Of Monasteries and Monks: Mainstream Sinitic Buddhism in the Poetry of Ch’oe Ch’iwŏn



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Ch’oe Ch’iwŏn is one of the most important Confucian figures in early Korean history. After passing the civil service examination in Tang 唐 China in 874 and enjoying a successful career in Tang – gaining fame for his literary skills during the Huang Chao 黃巢 rebellion – he returned to Silla 新羅 in 885. Unable to make a mark in highly stratified Silla 新羅 society due to his birth status, he retired to the countryside and spent the remainder of his life with monks in such famous mountain complexes as Haein Monastery 海印寺. His regulated verse poems (hansi 漢詩) preserved in his Plowing a Cassia Garden with a Writing Brush (Kyewŏn p’ilgyŏng 桂苑筆耕), which contains his early writings in Tang and the oldest extant collected works by a Korean, and the Anthology of Refined Korean Literature (Tongmunsŏn 東文選, compiled in 1478), are among the oldest extant poems from the late Silla period. Ch’oe’s “four mountain stele inscriptions” (sasan pimun 四 山碑文) are key evidence of his positive evaluation of Buddhism, particularly the Sŏn 禪 Buddhist tradition. His poems on Buddhist monasteries and monks demonstrate personal ties to and a sympathetic attitude toward mainstream Sinitic Buddhism. These poems may best demonstrate the socio-religious predilections of an average to above-average scholar of the Tang Empire – not to mention the kingdom of Silla. His genre poetry on visiting monasteries not only shows a sensitivity to the poetic conventions of the time but also provides evidence of the broad influence of mainstream Sinitic Buddhism in his life, including the popular cult venerating Avalokiteśvara, increasingly in a demure female form, and the doctrines and lore of the Hwaŏm 華嚴 (Ch. Huayan) tradition.


Ch’oe Ch’iwŏn and Sinitic Buddhism
Of Monasteries
Of Monks
Concluding Reflections


  • RICHARD D. MCBRIDE II An associate professor of Korean Studies and Buddhist Studies in Asian & Near Eastern Languages at Brigham Young University.


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