The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 12)

The Criticism of Buddhism in the Late Koryo Dynasty

Toward the end of the Koryo dynasty, the state patronage of Neo-Confucianism gained it stronger momentum. Most leading Neo-Confucians began to attack Buddhism, criticizing its spiritual and institutional decay. From Confucian perspectives, Koryo Buddhism was charged with causing corruption in government institutions. Criticizing the Buddhist monastic life, Chon Mong-ju, for example, said: “The Confucian way is simply about our daily affairs. It is the way of Yao and Shun. The Buddhist teaching is not natural not only because it ignores parents and family and neglects the distinction between men and women, but also because it urges people to sit in caves away from society.” Yi Saek also argued that, although the Buddha was a great “sage,” Korean Buddhist monks had corrupted Koryo society, and that the government should be reformed according to Neo-Confucian ideals.

Another serious critique of Buddhism was on economic grounds. For centuries, Koryo scholar-officials were dissatisfied with the political factionalism of Buddhist institutions, as well as with their control over estates, slaves, and financial monopolies. Yi In-jok (?-1395), for example, demanded that the Buddhist temples and their lands and slaves must be subject to the secular state control, and that one should be prohibited from becoming a monk unless one has an official approval from the state. Kim Cha-su (fl. 1374) criticised Buddhist rituals for being “superstitious” and, therefore, argued that they should be supervised by the state. Furthermore, Pak Cho (1367-1454) attacked Buddhism in several ways: Buddhism is a religion that distorts human nature and creates evil: Buddhism is a religion that distorts human nature and create evil; Buddhist monks should be subject to military service; and Buddhist texts be destroyed.

As the Koryo dynasty was falling apart, most Neo-Confucian scholars of this time supported Sung Neo-Confucianism as a new philosophy of life with emphasis on the self, family, society, and government; as an educational system focused on rational learning and moral cultivation; and as a practical religion whose spiritual teachings support a concrete set of ethical and political guidelines for governing the people. In short, it offered them the hope of creating a new moral and socio-political order out of the old society dominated by the Buddhist tradition.

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