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Relation Between Esoteric Buddhism and Korean Primeval Religion

Relation Between Esoteric Buddhism and Korean Primeval Religion

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Published by ShankerThapa
Religious Syncretism in the Shilla Period : The Relationship between Esoteric Buddhism and Korean Primeval Religion

JAMES HUNTLEY GRAYSON Methodist Theological Seminary, Seoul INTRODUCTION Religious syncretism, the mixture of folk religion with one of the religions from the so-called " great traditions," is an important element in the development of Buddhism in the ancient states of Korea. As we shall demonstrate in the course of this study, syncretism was from the very beginning the process by
Religious Syncretism in the Shilla Period : The Relationship between Esoteric Buddhism and Korean Primeval Religion

JAMES HUNTLEY GRAYSON Methodist Theological Seminary, Seoul INTRODUCTION Religious syncretism, the mixture of folk religion with one of the religions from the so-called " great traditions," is an important element in the development of Buddhism in the ancient states of Korea. As we shall demonstrate in the course of this study, syncretism was from the very beginning the process by

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Religious Syncretism in the ShillaPeriod
:
The Relationship betweenEsoteric Buddhism and KoreanPrimeval Religion
JAMES UNTLEY RAYSONMethodist Theological Seminary, SeoulINTRODUCTIONReligious syncretism, the mixture of folk religion with one of the religionsfrom the so-called
"
great traditions," is an important element in thedevelopment of Buddhism in the ancient states of Korea. As we shalldemonstrate in the course of this study, syncretism was from the verybeginning the process by which Buddhism gained acceptance in theKorean states, and the influence of this syncretic Buddhism may be foundin even the most sophisticated relics of high Buddhist culture and art.In spite of its great importance, however, studies of ancient KoreanBuddhism seldom make reference to the syncretism which was typicalof that period. Usually one is left with the impression that Buddhismin the ancient period was unaffected, unadulterated by the indigenousreligion and that the two religions existed side by side in two separateworlds (Han
1970:
99-102).
This paper, then, will illustrate the de-velopment of syncretic Buddhism in Korea by considering the stagesof the growth of Buddhism in the kingdom of Shilla.Because Shilla defeated its rivals for supremacy on the Koreanpeninsula, the kingdoms ofKoguryd
&@I
nd Paekche
ER,
in themid-seventh century, the historical records for this state are compara-tively greater, and consequently it will be easier to show the developmentof syncretism through the course of Shilla history. In this paper, itwill be shown that there are four essential stages: a period of contact,a period of accomodation, a period of maturation, and a period of asophisticated synthesis. Each successive stage built on the stage before
Asian Folklore Studies,
Vol.
43,
1984, 185-198.
 
186 JAMES HUNTLEY GRAYSON
it with the final result being a form of Buddhism perfectly acclimatedto Korean culture.Before we may discuss the development of syncretism, however,we must first examine some of the characteristics of the indigenousreligion, Korean primeval religion, to which we now turn.KOREANRIMEVALELIGIONThe first point to note about the primeval religion of Korea is that itderives from the traditions of Northeast Asia and Siberia and not fromChina. The Korean people are the product of the union of variousNeo-Siberian tribes, principally the Tungus, and the several Palaeo-Siberian tribes which had inhabited the peninsula since the UpperPalaeolithic period. The racial union of these groups was completedsome time after
600
B.C.
in the north and by
200
B.C.
in the south.Following this period of racial mixture, incipient tribal states beganto emerge during the final quarter of the first millenium
B.C.
Amongthe most important of these were the states of Ancient Chos6n
&@#,
Puy6
&&,
Kogury6, and Paekche. Shilla did not emerge as a stateuntil much later, perhaps the fifth century
A.D.
By the term
"
primevalreligion of Korea,"
I
mean the religion which was characteristic of theseearly tribal states. Although itself derived from earlier, prehistorictraditions, by the advent of Buddhism, this primeval religion had under-gone a process of maturation which had adapted it to the settled natureof the society of a state (Grayson
1979: 59-61).
The second point to make about the primeval religion of Korea isthat it belongs to that broad family of religious traditions which an-thropologists call shamanism. Modern Korean folk religion, Koreanprimeval religion, and modern Siberian shamanism all have their originsin the most ancient traditions of Northeast Asian shamanism.In the ancient period, there were in Korea religious figures calledch'dn'gzm
(XW,
"
Prince of Heaven
")
who acted as intercessors for theirpeople at certain great yearly ceremonies. These figures inherited theirpositions and were in many cases the political rulers of their people.There were also lesser iigures who were concerned with the curing ofdisease and the dispatch of the souls of the dead to the next world.These three primary concerns of the primeval religion, namely inter-cession, curing and the dispatch of the souls of the dead, likewise remainthe principal concerns of modern Korean folk religion (Yu
1975: 345-346).
The great shamans held important ceremonies either at hilltopshrines or in sacred groves called
sodo
a&
n which they resided. Thesacred character of these groves is indicated by the fact that criminals
 
RELIGIOUS SYNCRETISM IN THE SHILLA PERIOD
187
fleeing from justice could find refuge within their precincts in the sameway that in medieval times in Europe outlaws sought asylum within thesanctity of a church.Most of the ancient states had important rites connected with theagricultural cycle at which the ch'dn'gun officiated. The Puyb had theharvest festival called Ybnggo iQ8, the Koguryb, the Tongmaeng
%!T
Festival, the Tongnye, the Much'bn
$$*
estival, and the Hantribes in the south, Suritnal and Sangdal held in the fifth and tenthlunar months respectively. These ceremonies were addressed to thehigh god calledHan6lnim or Ch'6nshin
*$$,
he Lord of Heaven. Theshamanistic character of these rites is indicated by the words used todescribe them. The character for drum, go 8, appears in the wordyonggo and the word much'on means dancing before Heaven. Drum-ming and dancing are two means by which the shaman enters an ecstaticstate in order that his soul might journey to Heaven, or by which hemight draw down a spirit into his body. Suritnal means the day of theeagle. Ornithological motifs are common shamanistic symbols as theyrepresent the flight of the shaman's soul (Grayson 1979: 41-48).The third point to make about the primeval religion of Korea isthat in addition to a rich cosmology of gods, spirits and daemons, therewas a belief in a high god, theCh'bnshin, from whom the royal familywas descended. From the area of the state of Ancient Chosbn, there isa stele dated to 85
A.D.
which is dedicated to the Lord of Heaven andwhich contains a petition for a bountiful harvest. The connection ofthe ruling family to the Lord of Heaven is attested by the myth ofTan'gun
(@g,
ord of the Sandalwood Tree), which is recorded in theSamguk yusa
(S?l?&S,
Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms
").
Order in social relationships, civilization, and the state are created inthis myth when the Son of the Lord of Heaven descends to earth on topof Paektu-san
Q@m.
His son Tan'gun, the offspring of a bear, be-comes the founder of the first ruling house of a Korean state.The myth of Tan'gun contains two important elements.In thefirst place, the descent of the Son of the Lord of Heaven and his sub-sequent marriage with the Earth Spirit symbolizes the union of Heavenand Earth. In the second place, the offspring of this union founds afamily which becomes the intermediary between the heavenly and earthlyspheres. The royal houses are in effect families of hereditary shamanswhich Yu calls shinin
($$A,
"
divine men
";
Yu 1975: 33-45).Recent excavations in Ky6ngju
&4I'I,
the capital of Shilla, haveshown not only the splendor of that ancient kingdom but also have givenus a better idea of the shamanistic role of the early kings. Among themany objects recovered from the royal tumuli are the magnificent golden

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