Namo Palbeon Daebosal (나모팔번대보살) is the Korean translation for Namo Hachiman Daibosatsu. Buddhism flourished in Korea since Three Kingdoms Period. When Buddhism was originally introduced to Korea from Former Qin in 372, or about 800 years after the death of the historical Buddha, Shamanism was the indigenous religion. As it was not seen to conflict with the rites of nature worship, Buddhism was allowed to blend in with Shamanism. Thus, the mountains that were believed to be the residence of spirits in pre-Buddhist times became the sites of Buddhist temples.
Korean Shamanism held three spirits in especially high regard: Sanshin (the Mountain Spirit), Deokseong (the Recluse) and Chilseong (the Spirit of the Seven Stars, the Big Dipper). Korean Buddhism accepted and absorbed these three spirits and, even today, special shrines are set aside for them in many temples. The Mountain Spirit receives particular recognition in an attempt to appease the local mountain spirits, on whose land the temple stands. This blend of Buddhism and Shamanism became known as Korean Buddhism, although the fundamental teachings of the Buddha remained.
When Buddhism was introduced to Korea in the 4th century CE, the Korean peninsula was politically subdivided into three kingdoms: Goguryeo in the north, Baekje in the southwest, and Silla in the southeast. There is concrete evidence of an earlier introduction of Buddhism than traditionally believed. A mid-4th century tomb, unearthed near P’yǒngyang, is found to incorporate Buddhist motifs in its ceiling decoration.
Some Korean Buddhist monks traveled to China or India in order to study Buddhism in the late Three Kingdoms Period, especially in the 6th century. In 526, The monk Gyeomik (謙益) from Baekje travelled via the southern sea route to India to learn Sanskrit and study Vinaya. The monk Paya (波若; 562–613?) from Goguryeo is said to have studied under the Tiantai master Zhiyi, and other Korean monks of the period brought back numerous scriptures from abroad and conducted missionary activity throughout Korea.
Several schools of thought developed in Korea during these early times:
- the Samnon (三論宗, or Sanlun in Chinese) school focused on the Indian Mādhyamika (Middle Path) doctrine,
- the Gyeyul (戒律宗, or Vinaya in Sanskrit) school was mainly concerned with the study and implementation of moral discipline (śīla), and
- the Yeolban (涅槃宗, or Nirvāna in Sanskrit) school, which was based in the themes of the Mahāparinirvāna-sūtra
Toward the end of the Three Kingdoms Period, the Wonyung (圓融宗, or Yuanrong in Chinese) school was formed. It would lead the actualization of the metaphysics of interpenetration as found in the Avatamsaka Sutra and soon was considered the premier school, especially among the educated aristocracy. This school was later known as Hwaeom (華嚴宗, or Huayan in Chinese) and was the longest lasting of these "imported" schools. It had strong ties with the Beopseong (法性宗), the indigenous Korean school of thought.
The date of the first mission from Korea to Japan is unclear, but it is reported that a second detachment of scholars was sent to Japan upon invitation by the Japanese rulers in 577. The strong Korean influence on the development of Buddhism in Japan continued through the Unified Silla period; only in the 8th century did independent study by Japanese monks begin in significant numbers.
In 372, the monk Sundo (順道, or Shundao in Chinese) was sent by Fu Jiān (苻堅) of Former Qin to the court of the King Sosurim of Goguryeo. He brought texts and statues with him and the Goguryeo royalty and their subjects quickly accepted his teachings. Buddhism in China was in a rudimentary form, consisting of the law of cause and effect and the search for happiness. This had much in common with the predominant Shamanism, which likely led to the quick assimilation of Buddhism by the people of Goguryeo.
Early Buddhism in Silla developed under the influence of Goguryeo. Some monks from Goguryeo came to Silla and preached among the people, making a few converts. In 551, Hyeryang (惠亮), a Goguryeo monk was appointed the first National Patriarch (Guktong) of Silla. He first presided over the One Hundred Seat Dharma Assembly (Baekjwa Hanghoe) and the Dharma of Eight Prohibitions (Palgwan Beop).
In 384, the Indian monk Marananta arrived in Baekje and the royal family received the similar strain of Buddhism he brought. King Asin proclaimed, "people should believe in Buddhism and seek happiness." In 526, the Baekje monk Gyeomik went directly to Central India and came back with a collection of Vinaya texts, accompanied by the Indian monk Paedalta. After returning to Baekje he translated the Buddhist scriptures in Sanskrit into seventy-two volumes. The Vinaya School in Baekje was established by Gyeomik, about a century earlier than that of in China. As a result of the work, he is regarded as the father of Vinaya studies in Korea.
Buddhism did not enter the kingdom of Silla until the 5th century. The common people were first attracted to Buddhism here, but there was resistance among the aristocrats. In 527, however, a prominent court official named Ichadon presented himself to King Beopheung and announced he had become Buddhist. The king had him beheaded, but when the executioner cut off his head, it is said that milk poured out instead of blood. Paintings of this are in the temple at Haeinsa, hapcheon, Southern Gyeongsang and a stone monument honoring his martyrdom is in the National Museum of Gyeongju.
During the reign of the next king, King Jinheung, the growth of Buddhism was encouraged—eventually being recognized as the national religion of Silla. Additionally, selected young men were physically and spiritually trained at Hwarangdo according to Buddhist principles to be able to defend the kingdom. King Jinheung later became a monk himself.
The monk Jajang (慈藏) is credited with having been a major force in the adoption of Buddhism as a national religion. Jajang is also known for his participation in the founding of the Korean sangha, a type of monastic community.
Another great scholar to emerge from the Silla Period was Wonhyo. He renounced his religious life to better serve the people and even married a princess for a short time and had a son. He wrote many treatises and his philosophy centered on the unity and interrelatedness of all things. He set off to China to study Buddhism with a close friend, Uisang, but only made it part of the way there. The legend is that Wonhyo awoke one night very thirsty, found a container with cool water, drank, and returned to sleep. The next morning he saw the container from which he had drunk was a human skull and he realized all enlightenment depended on the mind. He saw no reason to continue to China, so he returned home. His companion, Uisang, continued to China and after studying ten years, offered a poem to his master in the shape of a seal that geometrically represents infinity. The poem contained the essence of the Avatamsaka Sutra.
Buddhism was so successful during this period that many kings converted and cities/places were even renamed after famous places during the time of Buddha.
In 668, the kingdom of Silla succeeded in unifying the whole Korean peninsula, giving rise to a period of political stability that lasted for about one hundred years. This led to a high point in the scholarly studies of Buddhism in Korea. In general, the most popular areas of study were Wonyung, Yusik (Ch. 唯識; Weishi; "consciousness-only"; the East Asian form of Yogācāra), Jeongto (Pure Land), and the indigenous Korean Beopseong ("dharma-nature school"). The monk Wonhyo taught the "Pure Land"-practice of yeombul, which would become very popular amongst both scholars and laypeople, and has had a lasting influence on Buddhist thought in Korea. His work, which attempts a synthesis of the seemingly divergent strands of Indian and Chinese Buddhist doctrine, makes use of the essence-function (體用, or che-yong) framework, which was popular in native East Asian philosophical schools. His work was instrumental in the development of the dominant school of Korean Buddhist thought, known variously as Beopseong, Haedong (海東, "Korean") and later as Jungdo (中道, "Middle way")
Wonhyo's friend Uisang (義湘) went to Chang'an, where he studied under Huayan patriarchs Zhiyan (智儼; 600–668) and Fazang (法藏; 643–712). When he returned after twenty years, his work contributed to Hwaeom and became the predominant doctrinal influence on Korean Buddhism, together with Wonhyo's tong bulgyo thought. Hwaeom principles were deeply assimilated into the Korean meditational school, the Seon school, where they made a profound effect on its basic attitudes.
Influences from Silla Buddhism in general, and from these two philosophers in particular, even crept "backwards" into Chinese Buddhism. Wonhyo's commentaries were very important in shaping the thought of the preeminent Chinese Buddhist philosopher Fazang, and Woncheuk's commentary on the Saṃdhinirmocana-sūtra had a strong influence in Tibetan Buddhism.
The intellectual developments of Silla Buddhism brought with them significant cultural achievements in many areas, including painting, literature, sculpture, and architecture. During this period, many large and beautiful temples were built. Two crowning achievements were the temple Bulguksa and the cave-retreat of Seokguram (石窟庵). Bulguksa was famous for its jeweled pagodas, while Seokguram was known for the beauty of its stone sculpture.