Korean Buddhism Orders and Sects

Numerous sects and orders have developed throughout the history of Buddhism in Korea. But what exactly qualifies as a sect or order? In total, there are three necessary factors for a sect or order to be formed. The first factor is a temple base, the second is a founding patriarch (jongjo), and the third factor are disciples to transmit the teachings.

Now that we know the three factors it takes to form a sect or order, let’s take a closer look at Korean history and the introduction of Buddhism to the Korean peninsula. When Buddhism was first introduced to the Korean peninsula, the peninsula was subdivided into three kingdoms: The Goguryeo Kingdom (37 B.C. – 668 A.D.), the Baekje Kingdom (18 B.C. – 660 A.D.), and the Silla Kingdom (57 B.C. – 935 A.D.). This division of the Korean peninsula, and the ensuing engagements fought between the Three Kingdoms, resulted in an atmosphere of religious instability.

Gyo Buddhism

After the introduction of Buddhism to the Korean peninsula at varying times – the Goguryeo Kingdom in 372 A.D.; the Baekje Kingdom in 384 A.D.; and the Silla Kingdom’s acceptance in 527 A.D. – it would result in diverse forms of Gyo – 교, or Doctrinal Buddhism in English, which was the first form of Buddhism to take root in all three of the Three Kingdoms. This was caused by both travel and trade with China and India.

In total, there were five prominent sects. They were known as the Ogyo – 오교, which were known as the Five Doctrinal Sects in English. Also, there were four additional lesser known Gyo sects at this early stage in the development of Buddhism throughout the Korean peninsula. Here is a look at each of these Gyo sects:

1. Yeolban-jong – The Nirvana Sect: 열반종

2. Hwaeom-jong – Huayan Sect: 화엄종

3. Yul-jong – Vinaya Sect: 율종

4. Samnon-jong – East Asian Mādhyamaka: 삼론종

5. Yuga-jong – Consciouness-only Sect: 육아종

6. Other Early Gyo Sects

Seon Buddhism

The sects already described above were from the Gyo tradition. Seon Buddhism, on the other hand, doesn’t rely on written words; instead, it focuses on one’s own nature to achieve Buddhahood. The Bodhidharma, or Dalma in Korean, is the first patriarch of this meditation sect. And it started to really flourish during the Sixth Patriarch Huineng (Liuzu Huineng, 638-713 A.D.), who resided at Baolin Temple on Mt. Caoxi (which is where the Jogye-jong Order gets its name).

Seon Buddhism was first transmitted to the Korean peninsula from China. In China it is known as Chan. And in Japan it is known as Zen. Chan was first transmitted to Unified Silla (668-935 A.D.). Beomnang, who studied under the Four Patriarch Dayi Daoxin (580-651 A.D.) was the first to transmit the Seon teachings to the Korean peninsula. Beomnang was to transmit these teachings to his disciple Sinhaeng, who also traveled to China. Initially, it was Hwaeom-jong and Yuga-jong monks that predominantly studied Seon Buddhism. Seon Buddhism would further grow under Doui (d. 825) at the beginning of the ninth century. But even still, it didn’t really flourish at this time.

Despite its initial lack of popularity, Unified Silla (668-935 A.D.) monks continued to travel to China to study Chan Buddhism since Doui first did this in the latter part of the ninth century. Upon their return to the Korean peninsula, these monks established their own schools, building various temples with leading disciples. Initially, there was a fixed set of schools at nine. Eight of these nine schools were derived from the Mazu Daoyi (709-788 A.D.) lineage. The one exception to the nine is Ieom (869-936 A.D.), who developed under the Caodong school. And the first record of the Nine Mountain (Gusan) dates back to 1084.

The division into the Nine Mountains of Seon started to take place during the reign of King Heongang (r. 875-886 A.D.), and the process was finished by the time of King Taejo of Goryeo (918-943 A.D.). This period lasted some one hundred and thirty years. This period is also known as the “Period of Division of the Meditation Sects.”

So it was from these Nine Mountain Schools, or Gusan in Korean, that Seon Buddhism developed and flourished in Unified Silla up to the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). Here is a list of the Seonjong Gusan – Nine Mountain Seon Sects:

1. Silsangsan Sect – Silsangsa Temple (Namwon, Jeollabuk-do)

2. Gajisan Sect – Borimsa Temple (Jangheung, Jeollanam-do)

3. Sagulsan Sect – Gulsansa-ji Temple Site (Gangneung, Gangwon-do)

4. Dongnisan Sect – Taeansa Temple (Gokseong, Jeollanam-do)

5. Seongjusan Sect – Seongjusa-ji Temple Site (Boryeong, Chungcheongnam-do)

6. Sajasan Sect – Beopheungsa Temple (Yeongwol, Gangwon-do)

7. Huiyangsan Sect – Bongamsa Temple (Mungyeong, Gyeongsangbuk-do)

8. Bongnimsa Sect – Bongnimsa-ji Temple Site (Changwon, Gyeongsangnam-do)

9. Sumisan Sect – Gwangjosa-ji Temple Site (Haeju, Hwanghae-do, North Korea)

Goryeo Buddhism (918-1392)

During the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), Buddhism helped support the state. At first, Seon Buddhism met with a lot of resistance; but over time, Seon Buddhism would gain in popularity and overtake the prominence of Gyo Buddhism. A lot of this was thanks to the efforts of the monk Jinul (1158-1210), who did not declare superiority of Seon Buddhism over that of its Gyo Buddhism counterpart; instead, it was argued that there was a unity and similarity found in both Seon and Gyo Buddhism. This would help narrow the schism that had been produced between Gyo and Seon Buddhism. Near the end of the Goryeo Dynasty, Seon Buddhism became the dominant form of Buddhism on the Korean peninsula. As a result, it had a more dominant effect on both government and society. Seon Buddhism would also produce more prominent monks, which would also help in the popularity of Seon Buddhism. It was during the Goryeo Dynasty that Seon Buddhism became a state religion through privilege and royal connections.

Also at this time were advocates hoping for the unity of both Seon and Gyo Buddhism. And perhaps the greatest advocate for this form of Buddhism was Uicheon (1055-1101). He would travel to China, and upon his return, he advocated for Cheontae Buddhism, or Tiantai in Chinese. It was also at this time that the varying sects were reduced from Five Doctrinal sects and Nine Seon sects down to Five Doctrinal sects and Two Seon sects. This period would be known as the “Ogyo Yangjong” in Korean.

Near the mid to latter half of the Goryeo Dynasty, Buddhism was in crisis through internal doctrinal issues and external corruption. It was at this time that the monk Jinul sought to establish a new form of Korean Seon Buddhism with the goal of establishing a new community of pure-minded practitioners deep in the mountains. He would do this in the founding of Songgwangsa Temple on Mt. Jogyesan. One major issue that Jinul dealt with was the relationship between “gradual” and “sudden” methods of enlightenment. Jinul created a “sudden enlightenment followed by gradual practice” form of Buddhism. This form of Korean Seon Buddhism is what we know today in Korea. This teaching helped bring Seon and Gyo Buddhism closer together, helping to solve decades of differences and strife.

In the latter half of the Goryeo Dynasty, Buddhism was rife with corruption. As a result, it was a period of decline which would result in anti-Buddhist political and social sentiments. This feeling would continue during the Joseon Dynasty at unprecedented levels.

Joseon Buddhism (1392-1910)

In 1388, Yi Seong-gye, who would become King Taejo of Joseon (r. 1392-1398), would stage a coup that would result in him establishing and becoming the first ruler of the Joseon Dynasty in 1392. He did this with the support of the Neo-Confucian movement. The Joseon Dynasty inherited the Five Doctrinal (Gyo) and Two Meditation (Seon) sects from the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). However, this was reduced during the Joseon Dynasty to one doctrinal sect and one meditation sect. This was even further reduced to a single school of Buddhism at the end of the Joseon Dynasty. By the end of the Joseon Dynasty, only one school of Seon Buddhism was recognized. In addition to this reduction of Korean Buddhist sects, the number of temples was also reduced from several hundred down to a meager thirty-six. Furthermore, limits were placed on the number of monks, temple lands, and the age a person could become a monk.

Buddhism in Korea did get a slight reprieve from persecution when monks helped repel the Japanese invasion during the Imjin War (1592-1598). These monks, which would number in the several thousands, were known as the Righteous Army. And in the final three centuries of the Joseon Dynasty after the Imjin War, the Joseon government continued a tight control over the Buddhist community, monks, and temples. However, the restrictions were nothing like they were during the early part of the Joseon Dynasty.

Colonial Korea (1910-1945)

In 1910, as a result of the Japan-Korea Treaty, Japan annexed Korea. Not only would this effect Korean society in numerous ways, but Korean Buddhism would also be effected, as well. Korean Buddhism underwent several changes. In 1911, and under the Temple Ordinance enacted in that year, the Japanese changed the way in which temples were run. Instead of being run as a collective, temples were now run by a temple abbot appointed by the Governor-General of Korea (the Japanese). Additionally, these abbots were given private ownership over the temple’s property. Perhaps the greatest change was that pro-Japanese monks started to adopt Japanese Buddhist practices like the marrying of monks. These monks could also have children, as well.

In 1920, the Temple Ordinance was revised. In this revision, Korean temples were reorganized so as to allow the Japanese government to directly manage the thirty-one main temples in Korea. As a result of this management style, Japanese authorities had several pieces of temple artwork shipped off to Japan.  

The Republic of Korea Buddhism

When Korea was finally liberated from Japanese Colonial rule with Japan’s surrender in 1945, the celibate monks that still existed became the largest sect in Korea. They came to be known as the Jogye-jong Order. The Jogye-jong Order sees itself as the primary representative of traditional Korean Buddhism. The second largest second in Korea is known as the Taego-jong Order. This order includes both married and unmarried monks. The third largest modern order in Korean is the Cheontae-jong Order, which is a reiteration of Uicheon’s interpretation of Tiantai Buddhism. There are forty-two different Buddhist sects in Korea. Here are four of the most popular:

1. Jogye-jong Order – 조계종

2. Taego-jong Order – 태고종

3. Cheontae-jong Order – 천태종

4. Won Buddhism – 원불교

A look inside the Seokguram Hermitage in Gyeongju from 1917.