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roots in korean buddhism

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History of Kwan Um Do Kwang

Roots in Korean Buddhism

The unique flavor of Korean Buddhism arises in great part from native Korean shamanism; while Buddhist doctrines laid out a path for spiritual attainment and release from suffering, chanting and meditation practice was also used by masters of the shamanistic arts to cultivate spiritual energy and almost magical powers.

"Buddhism was transmitted to each of the Three Kingdoms during their transition from tribal federations to ancient states: to Koguryo in 372, to Paekche in 384, and to Silla in 527. During its dissemination Buddhism absorbed the myths, legends, and shamanistic beliefs of the tribes and forged a more systematized religion and philosophy."1

In the long history of Korea, martial arts and Buddhism have intertwined for centuries. Temples maintained their own special martial arts practices, combining breath control and energy movement (chi gung) with self-defense (ho shin sul), unarmed striking arts (shin boep) and weapons practice (mu sul).

Korean Buddhist martial arts (Bulkyo mu sul) date back as far as the 4th century AD, in the kingdom of Koguryo, one of Korea's ancient Three Kingdoms.

Because Buddhist monks spent long hours in motionless meditation, Bulkyo mu sul originally developed from a need to maintain their physical health and well being.

"...Buddhist monks instigated special lower abdomen breathing patterns and concentrated upon internal or ki development to balance their internal organs. Added to internal development were physical exercises utilizing the staff and cane, common implements of Buddhist monks in Korea."2

Traditionally, Buddhist monks proved their detachment from material goods by wandering as beggars, carrying only a staff and a cup. Wandering over lonely roads and byways inhabited by bandits, mendicant monks developed additional martial arts practices. "For their protection, along with staff and cane techniques, special joint-locking and pressure point fighting tactics were used for purposes of submission, not killing (Buddhism prohibits the wanton taking of lives)."3

For a thousand years Buddhism waxed and waned in popularity (sometimes suppressed by Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism regimes) in a country torn by internal and external warfare. Buddhist temples maintained their own armies in order to defend themselves and their teachings from the ravages of war.