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Island’s Buddhism accepts and adapts
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승인 2010.07.31  19:35:02
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▲ Oh Sung, head of the Jeju Buddhism Society and Research Association. Photo by Alpha Newberry

Freedom-fighting monks, nature gods, seed-smuggling and the April 3 massacre: all of these are part of the history of Buddhism on Jeju Island, says Oh Sung, the monk who is head of the Jeju Buddhism Society and Research Association.

In its 1,600-year history on Jeju, Buddhism has existed side by side with Shamanism, the two intermingling in various states of dominance, coexistence and mutual preservation. Oh Sung said Buddhism gave Shamanistic rituals “better quality and logic,” incorporating Buddhist prayer and ideals into Shamanistic mythology. “In Shamanism, if someone wants a child they pray to Chilsung, the seven stars,” he said. “Buddhists brought Chilsung into the temple and put a Buddha behind it.” Thus, Shamanistic prayers took on Buddhist characteristics. Incorporation of other Shamanistic deities followed the same basic principle, with those deities then entering into Buddhist mythology: “Chowang [a household god], Chilsung and the Dragon King of the Sea are depicted as Buddha’s protectors in the temple.” The mainland has a similar relationship with Shamanism, but, Oh Sung said, “On the mainland they usually have one main temple for Buddha and separate buildings for each Shamanistic god. In Jeju the temples are not as big, so there is usually a shrine in the main temple off to the side.”

It was not always Buddhism that took the forefront in the relationship. During the Joseon period, Buddhism was suppressed but Shamanism was not. “When people found a stone shaped like a person, they would call it a Buddha and pray to it. So their faith was a mixture of Shamanism and Buddhism. They called it Buddha, but the contents of their prayers were Shamanistic.”

After the Joseon period, Buddhism was once again allowed to flourish, but the influence of Shamanism remained and still does to this day: “When the ban ended, Buddhism couldn’t start over. They had to take something from the Shamanistic faiths. For instance, the current older generation goes to Buddhist temples and Shamanistic rituals.”

During the Chinese Won dynasty, Buddhist rituals that included music and dance were popular. But after the Korean War, “[Korean Buddhists] emphasized zen and looked down on these kinds of rituals, saying that they weren’t high faith, not classy. Those who don’t know much about Buddhism think the Buddhists doing these rituals must be copying the Shamans. Really it’s just an older form of Buddhism.” Zen, despite being familiar as a Japanese word, actually originated in China. “Seon” is the Korean-language equivalent and the two are different pronunciations of the same Chinese character. In this case, seon means action in Buddhism as opposed to study.

The Japanese occupation also left its mark on Buddhism. Though Buddhism was supported by the Japanese, they chose its leadership, which brought to the practice a distinctly Japanese flavor. Some monks went underground, Oh Sung said.

“During that time not only did the monks have to have a pro-Japanese attitude, but everyone had to follow the Japanese to survive. The situation was tough because in order to pursue Buddhism, social space is necessary. There were two types of monks at that time. One type went underground and worked with the anti-Japanese independence movement. The other type wanted to be official, so they had to compromise with the Japanese.”

The activities of the underground monks were first geared toward organizing protests, both peaceful and violent. One of these, in 1919, occurred seven months earlier than the well-known March 1 protest on the main-land, and the monks involved were forced to flee the island or go into hiding. As the occupation continued, Jeju’s “underground” monks became increasingly involved in farming and teaching Korean language and culture. “In Hamdeok, monks brought cabbage seed for kimchi to Jeju so that people could make more money farming. They also worked in small temples making products to help locals practically.” When Japanese occupation ended, many of the occupiers’ practices were eliminated. One order, Taegyojong, which is the most popular on Jeju, kept a few of the introduced practices, among them allowing monks to marry. However, according to Oh Sung, these Japanese characteristics are “only on the surface.”

The April 3 massacre is also an important part of Buddhist history on Jeju. Readers may know that the massacre occurred at a rally commemorating resistance against the Japanese. Oh Sung said that many Buddhist monks were part of fundraising efforts for that rally. When the Korean Army and the Northwest Youth Association came to quell the uprising, they burned down almost all of the temples.

“The monks in temples on the mountain, which had a close relationship with the locals, were hiding people.” Not only the mountain temples suffered: “Only a few remained.” But burning down the temples didn’t stop anyone from practicing Buddhism. “That was only the facade. The people were still there,” Oh Sung said, “because the Jeju people’s faith is deep inside, based on Shamanism with Buddhism as a layer on top. It didn’t take long to recover.”

Since that time, Buddhism on Jeju has remained more or less constant, but does face some challenges. Oh Sung said, “The reality of contemporary Jeju Buddhism is that it doesn’t have self-identity.

Buddhists here are not quite sure who they are. Jeju is unique due to being a natural environment. This is where the Shamanistic characteristics come from.” He added, “Jeju people also tend to look down on Shamanism. I think that Shamanism can be a valuable resource. It’s an original, natural form of religion. We should find a way to preserve Shamanism within Buddhism.”

Asked if that would conflict with Buddhism as practiced on the Korean mainland, Oh Sung replied, “The difference in practice isn’t that great. Even if it is, the nature of Buddhism is acceptance.”

ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (
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