History and Major Schools
Native shamanism developed in Korea for millennia, although the traditional rites and shamanistic practices were later deeply influenced by Buddhism and Taoism. In Korea, a shaman is known as a mudang, and she (it is usually a woman) seeks to solve human problems through a connection to the spirit world. Korean Shamanism held three spirits in especially high regard: Sanshin (the Mountain Spirit), Toksong (the Recluse) and Chilsong (the Spirit of the Seven Stars, the Big Dipper).
Buddhism arrived in Korea from China during the Three Kingdoms period (57 B.C. - A.D. 668), specifically in the year A.D. 372. Korean Buddhism accepted and absorbed many shamanistic spirits, and early schools like Samnon, Gyeyul and Yeolban attempted to develop a new holistic approach to Buddhism in order to resolve what it saw as internal inconsistencies in Chinese Mahayana Buddhism.
Soon Wonyung (later known as Hwaeom) became the dominant school and then, in the 7th and 8th Century and after, the meditation-based Seon school finally gained the upper hand. Seon is a version of the Chinese Chan (or Japanese Zen) Buddhism, and it developed in Korea particularly under the direction of Jinul (1158-1210), the most important figure in Seon.
Buddhism in Korea initially enjoyed wide acceptance, even being supported as the state ideology during the Goryeo Dynasty (also known as Koryo: 918-1392), but it suffered extreme repression during the long Joseon Dynasty (or Chosun: 1392-1910), when Neo-Confucianism became dominant.
Korean Confucianism was, and remains, a fundamental part of Korean society, shaping the moral system, the way of life, social relations between old and young, high culture and is the basis for much of the Korean legal system. During the Joseon Dynasty, Korean Confucianism (or, arguably, Neo-Confucianism) was the primary system of belief amongst the scholarly and military classes.
Confucianism in Joseon Korea flourished most notably in the 16th Century, under the guidance of the country's two most prominent Confucian scholars, Yi Hwang (Toegye) (1501–1570) and Yi I (Yulgok) (1536–1584).
Taoism, largely shaped by the writings of the Chinese philosophers Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, also arrived in Korea during the latter part of the Three Kingdoms period, in A.D. 674. Korean Taoism enjoyed its greatest popularity during the Goryeo Dynasty, especially in the court and the ruling class.
By the mid period of the Goryeo Dynasty, however, Buddhism dominated Korea, subsuming other religions and philosophies, including Taoism. Taoism never grew into an autonomous religion or philosophy in Korea, being rejected by Confucian and Buddhist elites, but it remains a minor but significant element of Korean thought.
Under Japanese rule, from 1910, Shintoism became the state religion, although Western philosophy, particularly the German Idealist philosophers which were in vogue in Japan at the time, was influential. After partition in 1945, North Korea's orthodox Marxism was loosely built on the Confucian yangban scholar-warriors of earlier times, and communist Maoism represents a latter day philosophical import from China.