal families first practiced Buddhism. However, in the kingdom of Silla, the common people were attracted to Buddhism. After Lee Chadon's martyrdom, King Beopheung officially recognized Buddhism in 527 A.D.
In the beginning of the Three Kingdoms period, the teaching of Buddhism was not of high quality Buddhist philosophy and thoughts. However, the spread of Buddhism produced a significant effect on the development of many aspects of national culture. Because of various invasions and careless preservation, only a few records- archaeological sites, historical remains, and books- exist. But it can be considered that Buddhism at this time not only contributed to the development of spiritual civilization, but also flourished in the development of art: bells, pagodas, architecture, and paintings.
In 668 A.D., the kingdom of Silla conquered the other two kingdoms and this period came to be called the Unified Silla period. Throughout the Unified Silla period, Buddhism continued to prosper, and grew both academically and culturally. Various rituals were developed and performed as spiritual requests for protection from foreign invasions. During this time some of the finest Korean Art was created. In particular, the famous rock statue of the Buddha in Seokguram Grotto in Gyeongju was carved in 732 A.D. It still evokes a sense of beauty. Towards the end of the Unified Silla period, Zen Buddhism was introduced from China and this added a new dimension to Korean Buddhism because the Zen school emphasized meditation and direct experience rather than concentration on studying Buddhist texts.
The Goryeo Dynasty assumed power in the 10th century and Buddhism continued to be a national religion. The main focus of Goryeo Buddhism was based on rituals and this created an unfavorable atmosphere for spiritual development. In order to struggle against the ritualistic trend, several monks emphasized the importance of combining Contemplative Zen and Textual tradition. The formation of the cheontae school gave new life to Goryeo Buddhism.
Buddhism slowly declined as the new rulers of the Joseon Dynasty adopted Neo-Confucianism. The new interest in Confucianism led to the oppression and restriction of Buddhism by some Joseon kings. Temples could not be built near towns. Instead, the government permitted Buddhist monks to stay in the mountains. While the government persecuted Buddhism, politically and socially, the common people continued to believe in it. Today, many new temples have opened in towns. Approximately half the population of Korea is Buddhist. Most Koreans, even though they may not call themselves Buddhists, maintain a Buddhist view of life.