The Vision-Quest Motif in Narrative Literature on the Buddhist Traditions of Silla

By McBride, Richard D., II | Korean Studies, Annual 2003 | Go to article overview

The Vision-Quest Motif in Narrative Literature on the Buddhist Traditions of Silla


McBride, Richard D., II, Korean Studies


Iryon's Samguk yusa preserves several accounts of Buddhist monks of the ancient Korean state of Silla encountering supernatural beings in what may be termed vision-quests. Information of this kind has hitherto been understood by scholars as evidence of the persistence of ancient Korean shamanism. As context, this article problematizes the idea of shamanism and its relationship to Tantric Buddhism and provides evidence for the vision-quest motif in Sino-Indian Buddhist literature. It focuses on examples of this motif in the Samguk yusa to suggest that connections between ancient Korea, China, and India are closer than previously believed. The motif does not demonstrate the rapprochement between indigenous shamanism and Buddhism so much as attest to an ancient approach to religious experience.

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Iryon's (1206-1289) Memorabilia Of the Three Kingdoms (Samguk yusa, completed ca. 1285 and subsequently revised) preserves several accounts of Silla monks acquiring superior knowledge, which they in turn use to benefit their kingdom. In these narratives, the eminent monks Chinja (ft. 576-579), Chajang (ft. 636-650), and Myongnang (ft. 632 668) encounter supernatural beings from native traditions as well as Buddhist cosmology, which aid them in their pursuits. The actual acquisition of knowledge often takes place in the mountains or in or near the waters in what may be termed vision quests. Scholars of Korean Buddhism have made the connection that these traditions contain important information concerning the rapprochement of Buddhism with native Korean religious practices centered on mountain, dragon, and ancestor cults: however, they appear to have bypassed the significant similarity between scriptural accounts of acquiring Buddhist wisdom and knowledge in Mahayana scriptures and the hagiographic tales of the Korean monks themselves. (2) Mircea Eliade explained the motif of the vision quest as a principal characteristic of ecstatic Shamanism, but the theme is also present in several Buddhist scriptures. The most compelling evidence of the vision-quest motif in narrative literature dealing with Silla times is unmistakably Buddhist. This study addresses the problematic issue of classifying the vision-quest motif as shamanic but will also urge caution in presuming it is purely Buddhist.

In this study, I will first briefly flesh out the problematic idea of shamanic themes in Indian and Chinese Buddhism, establish the basic outline of a vision quest, and illustrate accounts from two major scriptures in Mahayana Buddhist literature--The Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines and The Flower Garland Scripture--that contain accounts of vision quests. I will then discuss limitations associated with using Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms. In the main body of the paper I will present selections from the accounts of Silla monks Chajang, Chinja, and Myongnang found in Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms and evaluate them individually to assess the extent to which they conform to the parameters of the vision-quest motif. I will conclude with some general observations and suggestions for future research on ancient Korean religion.

The Problem of "Shamanic" Themes in Indian and Chinese Buddhism

Buddhism, as it is practiced throughout the world, has long included a broad range of such varied religious performances as tree and serpent worship, astrology, divination, thaumaturgy, spell-chanting, exorcism, and later tantric rituals and ceremonies, and the like. Many of these cultic practices appear to be at odds with some of the lofty spiritual ideals described in selected scriptures. Orientalist scholars of the nineteenth century opined that the original teachings of the Buddha had been tarnished by accretions from local cultic observances. Hence, from almost its very inception, the study of Buddhism in the West has been hindered by presuppositions due to reliance upon selected canonical sources. Rather than letting the varied literary and archeological materials speak for themselves, "authentic" Buddhism has been restricted to a narrow, catholic interpretation as a purely atheistic, ascetic religion not interested in the manipulation and propitiation of gods and spirits. …

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