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Introduction

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Korea is a region in East Asia. Since 1948, it has been divided between two distinct sovereign states: North Korea and South Korea. Korea consists of the Korean Peninsula, Jeju Island, and several minor islands near the peninsula. Korea is bordered by China to the northwest, Russia to the northeast, and neighbours Japan to the east by the Korea Strait and the Sea of Japan (East Sea).

During the first half of the 1st millennium, Korea was divided between the three competing states of Baekje, Goguryeo, and Silla, together known as the "Three Kingdoms of Korea". In the second half of the 1st millennium, Baekje and Goguryeo were conquered by Silla, leading to the "Unified Silla" period. Meanwhile, Balhae formed in the north following the collapse of Goguryeo. Unified Silla eventually collapsed into three separate states due to civil war, ushering in the Later Three Kingdoms. Toward the end of the 1st millennium Goryeo, which was a revival of Goguryeo, defeated the two other states and unified the Korean Peninsula as one single state. Around the same time, Balhae collapsed and its last crown prince fled south to Goryeo. Goryeo (also spelled as Koryŏ), whose name developed into the modern exonym "Korea", was a highly cultured state that created the world's first metal movable type in 1234. However, multiple invasions by the Mongol Empire during the 13th century greatly weakened the nation, which eventually agreed to become a vassal state after decades of fighting. Following military resistance under King Gongmin which ended Mongol political influence in Goryeo, severe political strife followed, and Goryeo eventually fell to a coup led by General Yi Seong-gye, who established Joseon in 1392.

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US forces prepare to retreat from Taejon, July 1950

The Battle of Taejon was an early battle between United States and North Korean forces during the Korean War. Forces of the United States Army, attempting to defend the headquarters of the 24th Infantry Division were overwhelmed by numerically superior forces of the Korean People's Army at the major city and transportation hub of Taejon. Hampered by lack of communications equipment and shortages of heavy weapons to match North Korean firepower, the American forces, outnumbered, ill-equipped and untrained, were pushed back from the river bank after several days, before fighting an intense urban battle to defend the city The delay imposed at Taejon probably prevented an American rout during the subsequent Battle of the Pusan Perimeter. Also significant, the North Koreans captured Major General William F. Dean, the commander of the 24th Infantry Division, and highest ranking American prisoner during the Korean War.

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Wongudan, Seoul
Credit: Burton Holmes; Restoration: Lise Broer

A 1925 photo of Wongudan, an altar site in Seoul built in 1897 as a location for the performance of the rite of heaven. King Seongjong of the Goryeo Dynasty was the first to perform the rite, designed to ensure a bountiful harvest, in the tenth century. The practice was discontinued by later Goryeo kings, revived briefly in the mid fifteenth century by Sejo of the Joseon Dynasty, then reinstated with the founding of the Korean Empire in 1897. Much of the altar complex was destroyed during the Japanese occupation, and the gate and fountain seen here were also subsequently removed, leaving only the three-storey Hwangungu pagoda remaining.

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Selected biography

Dae Soen Sa Nim shortly before his death (photo by Joan Halifax)

Seung Sahn (August 1, 1927—November 30, 2004) was a Korean Jogye Seon master and founder of the international Kwan Um School of Zen—the largest Zen institution present in the Western world. He was the seventy-eighth teacher in his lineage. As one of the early Korean Zen masters to settle in the United States, he opened many temples and practice groups across the globe. He was known for his charismatic style and direct presentation of Zen, which was well tailored for the Western audience. Known by students for his many correspondences with them through letters, his utilization of Dharma combat, and expressions such as "only don't know" or "only go straight" in teachings, he was conferred the honorific title of Dae Soen Sa Nim in June 2004 by the Jogye order for a lifetime of achievements. Considered the highest honor to have bestowed upon one in the order, the title translates to mean Great honored Zen master. He died in November that year at Hwa Gae Sah in Seoul, South Korea, at age 77.

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