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Buddhism in Korea: Don’t Know Mind

Someone comes into the Zen center, blows smoke, and drops ashes on the Buddha. If you are there at the same time, how can you fix this person’s mind? – A famous “kong-an” of Seung Sahn

Religion is a complicated and fascinating part of Korean culture.

Practitioners of Christianity, Buddhism, tarot, the Chinese Zodiac, shamanism, and ancestor worship co-exist with varying degrees of antagonism or indifference towards each other.

Four years in Korea has pretty well disabused me of any preconceived notions I had about what religious life out here would be like. And there have been plenty of surprises.

A Las Vegas Crucifix 

Gazing out my window and over the cityscape of a typical suburban Korean neighborhood, I see no fewer than seven neon crosses flickering to life against a darkening evening sky. These cruciforms of green and red are a strange sight. It’s not only the neon – which seems more fit for a casino than a church – that strikes me as odd, but their very presence. What are they doing here?

Four years ago my ignorant American mind, fed as it was on kung-fu films, manga, and other commercialized aspects of Asian culture, assumed Korea would be a mystical land of monks, temples, and Buddhist thought. Instead I got multiple churches on literally every street corner.

Not at all what I was expecting.

Church in Ansan, Korea

Waiting for the neon to fire up.

Before continuing, a caveat: I know that faith and religion are sensitive subjects for many people, and it is not my intention to offend. If I step on any toes – whoops! — and I’d be willing to consider making obeisance to the deity of your choice.

The Christian community in Japan represents less than 1% of the total population. The Church in China is growing, but still relatively tiny. And sandwiched between these two virtual wastelands of Christianity is Korea, where nearly one in three people identify themselves as Christians.

The cultural, historical, and sociological factors that provide a framework for making sense of the adoption of Christianity in Korea are truly fascinating, but exploring them will have to wait for another post. It is enough to mention here that the number of Christians in Korea is increasing at an almost exponential rate. To wit, in 1957 there were roughly 800,000 Protestants in Korea. A decade later that number had risen to 1.9 million, and by 1978 that number had exploded to 5.3 million. Growth has continued more or less along similar lines into the 21st century.

Today Korea has the largest Christian community in East Asia, and ranks behind only the Philipines – and possibly East Timor – in number of Christians to total population in all of Asia. That explains the crosses. But not the neon. The neon I just don’t get.

Buddhism, by contrast, makes up about one-fifth of the population. If Christianity continues to grow as it has in the last five decades, it is conceivable that Buddhism in Korea, once the state religion, will be marginalized in another generation or two.

In fact, if you want to look strictly at influence – for example, the current president Lee Myung-bak’s cabinet has 12 Christians to 1 Buddhist in it –  you could make a pretty convincing case that Buddhism in Korea is already largely marginalized.

Buddhism in Korea: Don’t-Know Mind

What is Korean Buddhism?

Having first arrived on the Korean Peninsula in late 4th-century CE, Korean Buddhism participates in the Mahayana tradition and finds its beginnings in the Zen of the Sixth Patriarch, Hui-neng.

A few generations after the death of Hui-Neng his successors could not agree on certain doctrinal issues and as a result split into five different schools. Of these five, Rinzai and Soto have survived till today. Because Korean Buddhism traces itself directly to the Sixth Patriarch, it views its origins as prior to the five-school period.

Korean Buddhism

Interior from Hwaeomsa, Jeollanam-do, Korea

Korean Buddhism interprets Rinzai Zen as emphasizing Kwan Hwa, a sort of looking through words for enlightenment; Soto Zen as emphasizing Muk Jo, or “perceive silence”, in which one just sits and experiences the world of opposites; and Chogye Zen (the Korean tradition) as emphasizing Shi Shim Ma, perceiving not knowing.

The modern-day Korean Zen master Ko Bong taught, “If you attain don’t-know, that is your original master.”

This “don’t-know” does not lend itself to a neat and tidy summary – at least not from me, a man who cannot rightly consider himself even a novice in Buddhist thought. But ignorance can be an excellent vehicle for curiosity and discovery if we allow it to be, and a book that has excited my curiosity and discovery in recent months is Richard Shrobe’s “Don’t-Know Mind: The Spirit of Korean Zen”.

This book is divided into three sections that trace the chronological development of Buddhism in Korea from its origins, through its classical period, and to the modern day. Although it provides biographical sketches of some of the principal thinkers within Korean Buddhism, it offers little by way of historical context. So if you are wondering, say, as to why Korean Buddhism flourished during the Silla Dynasty but was fiercely oppressed during the subsequent Joseon Dynasty, “Don’t Know Mind” won’t help much with that.

Instead, the book opens each chapter with a kong-an — a brief text, often in the form of a paradox, used in Zen training as a focusing device — and then structures the rest of the chapter around an exegesis of and application for the introductory kong-an. In this way the book combines theory with practical application. (Although it offers no instruction in even the basics of sitting and breathing.)

If you are looking for a general introduction to Korean Buddhism, “Don’t-Know Mind: The Spirit of Korean Zen” is a great place to start.

“Experience Forms the Field of Practice”

A book is all well and good but what if you’d like something more hands-on? Consider a temple stay. Regardless of your religious affiliation or spiritual leanings, I believe a temple stay could be a benefit to any person visiting or living in Korea.

Buddhism in Korea Temple Stay

A temple stay lets you experience Buddhism in Korea first hand.

A temple stay is a chance to see an aspect of Korean culture that is not readily visible to most visitors, and is likely to only become less visible in the future.

Typically lasting a single weekend (although longer retreats are available), a temple stay will give you an opportunity to experience, however briefly, a Buddhist novitiate’s life and learn more about Korean Buddhism. Plus, it will allow you to get away from the breakneck hustle and bustle that is one of the hallmarks of modern life in Korea. For this reason alone I can’t recommend it highly enough.

There are temple stays that cater to groups and temple stays that cater to individuals; you can stay on a forested mountain or in an urban jungle; at some temple stays you can learn to fight like a monk, and at others you’ll be required to be silent — plenty of variety on offer.

I participated in a temple stay in 2009 and it has proven to be one of the best experiences of my life in Korea. If you’d like to give it a shot you can learn how to make it happen at Temple Stay in Korea.

Did you find this article about Buddhism in Korea enlightening? Pass it on, grasshopper.

arrow2 Responses

  1. andrea
    23 mos, 3 wks ago

    hey paul. where did you get the ‘experience forms the field of practice’ quote? citations!


  2. Paul
    23 mos, 3 wks ago

    Gabs, that quote is from “Don’t-Know Mind” and forms one of the cornerstones of Korean Zen thought. Check the book out if you can!

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