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An Introduction to Korean Buddhism

Standing Buddha, approx. 700-800

Standing Buddha, approx. 700-800. Korea. Unified Silla dynasty (668-935). Gilt Bronze. The Avery Brundage Collection, B65B64.

Buddhism became the official religion of one of Korea's early kingdoms in 372, after a priest arrived from China with Buddhist images and scriptures. From the time of its introduction it had the enthusiastic support of the rulers and the aristocracy. By the middle of the 500s, Buddhism had been officially accepted by all three kingdoms that reigned in Korea at that time.

Many Korean monks traveled to China to study Buddhism; some even went as far as India. The monk Hyecho, for instance, made a journey through China to India around 723. He wrote an account of his pilgrimage to holy places, The Record of a Journey to the Five Indian Kingdoms.

Buddhism reached a glorious era during the Unified Silla dynasty (668–935). Gyeongju, the capital of this dynasty, was described as the city where the roof lines of Buddhist temples looked like flying geese and pagodas were as numerous as the stars. By the beginning of the Goryeo dynasty (918–1392) the fervor for Buddhism had become so great that princes and sons of prominent families were encouraged to become monks.

Then, during the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910), reform-minded Confucian scholar-officials instituted a number of harsh restrictions on the practice of Buddhism, such as reducing the number of temples and confiscating Buddhists' lands and goods. Despite these policies of repression, the religion survived in Korea. Today it is once again a vital force, attracting a large following.