Buddhism and Confucianism in Korea

Buddhism and Confucianism

Buddhism and Confucianism have had a complex relationship over the centuries. They entered Korea at roughly the same time (between the fourth and sixth centuries), but it was Buddhism that had greater appeal in the Silla period and indeed through much of the Koryo period (918–1392). Confucianism grew in power throughout the Koryo period and then came to completely dominate the Choson dynasty (1392–1910).

Once Silla’s ruler adopted Buddhism in the early sixth century, the religion received official royal patronage. It remained largely limited to the social elite until the Unified Silla period, when two monks, Uisang (625–702) and the above-mentioned Wonhyo, helped to turn it into a popular movement.

Each social strata in this highly stratified society soon had its own designated temples—there were royal temples, many levels of aristocratic (“head rank”) temples, and various lower-class or commoner temples at the bottom of the hierarchy. Buddhism continued to flourish throughout the Koryo period. Eventually, by the late Koryo period, this strong Buddhist presence comes to be described as excessive and corrupt. The Choson founders criticized what they saw as an over-grown Buddhist institution.

By then monasteries controlled large tracts of land and even owned slaves, many of whom had been impoverished free men who sold themselves into slavery to ward off starvation during the hard years of the Mongol invasions and thereafter in late Koryo. The monasteries also employed armies. The support of the numerous temples and monasteries, which were exempt from taxation and thus attracted large numbers of monks and nuns seeking to escape taxation and government services, had become a serious burden on the national economy.

The late Silla period, at the height of Buddhist achievement in Korea, also witnessed one of the greatest scholars of Confucianism, Choe Chiwon (859–ca. 910). He first made a name for himself by going to Tang China and passing the civil service exam, which provided him entry into Chinese government service.

After serving in several positions, he returned to Kyongju, expecting a high position. The Silla court, finding him too qualified for a central government position, kept him at arm’s length by assigning him to a series of provincial positions. Finally, despairing of ever finding a significant position in his home country, Choe retired to the countryside.

Although he never reached high levels of government power, in his retirement he instead served as an important Confucian scholar and teacher who taught numerous disciples. Later, with the fall of Silla and the rise of Koryo in 918, many of his disciples and their students came to play important roles in the new dynasty. For his contributions, Choe Chiwon became the second man named a “sage” in the National Confucian Shrine.