The Reflection On The Metaphysical Presuppositions Of The Korean Buddhism

Ven. Chong-rim

Senior Director of Research Institute
of Tripartaka Koreana
The Reflection On The Metaphysical Presuppositions Of The Korean Buddhism 


Is the Korean Buddhism Metaphysically oriented?

To speak conclusively, the answer is ‘yes,’ if we have to select one alternative between metaphysical and non-metaphysical. Although there have been different point of views among the Chinese Ch’an schools, they all interpreted the teachings of the Buddha to represent metaphysical worldview. Even the concepts such as Causality (Prat?tyasa?utp?da) and Emptiness (??nyat?), which are central terms of the Buddhism in general, have been understood in the frame of metaphysical thoughts: The former, which is the structure of the existences, has been understood by at least East Asian Buddhists as referring to the phenomenal world in the dualistic idea of noumenon and phenomena; The latter also has gained the idea of the primordial essence of the universe. The concept of the Enlightenment (悟) in the Ch’an Buddhism also presupposes metaphysical entity in the logical structure of substance (體) and function (用).

In the Buddhist thought, the origin of the metaphysical thought may be traced back to the Treatise of the Buddha-nature (佛性論) and the Tath?g?tagarbha thought (如來藏 思想) which were introduced into China in the relatively early stage. In addition to these thoughts, the metaphysical trends of the Taoist philosophy exerted critical impact on the formation of the Chinese Buddhist thought. Consequently, so called the domesticated Chinese Buddhism, such as Ch’an, T’ien-t’ai, Hua-yen etc., has been evolved in the direction of metaphysical inclinations. In this circumstance, the Buddhists of the East Asia, that is, China, Korea, Japan, have interpreted the Buddhist Scriptures and Treatises under the light of metaphysically oriented system of thought. In the same manner, the mind also came to assume the role of the creator of the world.

The limit or discrepancy of the metaphysical notion in the Buddhism played far-reaching influence on the doctrinal system of the Buddhism.

Human being bears numerous suppositions, as the basis of his activities, such as instinct, scientific evidence, divine nature, or ideology: Human being has primarily instinctive proclivity. He selects an object according to his desire and acts in accordance with the instinctive disposition. Yet very often he is not allowed to do so. Again, although he is subject to an object or the rule of nature, he is not totally destined by the law of cause and effect. Finally, even though the divine nature and an ideology may serve the ground on which he find the meaning of life or he select his action, they sometimes distort the life as it really is. All the objects of the external world, though they sometimes provide with guiding principle, mostly disguise the reality of the world from us. Thy oblige us to have dualistic viewpoint, and to make slavery life.

The metaphysical system of thought which presuppose immutable reality is non-Buddhist. This fallible viewpoint is stemmed from the illusive attachment to a criterion which regulates our way of living. According to the attitude whether one takes the metaphysical substance or not, result is quite various as to the interpretation of the Buddhist doctrine especially of one of the key terms of the early Buddhism, Causality; At least in the early Buddhism, the Ultimate Reality, or Permanent Substance whatsoever were basically denied. This standpoint, however, altered with the historical evolution of the Buddhism in which the Causality also has been understood and interpreted under the influence of this trends.

Even these days, the apparition of the Permanent view does not seem to have been completely wipe out. As long as the interpretative presupposition still throw the shade on the Buddhist thought, the metaphysical speculations would not come into an end. In other words, if we should not give up those ontological basis, the Buddhism will not escape from the pitfalls; it may either reinforce the theistic leaning, or assume mystical veil.

Hopefully, if we turn the ontological understanding into the epistemological understanding of the concepts of the Causality or Emptiness, or if we could draw the non-substantial picture of the Buddhist doctrine, the question of discrepancy embraced in East-Asian Buddhism would be resolved.


Despite the conviction that the Son (禪) implies excellent methodology, it is often doubted that the Son, which seems to assume the metaphysical trends, follows the right path the historical Buddha showed. This doubt is not solely concerned with the Son Buddhism, rather it is the question of all the sects of the Buddhist thought. When it comes to the question of the Ching-t’u (淨土, the Pure Land) school, it is more or less admittable for the school accept the metaphysical presupposition as an expedient. The case of the Son, however, it is not necessarily required.

The Causality, meaning dependently co-origination, designate the idea of relativity and interdependence. As all the existences are, as causes and conditions one another, inter- dependently woven, there is no independent, ever lasting entity apart from the relation itself.

Nonetheless, an age-old ideation that there should be the permanent existence or the primordial substance have dominated the thought of the human beings. As a result, we came to have the idea of the Absolute divine or pantheist doctrine, which gave birth to many entailed realistic categories of dualism such as the divine and man, subject and object, nature and form, substance and function, and so forth.

The Causality has also been interpreted in the frame of thought; even if the phenomena are ephemeral, it is believed, there are ever lasting, immutable essence behind them. One of the Three Marks of the Truth, impermanence (anitya 無常) signifies the truth of phenomena which is in flux, for all the existences are just transient combination of causes and conditions. The truth of non-self (an?tman 無我), by the same logical inference, denies the invariable subjectivity or essence of each phenomena; Each the existences is lacking of its own being (自性).

The crucial point lies in the concept of nirv?na (涅槃). Although the concept originally indicates the state where the kle?a is blown out, it came to point out the noumenon, the realm of the ever-lasting, primordial substance (本體界). In this context, the concept of an?tman is altered into the capitalized ?tman that is in absolute peace in that realm. In short, while the Causality indicates the phenomenal world, the concept of nirv?na points out the world of the absolutist, primordial, substance. We are accustomed to this sort of dualistic concept of dharma.

The concept of Emptiness designates neither nothingness (無), the opposite term of existence (有), nor non-existence (非有), the contradictory concept of existence (有). It denies the reification of the world of existence which is always changing without any essence within themselves. The concept of the Emptiness recognize the world of transformation as it is being never hindered by verbal expression or deep-seated disposition for the permanent existence.

If one reifies the world of relation that is in flux, the Buddhism will end up with another form of realism. At best, it may require the existence of the omniscient being who is planning the relation and controls the organizations of the universe. This distorted view of the Emptiness, no doubt, will render to be the solid ontology of the Buddhism; the concept of the Emptiness may, as a matter of course, be superseded by the Ultimate Reality or the Primordial essence of all the existences.

In the dictum, ‘in true Emptiness is mysterious existence (眞空妙有),’ the true Emptiness means both the Emptiness in existence and ,in its Emptiness, the creative power producing all beings in the universe. The Emptiness is equivalent to the Causality and to the Middle Path in terms of epistemological point of view, but not of ontologically.

In the Nirv??a S?tra (涅槃經), which discourses the Buddha-nature of all sentient beings (一切衆生 悉有佛性), the four doctrines of the early Buddhism, i. e., impermanence, suffering, emptiness, and non-self, are transformed to the Four Qualities of the Nirv??a (涅槃四德) which are permanence, joy, self, and purity on the ground of the Two Truths (二諦). In the level of the Conventional Truth, this world of transmigration is full of agony, ephemeral, non-self, and empty, where as, in the level of the Supreme Truth, the Buddha-body as the Dharma-body (法身) enjoys permanent, joyful, realm of the Self. This transform by the Nirv??a S?tra typically shows us the initiative stage of the evolution leading to the metaphysical standpoint.

When demarcating the Buddhist philosophy into ontology and epistemology, the teaching of the Buddha ??kyamuni is assigned to latter with the empirical tendency. Yet the mind in the dictum, ‘directly points out the mind of the human being (直指人心), and the nature in the dictum, ‘makes him see the nature and realize the Buddhahood (見性成佛), are identified with the metaphysical Reality. The Tao, which is eternal dharma, presupposes the Principle (理), on the other hand, the Enlightenment presupposes the nature. However, the original nature of both of the concepts, it is insisted, is empty (of its own being). The truth that the emptiness is, along with the phenomena, also empty of its own being may only be realized by endless negation of absolute negation or transcendence of the argument. Even so, the negation or transcendence can not elude the realm of metaphysical structure. We, therefore, take into account the very frame of the metaphysical speculation itself.


The religious attitude of the human beings may be divided into extroversive and introversive one. Of them, the Son methodology belongs to the latter. These two attitudes differentiate the answer to certain religious questions in terms of religious ideal, the method to lead the ideal and psychological apparatus.

The extroversive attitude lays its religious purport on the divine city. The idea of devas and the pure land may belong to this case. On the contrary, the introversive one sets up the realm of nirv??a where the divine being is no more necessary as in the case of the divine city. This is the main difference between theism and atheism.

In accordance with the form of faith or the object of faith, there are also two different types of the Absolute (being). They are personified and non-personified being. In the former case, the deliverance solely depends on the revelation and the grace of God. In the latter case, to the contrary, one has to find the path leading to the deliverance by himself. The difference between the personified and the non-personified give rise to the different attitudes of the ‘other-power’ and the ‘self-power.’

The theistic religion based on the other power, in spite of severe criticisms on it, has been prosperous even up to these days. Although the Buddhism belongs to atheistic religion, the Buddhas in the Mah?y?na Buddhism and the Bodhisattvas in the Pure Land school stand for the standpoint akin to the theism.

By the psychological attitude, religion may be also divided into the religion of pathos and that of ethos. The former, we may name the Islam and the Christianity in this category, depends on emotions and the latter, the Hinduism and the Buddhism belong to this category, on reason and intuition.

These all diversities of religious attitudes make the methodological difference of practice. There are, according to the methodology, three types of practice; petition, invocation and contemplation: The petition makes use of the method of ritual and incantation in order to get the supernatural power; The invocation is a form of faith for the the revelation and the grace of the divine being to get the deliverance by forming the relation with the transcendental divine and the human being; The contemplation stand for the introversive religion of ethos in which one wishes to attain the truth through meditation and insight.

Although the contemplative meditation or insight seems to pursue the sam?dhi (定, concentration), it entertains speculative contents as the object of the contemplation. The object of insight serves a means to get concentration. The meditation is a method to get the divine being or cosmic truth by pondering over the reality or the truth. Through the practice of insight, one does not cognize the contents of the object. It is a means of integration of man and the Ultimate Reality through the practicing the concentration of the mind and thereby eliminating delusive mind.

There is the Ku-an which is the object of the Son practice. Nevertheless, the Ko-an is not the meditative object, nor the contents of idea. Though the Ko-an sometimes implies the contents of idea, it does not conceives the contents of idea as the meditative method does. On the contrary, the Ko-an method functions to rule out the conceptual reasoning or logical inference. It is true that meditative practice also eliminates the delusive mind by concentrating on the object of the meditation. However, the Ko-an method, in addition to the function of elimination of delusive mind by concentration on the Ko-an, gives rise to doubts within the mind. In other words, denying all object, either internal idea or external things and events, the Ko-an Son practice develops only the function of doubt.

The difference between the Son practice and other system of practice seems to lie in the distinction whether a practitioner has the object of worship or the truth as the object of ideation. Thus, in this sense, it seems that only the Son methodology is able to remove the idol worship, and, even more importantly, the fallacy of the Absolutism.

In the Ko-an practice, in the first place, the conscious of doubt becomes the mass of doubt, and then both the subject that conceives the object and the object that is conceived by the object will fade away. By annihilating dualism of subject and object, which is the fundamental discrepancy of the human beings, one comes to experience radical transformation. To be oneness without being attracted by pantheism is final goal of the Son Buddhism, which is the experience of the Enlightenment.

The two typical forms of the Son practice are the Son of Calm Reflection (默照禪) and the Son of View of Hwa-du (看話禪). The difference between the two may be detected in the relation of sam?dhi (定) and the Enlightenment (悟). In the Son of Calm Reflection, the sam?dhi functions as the cause of the Enlightenment. On the other hand, in the Son of View of Hwa-du, the relation of the two is ignored. The function of the Ko-an intends the alertness of consciousness, while the sam?dhi that the Son of Calm Reflection pursues is the settling down of the mind. The purpose of the sam?dhi of the practice is the manifestation of the inherent nature on the calm mind.

Although the practice of the Ko-an partly aims at the exclusion of delusive mind or outer stimuli, the main function of the Ko-an practice is the enforcement of the mass of doubt; it is intensive function of the mind. Mere sam?dhi is no more than the serene state of the mind. But the awakened consciousness reacts every momentary stimuli as they really are in the full awareness.


The basic standpoint of the Buddhism represents atheism and not the religion of faith as the term is generally understood. The religion of the ‘other-power,’ which shows the attitude of self-annihilation, is much different from the Buddhism which seeks for the enlightenment through self-awakening. Faith oriented Buddhism, which shows the feature of the ‘other power’ religion, is in a sense not Buddhist. Religions have been evolved with the shift of time and space. So it is difficult to tell which element is Buddhist or non-Buddhist.

It is true that faith oriented Buddhism has contributed the evolution of the Buddhism, but from the viewpoint of the Son which criticizes even some of the early Buddhist doctrine, it is non-Buddhist. It is uncertain whether faith oriented Buddhism played affirmative role or not. At any rate, the faith oriented Buddhism altered the fundamental aspects of the Buddhism and contributed to the adoption of the factors of other religious thought into the Buddhist rite. This is the basis on which the Korean Buddhism is called the Buddhism of integration. In general, it is estimated by some scholars that the faith oriented Buddhism has been more or less the origin of confusion in the idea of the Buddhism.

Among the cultured religions, such as the Judaism, the Christianity, the Zoroastrianism, the Hinduism, and the Buddhism, only the Buddhism is atheistic religion. The Mah?y?na Buddhism, different from the early Buddhism which primarily emphasized individual practice to achieve the enlightenment, emphasizes the Bodhisattva practice. In this circumstance, the sentient beings, just like in the theistic religions, depends their deliverance upon the vow or compassion of the Bodhisattvas.

Faith oriented Buddhism not only creates feud between emotion and reason, but brings about difference of the worldview. From the Buddhist point of view, there are neither the will of the divine beings nor definite law of the universe. Although Einstein, claiming that the God would not play at dice, believed in the will of the God and in the order of universe controlled by the God. However, according to the principle of uncertainty, the motion of a particle is random. It is the same as the case of the biological evolution. The evolution of living creatures is largely influenced by contingency or by mutations.

Korea looks like a exhibition of religions from the shamanism to the so-called world religion. If a religion is the system of symbol representing varying religious experiences, the realm of experience exerts absolute meaning to whoever experienced it. On the contrary, either the system of symbol or institution of the church is the result of historical transformation, and so it has only relative importance. Nevertheless the religion of today makes much of the institution and its system of symbol at the cost of the value of individual experience.

In the modern times, we have nothing that is sacred. Everything is buried under the insignificance of the mundane daily life. What is sacred transcends beyond unawakened life and the manifestation of the transcendental. There is no holy being in the early Buddhism. So is in the Son Buddhism. If any, the sacred of the Son Buddhism lies in the all activities of everyday life, that is in the speech, silence, motion, and stillness. There is no such thing as the Reality in the name of the divinity or the transcendental.

In the personified religion, the sacred is revealed through the manifestation of the divinity, myth, and through sanctified place. On the other hand, in the non-personified religion such as the Buddhism, cosmic principle or immutable substance is immanent within concrete things and events.

For example, the post-modernism is neither mythical nor ontological, rather it is functional. If we interpret the teaching of the Buddha in terms of the Causality, the post-modernism and neo-science can be discussed within the territory of the Buddhism. The future is neither optimistic nor pessimistic. The most important thing we have to deal with is the question of metaphysical viewpoint. We are to find the sacred in this very life and in this very moment rather than to attach to the metaphysical presuppositions which do not belong to this time in this place.