Tongbulgyo and the Distinctive Journey of Korean Buddhism

The Buddhist Channel, 18 January 2024

Seoul, South Korea -- Korean Buddhism holds a unique position among its global counterparts, marked by an intrinsic effort to reconcile perceived inconsistencies within Mahayana Buddhism.

The Seokguram Grotto in Gyeongju, South Korea

Early Korean monks, recognizing incongruities in the traditions inherited from foreign lands, responded with a holistic approach that gave birth to Tongbulgyo, or "inter-penetrated Buddhism." This distinctive variation sought to harmonize disputes through the principle of hwajaeng, a concept championed by Korean scholars.

The predominant Seon Lineage, represented by the Jogye and Taego Orders, defines the contemporary landscape of Korean Buddhism. Influencing other Mahayana traditions, particularly those rooted in Chan teachings and the closely related Zen, Korean Buddhism has left an indelible mark on East Asian Buddhist thought.

Tracing its roots to the introduction of Buddhism in 372, Korean Buddhism faced initial acceptance, coexisting with indigenous shamanism. The religion found firm ground during the Goryeo period but suffered repression during the subsequent Joseon era, yielding only after Buddhist monks played a crucial role in repelling Japanese invasions. Despite enduring challenges, Korean Buddhism evolved through the colonial period, with monks shaping their unique identity, laying the groundwork for Mingung Pulgyo, "Buddhism for the people."

In post-World War II Korea, the Seon school of Korean Buddhism experienced a resurgence, with approximately a quarter of South Koreans identifying as Buddhist in a 2005 survey. Yet, the ambiguous nature of Buddhist identification, coupled with Buddhism's integration into Korean culture, challenges precise quantification. Beyond formal religious adherence, Buddhism in Korea has become a philosophical and cultural underpinning, influencing a broad spectrum of individuals.

Examining the Three Kingdoms period, we discover the roots of Korean Buddhism in Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla. Early Korean monks undertook journeys to China and India in the 6th century, fostering diverse schools of thought such as Samlon, Gyeyul, Yeolban, Wonyung, and Hwaeom. The spread of Buddhism to Japan further underscored the profound influence of Korean Buddhism beyond its borders.

The Goguryeo period saw the assimilation of Buddhism into Korean society, while Baekje became an early center for Vinaya studies under monk Gyeomik. Silla, initially resistant, eventually embraced Buddhism under King Jinheung, becoming a haven for intellectual luminaries like Jajang and Wonhyo. Unified Silla's political stability facilitated a flourishing era of Buddhist scholarship, with figures like Wonhyo and Uisang shaping the dominant Beopseong school and influencing not only Korean Buddhism but also Chinese and Tibetan traditions.

In modern times, the Seon school, particularly the Jogye order, dominates the Korean Buddhist landscape, preserving disciplined traditional practices. The Taego order, while smaller in terms of clergy and adherents, contributes to the preservation of traditional Buddhist arts. Contemporary Seon practice, rooted in the integrated approach of Jinul, maintains a balance between meditation and the study of Buddhist texts.

Despite evolving challenges and an increasing Western presence in Korean monastic training, the essence of Korean Buddhism endures. A complex interplay of tradition, philosophy, and cultural integration defines Korean Buddhism, ensuring its lasting impact on the broader tapestry of Buddhist history.
We Need Your Help to Train the
Buddhist AI Chat Bot
(Neural Operator for Responsible Buddhist Understanding)

For Malaysians and Singaporeans, please make your donation to the following account:

Account Name: Bodhi Vision
Account No:. 2122 00000 44661
Bank: RHB

The SWIFT/BIC code for RHB Bank Berhad is: RHBBMYKLXXX
Address: 11-15, Jalan SS 24/11, Taman Megah, 47301 Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Phone: 603-9206 8118

Note: Please indicate your name in the payment slip. Thank you.

Dear Friends in the Dharma,

We seek your generous support to help us train NORBU, the word's first Buddhist AI Chat Bot.

Here are some ways you can contribute to this noble cause:

One-time Donation or Loan: A single contribution, regardless of its size, will go a long way in helping us reach our goal and make the Buddhist LLM a beacon of wisdom for all.

How will your donation / loan be used? Download the NORBU White Paper for details.

For Malaysians and Singaporeans, please make your donation to the following account:

Account Name: Bodhi Vision
Account No:. 2122 00000 44661
Bank: RHB

The SWIFT/BIC code for RHB Bank Berhad is: RHBBMYKLXXX
Address: 11-15, Jalan SS 24/11, Taman Megah, 47301 Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Phone: 603-9206 8118

Note: Please indicate your purpose of payment (loan or donation) in the payment slip. Thank you.

Once payment is banked in, please send the payment slip via email to: Your donation/loan will be published and publicly acknowledged on the Buddhist Channel.

Spread the Word: Share this initiative with your friends, family and fellow Dharma enthusiasts. Join "Friends of Norbu" at: Together, we can build a stronger community and create a positive impact on a global scale.

Volunteer: If you possess expertise in AI, natural language processing, Dharma knowledge in terms of Buddhist sutras in various languages or related fields, and wish to lend your skills, please contact us. Your knowledge and passion could be invaluable to our project's success.

Your support is part of a collective effort to preserve and disseminate the profound teachings of Buddhism. By contributing to the NORBU, you become a "virtual Bodhisattva" to make Buddhist wisdom more accessible to seekers worldwide.

Thank you for helping to make NORBU a wise and compassionate Buddhist Chatbot!

May you be blessed with inner peace and wisdom,

With deepest gratitude,

Kooi F. Lim
On behalf of The Buddhist Channel Team

Note: To date, we have received the following contributions for NORBU:
US$ 75 from Gary Gach (Loan)
US$ 50 from Chong Sim Keong
MYR 300 from Wilson Tee
MYR 500 from Lim Yan Pok
MYR 50 from Oon Yeoh
MYR 200 from Ooi Poh Tin
MYR 300 from Lai Swee Pin
MYR 100 from Ong Hooi Sian
MYR 1,000 from Fam Sin Nin
MYR 500 from Oh teik Bin
MYR 300 from Yeoh Ai Guat
MYR 300 from Yong Lily
MYR 50 from Bandar Utama Buddhist Society
MYR 1,000 from Chiam Swee Ann
MYR 1,000 from Lye Veei Chiew
MYR 1,000 from Por Yong Tong
MYR 80 from Lee Wai Yee
MYR 500 from Pek Chee Hen
MYR 300 from Hor Tuck Loon
MYR 1,000 from Wise Payments Malaysia Sdn Bhd
MYR 200 from Teo Yen Hua
MYR 500 from Ng Wee Keat
MYR 10,000 from Chang Quai Hung, Jackie (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from K. C. Lim & Agnes (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from Juin & Jooky Tan (Loan)
MYR 100 from Poh Boon Fong (on behalf of SXI Buddhist Students Society)
MYR 10,000 from Fam Shan-Shan (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from John Fam (Loan)
MYR 500 from Phang Cheng Kar
MYR 100 from Lee Suat Yee
MYR 500 from Teo Chwee Hoon (on behalf of Lai Siow Kee)
MYR 200 from Mak Yuen Chau

We express our deep gratitude for the support and generosity.

If you have any enquiries, please write to: