Saturday, February 2, 2008

Chaps' Dharma Talk: Sungbyong - The Warrior Buddhists of Korea

Hello all!
Here is the second of my posts concerning warrior Buddhists (by the way I am not going in any historical order).
This post's topic concerns the sungbyong of medieval Korea. The origins of the sungbyong date back possibly to the later Unified Silla Period of Korean history, in which warrior monks participated in driving back northern invaders from Central Asia. But the period of time when they were most critically active was the Imjin War (1592-98), a conflict that is little-known in the West but which has had devastating consequences for Korean and Japanese history and relations.

The Imjin War was in fact two separate invasions of the Korean peninsula by the Japanese warlord Hideyoshi, the first unifier of Japan after prolonged civil wars (the Warring States period), who intended in fact to use Korea as passage for his invasion of China and India, and possibly Europe (he was also probably a little crazy by this time). The Koreans, by now used to coastal raids by Japanese wako (pirates), thought this might be more of the same, and were, initially, unable to mount any meaningful resistance, as the yangban (aristocrats) did not take defense seriously, and considered the military ethos to be low-class and undesirable. As King Sonjo and his court fled the capital, and many army commanders deserted rather than face the Japanese onslaught, some surviving Korean military units attempted to form a resistance to the invading samurai armies: one such unit was formed from monks called sungbyong, or "monk-soldiers."

Some background is now needed here about where Buddhism stood in relation to Korean society in this time, the mid-Joseon Dynasty period. While Buddhism had first penetrated Korea around the 4th-century CE and flourished in the form of diverse schools and teachers, by the time of the Imjin War, Buddhism had been proscribed by the government for decades in favor of Neo-Confucianism as a guiding ideology (Neo-Confucianism would also later be influential in Tokugawa Japan). Temples were closed and monks forbidden to live in urban areas, and in reality were not even considered "monks" as the government refused to officially recognize them. The reasons for such an abrupt change were given as the abuse of the power and wealth of the monastic order, and the alleged immorality and laziness of the monks themselves (monks could evade corvee labor, taxes, and military service). Whether or not such abuses did in fact occur, Buddhist monks were a disenfranchised group, and in the extremely hierarchical Korean social order, were considered lower than serfs or slaves.

The great leader and instigator of the sungbyong was the Dharma Master Hyujong, who was appointed as the national leader of the monk-soldiers by King Sonjo. Hyujong composed a manifesto calling upon the monks to mobilize, and the text survives:

Alas, the way of heaven is no more. The destiny of the land is on the decline. In defiance of heaven and reason, the cruel foe had the termerity to cross the sea aboard a thousand ships. The miasma is filling the air. The innocents are falling dead at their sword by the thousands. With the three capitals taken, a thousand years of our forebears' achivements are brought to nought in one fell swoop. The ruthless enemy as the devil and sea monster laid the land to waste, slaughtering the people. The ancestral land is taken. Can this be the way humans behave? These poisonous devils are as virulant as snakes or fierce animals. Hold your banners high, and arise, all you monk-soldiers of the eight provinces! Who among you have not been given birth in this land? Who among you are not related by blood to the forefathers? Who among you are not subjects of the king? Confucius taught us to lay down our lives to achive Benevolence. Sacrificing oneself for a just cause and suffering in the place of the myriad souls is the spirit of Bodhisattvas. Master Wongwang enjoined us not to retreat from battle. To defend the country and save the people is the tradition of ancestors and Buddha's teachings. You monk-soldiers of all the monasteries! Abandoning a just cause and swerving from the right path in order merely to survive in hiding - how can this be the proper way? The cunning enemy, the monster, will never take pity on you. Once the land perishes how then do you propose to stay alive? Put on the armor of the mercy of the Bodhisattvas, hold in hand the treasured sword to fell the devil, wield the lightning bolt of the Eight Deities, and come forward. Only then can you do your duty. Only then can you find the way to life. Let the aged and the weak pray in the monastery. Let the able-bodied come out with their weapons to destroy the enemy and save the land. Whether or not the people will survive, whether or not the land will remain, depends on this battle. It behooves everyone with the blood of Tan'gun flowing in their veins to defend the country with their lives. When even the trees and grass rise as warriors, how much more should red-blooded people? The people are indignent. Lose no time but arise, beat back the sworn enemy. Buddhist law is just this - to save the world. People fall victim to the foe's weapon, their blood staining the land. How can you just sit back in the mountains and watch? When the land is no more and the people are in distress, your survival would be betrayal of the people. I regret to hear that famed ministers are locked in partisan feud and that commanders flee before the battle. They seek survival by asking for aid from abroad. Deplorable, indeed. Only our monk-soldiers are able to save the country and deliver the people. You have been training night and day to rise above life and death. You are not burdened with families. Bodhisattvas will give you protection. Arise, onward to the battlefield to destroy the enemy. There can be no victory without fighting. No life without death. Why be afraid of the enemy's weapons? Monk-soldiers, arise. Assemble at Pophung Monastery in Sunan. I expect you to be there. Unite, and onward to the battlefield!
June 15, 1592.

The sungbyong, together with Korean and Ming Chinese forces, managed to beat back Hideyoshi's armies on several occasions, but with tremendous loss of life. The Imjin War dragged on as long as it did due to feuds among the Korean commanders (just as Hyujong's manifesto stated), Japanese persistence, and only gradually came to a close when the great Korean Admiral Yi Sun Sin choked off Japanese supply routes by sea: the Imjin War saw the world's first use of ironclad warships, or "tortoise ships." "Seek death and you will live; seek life and you will die," was Yi Sun Sin's exhortation to his troops: he died in the final sea battle, killed on his flagship (like Admiral Nelson) by a sniper. As by this time Hideyoshi had died, there was no further will by the Japanese to fight on in Korea, and they returned to Japan, with thousands of Korean slaves, who were never to return. The monks had fought in the hopes of raising Buddhism's status in society, but once the court was restored, it was business as usual. Ironically, monks would not be permitted back in urban areas until the Japanese colonized Korea in 1910, and demanded that their own Buddhist missionaries be allowed access in the cities. Also by this time, Christianity had arrived to make a significant presence in Korean society.

The Imjin War had cost tremendous loss of life on both sides, and atrocities had been committed by both sides. It was certainly one of the worst tragedies to occur to Korea; when I visited Seoul in 1996 and did the tourist round of castles and palaces, all the signs in English stated that these buildings were all constructed after the Japanese invasions of 1592-98. Everything had been burned down, as the Japanese had pursued a scorched-earth policy in addition to the pillage. On the Japanese side, a Jodo Shinshu chaplain named Keinen recorded his experiences, and stated: "Hell could not be anywhere but here."

The sungbyong fought for several reasons, possibly out of a gut-level nationalism and patriotism, but also out of a sense that it was part of an belief (an explicitly Mahayana belief) that they were Dharma protectors of the land and people. Not every Buddhist teacher shared Hyujong's beliefs; others advocated that it would be wrong to take part in the actual fighting, especially when the monks were treated so badly by the government. However, we also must remember that Buddhism was believed, especially by its advocates, to be absolutely essential in the protection of the nation, whether through strict observation of the precepts and rituals, or by monks actively participating in its defense. Korea was believed to be a "Buddha-land" and it was considered a religious duty to preserve that land. As shown by the sacrifices of the sungbyong, this was not a lightly-taken duty. In a time when separation of church-and-state was an unknown quality, this was how Buddhism helped the people as a whole, not only on an individual basis.

When considering the sungbyong, we must take into account their conditions. Their reality was such which is extremely difficult for us to imagine, even imagining on the historical level (perhaps 2 million died during the Imjin War). It may be well for us to think, as we sit protected in a First World industrialized nation, and argue that taking up arms, even in self-defense, is "Wrong Livelihood" - could most of us truly say that, if observing directly the mutilated corpses of friends and family amid burnt ruins everywhere? Would others then listen to us in the aftermath, wondering if Dharma was worthwhile? These were questions the sungbyong confronted. The reality of these warrior Buddhists demonstrated a courage and commitment necessary to safeguard the well-being of society (even when they were despised by the rulers of that society - a lesson for us Buddhists in America?); this is grim reality and necessity - if we cannot protect ourselves, and others, we cannot hear the Dharma.
Namo Amida Butsu

Sadly there are very few English-language texts on the Imjin War and the sungbyong.
The text of Hyujong's manifesto comes from Samuel Dukhae Kim's unpublished 1978 dissertation, "The Korean Monk-Soldiers in the Imjin Wars: An Analysis of Buddhist Resistance to the Hideyoshi Invasion, 1592-1598" which is the only English-language study of the Korean monk-soldiers. The only comprehensive English-language history of the conflict is The Imjin War: Japan's Sixteenth-Century Invasion of Korea and Attempt to Conquer China by Samuel Hawley. Another good source is Stephen Turnbull's Japanese Castles in Korea 1592-98 (Osprey Publishing) and Samurai Invasion: Japan's Korean War 1592-1598, which has many great pictures and illustrations, and the story of Keinen, the Buddhist chaplain. It only really covers the Japanese perspective, in which they saw the invasions as an opportunity for more land and also for martial glory. There was virtually no remorse after the war for their invasion, and of course this has led to much bad relations between the Koreas and Japan for centuries.

No comments:

Creative Commons License
Buddhist Military Sangha by Jeanette Shin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at