Spread of Buddhism Into Korea


Buddhism’s history is Korea actually predates the official adoption by the Silla Kingdom by roughly 200 years. Buddhism came from China to Korea in the estimated year of 372 B.C.E., and when originally introduced, mixed and coexisted with the accepted Korean Shamanistic religion. Shamanism is the belief that all humans, animals, and natural objects have spirits, and this idea melded easily with Buddhist ideals. In fact, many modern Buddhist temples are on the site of mountains that were important Shamanistic spiritual sites in the pre-Buddhist period.

After several centuries, Buddhism had absorbed the most prominent ideals of Korean Shamanism to create a uniquely Korean Buddhism. From there, it was officially recognized by Korea’s Three Kingdoms, moving from north to South, starting with the Koguryo Kingdom down to the Silla Kingdom.

Buddhism had the greatest influence in the southeastern Silla Kingdom, and was made the official religion of the kingdom in 527 C.E. Although there was initial aristocratic resistance to the spread of Buddhism in Silla, by 540 C.E. King Chinhung had begun to fund a Buddhist institution to train future government officials.

With the unification of Korea under the Silla up until the 900s C.E., Buddhism in Korea flourished. Many works of art were commissioned, and many monasteries and temples were built.

Buddhism maintained widespread acceptance through the Goryeo period. Even more works of art were commissioned and monasteries built, and also during this time, the entirety of the Tripitaka in Chinese was carved onto wooden blocks that are still a prized historical artifact in Korea today.

In the following Chosun Dynasty up until the Japanese occupation in the early twentieth century, Buddhism was repressed, and did not regain strength until after the Japanese colonization in 1945. Beginning in the fourteenth century every effort was made to repress the religion in the support of Confucianism, although some select brave monks still chose to practice and keep Buddhism alive.

Today, Buddhism and Christianity are closely tied in terms of percentage of South Koreans who practice each. 22.8% of South Koreans self-identify as Buddhist according to the 2007 Census, and Christians are reported at a slightly 29.2%. It is flourishing in much the same way as other modern religions, and all over Korea today there are youth groups, active temples, and translations of Buddhist texts into Korean that can be easily accessed throughout the country.