[KS] Names for God

Donald Baker dbaker at interchange.ubc.ca
Wed Jul 30 10:25:49 EDT 2008

A few comments on the responses to the question about the Korean name  
for "God" in Korean.

First of all, I was glad to see Brother Anthony's post that mentions  
that there are Buddhas who appear very close to being the type of God  
seen in theistic religions.  In discussing Buddhism, we have to be  
careful to distinguish between the philosophy of most meditating monks  
(which tends to downplay theistic elements in Buddhism) versus the  
practices and beliefs of most lay Buddhists. (For more on this  
distinction, see my recent Korean Spirituality.)  I would argue that  
most lay Buddhists treat the various Buddhas (and even some of the  
Boddhisattvas) as Gods.  When you affix yeorae to a Buddha's name,  
such as Yaksayeorae, it seems to me that you are talking about a God.  
Sakyamuni is simply Sakyamuni or Bucheonim, so Sakaymuni as a teacher  
is not seen as a God. But when you talk about Vairochana, for example,  
you are talking about a God. Yet no pre-modern Korean Buddhist texts  
that I know of ever refer to any of those god-like Buddhas as hananim  
or haneunim. That suggests to me not that theism was not a part of  
Korean Buddhism but that before the arrival of Christianity Koreans  
did not think of the term haneunim or the term hananim as meaning "God."

In response to some of the other posts, I looked at the suggested  
download, "Modern History of Korean Religions. " It provides the  
standard argument that Koreans have a long history of worship of  
Hananim. However, I find no evidence in any Korean records for such a  
religious tradition. More to the point, the first Catholics in Korea  
didn't use Hananim or Haneunim in their early vernacular theological  
texts, so it would appear that they were not very familiar with that  
term. In fact, neither term shows up in the first Korean dictionary, a  
dictionary French missionaries compiled in the middle of the 19th  
century. If there was a common vernacular word for God, you would  
think they would have listed it in their dictionary.

As for Donghak, a look at early Tonghak writings shows that the  
preferred term for God was Cheonju or Sangje. When Tonghak poetry  
required three syllables, and they wanted to use a vernacular term  
rather than a Sino-Korean term, they used "Hannulim." If Hananim or  
Haneunim  were common terms for God, why didn't they use one of those  
terms instead of coining Hannulim (which was not that common in  
Tonghak writings until the 20th century)?

I might add that my dictionaries of Joseon-era language (based on 19th  
century Korean) clearly distinguish between Hana (one) from Haneul  
(for Heaven). I am out of town right now, and don't have my  
dictionaries in front of me, but, if my memory serves me right, hana  
was spelling with the arae-a in the first syllable and haneul was  
spelled with the arae-a in the second syllable. Moreover, the early  
Protestant missionary discussions on the proper term for God show that  
they distinguished between Haneunim as a vernacular translation of  
Lord of Heaven and Hananim, which most of them took to mean the One  
God and therefore different from Haneunim. In fact, this is why more  
conservative Protestants prefer Hananim to Haneunim. They consider  
Haneunim to be a reference to a god of Korea's traditional animistic  
worship of nature. Hananim, on the other hand, they believed to be a  
traditional term for the Supreme Being, who transcended nature.

As for shamans using haneunim in their rituals, I suspect that is a  
modern innovation. (I've seen a recent shaman "bible" that includes  
references to Hananim.) If Joseon dynasty officials had learned that  
shamans were worshipping heaven, they would have been even more  
antagonistic toward shamanism than they already were. As for as I  
know, the charge that they worshipped hananin or haneunim was never  
made, though they were criticized for many other reasons, including  
the criticism that they engaged with ritual interaction with the  
spirits of deceased officials they were too low in the social order to  
interact with. Also, shamans usually have paintings of their gods. Has  
anyone ever seen a shaman painting of hananim? I've seen paintings of  
the Jade Emperor but not of Hananim or Haneuni.

Even though there are a few rare cases of pre-modern use of the term  
"haneunim" (as in Pak Il-lo's poem mentioned by Gari), they are  
usually synonyms for the Chinese Confucian term for Heaven and don't  
carry the usual theistic connotations we associate with the term "God."

In short, I remain convinced that the tradition of an indigenous  
Korean monotheism, of worship of a Supreme God called Hananim or  
Haneunim,  is an invented tradition. Moreover, as a proud Canadian, I  
am convinced that the Canadian missionary James Gale played a major  
role in creating that tradition.

Donald Baker
Department of Asian Studies
University of British Columbia
Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z2  Canada
dbaker at interchange.ubc.ca

Donald Baker
Department of Asian Studies
University of British Columbia
Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z2  Canada
dbaker at interchange.ubc.ca

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