Korea, Buddhism and Violence
April 24, 2007
by William P. Meyers

I am writing a "book" tentatively titled The U.S. War Against Asia. I have already drafted chapters on that you can read on Japan and the Philippines. I am currently drafting a chapter on Hawaii and other island territories conquered by the United States, but looking down the road I realized I did not know very much about Korean history or U.S. involvement there. After some preliminary research confirming that the U.S. invaded Korea after World War II, against the wishes of the Korean indpendence movement, I decided to buy a book on the subject. I got A New History of Korea by Ki-baik Lee, used, for a pittance. It is translated by Edward W. Wagner with Edward J. Shultz, published in English by Harvard University Press, and it is a beautifully bound book with exquisite endpapers.

I have read the first few chapters now, plus the bits on the independence movement before and after World War II. I have been rewarded by some information about another area of interest, the relationship of religion to violence and war. I had noted over my years of reading history that Buddhists, and Buddhist sects, had been very involved in violent feuds and in wars. I also suspected that, like Christianity, Buddhism was spread by getting powerful men to adopt it to be enforced upon their subjects as a means of social control. But I have no notes to use to start writing about that.

In the U.S. Buddhism is often portrayed as a peaceful religion, in opposition to Christianity. Educated people in the U.S. tend to know about European history, and hence about religious wars. But we tend to be ignorant of Asian history, and hence of wars associated with asiatic religions.

I don't doubt that many Buddhists, like many Christians, are sincere advocates and practitioners of peace. But our evaluation of Buddhism, overall, should be based on facts, not wishful thinking. I have some problems with Buddhist philosophy which I will take up elsewhere. Here I am just going to note some indicators of Buddhism from Korean history up to about 800 A.D.

In the early 600s the famed Korean Buddhist monk Wongwang laid out five secular injunctions for young men: loyalty to the king; respect for parents; friendship; to never retreat in battle; refrain from wanton killing [Ki-baik Lee p. 55]. The battle-hardened monk was already a phenomena in China; Tibetan monks would terrorize much of Asia from time to time; and in Korea we see little evidence of pacifism. But there were many Buddhist sects, just as there were many Christian ones; maybe some found the practice of war to be against Buddhism.

Buddhism arrived in stages from China, but also evolved inside Korea. But "In all of the Three Kingdoms the principal initative for the acceptance of Buddhism was taken by the royal houses" [Ki-baik Lee p. 59]

The most popular form of Buddhism, Pure Land, was designed as opium for the masses. It said that life is suffering (a Buddhist tenet), it is a "sea of torment" but that simply by chanting the name of Buddha (Nammu Amit'a Pul) daily, after death rebirth would take place in the paradise called Pure Land. Meanwhile the aristocracy was not suffering; they were living very nicely off the labor of the peasants. They had more complex versions of Buddhism to entertain their minds.

It should be noted that the arrival of Buddhism in Korea did not lessen the steady drumbeat of war that existed pre-Buddhism. Nor did it seem to increase it. The states warred when it seemed advantageous, just as they did under the Catholic Church in Europe during the same era.

As I write more on Buddhism I'll centralize links to the essays at my Buddhism page.

See also my Nonviolence and Its Violent Consequences for my views on reducing violence and war.

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