[KS] Name used for "god" in Korean language

Kenneth Koo kennethkoo at yahoo.com
Sun Aug 3 10:05:08 EDT 2008

Dear list members,

I hesitate to rekindle a discussion that may have run its course, but I simply wish to add a couple of remarks, following Dr. McBride's observations on Buddhist theism. The picture of early Indian Buddhism as it has emerged speaks to a degree of ambivalence over the true nature of Buddha, whose name literally implies 'enlightened one.' Even though the historical Buddha was perceived as a spiritual role model to be emulated, there likely existed an impulse to transform 'Buddhism' into a deity cult. Some of the debate in the Buddhological circle has centered around our understanding of the word 'Tathagata' - in Korean, Y^orae - which can mean both 'thus come' and 'thus gone.' While the nuances of Sanskrit may not sound engaging to most people, the problem has received attention because to say an individual is 'gone' would be akin saying he or she experienced cessation of rebirth in the traditional Buddhist theology; and being gone, Buddha is beyond reach.
 To reduce the spiritual distance devotees may have felt between themselves and the now absent Buddha, two exegetical strategies were likely invoked (in addition to various cults of relics, stupas, and texts, per Gregory Schopen's research). One was that of tathagatagarba - or the Buddha nature theory - and the other was an elaboration on the idea of Buddha's three bodies. The latter suggested that even though Buddha in his physical incarnation was no longer here in this world, Buddha could still make appearances through his sambogakaya - 'reward body' - or through dharmakaya - 'dharma body'- which is equal to the Tantric Buddha of Vairocana, described by Dr. McBride in the earlier posting. These two bodies took on the characteristics of powerful gods, especially the latter, which ended up surpassing mere divinities in supernatural powers and became equated with the workings of the cosmos itself.
     That these ideas informed understanding of Buddha in Korea is not in dispute, I believe. But the notion of the supreme deity in Korean Buddhism, I feel, may have come out of both the way Buddhas and Bodhisattvas have been worshiped in Korea, and the case of Ches^ok or Indra. Those familiar with shamanic rituals are undoubtedly aware of Ches^ok invocation, in which the god appears as a Buddhist monk, demanding Buddhist abstinence from meat and fish among the offerings. Examinations of the invocation songs for Chesok have revealed that the deity is a cosmological figure whose attributes encompass mastery of the known world (Prof. Walraven is far more knowledgeable than I on this, certainly). Chesok in its original Indian form was the king of gods in the Trayastrimsa heaven and ruler of the sky, and using Sinitic logographs his name has been alternatively expressed as 'Ch^onje' or the 'Celestial Master' in the arguably unreliable text of Samguk yusa.
 But if we are to go by the available source, it seems that the Indra worship was present in the Korean peninsula as early as 6th or 7th century, and more has been said about its practice during Koryo by Prof. Seo Yun-Kil at Dongguk University. The Chesok cult may not have had a direct bearing on the etymology of the Korean word for 'supreme deity,' but at the very least it may be another piece of evidence toward proving the importance of heaven in Korean understanding of divine hierarchy, regardless of religious categories. Prof. Ko Ik-jin theorized a long time ago that Chesok in Korea is an indigenous sky god absorbed into the Buddhist pantheon, but I imagine that the debate will go on on this particular topic.

Kenneth Koo
Religious Studies
Stanford University


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