The Great Buddhist Emperors of Asia

by Shibani Dutta | 2018 | 86,618 words

This study deals with the patronage of Buddhism in Asia by the ruling powers and nobility. It further discusses in detail the development of Buddhism under the patronage of the royal dynasties in the religious history of Asia right from the time of 3rd century B.C. (i.e., the reign of Ashoka) to the reign of Kublai Khan in 13th century A.C....

Chapter 5 - Korean Emperor Wang Kiyen (918 A.C.–949 A.C.)

Wang Kiyen was the founder of Wang dynasty in Korea. This dynasty ruled Korea from 10th century to 14th century. Wang Kiyen himself ruled from 918 A.C to 949 A.C. Buddhism became a state religion in Korea after 11th century. This religion spread among the common Korean people during the period of Korea’s Wang Dynasty. At that period, Buddhism captivated the hearts of the masses in Korea. Of course, Buddhism was spreading in Korea before this period under protection of Silla kings. A scholar, however, opined, “Korea was then divided into three states. They[1] are Koguryu in the north, Pakche in the south-east and Silla in the south-west”. Silla was a kingdom located in southern and central parts of the Korean Peninsula. It was one of the three kingdoms of Korea. It began as a chiefdom, but Silla eventually conquered the other two kingdoms. Thereafter Silla occupied most of the Korean Peninsula. Buddhism reached Silla in the early 4th century A.C. Silla[2] located in the south west of Korea, became an important centre for Buddhist culture.

The history of Korea begins much after the history of China and much before the history of Japan. According to Korean tradition, the creator of Korean country was a demon king named Tang Gun who ruled the country for about one thousand years. Every country has its own popular customs and traditions and Korea is no exception. As per another Chinese, tradition, a wealthy man named Kitse came to Korea along with 5000 followers. This rich man was made a refugee from China in 1122 A.C and he, on his part, made Korea his own homeland.

As it was his chosen land, he named it “Chosen land” (Land of Own). He settled in Dangun’s Kingdom. When Dangun decided to retreat to a life of meditation on a mountain top Kitse was made the king of that land. The myth may represent the advent of Iron Age culture in Korea. The historical rulers of that land adopted the Chinese Little Wang (King) illustrating an early influence from neighbouring China. Historical evidence of Chinese cultural influence is, perhaps best seen in the use of burial tombs in some areas and frequent presence of luxury goods therein. With better iron tools introduced from China, agricultural production increased and caused the general prosperity of that land. Kitse had brought with him from China art, sculptures, agriculture, science and art of making silk. Chinese culture was brought directly to Korea by refugees fleeing from China. Their presence greatly increased cultural contact between China and Korea. Since the reign the Kitse, his successors ruled this chosen land for about 900 years. There was a healthy trade relation between China and Korea during this period. Chinese luxury goods, such as silk, tea and various item of art were imported from China. Korea, on the other hand, exported metals (especially gold and silver), ginseng, manufactured goods and houses. Students and scholars of Korea were sent to Ching. Chinese literature was very popular in Korea. The state administration was modeled on the Chinese approach. Following the model of China, a civil service examination was introduced in Korea.

At the time when Chinese wealthy man (Kitse), accompanied by his followers, came to the land of chosen people and settled down there, Korea was not a completely barren country without any human habitation. Some native tribes inhabited that land at that time. Kitse and his caravan settled down[3] in the present Pong yang province. Since then caravan continued to go over to Korea from time to time and made this land their homeland. According to Chinese sources, the Tang Dynasty of China contested for the right to establish the colonial provinces in North-west Korea in 108 B.C. The capital of these colonial provinces was at Nangnang, which continued to exist until 313 A.C. In consequences of this prolonged relationship, there was a great impact of Chinese civilisation and culture on Korean people[4]. This impact extended up to yellow river, Manchuria and South Korea also.

Contact between Korea and China goes back to mythology and prehistory. Trade developed from the Bronze and Iron ages with raw materials and manufactured goods going in both directions for centuries thereafter. In addition to trades, migrants came, beginning with those escaping from the conflicts of the warring states period. A regular stream of diplomats, monks and scholars travelled in both directions. As a consequence, Chinese culture spread to the whole of the Korean Peninsula.

Once the Chinese colonial administration spread nearly all over North Korea. The capital of the Chinese rulers was at Koguryo (also spelled Koguyor) Township. This was a powerful state which spread towards the north of yellow river up to Manchuria. Around this time (57 B.C -668 A.C), there were two states, named Silla and Packche, in South Korea. Since that time, this administration in known as the Tee state in the history of Korea. Even the interior part of Silla state came under South-eastern Korea. Packche province which lay in the valley of Nakton river was considered very weak. The centre of this state was in South West Korea.

Korean Buddhism was distinguished from other forms of Buddhism prevalent in the neighbouring countries. Early Korean monks believed that the traditions they received from foreign countries were internally inconsistent. To address this, they developed a new holistic approach of Buddhism. This approach is characteristic of virtually all major Korean thinkers. It has resulted in a distinct variation of Buddhism which may be termed as Korean Buddhism. Korean Buddhist thinkers refined the idea of their predecessors into a distinct form. India and China played a pivotal role in shaping Korean form of Buddhism by providing the source materials of this new religion. The Buddhist scriptures along with Chinese scripts made their way to Korea in the fourth century. Buddhist religious books reached Koguryo (also spelled Koguyor) state at first. After some time, they made their way in Pakche via South-west Korea in 372 A.C. Since Silla state was engaged in warfare, Buddhism reached there around[5] 424 A.C.

Japan joined hands with Packche state and waged war against Silla state in 552 A.C. Prior to this conflict, the administrators of Pakche sent valuable gifts along with the images of Lord Buddha to Japanese emperor with a view to establishing friendship with Japan. This was the official entry of Buddhism into Japan. Hence the credit of introducing Buddhist religion, art, writing and the Chinese culture to Japan obviously goes to Korea. Later on, Korean monks went to Japan and helped in spreading Buddhism and Buddhist civilisation[6] there.

Silla, one of the three kingdoms of Korea, maintained friendly relations with the Chinese Tang racial dynasty. This kingdom, located in southern and central parts of the Korean peninsula, embraced fully the Buddhist way of life by 528 A.C. Buddhism became a major religion of Silla state in 7th century. The Silla kingdom had been an important centre of the Buddhist culture and civilisation during this period. Similarly, the capital of Silla had become a major commercial centre. The merchants and traders from India, Tibet and Persia used to go to Korea to sell their merchandise and search for new kind of goods.

In the field of religion, many Korean pilgrims used to come to India to pay their homage to Buddhist shrines. In this period many Korean Buddhists scholars went to China to study the scriptures. Prominent among them were Uvantso of Fasian tradition (613-683 A.C), Chiong of Yuvan Hi and Howiyan tradition.

A wealthy person named Wang Kiyen established a united colonial empire and started Wang royal dynasty in the year 935 A.C. Even after him, his successors continued to rule Korea under the umbrella of this new dynasty for 450 years. This royal dynasty was the representative of Northern royal family. This family uprooted old Silla Kingdom and destroyed the very existence of ancient colonialism in Korea. This dynasty united the three kingdoms and ruled most of the Korean peninsula. Kiyen expanded Korea’s borders in different directions. They adopted old Chinese system of examination giving rise to a new class of scholars in the country.

Buddhism flourished in Japan during Heian period. In the like manner, Buddhism became popular in Korea in the Wang era. The people of Korea started celebrating festivals along with official ceremonies of the Kingdom. Huge Buddhist monasteries and Viharas were constructed in this period. An important law was passed in this very period for the protection and promotion of the Dhamma. The law laid down, “If any person had three or more sons[7], at least one of them should be made a monk”. This moral law was binding on all Buddhist families. Buddhism was provided with necessary facilities as well as state patronage during the reign of Wang Kiyen. The administration of the Kingdom, too, functioned in the interest[8] of Buddhist Dhamma.

During Wang royal dynasty monks like Ven. Chitiyan, Ven. Puchao and many other monks did their best[9] for the cause of the Budhhism. The credit for editing the Tripitaka catalogue goes to famous scholar monk Ven. Chitiyan. He went to China with a view to studying the Dhamma thoroughly. After returning to Korea, he propagated Buddhism for Huchen and Tien Tai traditions. He wrote many articles and papers on Buddhism in Korean language. Later on, Ven. Puchao worked for the spread of Zen Buddhism (Dhyan-meditation) in Korea. It was a school of Mahayana Buddhism that originated in China during the Tang dynasty. Zen Buddhism was strongly influenced by Taoism and developed as a distinct school of Chinese Buddhism. From China, Zen Buddhism spread to Korea. The word Zen traces its root to the Indian practice of Dhyana (meditation). Zen Buddhism in Korea emphasised self-control and meditation practice. This philosophical school of Buddhism has a special place in the history of Korea.

After a victory over entire Korea, Emperor Wang Kiyen established his capital at Songdhong. Now it is known as Hasong town. At that time his empire[10] was known by the name “Koya” which is the other name for Korea. Wang Kiyen’s empire lasted until 1392. During the rule of this dynasty, the country began to form his own cultural tradition, distinct from the rest of East Asia. Confucianism exerted a strong influence on political life, but Buddhism was no less influential and widespread. The “Tripitaka Koreana”, one of the most complete editions of the Buddhist canon was published in the first part of this prolonged rule. Relations between Korea and China became very close in this empirical rule. These two countries had a custom of exchanging diplomats between them. Entire Korean nation was politically well-knit in the rule of this dynasty.

Buddhism prospered as the national religion of Korea for prolonged period. The Buddhist temples that were built in 5th and 6th centuries under the strong patronage of the rulers contributed to Buddhist culture. Buddhism of Korea adhered to the religious doctrine imported from India through China, but the religion combined together with the existing Indigenous beliefs started to develop the unique style of Korean Buddhist temples. The traditional belief of revering mountains formed a combination with Buddhism and hence establishing temples in the great mountains of the land became popular, Temples placed on mountains were adapted to the topography of the land. The compositions and layouts of the buildings evolved into various different forms. Several huge monasteries were constructed during the regime of Emperor Wang Kiyen. But the ruins of ancient monasteries and Viharas are not found anywhere in Korea. The present structures of building are believed to have been erected on the sites of those historic monasteries and Viharas. The reasons for non-availability of ruins may be the fact that the historic buildings might have been made of wood and might have got burnt or destroyed in the fires.

Right from the beginning of Korean civilisation, China has been helping for its progress. Chinese civilisation was becoming prosperous in Korea through the medium of Buddhism. At the same time, it would be more appropriate to say that the Indian civilisation reached Korea through Chinese medium. It grew there to the fullest extent in the form of Buddhism. During its 6th and 7th centuries, many Korean monks went to China to study Buddhist scriptures. They brought back with them the teachings of the various Chinese schools of Buddhism. Towards the end of the 7th century, the three kingdoms of Korean peninsula were unified under the powerful Silla rulers. From then onwards, Buddhism flourished under their royal patronage. Great works of art were created and magnificent monasteries built. Buddhism exerted great influence on the life of the Korean people. They had to struggle very hard for centuries. But the Buddhist culture and civilisation could not be uprooted from Korean soil. The Buddhist civilisation, too, had to struggle hard to preserve its existence on the land of Korea. On one side of Korea, there was China’s mighty empire, and on the other side was still more powerful Japanese empire. Both these powerful empire tried to subdue and win over Korea, but the freedom-loving Koreans never bowed before these pressure tactics.

Korean Buddhism is distinguished from other forms of Buddhism by its attempt to resolve what it sees as inconsistencies in Mahayana Buddhism. Early known monks believed that the tradition they received from the foreign countries were internally inconsistent. Despite this distinctiveness of Korean type Buddhism, It cannot be separated from the Chinese and Japanese Buddhism. It is true that the monasteries of mountains in Korea have local and native impact[11] which is very obvious. The work of Buddhist mission began in China and Japan in a somewhat enthusiastic manner. In Korea too, the mission of preaching and spreading Buddhism had a zealous beginning. Along with the gesture of accepting Buddhist doctrine, Korean Buddhist thinkers refined their predecessors, ideas into a distinct form.

Central mountain ranges in Korea, known as Vijra Parvat (Kongosan) are very attractive in their natural surroundings. Along with the establishment of the Buddha Dhamma, the work of constructing monasteries on beautiful mountain spots also started. Buddhist temples were an important part of the Korean landscape. Buddhist heritage can be found all over the country in the form of temples, monasteries, Viharas, pagodas, sculptures and paintings. Funan Vihara was established in 4th century. Since it was made of wood, no remains of this Vihara are available today. But later construction on the same site can be seen. Yu Tee Vihara is considered the biggest vihara on the Vijra parvat (Vagra Mountain). It is believed to have been built in the 4th century. According to a tradition, this Vihara was constructed at a place where Indian monks arrived newly for the purpose of spreading Dhamma. These monks were frightened and driven away by the native naga people. This place was a little away from a mountain range and that is why a spacious ground could be found in the middle. Inside the main monastery, there were many beautiful Buddha images on the branches of an artificial tree. A small Stupa of stone was spread on one-fourth of the total carpet area of the entire Vihara complex.

The journey of Buddhism in Korea was not all along smooth. It suffered harsh oppressions at some stages of Korean history. Temples which were originally located in cities could not resist onslaughts. Only those temples located in mountain areas were able to survive. One of such Vihara was named Payahum-Shaw-Huokunji and it was located on the Vaira Parvat. This mountain temple was founded by Ven. Payanhum in 677 A.C. The old structures of this monastery was, like many other old temples, burnt down. The existing building on the mountain is said to be constructed in 15th century. There are over a dozen branches[12] and sub-branches of this Vihara.

Mountain temples followed a long winding entrance path up the hill. This path led into the main worship area and the living areas. The (169) buildings were laid out in a square, forming an inner courtyard in the middle. Looking from the outside, the square clusters of building blocked the viewer to look inside. As the buildings were located on an upside hill, the highest main building forming the square had a commanding open view of the rest of the mountain. In these squares, the most important hall was placed on the top, and halls for meditation, everyday living areas for monks and a pavilion formed the other three sides. The square and the inner courtyard of the main shrine of worship were placed in the centre of the entire temple. Mountain temples appropriately utilized the peaks in the background and the topographical features to embody the certain doctrine that it mainly pursued. There were buildings housing the Buddha or Bodhisattvas, lecture halls to learn the Buddhist scripts and doctrines, and living areas for the monks and the worshippers. But most of these temples structures were destroyed. Along with the wooden buildings of the ancient Korean monasteries, metallic images were also destroyed. It is quite likely that these images might have been gutted down in fire. But the images engraved in mountain caves can be seen even today. It shows how Buddhism played a vital role in the progress of Korean art and sculpture in the historic periods.

Korean emperor Wang Kiyen promoted Buddhism as Korea’s national religion. He called for the reckon quest of the northern parts of Korea and Manchuria, He sought alliances and co-operation with local clans rather than trying to conquer to conquer and bring them under his direct control. His vital contribution to the Korean history is the unification of Korean kingdoms. He was the first ruler to effectively unite the people of Korean Peninsula under a single state. Many modern-day Koreans hold up his example for applicability to the Current State of division in the Korean peninsula.

Footnotes and references:


Buddhism in India and Abroad, A. C. Banerjee, p. 251.


Hinduism and Buddhism, C. Eliot, vol. III, p. 336.


Korea’s heritage, Shannon Macune, p. 26.


Korea’s heritage, Shannon Macune, p. 26.


Korea’s heritage, Shannon Macune, p. 26.


2500 Years of Buddhism, P. V. Bapat, p. 59.


Hinduism and Buddhism, C. Eliot, vol. III, p. 338.


Indological studies, B.C. Law, Part II, p. 198.


2500 years of Buddhism, P. V. Bapat, p. 59.


Korea’s heritage, Shannon Macune, p. 29.


Bauddha Sanskriti, Rahul Sankrityayan, p. 378.


Bauddha Sanskriti, Rahul Sankrityayan, p. 376.

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