Buddhism was formally introduced to Korea by monks from China in 372 CE, although the country had been influenced by Buddhism already prior to this. The monks brought with them statues and Chinese sutras as well as simple basic teachings about karma and seeking happiness. These thoughts were compatible with the contemporary shamanistic tradition of Korea, and were received favorably by the political leaders and common people alike. Buddhism became largely integrated into the predominant religious tradition. Many Korean temples continue to have separate shrines for the protector deities of the mountains, and these beings which represent remnants of the old shamanistic tradition are also revoked in certain temple ceremonies.
During the time of the introduction of Buddhism, the Korean peninsula was divided into three different kingdoms: Shilla, Koguryo and Paekje. Buddhist was first introduced to Koguryo but it was not until the year 527 in Shilla (668–935) that Buddhism began to prosper. After Shilla conquered the other territories in 668, unifying the country, Buddhism spread across the whole region (current South and North Korea). The arts and architecture thrived during the subsequent unified Shilla and following Koryŏ dynasties. The Sokkuram grotto and Pulguksa temple with its famous stupa monuments, among others, originate from this time. The 13th century was the peak of the flourishing Koryŏ dynasty, including the carving of the Tripitaka on 80,000 wooden blocks, an artefact inscribed in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. In the 15th century, proponents of Neo-Confusianism gained power, and Buddhists began to be persecuted during the Chosŏn dynasty. A large proportion of temples located in cities were destroyed and monks were prohibited from entering the capital. This ushered the monks to construct temples in the mountains, and the most prominent and largest temples, such as Songgwangsa (the temple where Taehye sunim has studied) and Haeinsa, continue to be located in mountain valleys to this day. The next period of turmoil for Korean Buddhism was the occupation by Japan (1910–1945). The occupiers forced celibate monks to take wives, and monks supportive of the Japanese cause were placed in charge of the most important temples. During this time, many of the cultural treasures in Korean temples were also taken to Japan.
Following the occupation, monks belonging to the largest order, Chogye, initiated a radical reform of Buddhism in the country. Married monks were given two choices: either to leave temples belonging to the Chogye order or to resume traditional celibate monasticism. At the same time, many men and women were ordained as monks and nuns. Buddhism began to increase in popularity again, and new temples and centers emerged in the largest cities. In addition to Chogye, other important branches of Buddhism include T’aego ja Wŏn, the former of which still allows monks to be married according to the Japanese custom. The T’aego order also maintained the monastic dance tradition of monks. All the orders represent Mahayana Buddhism but stress different aspects of the practice. The teacher of the Bodhidharma Association has been ordained in the Chogye order, and our practice is therefore based on the teachings in this tradition.
The Chogye order encompasses some two thousand temples (as well as numerous smaller hermitages). It includes approximately 7,500 monks and 6,500 nuns. Around 11 million Koreans, 25 % of the population of South Korea, are considered to follow Buddhism. 2/3 of these belong to the Chogye order. The most important large temples of the Chogye order include the temples of the Three Jewels: T’ongdosa (Buddha), Haeinsa (Dharma) and Songgwangsa (Sangha). A few of the temples allow also Western people to practice meditation. For instance, the Lotus Lantern International Meditation Center, Hwagyesa and Musangsa organize introductory programs on Buddhism and retreats of different lengths in English. The temple Golgulsa provides the opportunity to learn about the monastic martial art Sonmudo. Several temples in addition to these offer “Temple Stay” although the program is usually in Korean. Korean Buddhists are generous and kind, which makes it possible in practice to receive lodging for a few nights from many temples in exchange for a small donation or compensation.
The Sŏn Buddhism practiced in the Chogye order is the predominant form of Buddhism in Korea. The practice of the Chogye order is said to best preserve the original spirit of Chan among all the Chinese Chan schools and their successors. Sŏn practice emphasizes the importance of meditation in the attainment of liberation. In the temples, monks and nuns devoted to meditation assemble twice a year, in the winter and summer seasons, into meditation halls for three-month retreats. In the meditation hall, the practice begins at around 3 am, and the days include 8–14 hours of silent meditation. Certain temples allow lay people to also participate in retreats.
There are various forms of practice in the Chogye order: reading sutras, reciting the name of a Buddha or Bodhisattva, focusing on the breath, silent illumination or “directing the light inside” and hwadu, “word head” (or ”head of the speech”) which most masters regard as the principal method. Today there are also monks and lay people who practice vipassana or “clear sight.” Hwadu is a word, phrase or event given by teacher to student (or occasionally spontaneously emerging in the mind) as the object of meditation. Hwadu leads beyond conceptual thinking, to the unconditioned mind. There are 1700 traditional hwadus. The best known among them is likely to be “I-mo-ko”, or “What is this?” Other renowned hwadu include “Mu” and “Pine in the garden.” Hwadu practice was developed in China. In the 13th century, it was transmitted to Korea, Vietnam and Japan where it is known as kо̄an. In Japan, the practice was developed into a system where a student receives a follow-up kо̄an upon completion of one kо̄an. In the Korean tradition, the student usually contemplates only a single hwadu. Once one truly “solves” a single hwadu, this leads to the simultaneous realization of all other hwadu. Hwadu practice is possible under the supervision of a good teacher who provides the student with an appropriate hwadu as well as closely following the development of the student’s practice.
The most important texts for Sŏn practitioners in Korea include the Heart sutra, the Diamond sutra, the Platform Sutra of Huineng, the Flower Garland (Avatamsaka) sutra, and the literary works of the ancient masters. The ceremonies held thrice a day always include the Heart sutra and the Yebulmun or Prayer Chant.