The road stretched over thousands of horizons and led from their native Korea across terrain beset with highwaymen and strangers to a distant land called India. But two Korean monks, namely Gyeomik and Hyecho, were so eager for knowledge about Buddhism that they trod that long and winding road, and in the process changed Korean cultural history.
Professor Eun-su Cho at Seoul National University’s (SNU) Department of Philosophy, a leading scholar on this topic, is pleased to share her insights. She explains how her interest in it first germinated: “I was a student majoring in Buddhist philosophy in Korea from the late 1970s to the mid 1980s. Once I finished my masters, I had the arduous idea of researching Indian Buddhism – the origin of Buddhism – using firsthand sources. At that time, even when we studied Indian Buddhism, we used materials translated into classical Chinese. There were almost no institutions teaching Sanskrit or Pali, the languages of the Indian Buddhist texts.”
She found herself on a plane to the United States in the late 1980s to study Indian Buddhism through the Indian languages. “And so I completed my Ph. D. at U.C. Berkeley and became a professor at the University of Michigan.
Cho’s Korean background attracted interest. “I found many people actually wanted to learn Korean Buddhism from me. Thus I have spent the past twenty years mainly studying and writing about Korean Buddhism.”
As for India and Korea, she offers a debriefing of Korea’s version of Mahayana Buddhism. It originated in India about 100 years after Buddha’s death in 483 B.C. and then migrated to Central Asia. It entered China in the 1st century A.D. and in the 4th century A.D. entered Korea.
Afterwards, Korean scholar-monks with philosophical talent such as Wonhyo (617 - 686 A.D.) contributed ideas and writing.”
In fact, during Korea’s Goryeo Dynasty (918 - 1392 A.D.) Buddhism received nation-wide devotion as the national religion. Cho qualifies that to add that “After the 14th century, however, intellectuals that established the Joseon Dynasty (1392 - 1911) suppressed Buddhism because their ideal was to build a state based on Confucian ideology. Buddhism was antithetical to centralized Confucian government and their morals: monks were viewed as the leeches of society, not marrying or working. Laws only allowed monasteries to exist in the mountains, prohibited monks and nuns from entering the capital city, and officially denounced them as one of the low classes.”
Finally, as Western civilization came to Korea after the 20th century, Christianity became the dominant religion. Because of this, “many Koreans have forgotten the crucial role Buddhism played in Korean history and their traditional societal values, Cho regrets.
“I gradually gained interest,” she recalls, “in what patterns of development Buddhism underwent between its origin in India and it becoming an important ideology and cultural influence in Korea and the exchanges between the two countries.”
So how did India actually influence Korea? The professor explains that, “Even though India and Korea have extreme differences in culture and geography, they nevertheless share many features due to their common thread of Buddhism.”
After Buddhism spread to Korea, Buddhist texts were translated one by one. Cho teaches that, “By the 4th century, many sutras were known in classical Chinese, while Buddhism spread throughout society.” As these texts gained wider currency, questions arose. “Even the Chinese found them arcane. Furthermore, there was much curiosity about the mystical land of the Buddha called India – particularly among the pious Buddhists.”
So from the 4th century onward, pilgrimage to India was the goal of the so-called ‘monks seeking the dharma,’ or the teachings of the Buddha. She stresses that “Although almost twenty Korean monks left for India between the 4th and 8th centuries, ten died on the trip there or back and three returned to China.” Cho identifies the Korean monks Gyeomik in the 6th century and Hyecho in the 8th century as standouts. “Only these two came back.”
Their perilous journey took a decade or two as they braved the deserts of Central Asia and the blizzards of the Pamir Mountains. “Gyeomik was a particularly early pilgrim to India so only a short inscription describes him. He left around the year 513 from the southwestern Baekje kingdom (18 B.C. - 660 A.D.). Gyeomik was unique because he traveled to India and back by boat when most pilgrims took the inland desert route. It is said that he became fluent in Sanskrit after studying it for a long time in India, and received a hero’s welcome from the king and the public on his return.”
Cho offers the general context of Gyeomik’s specific achievement: “The Buddhist canon is divided into three groups. Sutras refers to the texts that contain the sayings of the Buddha. Vinaya, or the precepts, are a collection of disciplinary rules for the monastic community, while Abhidharma is the collection of commentaries and theses written by scholar-monks.”
During the 4th century, many foreign monks in the East Asian Buddhist community addressed the procedures of ordination and the precepts. However, confusion abounded about details. Enter the hero Gyeomik!
Cho summarizes that he supposedly studied the Vinaya at the Nalanda monastery at Nalanda, Bihar. Some sources praise it as the first outstanding learning center in recorded history with its 10,000-plus students and 2,000 teachers. It was also among the first with dorms.
Cho underscores that Gyeomik “brought back to Baekje the third set of Abhidharma texts, previously unknown in East Asia,” Cho adds. These texts helped contribute to the philosophical advancement of the Buddhism, in addition to being a religion of salvation. Buddhism has a strong element of philosophical investigation.”
Plus, Gyeomik “founded a school for Vinaya study in Baekje. Its renown spread to all of East Asia – because there was nobody familiar with the Vinaya in the entirety of East Asia.” Unfortunately, it didn’t last long: “The Baekje kingdom was later conquered by Shilla to the east in the 7th century A.D.”
What Indian language did he master? “It is said he learned fluent Sanskrit. What a mystery how a foreign monk did this, who no doubt arrived in India not knowing a word of anything. They were probably linguistic geniuses. He also knew many Central Asian languages.”
As for Hyecho, he was another prominent pilgrim. In his twenties, he set out from the shores of China for India’s east coast. He then toured India. Through Central Asia, he returned to China and then Korea, all between 720 -727 A.D.
Hyecho is significant, judges Cho, because he bequeathed “a travel diary called Wang ocheonchukgu jeon, or Memoir of the Pilgrimage to the Five Regions of India.
Once considered lost, a portion was found in the manuscripts in Dunhuang, China by a French explorer named Paul Pelliot. It is preserved in the National Library of France. It is important as an almost unique record of 5-7th century Indian culture, society, and religion.”
Hyecho observed five Indian regions and the Buddhist sites of pilgrimage, e.g., Vaishali, Rajgir, Kushinagar, Varanasi, Bodhgaya and Nashik. Then he proceeded to then-present day Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran. His writing “includes interesting ethnographic encounters and records of more than 20 small kingdoms, even mentioning details from as far as the Byzantine Empire, the Arabs, and Persia.”
Cho rues the paucity of research in South Korea and India on the India-Korea link. Scholars trained in East Asian Buddhism often do not know Sanskrit or Pali, the language through which to understand Indian Buddhism, while scholars trained in Indian Buddhism often do not know classical Chinese, the lingua franca of East Asian Buddhism. Thus not many scholars of Korean Buddhism see both sides.”
But she adds that, “In Korea, there is a strong desire to research this subject, especially after the long-lost manuscript Wang ocheonchulgok jeon came to the National Museum of Korea from France in late 2010 for a three month loan. This kindled a national interest not only in the book but also Hyecho himself, who is now regarded as a national and cultural hero that dared to journey to India in a world where it was rare to even leave one’s village. I believe that also stimulated a cultural interest in India in general. It is not hard to find young Korean visitors these days in Indian cities.”
What about Indian scholars scrutinizing Korea? Cho’s assessment is that, “I don’t think many Indian scholars have been interested. These days, Korean studies is taught in major universities such as Nehru University in Delhi. However, the focus has largely been on language instruction and contemporary Korean economics and culture, especially with the Korean Wave boom.”
Cho insists that a group of scholars must cooperate to study the historical links between Korea and India: “In Korea, the universities are compartmentalized by departments, and interdiscipliary and cross-regional research is easily forgotten. In SNU, we just established a department of Asian Languages and Civilizations, and I hope that it will serve as a nucleus for scholars to pursue interdisciplinary projects.”
What can readers do to learn more about Gyeomik and Hyecho? Cho laments that “I don’t think there are any books on these figures in English, even though about ten books were recently published in Korean. But Hyecho’s diary was translated as part of the UNESCO Collection of Representative Works in 1984.
As for whether India imported any ideas from Korea, Cho laments that, “Unfortunately, we know little. It definitely is a subject worthy of future study.”
Hear that, readers in India? Maybe it’s time for open-minded Indian scholars to walk the road -- to the land of Gyeomik and Hyecho
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