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Korean Buddhism

The Korean style of Buddhism has both academic and practical components. The Avatamsaka Sutra and the Lotus Sutra have been the main focus of study in Buddhist academic study. Pure land and Zen Buddhism have been the most popular and effective forms of practice, with Pure Land Buddhism concentrating on Amitabha and Avalokitesvara and Zen Buddhism (Son or Seon in Korean) emphasizing meditation and direct experience.

Although Buddhism was first introduced to Korea during the Three Kingdoms period (?-668 A.D.), the distinctive character of Korean Buddhism emerged during both the Unified Silla (668-935 A.D.) and the Goryeo (935-1392 A.D.) periods. During these two periods Korean monks continually traveled to China to study new Buddhist ideas. After mastering their study, most of them came back and tried to introduce new Buddhist ideas to Korean culture and people.

The study of the Avatamsaka and the Lotus Sutras and the worship of Amitabha (the Buddha of Light) and Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva characterized Korean Pure Land Buddhism during the Unified Silla period. Towards the end of the Unified Shilla Period, the Chan School (Son of Korean, Zen in Japanese) was introduced from China and this added a new dimension to Korean Buddhism. Meditation and direct experience were emphasized over concentration on studying the texts. Nine different schools emerged and they were known as the Nine Mountains of Son.

In the 14th century the Nine schools of Zen were unified by Master Taego under the name of Jogye, which has remained the main sect to this day.

Korean Zen (Son)

Korean Zen is both less formal and less martial than Japanese Zen. The monastic order (and the vinaya) is central to Korean Buddhism with nuns (bhikshuni) of equal status with monks. Still, Korean preserves something of the flavour of classic Chinese Chan.

Korean monastic practice incorporates the elements of study, meditation (Son) and chanting (a Pure Land element). There are separate halls for each of these activities in the monasteries, and monks or nuns are free to specialize in whichever they find most conducive. Study focuses mainly on the Zen records and Mahayana sutras, chanting on the repetition of the names of the Buddha and the Bodhisattvas, and meditation on sitting and koan (hwadu) practice.

Korean Buddhis has been transmitted in only limited ways to the modern West. One teacher with a profound impact was Zen Master Seung Sahn, who was called Dae Soen Sa Nim (Great Honored Zen Teacher) by his students. The 78th Patriarch in his line of Dharma transmission in the Chogye order of Korean Buddhism, he founded temples in Japan, Hong Kong and the United States.

Korean Buddhism: A Short Overview
Charles Muller

Buddhapia: Korean Buddhism Information Center

Native tradition in Korean Zen
Mu Soeng

See the Learning Center's Study section for Korean Buddhism learning resources.