In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Buddhism in Korea

  • Introduction
  • Collections of Scholarly Essays
  • Reference Works and Digital Resources
  • The Korean Buddhist Canon
  • Buddhism and Ritual
  • Buddhism in the Three Kingdoms Period
  • Koryŏ Buddhism
  • Chosŏn Buddhism
  • Buddhism in Modern Korea
  • Buddhism in Contemporary Korea
  • Wŏn Buddhism

Buddhism Buddhism in Korea
Richard McBride, II
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0213


Buddhism is a major religion in Korea and active Korean participation in the development of East Asian Buddhist thought and culture is increasingly being recognized by scholars. The study of Buddhism in Korea by scholars in North America and the West is still a relatively new field. During the Japanese colonial period (1910–1945), Japanese scholars recognized the active participation of Buddhist scholar-monks from the Korean state of Silla (traditional dates, 57 BCE–935 CE) in the development of East Asian Buddhism as well as the importance of the Korean Buddhist canons carved during the Koryŏ period (918–1392), but denigrated the living Buddhist tradition of the late Chosŏn period (1392–1910) as moribund. After liberation from Japanese rule, Korean scholars of the native Buddhist tradition tasked themselves with correcting the poor evaluation of the Korean Buddhist tradition and set out to prove the uniqueness, originality, and vitality of Buddhism in Korea. In recent decades scholars have begun to question the nationalistic narrative of Korean Buddhism being a completely distinct tradition by emphasizing the seminal participation of Korean monks in the development and articulation of a shared East Asian or Sinitic Buddhist tradition. Furthermore, because of the relative wealth of art historical and hagiographical materials, the study of Korean Buddhism has been geared toward the Three Kingdoms period because it corresponds to the Sui-Tang period in China, which has been generally held to be the “golden age” of Buddhism in East Asia. Many early studies of Korean Buddhism focused on issues in the Sŏn (Ch: Chan; Jpn: Zen) tradition, which is the dominant tradition in contemporary South Korea. This is particularly relevant because the field of East Asian Buddhist studies as a whole was focused on Chan, Sŏn, and Zen materials in the late 20th century. In recent decades scholars have been looking at the practice of Buddhism on the ground—cultic and ritual traditions—as well as the relationship between Buddhism and the state. Because “Korean Buddhism” was essentially imagined as a response to “Japanese Buddhism,” until recently the taxonomies and rhetoric of Japanese sectarianism have been applied uncritically to much of Korean Buddhist history in order to prove that Korea had Buddhist schools and sects as diverse as those in Japan. Some new studies are attempting to move beyond the sectarianism characterized by most early scholarship, as well as to problematize the limitations or lack thereof placed on the broad categories of “Buddhism” and “Shamanism.” This bibliography begins with the basics: General Overviews, Collections of Scholarly Essays, Reference Works and Digital Resources, and Primary Sources in Translation. From there, works have been organized according to the chronology of Korean history, with a few exceptions: studies on Korean Buddhist Canon and Buddhism and Ritual have been grouped together.

General Overviews

The best English-language introductions to the study of Korean Buddhism are The Korean Buddhist Research Institute 1995 and Kim 2014. Chung 2007 has good coverage of the Chosŏn period not found in other general histories, but is not accessible to the general audience for which it was purportedly written. The field is still awaiting a detailed, well-written scholarly introduction to the history of Korean Buddhism. Although dated in terms of scholarship and restricted in scope, Starr 1918, Vos 1977, and Grayson 1989 are accessible overviews of Korean religion. Baker 2008 is the best extant introduction to Korean Buddhism in relation to other Korean religions. Lancaster 1979 and Buswell 1998 are seminal essays that outline and underscore problems of how to interpret “Korean Buddhism” within its East Asian context. Cho 2013 provides a comprehensive introductory overview of research on Buddhism in Modern Korea.

  • Baker, Don. Korean Spirituality: Dimensions of Asian Spirituality. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2008.

    A survey of Korean religions with coverage of Buddhism and Buddhist-oriented new religions. Useful for placing Buddhism in the broader context of Korean religion as a whole.

  • Buswell, Robert E., Jr. “Imagining ‘Korean Buddhism.’” In Nationalism and the Construction of Korean Identity. Edited by Hyung Il Pai and Timothy R. Tangherlini, 73–107. Korea Research Monograph 26. Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, 1998.

    Covering the history of Buddhism in Korea in broad strokes, the author shows how early on Koreans demonstrated strong connections to both India and China in the representation of the Buddhist tradition in their legends and lore. Only in the Chosŏn period do we encounter the first imaginings of a distinctively Korean tradition, but even then Koreans did not conceive of Buddhism in Korea as separate from the universal Sino-Indian tradition.

  • Cho, Sungtaek. “Reconsidering the Historiography of Modern Korean Buddhism: Nationalism and Identity in the Chogye Order of Korean Buddhism.” In Buddhism and Violence: Militarism and Buddhism in Modern Asia. Edited by Vladimir Tikhonov and Torkel Brekke, 54–71. Routledge Studies in Religion. New York and London: Routledge, 2013.

    Problematizes the role of nationalist narrative in the composition of Korean Buddhist history by treating the formation of anti-Japanese nationalist Buddhism; the view of corrupt but powerful modern Japanese Buddhism versus feeble but pure modern Korean Buddhism; and the lack of perspicuity in differentiating “modern Korean Buddhism” from “Buddhism in modern Korea.”

  • Chung Byung-jo. History of Korean Buddhism. Korean Studies Series 36. Seoul, Korea: Jimoondang, 2007.

    An overview of Korean Buddhist history with good coverage of the revival of doctrinal Buddhism in the late Chosŏn period.

  • Grayson, James Huntley. Korea: A Religious History. Oxford: Clarendon, 1989.

    Although comprehensive and accessible, a highly superficial introduction to Korean religious history.

  • Kim Yong-tae. Glocal History of Korean Buddhism. Seoul, Korea: Dongguk University Press, 2014.

    An overview of Korean Buddhist history from a “global” and “local” perspective, reflecting the state of the field in Korean scholarship in 2010 and recognizing contributions by Japanese and Western scholars.

  • The Korean Buddhist Research Institute, ed. The History and Culture of Buddhism in Korea. Seoul, Korea: Dongguk University Press, 1995.

    An overview of Korean Buddhist history reflecting the state of the field in Korean scholarship at the end of the 1980s.

  • Lancaster, Lewis R. “The Significance of Korean Buddhism in East Asia.” In Papers of the First International Conference on Korean Studies. Edited by The Academy of Korean Studies, 470–479. Sŏngnam: Academy of Korean Studies, 1979.

    Using the terminology of the natural sciences the author encourages scholars to think not of Korean Buddhism as a different “genus” than the Chinese or Japanese varieties but as occupying a special “niche” or “valence” in a shared East Asian tradition.

  • Starr, Frederick. Korean Buddhism, History—Condition—Art: Three Lectures. In Project Gutenberg. Boston: Marshall Jones, 1918.

    The first coverage of Korean Buddhism in English by an American professor who visited Korea four times beginning in 1911. Contains many fascinating illustrations of Korean Buddhist monasteries, art, and architecture during a dire period in the history of the tradition. Although filled with errors of commission and omission, and long outdated, these lectures were a valiant first attempt by a sympathetic Western scholar to describe Korean Buddhism to a general audience.

  • Vos, Frits. Die Religionen Koreas. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1977.

    An early and important overview of the history of Korean religions.

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