Syncretism, Harmonization, and Mutual Appropriation between Buddhism and Confucianism in Pre-Joseon Korea
2. Methodological Issues: Why Syncretism?
3. Choe Chiweon’s Theory of the Mutual Unity of Buddhism and Confucianism
In [our] country there is a wonderful way called “pungnyu”. The origins of instituting this teaching can be found in the history of the immortals. In fact it comprises the three teachings, which are fused to edify all beings. Thus when entering [the home] being filial to your family, and when going out being loyal to the country, these are the instructions of the Minister of Justice of Lu [Confucius]. Dealing with affairs through non-action, and implementing the teaching of non-speech, this is the school of the Archivist of Zhou [Laozi]. Not doing any evil deeds, and upholding only what is good, this is what the prince from India [Buddha] taught.7
Therefore master Huiyuan from Mt. Lu argued “Although the origin and development of the Buddha [on the one hand] and the Duke of Zhou and Confucius [on the other] is different, they return to the same principle.” Those who fail to completely realize this at the same time, can therefore not grasp these two [teachings] simultaneously.9
King T’aebu (=K. Heongang, r. 875–885) saw this and told his younger brother, the officer of the Southern Palace [Minister of Rites]: “The [Confucian] Three Things to be in Awe of [Heaven’s mandate, the words of great people, and the words of the wise] can be compared to the [Buddhist] Triple Refuge [in the Buddha, dharma, and sangha]. The [Confucian] five constants [humanity, righteousness, propriety, wisdom, trust] are equal to the [Buddhist] five precepts [not taking life, not stealing, not engaging in licentiousness, not lying, not taking intoxicants]. The capable performance of the kingly way lies in matching the Buddha’s mind, the great master’s words are right!”10
The introduction states: If we divide the five constants according to the directions, then the eastern direction is said to be the “humane mind”. Among the three teachings, the one that sets up its name as the pure land is “Buddha”. The humane mind is nothing but Buddha, and this is why Buddha is called “the one capable of humanity”. The way flourishes among the Eastern Barbarians [ie Silla, Korea], whose soft and compliant character has its origins in Kapilavastu; the teaching of compassion is settled here as naturally as a stone thrown into water, or as the rain gathers the sand. Thus it goes without saying that apart from the governors of this eastern land, none upholds the teaching as much as we do. The spirit of this land takes loving life as its basis, and the customs are all about yielding to others.”13
4. Theories of the Fundamental Unity of Confucianism and Buddhism in the Goryeo Period
“Your reverence did not consider ten thousand leagues too far to come and convert the Three Han [Korea]; to save us from the raging fire [of war] that is spread across all the hills and mountains, I await your instruction” [Ieom] replied: “The way is found in the mind, not in external affairs; dharma likewise comes from oneself, not from others. [The dharma] practiced by emperors and kings may be different from what ordinary people practice, but even though a king may command an army [into battle], he will always take pity on the people. How so? A king is someone who takes [the area between] the four oceans as his home, and the myriad people as his children. He does not kill the innocent yet punishes those who are guilty. Thereby he practices all the virtuous deeds and widely saves the people.”16
There are no two paths of kingship. Yet the Rites and Music under the Five Emperors and Three Kings [of Chinese antiquity] differed depending on the times being orderly or confused… As for a king of the people and a king of the dharma [i.e., a Buddha], although the way of the former is secular and the way of the latter is transcendent, there is no real divergence: it is just that by uniting [the aggregates] into one, one becomes king, whereas by returning to the one, one becomes Buddha.17
Thus I heard: As for the utmost mirror for a worthy man, the Confucian books contain the purpose for diligent cultivation, so as to make politics and education flourish; the Buddhist dharma lies in humble reverence of the mind, so that fortunate causes may be obtained. What is meant with the statement that there are three teachings in name, but that they have the same source, is that the true principle is fused from within, and transformed to manifest [itself] outwardly. Therefore in Confucianism nothing is more important than benevolence and filial piety. Thus the kings of yore said “filial piety is the root of virtue, and that through which the teaching is established”. Thus the kings of yore ordered the universe through filial piety. Their teaching is accomplished without pomp, their government organized without adornment, and the universe made peaceful and disasters prevented. In Buddhism too similar instructions are found in the Sutra on the Importance of Parental Grace, so it is not necessary to elaborate this further here. We can say that the two ways, Confucianism and Buddhism, both stem from filial piety; if filial piety is optimized, virtue then expands.21
Thus our Confucius, when the Zhou order decayed, established his teaching through Benevolence and Righteousness. After this the teachings of Yangzi, Mozi, the Yellow Emperor, and Laozi emerged one after the other, with their strange words and extravagant arts. They branched out everywhere, and their harmful ways remained till the Qin and Han dynasties, there was nowhere they did not reach; it was insufferable. Then the teachings of Śakyamuni reached China, teaching people that purity of mind comes first, and then also taught them compassionate ways so as to save the people, something that did not come one moment too soon. Therefore Liuzi thought that the teachings of Buddha were no different from the way of Confucius. He also said, “the dharma seal of the true vehicle [i.e., the tripitaka] should be used together with the Confucian canon, and then the people will know the right direction [for their life].” If then they are put together and mixed up, the two teachings of Confucianism and Buddhism will achieve the same goals.22
Human nature is originally quiescent and unmoving, pure and untainted, embracing the fulness of the five constants. This nature is what I should cultivate, and for this end there is not the slightest difference between Confucianism and Buddhism.23
Conflicts of Interest
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For Choe Seungno’s criticism of Buddhism in his 28-point policy critique, see (Lee 1993), pp. 273, 276, 278–79, 285, 289–92.
(King 2015, p. 13). “Eonmun goeri” is one of the alternative terms he suggests.
A search of the terms “yugyo” (Confucianism) and “hoetong” in academic articles on riss.kr, the representative South Korean database for academic research, yields 165 returns, while a search for “yugyo” and “honhapjuui” has only 22 returns; “singkeuritijeum” yields no results. Virtually, the only article to use “honhapjuui” for the pre-modern period is (Choi 2007). Search results retrieved on 26 March 2020. For Buddhism and hoetong the research results are similar (447 and 26, respectively). Other terms are also used in Korean scholarship, notably seuphap. However, to all of these negative connotations cling (Choi 2007, p. 40).
See, for example, the following: “Syncretism in religious contexts is the bringing together of elements from different religions, belief systems, or symbol systems. Concern about syncretism generally stems from the idea that it is bound to create a new ‘religion’ that belongs authentically to neither tradition. It is fair to say that syncretism is a dirty word for most Christian writers on interreligious relations.” In (Muers and Higton 2012, p. 340).
For a good overview of various theories see (Choi 2007, pp. 40–50).
For instance, the phenomenon of building shrines to mountain spirits in temple compounds is historically a late phenomenon, as it emerges only in the nineteenth century (Choi 2007, p. 42).
(Kim  1512), book 4: 37th year of King Jinheung. The original stele, the Nangnang-pi, has not been preserved.
The term was originally associated with a group of Chinese literati from the third century AD who rejected conventional life and sought refuge in poetry, drinking, and aesthetic witticisms. Fengliu, literally “wind and streams” denotes their free-flowing, Taoism-inspired lifestyle. Many Korean scholars have argued that the term, as used by Choe Chiweon, denotes a native religious tradition, but there is very little evidence to back this up.
“Ssanggye-sa Chingam seonsa bi”, (Yi Jigwan 1994a, p. 129); (Choe 1926), 2.18b. This text is based on Huijiao’s (Liang) Gaoseng zhuan (Lives of eminent Monks (from the Liang Dynasty)) (T. 2059.50.361a7), which in turn is based on Huiyuan’s essay “Shamen bu jing wangzhe lun” (monks do not pay respects to the ruler) (T. 2012.52.29c-31c).
“Seongju-sa Nanghye hwasang bi”, (Yi Jigwan 1994a, p. 162); (Choe 1926), 2.11b-12a.
The origins and logic of matching the “three things to be in awe of” with the triple refuge are not clear to me.
Uri Kaplan also points out the existence of other interpretations, notably that this could also be seen as a mark of superiority of Buddhism: since the five precepts belong to Hinayana Buddhism, matching Confucian virtues with the inferior Hinayana teachings would then also serve to downgrade Confucianism from the perspective of Mahayana Buddhism as the self-proclaimed superior teaching. However, I find this doubtful, since the Five Precepts are fundamental to all Buddhism. By fitting Buddhism into a Confucian paradigm, it actually implies Buddhist subservience to Confucianism (Kaplan 2019, p. 48).
“Seongju-sa Nanghye hwasang bi”, (Yi Jigwan 1994a, p. 162); (Choe 1926), 3.14b.
It should also be kept in mind that Chan Buddhism itself is the form of Buddhism that is most adapted to the Chinese cultural climate, so a case could be made for the syncretic aspects of Chan Buddhism itself.
As Albert Welter has argued, the early Song dynasty did not follow the advice of Zanning (919–1001), a monk from Wu-Yue, to include Buddhism as an equal to Confucianism in the Song civilizational project. (Welter 1999, p. 42). See also (Welter 2016) for a more nuanced view of Zanning’s influence on the Song court, which retained some of his proposals.
“Gwangjo-sa Jincheol daesa bi”, (Yi Jigwan 1994b, pp. 21–22).
“Gukcheong-sa geumdang jubul Seokga yeorae sari yeong-i gi”, (Seo  1994), book 68. This translation was adapted from (Vermeersch 2008, p. 138).
The office of wangsa (royal preceptor) and guksa (state preceptor) were justified by reference to ancient Chinese classics, which mention the existence of the shibao as a scholar of high moral integrity and learning to edify the king and keep him on the right moral path. See, for example, the stele for the monk Geungyang (878–965). When King Gwangjong (r. 949–975) wanted to appoint him as royal preceptor, he justified this by referring to the example of ancient Chinese sage kings, who existed long before the advent of Buddhism. “Bongam-sa Jinjeong daesa bi”, (Hanguk yeoksa yeonguhoe 1996, p. 271). See also (Vermeersch 2002).
“Jeongto-sa Beopgyeong daesa bi”, (Yi Jigwan 1994b, p. 216).
(Jeong  1990), 96.32a; (Kim 1997), p. 115.
“Hyeonhwa-sa bi” (eumgi), (Heo 1984), pp. 447–48. Note that there are some difficulties in the edition of this text leading to slightly different readings.
Im Chun, “Sorim-sa jungsugi”, (Seo  1994), book 65.
(Jeong 2015, pp. 239–40). According to John Goulde, Yi Saek also considered filial piety to be common to Confucianism and Buddhism, but it is not clear on which sources he bases himself: “…[Yi Saek’s] view that Buddhism and Confucianism were the same, especially with regard to filial piety, earned him the scorn and condemnation of later Confucian exclusivists.” (Goulde 1985, p. 180). Although he refers to sources such as the Goryeosa and Taejong sillok, I could not trace it there. Perhaps he is relying on an article by An Gyehyon mentioned on the same pages (An Gyehyeon, Yi Saek ui Bulgyogwan, Bulgyo sahak nonjeok (Seoul: 1975), 99–127), which I could not trace.
See e.g., (Muller 2012, pp. 456–57), where Gihwa skillfully uses Confucian texts to show that Buddhism is superior in giving moral guidance to people.
(Brook 1993b, p. 15); at least until the Song there was this balance, Brook argues, but with the rise of Neo-Confucianism this division of tasks was challenged.
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Vermeersch, S. Syncretism, Harmonization, and Mutual Appropriation between Buddhism and Confucianism in Pre-Joseon Korea. Religions 2020, 11, 231. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11050231
Vermeersch S. Syncretism, Harmonization, and Mutual Appropriation between Buddhism and Confucianism in Pre-Joseon Korea. Religions. 2020; 11(5):231. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11050231Chicago/Turabian Style
Vermeersch, Sem. 2020. "Syncretism, Harmonization, and Mutual Appropriation between Buddhism and Confucianism in Pre-Joseon Korea" Religions 11, no. 5: 231. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11050231