Monthly Archives: March 2022

The Chinese Mahayana Buddhist Canon

Most religions have a basic set of scriptures — a “Bible,” if you will —  considered authoritative by the entire religious tradition. But this is not true of Buddhism. There are three separate canons of Buddhist scripture that are considerably different from each other.

The Pali Canon or Pali Tipitika is the scriptural canon of Theravada Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism has two canons, called the Tibetan Canon and the Chinese Canon. The Chinese Canon is the collection of texts considered authoritative by most schools of Mahayana Buddhism other than Tibetan. It’s called the “Chinese Canon” because most of the texts were preserved in Chinese. It is the chief scriptural canon of KoreanJapanese and Vietnamese Buddhism as well as Chinese Buddhism.

There is some overlap among these three major canons, but most Buddhist scriptures are only included in one or two of them, not all three. Even within the Chinese Canon a sutra venerated by one school of Mahayana may be ignored by others.

The schools of Mahayana that do more or less acknowledge the Chinese canon usually work with only part of it, not the whole thing. Unlike the Pali and Tibetan Canons, which have been formally adopted by their traditions, the Chinese Canon is only loosely canonical.

Very basically, the Chinese Mahayana Canon primarily consists of (but is not necessarily limited to)  several collections of Mahayana sutras, the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya, the Sarvastivada Abhidharma, the Agamas, and commentaries written by prominent teachers sometimes referred to as the “sastras” or “shastras.”.

Mahayana Sutras

The Mahayana sutras are a large number of scriptures mostly written between the 1st century BCE and the 5th century CE, although a few may have been written as late as the 7th century CE. Most are said to have originally been written in Sanskrit, but very often the original Sanskrit has been lost, and the oldest version we have today is a Chinese translation.

The Mahayana sutras are arguably the largest and most important part of the Chinese Canon. For more about the many sutras found in the Chinese Canon, please see “Chinese Mahayana Sutras: An Overview of Buddhist Sutras of the Chinese Canon.”

The Agamas

The Agamas might be thought of as an alternative Sutta-pitaka. The Pali Sutta-pitaka of the Pali Canon (Sutra-pitaka in Sanskrit) is the collection of the historical Buddha’s sermons that was memorized and chanted in the Pali language and finally written down in the 1st century BCE.

But while that was going on, elsewhere in Asia the sermons were being memorized and chanted in other languages, including Sanskrit. There probably were several Sanskrit chanting lineages, in fact. The Agamas are what we have of those, mostly pieced together from early Chinese translations.

Corresponding sermons from the Agamas and Pali Canon are often similar but never identical. Exactly which version is older or more accurate is a matter of opinion, although the Pali versions are far better known.

The Dharmaguptaka Vinaya

The Sutra-pitaka, Vinaya-pitaka and Abhidharma-pitaka together make up a collection called the Tripitaka, or Tipitaka in Pali. The Vinaya-pitaka contains the rules for the monastic orders established by the historical Buddha, and like the Sutra-pitaka it was was memorized and chanted. Today there are several existing versions of the Vinaya. One is the Pali Vinaya, followed in Theravada Buddhism. Two others are called the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya and the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya, after the early schools of Buddhism in which they were preserved.

Tibetan Buddhism generally follows the Mulasarvastivada and the rest of Mahayana generally follows the Dharmaguptaka. There may be exceptions, however, and sometimes the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya is considered part of the Chinese Canon also. Although the Dharmaguptaka has slightly fewer rules, overall the differences between the two Mahayana Vinayas are not radically significant.

The Sarvastivada Abhidharma

The Abhidharma is a large collection of texts that analyze the Buddha’s teachings. Although attributed to the Buddha, actual composition probably began a couple of centuries after his Parinirvana. Like the Sutra-pitaka and the Vinaya-pitaka, the Abhidharma texts were preserved in separate traditions, and at one time there probably were many different versions.

There are two surviving complete Abhidharmas, which are the Pali Abhidhamma, associated with Theravada Buddhism, and the Sarvastivada Abhidharma, which is associated with Mahayana Buddhism. Fragments of other Abhidharmas also are preserved in the Chinese Canon.

Strictly speaking, the Sarvastivada Abhidharma is not precisely a Mahayana text. The Sarvastivadins, who preserved this version, were an early school of Buddhism more closely aligned with Theravada than with Mahayana Buddhism. However, in some ways it represents a transitory point in Buddhist history in which Mahayana was taking shape.

The two versions are considerably different. Both Abhidharmas discuss the natural processes that connect mental and physical phenomena. Both works analyze phenomena by breaking them down into momentary events that cease to exist as soon as they occur. Beyond that, however, the two texts presents different understandings of the nature of time and matter.

Commentaries and Other Texts

There are vast numbers of commentaries and treatises written by Mahayana scholars and sages over the centuries that also are included in the Chinese Canon. Some of these are called “sastras” or “shastras,” which in this context designates a commentary on a sutra.

Other examples of commentaries would be texts such as Nagarjuna‘s Mulamadhyamakakarika, or “Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way,” which expounds Madhyamika philosophy. Another is Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara, “Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life.” There are many large collections of commentaries.

The list of what texts may be included is, shall we say, fluid. The few published editions of the canon are not identical; some have included non-Buddhist religious texts and folk tales.

This overview is barely an introduction. The Chinese Canon is a vast treasure of religious / philosophical literature.

Christian-Buddhist Tension in South Korea, Part 2

As explained in Part 1 of “Christian-Buddhist Tension in South Korea,” South Korea is the only nation in east Asia in which the largest religion is not Asian. The population of South Korea is about 29 percent Christian and 23 percent Buddhist. About 46 percent of South Koreans claim no specific religious affiliation.

As also explained in Part 1, the number of Christians in South Korea grew rapidly after World War II ended and Korea was divided.between North and South. In 1945, approximately 2 percent of Korea’s population was Christian. But by 1991, 25 percent of South Korea’s population was Christian.

Beginning in1980 many of the newly converted Christians began to burn and vandalize Buddhist temples and art. More than 20 temple buildings were destroyed by arson; crosses were smeared on temple wall paintings; Buddha statues were smashed or decapitated.

In the 1980s the government also began to oppress Buddhism. Under Chun Doo-hwan (b. 1931) who served as President of South Korea from 1980 to 1988, monasteries were sometimes raided and monks arrested on various charges, although none were ever convicted.

1990 to 2000

Burning and vandalism of Buddhist temples continued through the 1990s. Buddhists and other non-Christians serving in the military were sometimes ordered to attend Christian services by their commanders. Some public school teachers were found teaching Bible lessons. One told the class that Buddhist children were “followers of Satan” and restricted their class activities.

In 1995 young fundamentalist Christians began a campaign of aggressive proselytizing on the campus of Dongguk University in Seoul, a Buddhist school, handing out anti-Buddhist literature in front of the school’s main Buddha statue..

An investigative report in the Korea Herald published in July 1998 quoted a Buddhist dharma teacher named Lee Chi-ran: “For them [the Christians], this is a war, Much of the mainstream media is dominated by Christians, and coverage of anti-Buddhist incidents is rare. Many people don’t understand what’s going on.”

Lee Myung-bak

After 2000, for a time, the incidents of aggression against Buddhists and Buddhist institutions became less frequent, although the over-representation of Christians in government positions sometimes posed problems for Buddhists.

The election of Lee Myung-bak as President of South Korea in 2008 began a new round of tension, however. Lee, a Presbyterian, had raised alarms as Mayor of Seoul when he said he would “consecrate” his city to God. Then, as President, he chose an almost all-Christian cabinet — out of 16 cabinet seats, there were 12 Christians and one Buddhist.

Shortly after that, the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs published a map of Seoul on its website that omitted all Buddhist temples and shrines but gave the location of every Christian church. Then police stopped and searched the car of the head of the Jogye of Soen (Zen) Buddhism, looking for members of a faction protesting the importing of beef.

About this same time, videos began to circulate showing a Protestant minister leading his congregation in shouts calling for the collapse of Buddhist temples, and another in which a prominent Protestant minister said “Buddhist monks are wasting their time. They should convert to Jesus. Is there any Buddhist country in the world that is rich?”

In August 2008 an estimated 60,000 people, including about 7000 monks, rallied in front of the Seoul city hall to protest religious discrimination. Tensions subsided, to a point, when several high-level officials who had been accused of religious favoritism to Christians visited Buddhist temples to apologize.
More recently, people of South Korea generally — not just Buddhists — appear to be growing weary of the antics of the aggressive Christian proselytizers.

See “Buddhism in Korea” for a history of Buddhism before the end of World War II.

Christian-Buddhist Tension in South Korea, Part I

Buddhism has been practiced on the Korean peninsula for more than 16 centuries (see “Buddhism in Korea“). It survived long centuries of repression under a Confucian dynasty and also challenges to monastic rules during the Japanese occupation in the 20th century. But in recent decades it has faced its biggest challenge yet — militant Christianity.

South Korea is the only east Asian nation in which a “western” religion, Christianity, outnumbers the largest Asian religion, which is Buddhism. According to the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University, the population of South Korea is abut 29 percent Christian and 23 percent Buddhist. Most of the remaining South Koreans claim no particular religious affiliation.

Christianity in Korea: Background

Catholicism was introduced in Korea in the early 17th century but was subjected to waves of persecution — as was Buddhism — by the Confucian Joseon Dynasty. But in the late 19th century Korea began to open itself to the outside world, and religious pluralism in Korea was better tolerated. The first Protestant missionary, a Presbyterian, arrived in 1884.

By the end of the Japanese occupation in 1945, approximately 2 percent of Korea’s population was Christian. But by 1991, 25 percent of South Korea’s population was Christian. The reasons for this are complex, but ties forged between South Korea and the United States during the Korean War appear to have been a major factor.  Among other things, Christian chaplains somehow monopolized the South Korean military chaplaincy and converted many soldiers, especially young draftees.

Christian Oppression of Buddhism, 1980-1900

Chun Doo-hwan (b. 1931) was a military general and Christian who served as President of South Korea from 1980 to 1988. As President, he adopted anti-Buddhist policies. Historic temples were taken over by the government and turned into tourist attractions, for example.

When monks of the Jogye order of Soen (Zen) Buddhism, the largest Buddhist sect in Korea, criticized Chun, the government began to raid Buddhist temples, including the Jogye main temple in Seoul, and arrest monks. Fifty-five monks were sent to retention camps although none were ever convicted of anything. Other monks were subjected to torture; the abbot of one Jogye temple died as a result. Throughout Chun’s administration, Buddhist monks and nuns were kept under surveillance and frequently accused of being Communist sympathizers.

During Chun’s administration conservative Protestants began to publicly denounce Buddhism and vandalize Buddhist temples and art. For example, in February 1984 red crosses and dirt were smeared on Buddhist wall paintings in a temple near Seoul. In 1985 a Protestant minister named Kim Jingyu and a layman named Kim Songhwa separately organized meetings to denounce Buddhism. That same year some men identified as Christians drove nails into tires of cars parked outside a Zen center and poured corrosive chemicals into the engines. They played gospel songs through a loudspeaker to disrupt the Buddhist service.

Then the temple burnings began. In 1986 an ancient Jogye ceremonial hall, listed as a national treasure, was burned to the ground. A local Christian man confessed to the crime, but police did not prosecute, citing “lack of evidence.” In 1987 a fundamentalist Christian was apprehended after setting fires that destroyed two temple buildings. In 1988 a fire at a Jogye training center destroyed altar paintings considered to be national treasures.

In the next few years, through the remaining 1980s and 1990s, several other arsonists destroyed or substantially damaged approximately 20 more Buddhist temple buildings.

During this time even more Buddhist temples and art were vandalized.. Vandals often painted red crosses on art and smashed or decapitated Buddha statues.In a few cases Christians, including clergy, were caught in the act but not charged.

In 1990 two men broke into the studios of a new Buddhist radio station two days before it was to begin broadcasting. They smashed all of the station’s recording and transmission equipment, using the head of a Buddha to break into recording booths and destroy the computers and equipment. No arrests were made.

For a timeline of incidents culled from South Korean news sources, see South Korea:- A chronology of Christian attacks against Buddhism.

NextGovernment interference with religious freedom.

Wonhyo: Beloved Patriarch of Korean Buddhism

Wonhyo (617-686) was a major patriarch of Korean Buddhism. Wonhyo is credited with bringing Pure Land Buddhism to Korea, but his written commentaries made an impact on many schools of Buddhism throughout eastern Asia.


Buddhism reached Korea in 372 CE, when a Chinese monk arrived bearing sutras and images of the Buddha. At that time, Korea was divided into three kingdoms, called SillaBaekje and Goguryeo. Buddhism became the official religion of Silla during the reign of King Pophung (514-539). In time Silla came to dominate the other kingdoms, and in 668 — when Wonhyo was about 51 years old — Silla had conquered the other kingdoms and controlled most of the Korean Peninsula.

So it was that Wonhyo lived during a time of dynamic change. He was born into a simple family during the Three Kingdoms Period, in what is now the city of Gyeongsan, which was in the Kingdom of Silla. He lived to see the beginning of what was called the Unified Silla Period.

This was also a time of change within Korean Buddhism. In particular, Korean monks and scholars were questioning and assessing doctrinal coherence. For some time Korean monks had been traveling to China to study, bringing teachings of the many emerging schools of China back home. But these emerging schools didn’t always agree with each other.

Wonhyo’s Realization

When Wonhyo was a young monk, he and his friend Uisang decided to go to China to study Buddhism. On the way they were caught in a terrible rainstorm. Stumbling around in the dark, the two monks were relieved to find an abandoned shelter. Inside, the thirsty Wonhyo found a gourd filled with rainwater and drank his fill.

In the morning light, however, Wonhyo saw that the shelter was a tomb, the gourd was part of a skull, and the rainwater was rancid.  Wonhyo then had a powerful realization of how his mind created his perception of reality.

Wonhyo and Uisang

After this experience, Wonhyo chose not to continue to China. Instead, he devoted himself to living among laypeople to spread the buddha dharma. His methods — his upaya — included leading people in song and dance as an expression of harmony in everyday life.

He also chose to live as a layman and was no longer a monk. The circumstances of this decision involve a princess of Silla named Yosok. According to legend, Yosok became enamored of Wonhyo when she heard him speak, and the King of Silla compelled Wonhyo to marry her. She conceived a son who became a renowned scholar of Confucianism. However, Wonhyo did not live with his princess for very long. Instead he chose to continue his teaching mission.

Wonhyo taught Pure Land practices to laypeople. Pure Land primarily is a devotional practice of chanting homage to Amitabha Buddha in order to be reborn in the Pure Land, a place where the realization of enlightenment is more easily accomplished. Note thatt he Pure Land can be understood as a state of mind, not just a physical place. Pure Land remains the most popular form of Buddhism in eastern Asia because it can be more easily incorporated into busy family life than many other forms of Buddhism.

Wonhyo as Author and Scholar

Wonhyo was particularly interested in doctrinal coherence, and he surveyed the schools that had been transmitted to Korea, including HyayanTiantai and Ch’an (Zen) as well as Pure Land. He systematically presented these diverse schools in a larger framework of Buddhist teaching to resolve their differences. The result is called Tongbulgyo or T’ong pulgyo, which means “interpenetrated Buddhism.”

Wonhyo was the author of more than 80 works, Some these became influential in China and Japan as well as Korea. Of particular note are his commentaries on the Avatamsaka Sutra, the Nirvana Sutra and the Mahayana-sraddhotpada-sastra (“Awakening of Faith”).

This was originally published at, now Dotdash. Since it is no longer hosted at Dotdash, copyright reverts to me.