Korea gave a substantial contribution both to Chan and Confucianism (“Korea – A religious history”, James Huntley Grayson), which arrived from China. While Japanese Zen is often mentioned by Western researchers, Korean Seon was established well before its Japanese version, and it has been very important for the spread of Buddhism outside Asia.
Ancient Koreans were practising shamanic rites, inspired by their Siberian heritage, even after having adopted Chinese customs in politics and economy; from the six century on, the Korean kingdoms started to practice a distinctive form of Buddhism, and also visited Japan as missioners to spread it. Korean Buddhist was also influenced by local tribal philosopical systems, Confucianism and Taoism (more as a philosopy than as an organized religion). As we see later on, a strong Neo-Confucian movement in Korea almost removed traces of the Buddhist tradition in Korea.
After a long time with Buddhist schools rising and declining (most of them focused on meditation and the importance of the mind, but some with more esoteric teachings), social instability in the area of Silla coincided with the growth of Seon. The Seon use of shock techniques or silent contemplation, focusing more on spontainety than strict doctrine or scriptures, was adeguate for the political situation in Silla – and, as we’ll see later on, an ideal fit for Americans and the current interconnected society. Nine schools of Seon were rapidly established in the Sixth century, so Korean Zen went from being teached by Chinese missioners at the benefit of members of Royal court and elites, to a local version of Buddhism, teached by Koreans to other Koreans.
Buddhism followed the political and economic ups and downs of the Korean peninsula. For example, in the 14th century, King Kongmin decided to give more importance to Confucianism, by shaping the political apparatus on its principles and limiting the growing influence of the Buddhist monasteries. These times were important for several reasons, including the rise of Seoul as new capital. During the Yi dinasty, Buddhism found some supporters among rulers, but neo-Confucianism was predominant in the long-term, until it turned into a stagnating political ideology and declined. One event which stands out was the conversion of King Sejong – who had been promoting neo-Confucianism and repressing Buddhism for the previous part of his life – to Buddhism: two years before dying, he built a Buddhist temple within the Royal Palace, and passed away as a Buddhist. Once his final days were coming, he must have understood that, while Confucianism was very effective for political goals, on an overall level Buddhist was more helpful.
The opening of Korea to the European powers in 1876 coincided with a revival of Buddhism, supported by King Kojong: unreasonable taxes on monasteries were removed, temples were reconstructed and monks allowed to enter Seoul. Also, Japanese monks were allowed to meet with their Korean counterparts.
The interactions between Japanese and Korean Buddhism became very active, and local monks were divided between the ones accepting marriage and the ones in favour of celibacy. This disagreement became a very critical issue, and in 1954 the Korean President decided to assign to the Chogye the majority of Temples. A sizable number of Koreans identified progress with other Western religions, and the number of Korean Buddhists has been affected by this trend. Which, on the other hand, is also a great chance for the Buddhism nowadays, because Koreans have to reconsider many issues and to step into a inter-religious dialogue with all the other religious movements. This will be a challenge for those Westerners who come out of another tradition and found their home within Eastern Buddhist traditions.