Buddhism Arrives in the Three Kingdoms

Buddhism Arrives in the Three Kingdoms

Buddhism spread to the southern part of Korea later than it did to the northern kingdoms. The dates for the official acceptance of Buddhism—that is, the date when the court commissioned the building of a temple—are known for each of the Three Kingdoms. In Koguryo it was 372; in Paekche, 384; but in Silla, not until 527. These were the dates that marked the culmination of Buddhist efforts in each kingdom, not the beginning. It took time for the beliefs to be accepted by num-bers of people and then the king.

The acceptance of Buddhism can be taken as a measure of the growth and development, and perhaps even military power, of each of the three kingdoms (Best 2002, 165). This is because the formal acceptance of Buddhism meant a great deal in areas beyond religion: With Buddhism came the Chinese writing system and literacy, and with literacy came many other ideas and items of Chinese civilization.

By the time Buddhism was accepted and a state temple built in each king-dom, each kingdom also became familiar with Confucianism. These two great religions had dramatic impacts on the societies of the Three Kingdoms. Through them people began to see themselves as part of an international world tied to China and Japan as well.

The Three Kingdoms period, generally recognized as the fourth cen-tury through 668, was a time of war. At one time or another each of the three kingdoms was the most powerful. And at one time or another the other two formed alliances against the third. Each in turn broke alli-ances. It is not surprising that Buddhism was so successful at this time.

Buddhism, a philosophy that transcends family and nation, answered the big questions: the meaning of life and death and the question of life after death. Confucianism, on the other hand, was concerned with earthly matters—society, good government, and ethics. At this time of warfare, when people lost their brothers, fathers, husbands, and sons, Buddhism helped the living to bury the dead.

The royalty and court ultimately accepted Buddhism, but not with-out opposition. Buddhist monks and lay members first had to spend some time proselytizing the religion. No details are known of how the process worked in Koguryo and Paekche, but a narrative, a kind of myth, indicates how Buddhism was finally accepted in Silla. According to this record, the king personally favored Buddhism, and he had an adviser, a monk named Ichadon (501–527).

Most of the king’s court was not in favor of Buddhism, however, preferring instead the traditional religion of shamanism. Ichadon approached the king with an idea. He would write a decree naming Buddhism the state religion, and he would use the king’s seal to make the decree official. He knew that the court would accuse him of forging the document and call for his execution.

Ichadon would willingly submit to the accusation, he said, but before being executed he would make a prediction: Upon his death, the sky would cloud over and rain flower petals rather than drops of water; the earth would shake; his severed head, rather than falling to the ground, would fly off to South Mountain; and milk, not blood, would spurt from his neck. The king agreed to the scheme. The document was written and proclaimed as if the king did not know.

The court accused Ichadon of using the king’s authority without permission, and he was executed. Just as he predicted, the heavens clouded over and rained flower petals, the earth shook, his severed head flew off to South Mountain, while milk, not blood, spurted from his neck. Everyone then knew that the Buddha had power, that Ichadon was a just martyr, and that the country should adopt Buddhism and establish a state-sponsored temple.

Aside from the question of what exactly happened at the execution of Ichadon, the story, if read between the lines, reveals certain facts. First, there was opposition to Buddhism. Although the king favored Buddhism, conservative members of the court did not. Second, through some mechanism, Buddhism was accepted over the objections of those who would have held on to a native religion rather than accept the foreign belief.

The king at that time was Pophung-wang (r. 514–540); his name means “the raising of dharma”—dharma being the Sanskrit word for “the law,” or the basic doctrine of Buddhism. The debate about the acceptance of Buddhism was the first of several over the ensuing centuries between those who wanted to accept Chinese cultural offerings and those who preferred a native Korean alternative.

Confucianism and the Code of the Hwarang

Like Buddhism, Confucianism spread to Korea from the outside. Even less is known about the acceptance of Confucianism, however, because architecture and icons are not as important to the Confucian faith as they are to the Buddhist faith. No buildings from the Silla period remain to record the adoption of Confucianism, but there is other evidence. The historical record tells of state scholars, implying they were well versed in the Confucian classics.

One of the noteworthy developments in Silla in the Three Kingdoms period was the corps of young people who studied martial arts and became the leaders of the military that would eventually unify the peninsula. They were called the Hwarang, literally the “knights of the flowers,” a paradoxical term that implied preparation for battle while still honoring the gentle arts of humanity as symbolized by the flower.

The Hwarang knights had a code of honor that originated in the early 600s from the hand of a famous monk called Wongwang. Of its five points, three were Confucian in value: (1) loyalty to the king, (2) filial piety to one’s parents, (3) trustworthiness to one’s friends, (4) avoidance of indiscriminate killing, and (5) no retreat.

The first three are taken directly from the Three Bonds and Five Relationships of Confucianism. The fourth is a reflection of Buddhism, and the fifth is a measure of the strength of the military spirit they developed (Tikhonov 1998, 318). This spirit lives on today in the Korean Military Academy; the road leading up to the academy is called The Hwarang Road, and the entrance to the academy is called the Hwarang Gate.