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

Richard McBride rick_mcbride17 at hotmail.com
Thu Jul 31 17:21:33 EDT 2008

Being a specialist in early Korean Buddhism, particularly with the cults of buddhas and bodhisattvas in Silla Korea (ca. 400-1000 CE), let me say a few things about this interesting yet very complex topic.  As has already been pointed it, strickly speaking, buddhas and, in particular, the historical Buddha Sakyamuni (Siddhartha Gautama), are technically different than gods--of which there are plenty in the Buddhist pantheon because Buddhists adopted and adapted many figures from the Indian (Hindu) pantheons.
However, as Gregory Schopen, a specialist in early Indian Buddhism has pointed out, the purely doctrinal understanding of Buddhas and the mainstream understanding of Buddhas "on the ground"--that is, as is found archeologically in inscriptions and on art--suggests that to most ordinary non-intellectual monks and nuns, the Buddha and later buddhas functioned much like gods.  For instance, in Indian Buddhist epigraphy as early as the first century CE (if not before), the name Buddha appears in people's given names, such as "Buddhabhadra" or "Buddhapala" replacing names of other local deities. This strongly suggests that people understood the Buddha to function like a protective deity.  This practice had entered mainstream Indian practice long before Buddhism entered Korea and was coterminous with the introduction of Buddhism into China.
Mahayana Buddhism, as practiced in East Asia, strongly emphasizes the importance of faith and the power of exercizing faith in the saving power of buddhas and bodhisattvas.  Amitabha (Kor. Amit'a), for instance, the Buddha of the Western Paradise, is able to use his power to bring beings into his Pure Land in the West upon death.  Although technically speaking, the benefit of being reborn in a Pure Land is that one can practice and learn to comprehend Buddhist truth without the tempatations and hindrances of our world system (and from hence return to our world as a bodhisattva in order to aid other beings), literary evidence from stories and traditional narratives suggests that ordinary people saw it as a final goal.  Intellectual Buddhists strongly encouraged ordinary people to practice.  And any of the myriad practices of Mahayana Buddha can be seen as an expedient means to encourage people to begin.  It ultimately didn't really matter if ordinary people didn't really understand that the Pure Land is not "really" what they believe it to be, because once they are there in the Pure Land their understanding will be perfected.  What I am really trying to say is that Amitabha functions a lot like a god or God to many Buddhists.  Other buddhas serve similar purposes, Yaksa Yorae (The Medicine Buddha or Healing Buddha), for instance, and even the historical Buddha Sakyamuni himself according to the Lotus Sutra, which promises that the Buddha only appeared to die--he is really always accessible.
The case of Tantric or Esoteric Buddhism opens a whole new set of worms.  Art historians refer to all of the buddhas, bodhisattvas, consorts, and wrathful deities as deities, e.g. gods.  Mahavairocana, the great sun Buddha, is the Buddha who represents the universe as it is.  He is the deity seated in the center of many mandalas.  All buddhas derive from him and he embodies all of the flux and transformation that is the essence of true reality.  All buddhas are one and the same as Mahavairocana at the moment of enlightenment--hence, all people who become enlightened are one and the same as Mahavairocana.  Simply stated, the path of practice in Esoteric Buddhism has the initiated ritually act like this buddha, reproducing his body (gestures, mudra), speech (mantra), and mind (samadhi).  The sutras describe this as empowering oneself with the universal power of that Buddha--to some exponents, Mahavairocana is the greatest compassionate deity.  Nevertheless, there is also a strand of thought that suggests this is merely an expedient means of drawing out the power of the Tathagatagarbha--the womb or embryo of enlightenment--that is latent in all beings.  There is always a tension in Mahayana Buddhism between understanding buddhas as real beings that exist outside of one's mind or as understanding them as necessary figments of our imagination in a mental quest for enlightenment and transcendence.
In my opinion, the anecdotal evidence from around medieval East Asia strongly suggests that most intellectual Buddhist monks and laypeople understood buddhas and bodhisattvas to function much like people in the West understand the concept of God.  These beings commanded respect and were offered much by way of devotion.  Buddhists, primarily monks, sought spiritual encounters with buddhas and bodhisattvas and made many types of votive offerings to curry their favor.  See, for instance, my discussion of the cults of Sakyamuni, Maitreya (bodhisattva and next buddha), Avalokitesvara (Kwanseum Posal), and Vairocana (in the Hwaom tradition) in my book Domesticating the Dharma:  Buddhist Cults and the Hwaom Synthesis in Silla Korea (2008).  It is currently in print.
I hope this provides some food for discussion.
Richard McBride
Department of History
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