Confucianism, Buddhism and Christianity all play important roles in Korea. While these three religions have been powerful influences, none of these have been able to secure a dominant place in present day Korea. As a result, all three religions have equal status in the country. (Ed. Lancaster/Payne/Yoon Yee-heum).
According to government statistics, 42.6 percent or more than 17 million of South Korea's 1985 population professed adherence to an organized religious community. There were at least 8 million Buddhists (about 20 percent of the total population), about 6.5 million Protestants (16 percent of the population), some 1.9 million Roman Catholics (5 percent), nearly 500,000 people who belonged to Confucian groups (1 percent), and more than 300,000 others (0.7 percent). Significantly, large metropolitan areas had the highest proportions of people belonging to formal religious groups: 49.9 percent in Seoul, 46.1 percent in Pusan, and 45.8 percent in Taegu. The figures for Christians revealed that South Korea had the highest percentage of Christians of any country in East or Southeast Asia, with the exception of the Philippines. Source: http://reference.allrefer.com/country-guide-study/south-korea/south-korea81.html
Confucian religious groups are probably underrepresented in official status. Korean social norms are grounded in the Confucian value system and many religious practices stem from Confucianism. This is also the case with Shamanism, which is not in official tables, but which is promoted by the government and followed by many practitioners of other religions. (Ed. Lancaster/Payne/Chungmoo Choi)
Korea has produced several hundred "new religions" or sects which have been more or less influential in the last 200 years. The most well known in North America is the Unification church, founded by Sun Myung Moon in 1954 with branches in North America. The oldest of these "new religions" is Chon'dogyo, founded in 1860 as a reaction to Western teachings. It is a mixture of Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism and shamanism.
Although Confucianism was introduced to Korea before Buddhism, its ideological popularity grew later through the introduction of Neo-Confucianism during the late-Koryo and early-Choson periods.
Chong To-jon (1342-1398), also known as Sambong, was a thinker who played a central role in overthrowing the Koryo Dynasty and establishing the new Choson Dynasty on the basis of Neo-Confucianism. In his teachings, he elucidated Confucian orthodoxy, claiming that Buddhism and Taoism stood outside of the Confucian orthodoxy and were thereby heterodoxical. According to Chong, li (principle) was the basic concept of Confucianism, ki (material force) the basic concept of Taoism and mind was the basic concept of Buddhism. Since ki and mind only operated based on li, they could not be used as a basis for philosophy. Chong thus claimed that Taoism and Buddhism were one-sided and incomplete heterodoxies, which should be abolished and replaced with orthodox Confucianism. In works such as Choson kyonggukchon, Chong advocated a re-alignment of society in accord with the times. As a reformer, he advocated social change based on enlightened government and Confucian orthodoxy. Through his efforts, Neo-Confucianism was established as the ideology of the newly formed Choson Dynasty.
Kwon Kun (1352-1409, also known as Yang-ch'on) was a scholar who, along with Chong To-jon, established the Confucian tradition of the Choson Dynasty. He translated the "Four Books and Three Classics" of the Confucian canon from the standpoint of Neo-Confucianism, bringing classical studies to a new height. In his diagram "Ch'oninshimsong habiljido," he clarified the concepts of heaven, man, mind and human nature, laying the foundation for Choson Neo-Confucian thought. Through his research on the classics, he developed Confucian orthodoxy, and his theoretical studies and prepared the philosophical basis of Neo-Confucianism. In this sense, he served as a prominent leader of Confucian studies.
Yi Hwang (1501-1570), also known as T'oegye, is the scholar who brought Choson Neo-Confucianism into full bloom. In Songhak Shipto (Ten Diagrams of Sagely Learning) and numerous other writings, he propounded his doctrine that li and ki arise in mutual correspondence. This theory touched off a vigorous debate among Choson Neo-Confucian scholars, which led to extraordinary developments in the school's doctrines. In terms of theory, T'oegye held the view that li was dominant. However, instead of stopping at mere theory, he developed a practical teaching method aimed at personal cultivation. Neo-Confucianism is often called, simply, the "Study of the Way." With a teaching that encompassed both theoretical reflections as well as practical cultivation, T'oegye can be said to have perfected this teaching. His Neo-Confucian thought gathers the brilliant practical ideals lying within each theory and puts them together to form a whole. In a sense, his theoretical doctrines form the starting point of the "Study of the Way," while his doctrine of practical cultivation represents its culmination. Thus, T'oegye was neither a fundamentalist nor a dogmatist, but was rather an intelligent advocate of piety who devoutly sought the practical realization of his ideals.
Yi I (1536-1584, also known as Yulgok), along with T'oegye, was one of the two great masters of Choson Confucianism. Although Yulgok praised T'oegye's philosophy, he criticized many of its theoretical aspects. His numerous written works, including "songhak chibyo" (Compilation of the Essentials of Sagely Learning), indicate diverse and extensive scholarly interests.
In Yulgok's thought, that which manifests is ki and that by which it is manifested is li. He thus emphasized that li and ki were an inseparable entity. According to his theory, when ki becomes active, li ascends it so as to become a unity. The fact that Yulgok was able to apply this doctrine to the diverse aspects of his teaching while maintaining logical consistency demonstrates his brilliance as a thinker. His general theory is also related to his theory of government, in which he sets forth numerous programs for social reform. He is remembered as an outstanding intellectual who worked to realize an ideal Confucian society.
Another important figure is Chong Yak-yong (1762-1836). Also known as Tasan, he is a representative Sirhak scholar of the late 19th century. Sirhak (Practical Learning) is an ideology that sought to reform the institutionalized Neo-Confucianism of the Choson period. Thus, it represents a liberal movement within the Confucian tradition. In order to put an end to the doctrinal disputes that had plagued Neo-Confucianism during the previous two centuries, Tasan felt that it was necessary to elucidate the central teaching of Confucianism. Thus, Tasan began a radical re-interpretation of the vast body of Confucian classics. Based on this work, Tasan penned an extensive collection of treatises on government, including his famous work "Mongmin shimso" (On Leading the People). His theory of government focuses on assuring the livelihood of the people and the nation's legal system. For this reason, his practical philosophy rejected the Neo-Confucian obsession with metaphysics. Instead, it sought to resolve issues affecting the livelihood of the people, while encouraging good government capable of helping people during times of crisis. In this sense, Tasan was a foresighted thinker who sought to reform tradition in response to the needs of the times.
These five Confucian thinkers discussed monumental works that helped define the history of Korean Confucianism. As can be seen, Choson-era Confucian scholars placed great importance on a pious fidelity to their tradition. For this reason, they had an exclusive attitude toward other religions and, hence, appear to be self-righteous. However, instead of clinging to Neo-Confucian dogma, they sought to elucidate the ideals of Neo-Confucianism according to their historical circumstances and reform the societies in which they lived. Understood within this context, they must not be seen as exclusive dogmatists, but as creative intellectuals.
In Korea, representative Buddhist and Confucian thinkers were not interested in theory for its own sake. Instead, they utilized their independent intellectual abilities to elucidate religious ideals within the context of their unique historical reality. This intellectual attitude has formed the basis of Korea's ancient classical culture. From the Three Kingdoms through the Choson period, countless Buddhist and Confucian thinkers have left their legacy of refined philosophical works, as well as beautiful, practical examples of their search for human ideals. For this reason, Korea, even more than China or Japan, has been able to preserve Confucianism and Buddhism in their classical forms.
Confucian attitudes are still prevalent in the country, and certain features of the modern Korean social system can be attributed to this. The country's rapid industrialization and the emphasis on education in modern day Korea is also an outcome of the country's Confucian heritage. At the same time, traditional ideas like monarchy, subservience to China, anti-commercialism and anti-Christianity that do not fit into the modern scheme of things have been rejected.
Though Confucian values were used historically for political purposes, its widespread use began only after the introduction of neo-Confucianism in the late 13th century. Confucian social ethics were used by the Park, Chun and in later years, the Japanese in order to strengthen their control over the Korean people.
Compared with other religions, Buddhism thought is oriented towards the practical. Its aim at the individual level is to attain Buddhahood and, at the social level, to save living beings. The object of salvation, no matter what it may be, falls within the category of living beings. Therefore, regardless of what religion people believe in, they are regarded as an object of Buddhist salvation. In this way, Buddhism is inclusive and tolerant, and Korean Buddhism is no exception.
Wonhyo (617-686) stands at the pinnacle of Korean intellectual history as a thinker embodying the characteristics of Korean Buddhist thought. Warning against doctrinal rigidity as well as the aristocratic monopoly on Buddhism, he attempted to create a practical Buddhism that was oriented toward common people. At the same time, his work to systematize and integrate its diverse doctrines became a model for critical Buddhist research. As a part of his effort to bring together Buddhism's profound doctrines, he emphasized that all phenomena are merely products of the mind. According to Wonhyo, if one could merely awaken to the fact that all phenomena are products of the mind, all doctrinal disputes would become meaningless. For this reason, he felt that doctrines and disputes were less important than the ideal of practice contained within them. Wonhyo therefore emphasized the "harmonization of disputes," meaning that one could only approach truth by putting a stop to conflict. In this way, he demonstrated an intellectual attitude that sought to harmonize strict adherence to doctrine with a practical orientation.
Eisang (625-702) firmly established the Hwaom (Chinese "Huayen") ideal of a "Buddha Land" in order to create solid foundations for the Unified Silla Kingdom. According to Hwaom doctrine, all things have their place within the harmony of the universal order. If one awakens to this order, anguish and contentions instantly disappear and the world is seen as full of harmony and peace. The Buddha triad that represents the blessed Hwaom realm is enshrined within the main hall of Buddhist temples. Taeil Yorae (Mahavairocana) sits in the center as the symbol of the sun and light; Kwanum Posal (Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva) sits on the right as the representation of compassion; Munsu Posal (Manjusri Bodhisattva) sits on the left, as the symbol of wisdom. Due to Eisang's teachings, all of Korea came to be thought of as a Buddhist land and various areas came to be thought of as sacred places in which Kwanum or Munsu Posal resided. In this way, Eisang enlisted Hwaom thought, with its optimistic and comprehensive character, to establish organized Buddhism and provide new vision for the integrated society of Unified Silla. His teachings concerning Kwanum Posal continue to have an important influence on Buddhist practice.
Eich'won, a National Master during the Koryo period, attempted to restore organized Buddhism. In doing so, he hoped to reform the Buddhist order, which had become corrupt during the late-Silla and early-Koryo period. During the latter part of the Unified Silla period, a movement centering around the "Nine Mountains" meditation schools led to a sudden expansion of Son (Chan or Zen) Buddhism. Emphasizing personal cultivation, Son Buddhism rejected the centralized control of the royal house and doctrinal orders and thus advanced the trend toward regional power centers. Doctrinal Buddhism, on the other hand, required massive funds from the royal house in order to publish Buddhist sutras and written works. Son Buddhism's expansion thus intensified the decline of the doctrinal orders. Eich'won, seeking to alter this dangerous trend, advocated religious practice based on both doctrinal learning (Kyo) and meditation (son). However, Eich'won's approach actually amounted to a superficial acceptance of Son within the tradition of doctrinal studies. Eich'won thus sought to unify Koryo society by restoring the organization of Buddhism around the royal house.
Chinul (1158-1210), unlike Eich'won, attempted to reform Buddhism from within the Son sect. With the military coup of 1170, Korean society fell into hopeless chaos and the Buddhist world likewise fell prey to ongoing power struggles. In this troubled atmosphere, Chinul gathered together a group of seekers who had renounced fame and profit and opted for a secluded life devoted to pure religious cultivation. Since the group's practice included both meditation and doctrinal studies, it was called the Samadhi and Prajna (Concentration and Wisdom) Community. Thus, Chinul sought to reform the Buddhist world by developing a small but ardent community of religious practitioners devoted to the dual cultivation of Son (meditation) and Kyo (doctrine). This small community, with its strict commitment to religious practice, serves as a model for Korean Son school even today. After Chinul, Korean Buddhism actually began to favor Son Buddhism, but still accepted doctrinal studies as being in harmony with Son. Combining the comprehensive ideals of Hwaom thought with the strict practice of son meditation, Chinul made the Korean Son school much more inclusive and integrated than its Chinese or Japanese counterparts.
Both Eich'lon and Chinul expounded philosophies that were primarily concerned with the unification of Son and Kyo, and both thinkers sought to reform Buddhism from the standpoint of their particular historical surroundings.
With the advent of the Choson Dynasty (1392-1910), the government adopted a policy of oppressing Buddhism while promoting Confucianism. As a result, concern shifted from reform to preservation of the Buddhist order. Due to this systematic oppression, the Buddhist order radically decreased in size. By the time of the Hideyoshi invasions in the late 16th century, Korean Buddhism had retreated into the mountains where it existed totally outside of any institutional system. As the traditional sectarian divisions ceased to exist, it fell into a state of anarchy. Hyujong (Grand Master Sosan) is the thinker who best epitomizes the Buddhism of this period.
Hyujong (1520-1604) emphatically claimed that the basic teachings of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism were in agreement, and that Son and Kyo were mutually compatible. In particular, he claimed that since Confucianism and Buddhism were mutually complementary, not only at the philosophical level, but at the social level as well, the two teachings could function together to establish social harmony. He claimed that the policy of Buddhist suppression was therefore misguided, and thus sought public protection of the religion. By the Choson period, the doctrines of Son and Kyo harmony were common.
Each of these five Buddhist thinkers who spanned more than ten centuries, from the time of Wonhyo to the time of Hyujong attempted to solve a problem particular to his era. Yet, they all sought to reform Buddhism through a syncretic approach.
Buddhist monks in modern Korea are facing criticism that they are unable to adjust to societal changes. Internal strife is endangering the Buddhist institution, monasteries are facing financial crises, and Buddhist rituals have lost appeal as Korea has become more involved in the modern economy. However, Buddhist temples are still active in many places, young people are still attracted to the Buddhist way of life and meditation centers, temporary retreats and meditation courses for businessmen have become popular. With its usual flexibility, Buddhism is adapting to modern times.
Daoism has never existed as an organized religious body or as a separate school of philosophy in Korea. Though Buddhism was accepted as a religion and Confucianism gained considerable following, Taoism was never accepted in Korea.
Daoism made some progress only during one period of Korean history. This was during the last phase of the Koguryo kingdom, when elite members of society took interest in Daoist speculative thoughts and concepts of immortality.
The cultural influence of Daoism can be seen in the tiles from the tombs of King Muryong of Paekche that depict the Daoist Land of the Immortals. Similar images are found on tiles from the Unified Silla Period. An interest in Daoist immortals continued to the end of the Choson dynasty. However, this interest never translated into a major following for the religion. As a result, while one can find Daoist influences on Korean culture from an early period, one cannot speak of a Daoist religious tradition.
Daoist motifs are seen in the paintings on the walls of Koguryo tombs. http://www.oneworld-publications.com/samples/daoism.htm
Shamanism is the oldest religion in Korea and it is a traditions shared with Japan, with the peoples of Mongolia, Manchuria, Siberia and many other cultures. Shamanism is a folk religion centered on a belief in good and evil spirits who can be contacted and influenced by shamans or spiritual mediums. The shaman is a professional spiritual mediator who performs rites. Mudang, in Korean, usually refers to female shamans, while male shamans are called paksu-mudang.The shaman plays the role of an intermediary between human beings and the supernatural, speaking for the humans to deliver their wishes and for the spirits to reveal their will. Thus, the belief in the powers of the Shaman, presupposes beliefs in the existence of a large variety of spirits which can be summoned for aid or which can harm people if they are angry or disturbed.
Shamanism is connected with animism, the belief that the world is full of spirits and that every unusual or important physical feature has a spirit. Thus, mountain peaks, rivers, long lived trees, unusual rocks, etc, all have spirits which can be harmful or helpful. In addition, spirits of ancestors, especially those who died pre-mature or violent deaths, can hang around and cause mischief. Other spirits are living people, such as royalty, who also need to be propitiated.
These spirits often cause physical illness and many animists believe that all illness is caused first and foremost by these spirits. Thus, most shamans are also healers; in fact, they become recognized as Shamans because of their ability to survive a difficult illness and to help others deal with sickness. Thus, many of their rituals involve healing rites, expelling spirits which cause illness. The rituals include dances, singing or chanting, waving of branches or knives, and the use of herbal remedies.
In Korea today, shamanism, far from dying out, has evolved into a series of techniques to complement modern medicine and to deal with new problems. The government recognizes certain Shamans as "National Living Treasures" and provides them with an income. In return, these shamans conduct various rites for people and for businesses. It is not unusual for a modern international business to contact a Shaman to conduct a ritual if their market share falls, if corruption is discovered in the company, or before a new product is launched. Thus, shamanism has adapted to modern times.
For the story of a 7th century Korean Queen, who was also a shaman, please click on the following: http://www.womeninworldhistory.com/heroine7.html