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Korea: Three Kingdoms

Various kingdoms on the Korean peninsula had warred with each other, and by 57 BCE they had consolidated through conquest to three: Koguryo (or Goguryeo) in the northern half of Korea, extending north of the Yalu River; Paekche in the southwestern quarter of the Korean peninsula; and Silla in the southeastern quarter. To become known as the Three Kingdoms period, it was to last until the year 668, when Silla triumph over Koguryo and the peninsula was divided between two kingdoms.

These three remained aristocratic states. Writing had developed in Korea that used Chinese characters for Korean words. Each of the three kingdoms had a Chinese bureaucratic system of government, and with China's bureaucratic system had come Confucianism. Rule in the three kingdoms adopted Confucian values, and the Kingdom of Koguryo had a National Confucian Academy that made reading and speaking Chinese and citing the Confucian classics a part of an upper class education.

Alongside the new Confucianism, many in Korea maintained their old faith. Like others, the Koreans had been animists. They had seen the physical world as functioning by the magic of a variety of spirits, one for each aspect of nature, and they had seen all things as animate. They too believed in asking the gods for protection for their family or community. The Koreans saw the sun as the most awesome and powerful of spirits. They believed too in a mountain spirit. And they had shamans.

In 372, a monk brought Mahayana Buddhism to Koguryo, and the king of Goguryeo welcomed Buddhism and patronized it. In 384, another Buddhist monk arrived in Paekche, and Buddhism was welcomed by Paekche's royal family. Buddhism spread to Silla, and Korea's kings adopted Buddhism as a state religion, as a vehicle for praying for the well-being of their kingdom. Buddhists in Korea prayed for their own well-being, including or asking for recovery from illness and asking for the conception of children. Aristocrats left the shamans to those they considered unsophisticated. And wars between the Korean states would now be fought not only for their kings but also for the Way of the Buddha, with monks and other soldiers, under the banner of Buddhism, exhorted to fight bravely for their kingdom.

Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.