Introduction To Asian Philosophy (Part Three): Korea and Japan



Though one might imagine Thai monks or Japanese temples when Buddhism is mentioned, Korea and its ancient kingdoms have had a huge effect on Neo Confucianism and Buddhism, especially in the process of transmitting Buddhist teachings to Japan. Zen, known as Ch’an in China and Son in (now South) Korea made its way to Japan, where it became ubiquitous and, to many, virtually synonymous with the idea of Japaneseness. But Japanese Buddhism’s roots are in both China and Korea, and the Korean Buddhist masters were very interesting people.

Note: Although there are many Korean and Japanese philosopher/thinkers to choose from, I will be paying a little more attention to the Buddhists in this series and/or thought that either influenced, contributed to or combined with Buddhism.

Wonhyo (617 – 686 CE): Considered to be the most important Korean philosopher and religious figure, Wonhyo was a passionate syncretic pan-Buddhist thinker, and wrote/lectured about any/all texts he could get his hands on, summarizing the essential ideas to capture the “flavor” of Buddhism in each. He is especially known for his commentary on the Ta Ch’eng Ch’i Hsin Lun – “Treatise on the Awakening of Mahayana Faith” considered at that time to have been written by the Indian philosopher Aśvaghoa. Wonhyo’s commentary on this treatise has been a great inspiration to both Chinese and Japanese Buddhist scholars and lay-members. Wonhyo focused on the idea of Che-Yong (체용), “Essence-Function” – the mind is the essence of its function (thoughts, words, and actions), this being a metaphor for more complicated Buddhist non-duality teachings concerning consciousness and its expression. Wonhyo was also known for visiting bars and whorehouses all the while enthusiastically singing and dancing, which served as a method of attracting and entertaining both Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike; a whimsical part of his mission to draw all people’s attention to the teachings of his faith. When Wonhyo died he was given the posthumous title National Preceptor of Harmonizing Controversies (Hwajaeng Kuksa). Also, his son Seol Chong went on to become a renowned Confucian scholar, and is one of eighteen sages enshrined in the Korean National Confucian Shrine.

Chinul (1158 – 1210 CE): At the time the monk Chinul came of age as a Buddhist thinker, Korean Buddhism was in decline and contentious, with the Doctrine (Kyo) and Meditation (Son) Schools in a state of constant conflict. Chinul developed an approach to Son that combined the metaphysics and soteriology of each, developing a uniquely and fully Korean school of Zen Buddhism. This was a major achievement, as Chinul had never formally studied with a Son master or received official transmission of the mantle from a recognized teacher. But he had an incredibly broad syncretic knowledge base (similar to if not greater than Wonhyo’s) and was highly learned, and thus taught that ordinary citizens, anyone/everyone could follow the teachings at some level according to their capacity for meditation and understanding, as long as they behaved ethically. His Straight Talk On The True Mind (1205) is arguably his most famous work, outlining ten different techniques one could choose from and follow, each according to their unique capacity, to rid oneself of delusion and manifest the “True Mind” – in other words, Buddha nature and/or Buddhist enlightenment. One could become enlightened suddenly, and then gradually cultivate this enlightenment, and this idea has essentially become the hallmark of all Son Buddhism since.

In one particularly interesting section, someone asks Chinul about Chunag-Tzu’s idea that the ordinary human mind cannot be controlled or subdued, Chinul responds, in part, by quoting two different sources as his answer: Huayan Buddhist monk Tsung-mi’s statement “Don’t fear the arising of thoughts; only be concerned lest you awareness of them be tardy,” and an ancient Pali verse (gatha), “there is no need to search for truth; you need only to put all views to rest.” This ability to remember and contextualize any/all Buddhist traditions was part of his genius, and he was awarded the posthumous title of “National Preceptor Puril Pojo” – the Buddha Sun Shining Universally.

Hwang Yi 1501 – 1570 CE): Also known as Yi T’oegye, he is the NeoConfucian scholar featured on the South Korean 1000 won note (approx. $1 USD). By the age of six he had mastered the 1000 Chinese characters used in Korea and was already reading the Confucian Analects by age twelve. Though his writings are in themselves famous, he probably most well known for his debate with Kobong ki Dae-Sung over the writings of Mencius, known as the Four – Seven Debate. This debate is legendary for not only its intellectual scope, but the friendly and peaceful manner in which the two men engaged with each other. It is also often used as a metaphor for the ideal NeoConfucian life of questioning and learning.

The Four-Seven Debate centered on the relationship between Mencius’ Four Beginnings (commiseration, shame, deference, and discernment: see the first post in this series), and the seven emotions: joy, anger, sadness, fear, desire, love, and hate). Though they disagreed on much, Kobong eventually accepted on Hwang’s ideas on morality, which was later synthesized (by Yi Hwang’s younger contemporary, Yi Yulgok) with some of Kobong’s other views.

Hyujong (1520 – 1604 CE): Leader of an army of monks called to fight off the Japanese Invasion of 1592, Hyujong wrote and taught at a time when Confucianism was ubiquitous and Buddhism was in a state of relative decline. Thus he taught that while one while can and should learn Confucian and Mencian thought, Buddhism ultimately clarifies and expands on such teachings through its own exegesis on the non-existence of Self, stating that “Confucius planted the root of truth, Laozi nurtured it, and the Buddha pulled it out.”

Maechang Yi (1572 – 1610): poet, scholar, and daughter of an official from the town of Huan, was also known by her pen names Gyesang, Gyeryang, or Maechang. Though a small town female entertainer (ginyeo) similar to the Japanese geisha, she had a strong sense of identity, and interacted with famous literary figures of her time: Heo Gyun, Yu Huigyeong, and many others. I am including her in my list of Korean philosophers and scholars, as she represents yet another low status individual kept low by patriarchal forces.As such she feels alienated from the common world that ignored her gifts as a thinker, as evidenced by her poem “Lamenting One’s Fortune”:

All the world loves to fish yet I choose the harp
Only today do I realize the hardships of life
Three times ashamed for missing my chance with two feet severed
In Hyeongsan I weep with jade rock in my arms

Yi feels sorrow over the fact that that she cannot truly mingle with the world and is bound to stay isolated because she aspires to what others do not. Everyone else loves fishing, while Lee prefers playing her harp in solitude, making her life a difficult one. As the harp requires great effort and thought to master, it embodies refinement and an interest in elevating one’s intellect from worldly affairs, seeking what common people value little. Thus, she references the story of Hwa, who brought a piece of jade to the emperor, who himself did not recognize it’s quality and value. Accused of offering the emperor a rock, Hwa’s feet were cut off as punishment. Hwa cried over being misunderstood, rather than losing his feet, until he met another person who saw the true value of the jade and that Hwa was not a charlatan. As such, Yi laments that she has yet to be understood as Hwa was.

It is recorded that upon hearing of Yi’s reputation as a ginyeo, a particular man tried to seduce her. Her response was a poem in which she states, “All my life I have not learned to take my meal in the Eastern home, and take my rest in the West, but only loved the moon’s silhouette cast on the plum flower window; many are ruined men of letters who knew not the refined depth of my aspirations and took me for a wandering cloud” at which the man was saddened and departed. Yi is revealing that she is not wanton, but rather one who is scholarly and noble, with integrity and principles. Thus, seeing the world around her a world completely counter to her ideals, she feels she stands alone.




Now we come to my beloved second home, the nation of Japan. Japan is the birthplace of a seemingly infinite amount of technological and cultural innovation on the Chinese tradition(s) that come before it. Whereas China initiated Zen Buddhism for example, the Japanese tradition has become synonymous with it, and it is hard to imagine a Zen monk sitting in meditation without imagining him in Japan, or surrounded by Japanese temple architecture.

What can one say about Japan that hasn’t already been said? It truly is a fascinating place: at once ordinary and mystical, strange and normal. It is a land of paradoxes – which easily live side by side: Hectic modern life mixed with ancient Shinto shrines, cybernetics and sushi, silent temples and ‘screaming’ neon signs. What makes it so interesting though is its Japanese-ness, and this comes from its people. Japanese people are so wonderfully interesting, even the most ordinary citizen partakes in a fascinating system of social activities and customs, and there is an endless supply of these activities and customs to interpret and engage in. There is a ritual for everything, and thus a never-ending supply of sites/objects to engage with. Though Buddhism has been highly influential in Japan, the focus on ritual purity in the animistic religion Shintoism has driven as much theological thought as well. Much of the ritual behaviour is integral to health (harvests, birth/children), personal fortune (help with exams, blessings on business activities), and relationships (appeasing the local nature gods/success in love).

Eventually, as did in China and Korea, Buddhism co-opted the local and national gods of Shinto in a process known as honji suijaku, “site of origin and local manifestation.” Buddhist teachers converted local Shintoists by explaining that thought Buddhism began outside of Japan, the various gods (kami) were actually part of the Buddhist realm as various saints and deities, and thus conversion did not require a change of belief, rather a broader understanding of Shinto’s place in the world. This idea would be challenged at various times in Japan’s history though, and it was Shintoists who proclaimed that the strong sea winds that drove back the Mongol invasions of Japan (1274/1291) were kami-kaze: wind from the gods, meaning that the Shinto gods were trying to protect Japan from outside traditions, a tacit way of saying Buddhism was a corrupting influence on the superior Japanese Ways such as Shintoism. This understanding of Japan as superior was also invoked in WW II when certain fighter pilots took the name kamikaze in the same manner: a righteous “wind” that would keep Japan intact. Interestingly, the kamikaze phenomenon occurred in no small part to the scarcity of fuel reserves in Japan to resupply aircraft: thus, the one way trip of the bomber or fighter craft – an economic sacrifice – was made “noble” by spiritualizing the death of the pilots.

This relationship between people, the State, and the multitude of river, tree, mountain, island, and forest gods begins with Japan’s creation story, the Tenchikaibyaku. It is the foundation of Shinto mythology, and thus plays an important role in understanding both Japan’s ancient and modern history.


The Universe began as a nameless shapeless void within a shapeless realm of matter, completely silent. Then, Sound emerged as particles began to form and move. Light and subtle particles began to “rise,” but the particles were slower and didn’t rise as high. Light was thus at the “top” of the Universe and the lightest particles formed the clouds and ‘heaven’ (Takamagahara), the “High Plain of Heaven.” The remaining particles formed a large, dark mass that would become and be called Earth. After Earth appeared, the original three gods appeared: Amenominakanushi – Master of HeavenTakamimusuhi-no-kami – Great Creator, and Kamimusuhi-no-kami – Wonderous Creator. Also, two more gods appeared/emerged from a celestial reed: Umashiashikabihikoji-no-kami – Elder Reed Shoot Deity, and Amenotokotachi-no-kami – Heavenly Eternally Standing Deity. These five deities, known as the Kotoamatsu-kami, were genderless, and basically disappeared from Reality after their creation, never showing up ever again.

Then, a new group of gods arose described as the Kamionanayo, the Seven Divine Generations (from Kuninotokotachi to Izanami) begininng with Kuninotokotachi-no-kami – Deity Standing Eternally on Earth, and Toyokumono-no-kami – Luxuriant Master Deity, both of whom also disappeared after their birth. Subsequently, five new pairs of gods, the first openly gender-defined deities, appeared:

  • Uhiji-ni – Mud Earth Lord
  • Suhiji-ni – Mud Earth Lady (wife/sister)
  • Tsunu-guhi – Germ Integrating Deity
  • Iku-guhi – Life Integrating Deity (wife/sister)
  • Ōtono-ji – Elder of the Great Palace
  • Ōtono-be – Elder Lady of the Great Palace (younger sister/wife)
  • Omo-daru – Perfect Exterior Deity
  • Ayakashiko-ne – Venerable Lady (younger sister/wife).
  • Izanagi – Male Who Invites
  • Izanami – Lady Who Invites (younger sister/wife).

Izanagi and Izanami are considered the creators of the Japanese islands (Kuniumi), and themselves gave birth to many gods (Kamiumi).Izanagi was curious to know what was under the sea, so he put his staff into the water and brought up some clumps of mud, which fell off his staff and became the Japanese islands. Izanagi and Izanami wandered around Japan, exploring and creating plants. They then decided to get married and inhabit the land with their children. But their first born, a daughter Amaterasu O-mikami was too beautiful to live in Japan so she was put in the sky (the Sun), their second born (daughter) similarly became the Moon (Tsuki-yami), and their bratty third born (son) Sosano-wo was put in the sea where he created storms. Amaterasu eventually had a son who became the first ancient Emperor of Japan, and the Japanese claimed such divine lineage to all their Emperors until forced to renounce this belief as part of their WWII surrender in 1945 to the USA.

NOTE: The second time I travelled to Japan (that time to live there for a number of years) I became interested in the Imperial Court music (gagaku), which is also a part of Shinto religious dance and music (kagura).  I thus inquired through a go-between at Ikuta Shinto Shrine in Kobe (the above picture is Ikuta’s main gate, facing toward downtown Kobe). At first Ikuta’s head priest declined my request, as I was neither a Shinto adherent nor known in the Ikuta community. But a few weeks later my go-between phoned me and said that the priest had great news for me. He had prayed to Amaterasu O-Mikami, and by chance She revealed to him I was to be allowed to study gagaku/kagura at the Shrine (considered by Shintoists to be Her winter home). Apparently She considered my heart and intentions pure, and thus I engaged in a three year study of music and dance at Ikuta. And thought I don’t personally believe in the Shinto gods, it is nice knowing that if they indeed exist, the Sun Goddess herself has taken a liking to me!

Shotoku Taishi (574 – 622 CE): Also known as Prince Umayado, Shotoku was a young Prince and ally of the ruling Soga Clan, at a time when the Emperor or Empress was a State figurehead. He was an avid promoter of Buddhism, and was the first to actively establish the religion in Japan on a national scale. Later, he himself would become venerated as a Buddhist saint to whom some prayed for the protection of the country, royal family, and Buddhism itself.

In particular, Shotoku promoted (Chinese) Mahayana Buddhist thought, and through its teachings and promulgation brought together the clans and tribes into a unified country. Shotoku also created a rudimentary seventeen article (type of) Constitution. As the newly formed government expanded, Buddhism became associated with the State, and six schools of Buddhism came to be established before distinct sects grew from within them. The Rokushu (六宗), the Six Schools Of Nara Buddhism, sought patronage from the State, who were actively building temples, and commissioning religious art. These six were the Kegon, Sanron (of which Shotoku was an acolyte), Ritsu, Kusha, Hosso, and Joujitsu schools of Buddhist thought. The Nara Period of Japanese Buddhism is a deeply fascinating subject, and I recommend you read much more about it.

Kūkai (774 – 835 CE): Founder of (esoteric Vajrayana) Shingon Buddhism in Japan at Mt. Koyasan, he is also known by the Buddhist name Kobo Daishi. Kobo Daishi founded the Koyasan Temple complex in the Koya Mountain range in Wakayama Prefecture, the worldwide headquarters of Shingon – a mystical branch of Buddhism in which the “grace” of the Buddha is conferred through meditation, mantra recitation, mudra, and secret teachings. According to Kobo Daishi, words have corresponding realities, and thus chanting the proper mantras creates a/the Buddha’s sound-word reality, thus the name Shingon, “true word” Buddhism. It is also said that if one visits the 88 Shingon temples on Shikoku Island in the right order, and then visits Kobo Daishi’s shrine at the Koya complex, one will gain entry into Paradise.

I spent many days there either meditating or studying the Shingon chant tradition (shomyou), since it was only a train ride of a couple of hours away from where I lived outside of Osaka. The location is gorgeous, and the food is absolutely fantastic, especially koyadofu – a specially prepared type of tofu that is mouth-wateringly delicious! Koya zarusoba as well is amazing.

Dōgen Zenji (1200 – 1253 CE): Dōgen (道元), the founder of the Sōtō Zen Buddhist lineage in Japan, is considered by most to be the preeminent classical Japanese philosopher, and his work was a major influence on the philosophers of the Kyoto School (D.T Suzuki, Keiji Nishitani, and others) of philosophy centuries later. In particular, Dōgen’s collection of ninety-five sermons/lectures entitled The Shōbōgenzō (Treasury of the True Dharma Eye) is a world classic in literature, and his writings on Being/Time (uji) are still discussed today, especially in light of Martin Heidegger’s thought.

Dōgen’s work is a particular favourite of mine because he developed his own unique style of writing, and felt that poetic language could be a useful vehicle for teaching while still retaining sound Buddhist logic. He was curious as to why humans would need to practice meditation and scripture studies if, as some schools/monks argued, all beings are inherently enlightened – that Buddha nature is within us all. His resulting search for an answer led him to become the Zen Master and scholar he is now renowned for being.

Shinchi Kakushin (1207 – 1298 CE):  In Tang Dynasty (9th century) China, the monk Puhuà (Japan: Fuke) used a shakuhachi flute as a meditation tool, the act of ‘blowing Zen’ (suizen) as it was known. Fuke Zen is purported to derive from the teachings of the Chinese Zen teacher Linji Yixuan (Japan: Rinzai Gigen c. 800– 866 CE). However, the Fuke school counts founder Puhuà, one of Linji’s contemporaries, as shihan (founder). Fuke-style Zen was eventually brought to Japan by Shinchi Kakushin, also known as Muhon Kakushin or Hotto Kokushi (posthumously), who had travelled to China for six years and studied with the famous Chan master Wumen of the Linji lineage. Kakushin became a disciple of Chôsan, a 17th generation teacher of the Fuke sect of China. It was Fuke Zen’s goal to reach enlightenment through meditation on sound, and his particular sect (of Rinzai) Fuke-shu, produced mendicant priests and lay persons known as komuso, literally ‘monks of empty nothingness.’ Through rigorous training and lifestyle they sought to develop kisoku, their “spiritual breath,” to eventually blow a note that would express all of reality and lead them to what they referred to as Ichi-on-jobutsu, “becoming a Buddha in one note.” Although the sect did flourish in the Edo period (1610 – 1868 CE) for a time, much of what we know about Puhuà’s life itself has been since proven to be myth. His sect eventually disbanded/disappeared and left behind a body of work know as honkyoku, ‘songs of enlightenment,’ which are practiced and performed by shakuhachi flautists worldwide (regardless of religious affiliation).

Kenkō Yoshida (1283 – 1350 CE): A former Imperial guard officer, Yoshida retired from work and set about becoming a Buddhist hermit. He eventually wrote down his thoughts on life in his Tsurezuregusa (“Essays In Idleness”), a free form work written in a stream-of-consciousness manner (the genre is known as zuihitsu – “following the brush”), ranging from random topic to topic.  He moved from idea to idea often, sometimes within only a single line or two. Some though suggest that Yoshida’s work is not a zuihitsu work, because he uses the free form as a metaphor for the impermanence of life, which would then give the Tsurezuregusa an overall message, and thus make it a form using formlessness.



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