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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 () in the Ch'an Buddhism also presupposes metaphysical entity in the logical structure of substance () and function ().

In the Buddhist thought, the origin of the metaphysical thought may be traced back to the Treatise of the Buddha-nature () and the Tath?g?tagarbha thought ( ) 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 () 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 (, 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 ) 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 ), by the same logical inference, denies the invariable subjectivity or essence of each phenomena; Each the existences is lacking of its own being ().

The crucial point lies in the concept of nirv?na (). 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 (ͣ). 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 (), the opposite term of existence (), nor non-existence (ު), the contradictory concept of existence (). 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 h