In the Koryo dynasty, three major patterns of thought dominated the collective perceptions of its people. The first of these can be described as indigenous belief… Under the guise of Buddhism, such indigenous ideas at times caused major shifts in the way people viewed the world (Lancaster, Suh & Yu, p. 1).
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Buddhism made its way in the Koryo society in the Three Kingdoms period by breaking through the clutter of deeply ingrained locally held convictions and beliefs. (The History of Science and Technology in Korea, n.d.). Although some of the concepts similar to the teachings Buddhism had spread to Paschke and Koguyo, the places inhabited by the Koryo people, the religion preached by Buddha could not be firmly established in two kingdoms.
Had it not been for the king, it would have been rather difficult for Buddhism to make its mark in the Koryo culture and society. He made efforts to make Buddhism the religion of the state. However, in order to accomplish his goal, he had to mix the Buddhism teachings and ideas with those of the “indigenous beliefs.” The local “cults” did resist the new faith. However, he did not have enough power to overrule the king. (Lancaster, Suh & Yu 4).
The spread of Buddhism and its establishment as a national religion bore its fruits in uniting the Shilla and Koryo societies and integrating their faith. The founder of Koryo, Taejo Wang Kon, was a staunch Buddhist and an ardent follower of Buddha. He was born in an orthodox Buddhist family in the capital city, Kaesong.
The combination of Buddhist practices with indigenous beliefs resulted in an expansion of the boundaries of consciousness (Lancaster, Suh & Yu 1).
Buddhism as a Way of Life
Impact on the Political Sphere
Buddhist principles became so entrenched in the Koryo society that they actually impacted the social and political developments in the state. Religion ruled every sphere of life of the Koryo dynasty from A.D 918 to A.D 1392. The king implemented ten injunctions in the state. These define the manner of leading life the Buddhist way.
In Buddhism, the king and all those in power, including the soldiers, are required to be revered and even worshipped as rulers. This strengthened the power of not only the king but also of political advisors, tutors, and soldiers. Besides, all those holding high and powerful positions practiced Buddhism with immense fervor. Their religious enthusiasm and affiliation further exerted referent authority on the Koryo people, and they more firmly began to follow the Buddhist faith.
Kuksa was a political advisor, and Wangsa was a tutor to the princes. As they both were very close to the rulers and provided with valuable insights and education, they were held in great esteem by the Koryo society. If a Wangsa taught a prince and that prince was crowned a king, the respect and reverence for the teacher elevated among the Koryo people. Similarly, Seungbyung was a monk soldier. They protected the society against enemies and fought courageously for the people of Koryo. They also helped to invade other lands and states. Therefore, Buddhism gave them significant power and authority too. Society also looked up to them as their messiahs.
Impact on the Social Sphere
Buddhist practices and concepts governed the lives of the Koryo people. The kings tremendously contributed to the spread of religion by establishing schools dedicated to teaching Buddhism and by promoting Buddhist convictions via rituals and ceremonies. King Taejo, King Munjong, King Sunjong, and Monk Uichon are the main force behind instilling Buddhist spiritual practices in the Koryo society. They built temples, encouraged religious teachings in schools, and brought about doctrines placing magnificent emphasis and elaborating on the teachings of Buddha. The religious festivities, which also had a taste of local culture and beliefs, were actually useful in motivating and inclining people towards religion. The two primary national ceremonies were the lantern festival and the harvest festival. The former ritual was also called Yondung-Hoe and is a combination of Buddhist and shamanist rites. The latter was also called Palawan-Hoe, which included special dance and songs.
Strength of Faith During Mongol Invasion
During the days of the Mongol invasion, the people of Koryo felt assured that they would be sheltered by the Buddhist blessings and their nation would be protected because of their strong faith in Buddha. A Tripitaka was formed by the then king, Go-jong, and Buddhist monks, which a holy doctrine is containing Buddhist scriptures, literature, commandments of Buddha, and treatises. It was believed to have spiritual power and enough to defend the nation against enemies. Although Korea was eventually invaded by Genghis Khan, Tripitaka did serve its purpose for many years providing innate and spiritual strength to the society and the rulers. The psychological impact which the doctrine had on the people was enormous and overwhelming. The Koryo people did believe that they would not be harmed as long as their faith was strong.
Buddhism in Koryo was brought by the king. Some of the local convictions were amalgamated with the Buddhist teachings in order to help spread the religion and unite the people. Buddhism became deeply ingrained in the society in all spheres of life of the Koryo people.
Lancaster, L. R., Suh, K. & Yu, C-S. Buddhism in Koryo: A Royal Religion. California: Asian Humanities Press, 2002.