Buddhism in South Korea

In my post about religion in South Korea, I talk more about Christianity and other non-Buddhist traditions but since Buddhism is so ingrained in Korean life and culture I wanted to spend a bit more time on it … and … I have several pictures of Buddhist temples and statues that I’ve taken that I want to share!

Laughing Buddha Suwon
A traditional “laughing” Buddha statue at a shop in Suwon.

Buddhism came to Korea from China in 372, about 800 years after the death of the original Buddha. It has grown to nearly 11 million adherents. These 11 million worship at tens of thousands of Buddhist temples located in cities and countrysides all over South Korea. For example, the small area of Suwon that I visit with Soldiers and spend about an hour walking on each trip, have 3 Buddhist temples within about a 20-minute walk of each other.

Korean thinkers developed their version of Buddhism into a more distinct version, correcting what they saw as inconsistencies in Chinese-Buddhist traditions, though is derived primarily from Seon Buddhism with other variations followed to a lesser extent.

At least early in Buddhism in Korea, many temples were located in the mountains, as a result of a practical mixture of Buddhism with Shamanism that was present in Korea before 372. Shamanism taught that the mountains were home to the spirits, so it was natural to combine Buddhist and Shaman thought in the placement of Buddhist temples. In fact, the 3 primary spirits of Shamanism remained in most Korean-Buddhist teaching and hold a place of honor and many Buddhist shrines have a place for them.

During the 500+ years of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897), Buddhism was forced to give way to a neo-Confucianism which grew in dominance until Buddhist monks were significant players in repelling  a Japanese invasion during the 7-year war in the late 16th century which caused Buddhist persecution to come to an end. Adherents to Buddhism increased until following World War Two when Christianity’s influence increased starting a rapid decline of Buddhism in South Korea to its present place of only about 20% of the population.

As mentioned above, you don’t need to drive long before you see a Buddhist temple or statue. Much of my walking and site-seeing has been in the Suwon area, however, so the pictures I have are of 3 Buddhist temples in that area.

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Suwon Buddhism
This picture was taken from the parking lot of the palace in Suwon and shows the prominence of some of the Buddhist statues.
Suwon Buddhist temple
This is the entrance to the temple that is home to the statue in the above picture. It’s above a number of small side-streets.
Suwon Buddhist temple
One of the buildings in the temple complex.
Suwon Buddhist temple
The statue in the center of the temple complex
Suwon Buddhist temple
Below the statue is a shrine for worshipers.
Suwon Buddhist temple
Like many Korean sites, there are slippers for you to change into before entering.
Suwon Buddhist temple
A view inside the shrine below the statue. Notice the banners hanging on the ceiling on the right and left which contain what looks like Nazi swastikas. “In Buddhism, the swastika signifies auspiciousness and good fortune as well as the Buddha’s footprints and the Buddha’s heart.”(1) This symbol was used in art and religion long before the Nazis used it.
Suwon Buddhist temple
Notice to the right of the statue are notes left by worshipers.
Suwon Buddhist temple pagoda
A pagoda on the temple grounds
Suwon Buddhist temple
A number of small monuments on the hill above the temple complex
Suwon Buddhist temple
Some type of oven on the temple grounds with small statues on it.
Suwon Buddhist temple
The entrance/exit to the temple complex. Notice the bell on the tower. “Beomjong, as Buddhist bells are called in Korean, are one of the four Buddhist instruments…” (2)
Suwon Hwaseong Fortress bell
Here’s is a better picture of a Korean Buddhist bell though this one isn’t at a Buddhist temple but on top of the Suwon Hwaseong Fortress (you can ring it 3 times for ₩1000).

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Suwon Buddhist temple
The entrance to another Buddhist temple complex in Suwon
Suwon Buddhist Temple
This temple complex has more of an appearance of a vihara, or Buddhist monastery, with living and working areas.
Suwon Buddhist temple
Some of the temple complex was undergoing renovations so we couldn’t see it all. The sign on the structure above the steps is about praying for children’s testing for university attendance (a big deal in Korea).
Suwon Buddhist temple
The building housing a shrine in the temple complex.
Suwon Buddhist temple
Notice shoes sitting outside of the shrine. Shoes are always removed before entering.
Suwon Buddhist temple
A view of the inside of the shrine in the temple complex
Suwon Buddhist temple
The inside of the entrance/exit gate of the temple complex.

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Suwon Buddhist Temple
Another Buddhist temple on the other side of the Suwon River from the Suwon Hwaseong Fortress.
Suwon Buddhist temple
This temple is larger and uses modern architectural design in contrast to the ones above which use more traditional Korean architecture. However, there is an elaborate pagoda on top of the building.
Suwon Buddhist temple
A sign on the temple building
Suwon Buddhist temple
A look inside the temple complex
Suwon Buddhist temple
A sign describing the temple complex

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(1) http://www.religionfacts.com/swastika/buddhism

(2) http://eng.templestay.com/upload/board/2013121810273680997.pdf

Some of the information for this post came from the online New World Encyclopedia.

All photos were taken by the author.

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