by Young Oon Kim
The Korean Religious Heritage
Korea's religious heritage has contributed to the teaching of the Unification Church. Since it first appeared on Korean soil and was nourished by the Korean philosophy of life, the new movement was naturally influenced to some extent by its environment. Just as Eastern Orthodoxy cannot be understood apart from Christian Hellenism, and Roman Catholicism is a product of Latin civilization, so the Unification Church greatly profited from the religious development of its homeland.
Korea's indigenous religion, like that of most early cultures, was a form of shamanism. This original faith has never completely disappeared and still exerts considerable influence. Ancient Koreans believed in a variety of supernatural spirits, both good and evil. But more important was the one supreme Spirit, Hananim, the creator and beneficent ruler over creation. This high God was worshipped at mountain shrines; and to win his favor animal sacrifices were offered at appropriate times. Springtime and harvest festivals were particularly important. For more details, one can look at my book entitled Faiths of the Far East. 1
For our purposes, it is merely necessary to point out that from time immemorial Koreans believed in the existence of one Lord of heaven and earth as well as numerous lesser spirits. From earliest times Koreans have experienced direct contact with supernatural powers.
Furthermore, shamanism emphasized Korea's unique role in history. Traditionally, Koreans dressed in white, because this symbolized their faith that they were children of the divine light. For centuries the shamans taught that Koreans had been chosen for a special purpose in God's plan for mankind. One should therefore not overlook the religious dimension of Korean nationalism.
Then, as Buddhism spread from India across East Asia, it was planted in Korea. For a thousand years, Mahayana Buddhism, which came via China, was the court religion and popular faith of the Korean monarchy. Numerous Buddhist temples were erected at government expense. Monks and nuns became a normal feature of Korean society. Education and the fine arts were inspired by Buddhist teachings. Powerful abbots were advisors to the king as well as being the teachers of conventional morality. It would be impossible to exaggerate the religious, ethical and cultural effect which a millennium of Buddhist life and thought had on the Korean mind and heart.
What were some of Mahayana Buddhism's lasting contributions to Korean religion? Let me mention five. First, Buddhism is a religion which stresses the need for salvation. According to Gautama's four-fold truth, every man suffers because of his insatiable desires. Men find themselves caught in a ceaseless craving for pleasure which inevitably results in disappointment, pain, frustration and emptiness. What Buddhism offers is a way to escape this meaningless merry-go-round.
Secondly, according to Buddha, liberation or enlightenment can only be achieved as a result of self-discipline and self-denial. There is no easy way out of the human predicament. An individual must curb his sensuous desires and master his body. Gradually but vigorously he must extinguish the craving for physical pleasures. To accomplish this, Buddhists have to practice strenuous moral and intellectual disciplines.
Thirdly, Mahayana Buddhism reinforces the stem ethic of Gautama's teachings with a vivid eschatology. Those who live morally here on earth will be rewarded by the bliss of the Pure Land Paradise. But those who violate the moral commandments will be punished in hell until they have paid for their folly. At least in popular Buddhism (that taught to the laity), the promise of heavenly reward and the threat of hell's torments have been an important stimulus to ethical behavior.
Fourthly, Mahayana Buddhism emphasizes the supreme value of self-sacrifice. The highest ideal is to be a Bodhisattva. A Bodhisattva is one who has earned the right to enjoy the peace of Nirvana but willingly foregoes that final goal in order to continue helping his fellowmen along the upward path. So the noblest moral values for the Buddhist are those of self-denial, compassion and sacrificial love.
Finally, Mahayana Buddhists look forward to the arrival of a new Buddha (Maitreya) who will appear on earth at the last days to renovate the entire creation and bring inner peace to all mankind. This eschatological hope has always been part of traditional Korean Buddhism and has been particularly prominent in periods of social turmoil. Throughout Korea one can see huge monoliths carved with human heads called Miryucks. Probably these are very ancient, predating the Buddhist mission to Korea, but for centuries they have been interpreted as reminders of the Buddha-to-come.
Gradually Buddhism degenerated, mainly because of its immense wealth and alliance with the government. When the Yi dynasty was established in 1392, as part of its program of reform, the king abolished the Buddhist state religion. In its place, he put Confucianism. Hence for about five hundred years Confucianism served as the official faith of the Korean nation. Confucian temples were erected with state funds. Confucian scholar-officials were given charge of all government functions. The teachings of Master Kung were made the basis for education. One became eligible for public office by passing exams on the Confucian classics. Family life was regulated by the ideal of filial piety. Ancestor worship served as a major factor in the life of all citizens. And jen (human-heartedness) was exalted as the highest moral ideal.
Confucianism was valuable for at least four reasons. For one thing, it reinforced the natural importance of the family. Master Kung taught a family-centered ethic. Just as brothers and sisters belong to a single family and are guided by the love of their parents, so the entire nation should act like a big family based on filial piety, fraternal affection and parental responsibility. The ruler should think of himself as the father of his subjects, and all officials should treat the citizenry like younger brothers. A stable society must be founded upon respect for one's superiors, reverence for parents, loyalty among friends and concern for the underprivileged lower classes.
In the second place, Confucianism corrected the Buddhist monastic ideal. For Buddhists the ideal man or woman is a monk or nun, someone who has abandoned society for the sake of personal salvation. This notion was both other worldly and individualistic. By contrast, the Confucian exalted the responsible public servant. Confucianism is society-oriented. According to this view, a man is truly human when he faithfully carries out his obligations to his fellowmen.
Thirdly, the family-centered ethic of Confucianism produced a metaphysic based upon polarity. Man exists in a harmonious system of relationships. Using the ancient Chinese concept of yin-yang, Confucians stressed the fact that individuals achieve happiness as they subject their personal desires to the greater good of the whole. This principle of polarity can be seen operating at every level of society: a husband's care for his wife, a wife's loyalty to her husband, the respect of children for parents, friendship among equals and obedience to one's superiors.
Fourthly, Confucians looked forward to the final goal of history. According to the Classics, mankind is moving toward an age of justice, brotherhood, prosperity and peace on this earth.
Let me correct a mistaken notion. Probably you have read books which claim that the Judeo-Christian view of history is quite different from that of the Oriental. Whereas Asians deny that history has meaning or purpose, the Biblical view is that history has a goal, we are told. Oriental philosophy of history is cyclical and therefore pessimistic while Western philosophy of history is linear and optimistic.
However, Confucianism holds a very purposive interpretation of history. Like the Judeo-Christian religion, it speaks of an ideal golden age in the distant past and a golden age at the end of history. For the Confucian the goal of history is called "ta-tung": the age of Grand Unity. History progresses through three stages: a past era of disorder, a present era of relative peace and a future utopia of universal harmony. Hence, men can have hope because "ta-tung" will come on earth in the last days.
In the past, European writers on religion contrasted the light which Christianity brought with the earlier period of pagan darkness. Recent historians have corrected that simplistic interpretation of the preChristian West. The world into which Christianity came was not just sunk in sin. Quite the opposite. Graeco-Roman civilization provided a useful foundation upon which the Christian church could be erected. Greek philosophy was a valuable preparation for Christian theology. Stoic morality was helpful in creating a Christian social ethic. Pagan mystery religions prepared the soil for planting the Gospel.
Similarly when Christian missionaries came to Korea they were inclined to disparage the older, established faiths. Confucianism was unmodern and repressive, they said. Ancestor worship was condemned. The Confucian ethic was denounced for its merely humanistic base, its oppression of women and its unprogressive veneration of the past. Buddhism was criticized for idolatry and other worldly asceticism. Shamanism was ridiculed as superstition and occultism.
However, in recent years several Christian scholars have begun to see the positive aspects of Korea's religious heritage. 2 If Graeco-Roman civilization was a preparation for the Gospel in the West, shamanism, Buddhism and Confucianism prepared for Christianity in the East. Unification theology therefore deeply appreciates the many ways God has inspired and guided the religious quest of Koreans throughout their long history.
1 Y. O. Kim, Faiths of the Far East (1976), pp. 173-182.
2 Cf. Tongshik Ryu, "Religions of Korea and the Personality of Koreans" in H. S. Hong, ed., Korea Struggles for Christ (1973), pp. 148-165. Also S. J. Palmer, Korea and Christianity (1967).
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