Goryeo was the nation where Buddhism flourished the most. The people of Goryeo believed that Buddhism offered happiness to both individuals and the state, in life as well as in the afterlife.
King Taejo of Goryeo told his descendents that ‘Since Goryeo was a nation built on the strength of Buddhism, many Buddhist temples should be built and the teachings of Buddhism should be practiced’.
Buddhist monks were highly esteemed and many in the royal and aristocratic families desired to become Buddhist monks. It was common that in families with many sons, at least one would become a Buddhist monk. Euicheon, a royal prince, became‘ Guksa’(National Preceptor), and left behind many achievements.
To become a Buddhist monk, one had to cultivate one’s mind for an extended period of time and learn under the high priests. The state determined the status of a Buddhist priest through ‘Seung-gwa’, an examination for Buddhist priests. Those who passed the exam became‘ Daeseon’(Monk Designate), while the highest priest earned the title of ‘Wangsa’(Royal Preceptor), or ‘Guksa’(National Preceptor) both considered the greatest honors that monks could achieve, and were highly esteemed by the state.
Goryeo made woodblock printings of the Tripitaka, a complete collection of Buddhist scriptures, as a kind of supplication to prevent foreign invasion and defend the nation with the strength of Buddha. The Buddhist monks also served and fought for the nation when it was threatened by foreign invaders.
Temples were built in scenic places nationwide. Temples received land allotments and slaves from the state. Donations of land were also made by the royal house, aristocracy and local leaders out of devotion. The Buddhist establishments accumulated enormous wealth based on the land they had bought, or on land that they had reclaimed.
The temples also produced various commodities such as hemp cloth, ramie fabric, roofing tiles, liquor and salt using the labor of slaves or technicians. Commercial transactions were made naturally as many gathered at temples to observe Buddhist ceremonies. As part of a relief program for the poor, the Buddhist establishments also lent grain to the poor at high interest. Temples also prayed for the safety of those traveling while offering them lodging accomodations. As seen here, Buddhism wielded enormous political and economic power, while also playing a certain social role.
However, as the authority and wealth of the Buddhist establishment expanded, it led to many abuses. By the end of the Goryeo period, Buddhism had lost its leading role in society and faced criticism from the newly established ‘sadaebu’, the ruling elite that had accepted ‘seongnihak’, the scientific humanity and natural laws. In Goryeo, Confucianism greatly flourished along with Buddhism. Choi Seung-no, a Confucian scholar during the reign of King Seongjong, said that ‘while Buddhism is the basics for cultivating one’s mind, Confucianism is the principle of governing a state’in presenting his political reform program. In Goryeo, Buddhism served as the principle for cultivating the mind, while Confucianism became the principle of organizing and running the society. While organizing Buddhist events, the state also dedicated religious rituals to Confucius every February and August of the lunar calendar.
The ruling elites of Goryeo were scholars who had a cosmopolitan view of Confucianism. The Confucian classics were taught at‘ Gukjagam’, the state’s highest educational institute. As various private academies were established with the flourishing of Confucianism, the state exerted efforts to breathe new life into state schools. In the local regions, private academies called‘ hyanggyo’were established for providing Confucian education. Scholars who studied abroad also believed in Buddhism. As seen here, Confucianism and Buddhism coexisted and prospered naturally in Goryeo.