SEOUL — Buddhism is a pan-Asian religion and philosophy that has played a central role in the spiritual, cultural, and social life of the East. During the 20th century, its influence has spread in the West.
It is based on the teachings of a man who lived in northeast India during the 6th century BC. Born as a prince named Siddhartha Gautama, this man who would later be called Buddha gave up an extravagant and secluded life to search for a way to explain and deal with the human misery he found, according to ancient records.
After years of living as an ascetic and studying with religious masters, he gained enlightenment one day while meditating under a bodhi tree, and became The Buddha, meaning "the awakened one." He traveled around north India to share his "way" to enlightenment and gained a wide following among both royalty and common people.
What is Buddhism?
After his death, his ideas and practices spawned different schools or types of Buddhism and spread eventually to northeast and southeast Asia. By some estimates, more than 500 million people practice some form of Buddhism today, with no central world authority.
One major school is Mahayana, or "big vehicle," which allows flexible interpretations of Buddhist teachings. Another is Theravada, "path of the elder," which strictly follows Buddhist precepts.
But the common practice among Buddhists is self-analysis aimed at freeing themselves of ego-driven desires considered to be the root of all suffering. Buddhists, by becoming self-aware through meditation and other means, hope to help alleviate suffering.
The branch of Buddhism known as Zen - literally "meditation" - is seen as one way to help people perceive things directly, without making interpretations of their own.
Institutionalized in 7th-century Japan, Zen teaches its practitioners to sit in a lotus position, focus on breathing, and try to clear away all thoughts. It has become popular in America and Europe.
Since Buddhism's introduction into Korea from China in the 4th century, it has woven its way into Korean culture in the face of adversity.
Confucian rulers banned it in the 14th century, and Buddhist monks took refuge in high mountains where they built picturesque temples and developed a unique vegetarian cuisine of roots, fungus, and hearty greens that is still followed today.
Today, South Korea hosts the oldest and best-preserved Chinese translation of Buddhist scriptures: the Tripitaka, 81,258 wooden blocks engraved on both sides.
Although a quarter of South Koreans are Buddhist, some temples are under police guard to protect them from Christian fundamentalist groups suspected of arson attempts.
Practicing Buddhists say they don't make offerings at the temple so that their prayers will be answered, but simply to show respect for someone they admire. On the other hand, each November, Korean temples are crowded with mothers praying for their children to do well on college entrance exams.