Supplementary Entries and Texts for the ENCYCLOPEDIA OF KOREAN BUDDHISM by the Venerable Hyewon and Professor David A. Mason
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Taegeuk 태극 太極 would have been on page 540 Supreme Ultimate; symbol of universal dynamic oneness
A circular symbol with two equal-sized cashew-shaped or spiral-shaped parts dynamically swirling after one-another, as representation of the eum-yang (陰陽, yin-yang complementary balance) concept; see that entry. It is considered the official symbol of Daoism (道教) but is frequently employed in artworks and philosophies of Korean Buddhism, which over the centuries incorporated many Daoist ideas and motifs. It originated in China where it is pronounced and written Taiji or T’ai-chi (literally meaning “grand ridgepole”); however, Chinese ones are usually black and white and divided vertically (with small circles of each color in the center of the maximum sector of the other) while Korean ones are usually red and blue and divided horizontally (those carved into stone have no colors). This Korean-style Taegeuk is at the center of the Taegeuk-gi national flag of the Republic of Korea. It is often also rendered as a three-part symbol in red, blue and yellow called a Sam-taegeuk (三太極), in that case representing the Cheon-Ji-In (天地人, Heaven, Earth and Humanity) trinity; see that entry.
The Taegeuk is a name for and symbol of the complementary and balanced character of the whole of ultimate reality, including both the natural order of things and whatever realms of being may be regarded as transcending that order. This concept was introduced in the Juyeok-gyeong (周易經, Zhou I Ching, Classic Book of Changes at the root of all Oriental philosophy) and the Daoist classics Dodeok-gyeong (道德經, Daode-jing Tao Te Ching) and Jangja (莊子, Zhuangzi, Chuang-tzu), all from the Zhou (周, Chou, Ju in Korean) Dynasty; it became fundamental to both Confucianism and daoism as they institutionalized in the Han Dynasty (漢朝), and became a concept of Buddhism as it developed its Oriental forms after being transmitted from India. The cosmology introduced in those classics begins with Mugeuk (無極, Wuji, empty-utmost), a primordial state of non- being, nothingness, boundlessness and infinite potentiality. As Wuji began to move according to Do (道, Dao / Tao, The Way) it divides by eum (陰) and yang (陽) forces into the Taegeuk, the dynamic One, which then by further Do-movement manifests into the Ohaeng (五行, Wuxing, Five Elements), from or by which all the realms and things of the universe are created.
The Taegeuk can also be seen as a symbol or mandala of attaining consciousness of oneness or ultimate inter-connectedness and unity, as results from sammae (三昧, samadhi, ultimate self-concentration) or other Buddhist practices. It is a primary symbol of Neo-Confucianism, Buddhism’s chief ideological rival, but has long appeared in many Korean Buddhist artworks, particularly in the dancheong (丹靑) multi-colored decorative painting of temple halls. Examples can be found from well before Neo-Confucianism became Korea’s official ideology at the end of the 14th century; the oldest one is carved into a stone foundation of Gameun-saji (感恩寺址, Site of Gameun-sa Temple), which was constructed in 682, and it also appears on the sides of two stone staircases on the site of Hoeam-sa Temple (檜巖寺) built during the reign of Goryeo King Chungsuk (忠肅王, r. 1313-39). Taegeuks became ever more common in temple artworks of the Joseon (朝鮮) period, and still flourish today.