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Wonhyo’s Life

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Writer Jogye Date13 Feb 2019 Read8,934 Comment0


Wonhyo’s Life

His Birth & Names

Bunhwang (posthumous title) Wonhyo (617~686) was born as a subject of the Shilla Kingdom. His family originated from Gyeongju, the capital of the kingdom. His family name was ‘Seol’ and his given name was ‘Sa.’ His grandfather was ‘Duke Ingpigong,’ one of the descendants of the Seol clan of Gyeongju, and one of the six noblemen of the Shilla Kingdom (57 B.C. - 935 A.D.). Duke Ingpigong was originally from Seorabol, which was the name used for the city we now call Gyeongju. However, he later lived near Jeokdaeyeon, the living quarters of a great monk, Venerable Ilyeon, in Unmunsa Monastery, which had been established in 560 in Cheongdo County, North Gyeongsang-do Province. Thus, he was called ‘Duke Jeokdaegong’. Venerable Wonhyo’s father held the office of Damnal, the position of Nama, the government’s 11th-level position out of 17. This was beneath the level 10 position of Daenama. He was born under a shala tree (Shorea robusta), in Amnyang County, which is now the northern part of a village called Bamgol at Buljichon in Jainhyeon of Gyeongsan County.


Originally, his home was located in the southwest of Bamgol, a chestnut valley. One day, his mother dreamt that a shooting star was falling into her womb, and the child was conceived. As the time to deliver her baby approached, she felt sudden labor pains. She was passing a chestnut tree in the village, and didn’t have time to go back home, as her labor was progressing too fast. Reluctantly, Wonhyo’s father hung his woolen garment in the tree to give her privacy, improvised a place for her to lie down, and on that spot, Wonhyo was born. It was said that the sky was filled with five-colored clouds all around the birthplace. Even as a small child, he was extremely bright, so he didn’t need any instructions from teachers. He was self-taught. For that reason, it is said that he didn’t stay in any one place for too long, and was even able to attain enlightenment without a mentor. In his later years, he converted his residence into Chogyesa Temple, and founded another one next to the chestnut tree where he was born, naming it Shalasa, or Sarasa Temple.


After passing away, he was given the title Bunhwang, and his Dharma name was Wonhyo. His stupa was placed in Goseonsa during King Aejang’s reign (800-809), the 40th ruler of the Shilla Kingdom (57 B.C. - 935 A.D.), and the temple Bunhwangsa was founded during King Myeongjong’s reign (1170-1197), the 19th ruler during the Goryeo period. Thus, he was called by many names. He was Great Master Goseon, or Seodang Hwasang, during the Shilla period. He was also called National Teacher of Reconciliation or Great Master Wonhyo during the Goryeo period (918-1392). His nicknames included: Seodang; Great Master Wonhyo; Saebu; Sidan; Grhapati Soseong; Great Master Goseon; National Preceptor Hwajaeng; Grhapati Wonhyo; Guryong; Great Master Guryong; Dharma Teacher Haedong; Wonhyo Seongsa; Haedong; Prophet Haedong; Bodhisattva Wonhyo; Bodhisattva Choji; Bodhisattva Daekwon of Hwaomji, or the Flower Garland; the future being of Bodhisattva Jinna; Great Patriarch from the family with qualities of saints; and Hwaheo or Harmony. As we can see, he had a number of nicknames, both those he chose himself and those given by others, as well as honorific and posthumous titles. His popularity and recognition by the public were beyond any description. Despite all this, only two stones inscribed with a description of his life exist, and as a result, it is difficult to fully retrace his entire life story. The posthumous name of Bunhwang was given to him because he resided in Bunhwangsa Temple, which means ‘fragrant beautiful emperor. Moreover, the name ‘Bunhwang’ refers to ‘the king among kings’ or ‘the pundarika among pundarikas’; that is, ‘the lotus flower among lotus flowers.’ According to the story of its origin, a dragon was sighted while constructing the palace. Thus, it came to be called Bunhwangsa. The temple had close ties with the royal family, along with Hwangnyongsa, another famous temple from the same period.


When Wonhyo was young, he used to be called Seodang, Saebu, or Sidan. Seodang was transliterated from the Chinese characters for a ‘bird’s feather’; Saebu was derived from the word for dawn; and Sidan was from the first streak of dawn. Particularly, the fact that the names of Saebu and Sidan both refer to ‘dawn’ clearly indicates his identity. In a way, he was a figure representing the dawn of civilization in Korean ideology. He created a door to the dawn of Korean philosophy and raised it up, high in the sky. He taught Koreans not only how to seek wisdom and knowledge, but also to how to think and consider matters philosophically. Henceforth, Venerable Wonhyo paved the road to wisdom rising from causation and compassion through the Middle Way, which was and is the way to creating interdependence and mutual respect on this land.


Renunciation and Practice


Soon after his birth, his mother passed away. Furthermore, it seems that his father was also killed in a battle against the Baekje Kingdom (18 B.C. - 660 A.D.) after he was assigned to his post at a nearby border. Consequently, he was raised by his grandparents, but they passed away shortly afterwards, and he had no other relatives to speak of. As all of his close relatives passed away one after another, it seems that he must have acquired a deep understanding of impermanence. Perhaps that is one reason that he renounced his secular life at a very young age, around 8 or 9, and joined the monastic order in Hwangnyongsa, a state temple in Seorabeol, the capital of the Shilla Kingdom. However, there is no record indicating who his teacher was. His relationship with masters can only be inferred through a hermit scholar named Munseon. According to records, Venerable Wonhyo asked prominent Great Master Venerable Nangji to proofread Chojang Kwanmun and Ansinsa Simnon, the books that he supposedly wrote in his thirties. The records also state that he completed his practice with Venerable Hyeong in Oeosa Temple in Pohang after his middle years. According to “Doballyongsan Gyeongboksa Bodeokwasang Yebangguji,” a poem by National Preceptor Uicheon (1055-1101) of the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), Venerable Wonhyo and Uisang (625-702) went to see Great Monk Bodeok, who resided in Gyeongboksa Temple in Godalsan Mountain in Wanju, North Jeolla Province after he took asylum from the Gogureo Kingdom (37 B.C. – 668 A.D.) in the north. There, he was to learn the Maha Para-Nirvana and the Vaipulya Sutras, but there is no way to confirm this. It is doubtful that he would have gone all the way to the foreign land of the Baekje Kingdom to study the Maha Para-Nirvana and the Vaipulya Sutras, as he was already middle-aged by that time.


Perhaps, Venerable Wonhyo wanted to leave the state temple, in the middle of bustling capital, and move to a much quieter place in a nearby mountain for his practice. This transition of moving to a mountain and practicing, based on his firsthand experience, were well-articulated in The Ardent Initial Aspiration Practice. It seemed that the young practitioner cultivated himself single-mindedly. After his renunciation, he was deep in thought, broken-heartedly pondering the origin of suffering from birth, old age, sickness, and death. This began from clearly understanding the difference between Buddha, who had abandoned desire, and sentient beings, which are voracious in their desire. It appears that he had an incomparable perception of suffering like the Buddha’s teaching of the Four Noble Truths. This understanding led to a compilation of the causes of suffering. Based on the compilation in The Ardent Initial Aspiration Practice, Venerable Wonhyo emphasized the reason why a practitioner must make their efforts with vigor and zeal.


According to Venerable Wonhyo, “All sentient beings of the past, present and future burn in the house of fire in the cycle of rebirth because they do not get rid of their desire for living in countless worlds,” unlike all Buddhas of the past, present and future, who embellish the place of Nirvana. In addition, he said, “The reason why such a small number of people go into heaven, which has no door, is that many of them accumulate the wealth of suffering or afflictions through desire, hatred and ignorance.” He concluded, “The reason why so many people fall into evil ways without any trickster guiding them, is that they cherish the four great physical elements of body composed of earth, water, fire and air, and the five desires based on the illusions of the sensory organs.” After writing his compilation, he stressed with conviction, “One doesn’t go into a mountain to practice because of love and cravings. Thus, even if one cannot go into a mountain or wood to cultivate one’s mind, one should not cease doing good deeds, as much as one’s body and mind can handle.”


Moreover, Venerable Wonhyo continued, “High mountains and tall rocks are the places for the wise; green pine trees and deep valleys are the places for the practitioners.” He added, “When hungry, pick fruits on trees to ease a starving stomach. When thirsty, quench dehydration with flowing water. Take an echoing cave as a Dharma hall for chanting, and let flying geese, crying sadly, become delightful friends. Though knees worn by prostrations became stiff in cold, remove the thought of warmth, and as the intestines feel like they are being severed, there should be no dream of getting food. Regardless of talent and knowledge, if one doesn’t practice according to the precepts, it is no different from one refusing to go to find treasures even though one is being led there. Even if one practices diligently, without wisdom, one goes west, despite the intention to go east.” Likewise, young Venerable Wonhyo appeared to have persistently lived, deepening his initial aspiration and practicing ardently.


Study Abroad and Awakening


His best friend, Great Master Venerable Uisang (625 – 702) was born to a man named Hanshin Kim, jingol or the true bone, the second highest of the bone rankings of the Shilla Kingdom. According to Buseokbonbi Monument in Pusoksa Temple by Choi, Chiwon, a noted Confucian officer and poet, Venerable Uisang joined the monastery in Hwangboksa before he was ten, just like Venerable Wonhyo. Though Venerable Uisang was eight years younger than Venerable Wonhyo, his intellectual pursuit and his level of knowledge in the precepts were outstanding for a novice. At that time in Xian (長安), the capital of the Tang Dynasty, Preceptor Xuanzang (602-664) returned from India after 17 long years of study (629-645). Afterwards, he had his disciple Bianji dictate his journey to 136 countries, including India, and published a series of twelve books titled The Journey to the West in the Great Tang Dynasty. Furthermore, while staying at the place where translation was done, along with his disciples, Venerable Xuanzang was leading the translation of The Heart Sutra as new Buddhist texts. This news spread among monks who studied abroad, and traveled by Gyeondangseon (遣唐船), the ship used by Chinese envoys going to China during the Unified Shilla period (668-935), as well as the officials who had been to Xian, the capital (長安).


It seems that Venerable Uisang, with his strong sense of intellectual curiosity must have heard about the popularity of Gyojong, the doctrinal school, like a pine grove, and suggested that Venerable Wonhyo go to the Tang Dynasty to study together. At that time, various schools of thought flourished in the Tang. The previous generation of thinking of Three Treatise, or Sanlun xuanyi (三論學) by Jizang (吉藏); Geography (地論學) and Nirvana by Vasubandhu (慧遠, 316-396) were followed by the studies of the Buddhist precepts (戒律, Sila and Vinaya) by Daoxuan (道宣, 596-667); Avatamsaka (華嚴, Huyan) by Zhiyan (智儼, 600-668); Tiantai by Zhuoxi (左溪); and Faxiang or Legal Studies (法相學) by Xuanzang (玄奘, 602-664). Upon accepting this proposal by Venerable Uisang, Venerable Wonhyo left to study at a Buddhist order led by Xuanzang (玄奘, 602~664) in Xian, the capital of the Tang Dynasty. From Jangsan Mountain in present-day Busan, the southern part of Korea, they went past Chungju of the Shilla Kingdom, and crossed the border to the Goguryeo Kingdom. They passed through Gyeonggi-do, Hwanghae-do, and Pyongan-do Provinces, and then crossed the Yalu (or Amnok) River, the northern border, heading to the Liaodong Peninsula of Northeast China. However, they were accused of being spies by the border patrol of the Goguryeo Kingdom, and they were held in jail for several days. Afterwards, he barely managed to return to the Shilla Kingdom. Their first attempt to study abroad ended in failure in 650. Then, the Baekje Kingdom (18 B.C.-660 A.D.) was destroyed by the Shilla-Tang Allied Forces in 660, and they were able to travel through the port, rather than crossing the northern border. Thus, in the following year, 661, Venerable Wonhyo and Uisang went for their second attempt to study abroad in the Tang Dynasty.


After the fall of the Baekje Kingdom, they traveled past Danghangseong, which is present-day Hwaseong, Gyeonggi-do Province, the gateway to the Shilla Kingdom. Along the way, they got caught in a heavy rainstorm in the middle of the road. Luckily, they found a dirt cave on the road and were able to hide away from the rain and wind. However, when they woke up in the morning, they looked around the place more carefully and found themselves next to a skull in an old grave. The sky was still dark gray, it was raining heavily and the road was quite muddy. So, they had no choice but to stay, as it was impossible to leave the place. Though they stayed as close as they could to the inner wall, an evil spirit appeared soon after darkness fell. The moment Venerable Wonhyo saw an earth god he had created himself, he woke from his nightmarish sleep and gasped in fear. “Last night, thinking I was in a simple dirt cave, I slept soundly. However, tonight, I feel restless lying in this grave. Aha! I see! As my mind is disturbed, this phenomenon appears. When such thinking disappears, there is neither the dirt cave nor the grave. There is no such thing as the triple realm; it’s only in the mind. Myriad things only exist in my perception. As there is no phenomenon outside of my mind, where shall I go to attain it? There is no reason for me to go to the Tang Dynasty!”


Venerable Wonhyo wrote this hymn based on The Mahayanashraddhotpada Shastra, or the Awakening of Mahayana Faith, the main text of the Mahayana School, realistically depicting his state of mind at that time. He said, “If the mind is stirred, it creates various phenomena. If the stirring subsides, so do the delusions. In other words, because the mind is disturbed, all sorts of delusions arise. When the stirring disappears, the dirt cave and the grave were not two.” This was an extreme transformation of his thought; Venerable Wonhyo’s hymn of enlightenment.


Gambun buri, a niche for a Buddha statue and a grave are not two separate things (龕墳不二)! He discovered ‘his one mind’ by comparing his stirred thinking from the previous night, when he had slept so peacefully, like in the Pure Land of Utmost Bliss, to the following night, when he felt terribly disturbed, like he was in hell. Venerable Wonhyo daringly tore the boundary between the three subtle concepts in his deep mind and the six unsightly aspects of delusion, the crust of consciousness. The basis of all things is the singleness of mind; that is, ‘the original mind’ of a person and ‘one mind’. This is ‘the mind longing for one’ and ‘the yearning for home.” If One Mind (一心), or the singleness of mind, was already in the minds of people of the Shilla, wouldn’t it be in the minds of people in the Tang? When Venerable Wonhyo realized that the singleness of mind is the foundation of all things and the universal nature of sentient beings, he no longer felt compelled to study abroad. The next day, he took his sack and went back to Seorabeol, the capital of the Shilla Kingdom, parting from Venerable Uisang. Meanwhile, Venerable Uisang boarded a large ship at the port Dangjugye, the ocean gateway, to Shilla, and went to the west towards Dengzhou of Shandong Province, in Eastern China.


The Princess Yoseok and Seolchong


After being enlightened in the gravesite, he came back to the capital and grew absorbed in writing. He popularized Buddhism his own way, freely. One spring day, Venerable Wonhyo shouted out loud, “Who can give me an ax without a handle? I will sever the pillar that supports heaven!” King Muyeol (604-661), the 29th ruler of the Shilla Kingdom, understood the meaning of this question, and sent officials to find Venerable Wonhyo. They were to lead him to the Yoseok Palace, where a princess was staying. Coincidently, the officials from the palace met Venerable Wonhyo at Muncheongyo Bridge after he descended from a mountain called Namsan. Then, Venerable Wonhyo intentionally fell into the water and his clothes got wet. Consequently, the officials led him to the Yoseok Palace, where he could change his clothes. However, he had to wait for his robe to dry, so he ended up spending the night in the palace. Soon after, the princess conceived a baby and gave birth to Seolchong (薛聰, 655~?), who became a renowned scholar in the kingdom. The encounter of these two was later confirmed in the poem about the breakfast he had at the palace, “The Unbridled (元曉不羈),” of the Uihae section of Samguknyusa, The Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms; “Under a bright moon, I was taking my spring sleep in the Yoseok Palace...”


Afterwards, as he had broken Sila, one of the precepts, he disrobed, relinquishing his holy status after the birth of his son, Seolchong. He then called himself a simple Grhapati, or male devotee Soseong Geosa (小姓居士), and began wandering around. Then, one day, he somehow acquired a large peculiar-looking gourd from street clowns, who mocked him, dancing. He made it a tool, as it was, and named it Muae (無碍) (“no hindrance”). He then created a hymn from a passage from The Avatamsaka Sutra, “A man of complete freedom without any hindrance, discrimination and defilement, he can end samsara, the cycle of birth and death [一切無碍人, 一道出生死].” Next, he went off to spread the song around the country. To be specific, he went around with Muae teaching Buddhism, dancing and singing the song from village to village. Venerable Ilyeon (1206-1289), a monk in the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) wrote, “Because of his teaching, everyone from beggars to the poor and even young hairless children knew the name of Buddha and could recite “Namu amita bul,” the Buddhist chant. The village where he was born was called Bulji (佛地), the Buddha’s land, and the temple was called Chogye, the first awakening (初開). He called himself Wonhyo, the first enlightened one, (元曉) because everyone said that he popularized Bulil (佛日), the bright illumination of the Buddha for the first time. The title Wonhyo was a term from the regional dialect, and he was called ‘Sidan [始但],’ meaning ‘the first streak of dawn’ among the people in the Shilla Kingdom.


Venerable Wonhyo entered nirvana in his dirt cave temple (穴寺) at the age of 70. Seolchong, his son who lived nearby, cremated his remains, made the ashes into a clay figure of his father and enshrined it in Bunhwangsa Temple. Every morning and evening, Seolchong paid tribute to his father out of respect and admiration. Then, one day, while he was bowing next to the figure, it said that the image of Venerable Wonhyo turned around and watched him prostrating. It is said that the image of Venerable Wonhyo remained in Bunhwangsa Temple until the late Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). From the time of his birth, Seolchong was known for his intelligence and brightness. Due to his extensive knowledge of history and literature, he was named one of the ten wisest people in the Shilla Kingdom. He translated the six classics of China (六經文學) so that people could understand the culture and literature of China and other local areas in the county in Korean, rather than in Chinese characters. Thanks to his work, the study of these books could continue in the country.


Practitioner Wonhyo broke the precepts and fathered Seolchong. Yet, he laid the foundation for Buddhist studies, and his son paved the road to Confucianism in Korea. Along with Kangsu (强首, ?-692) and Choi, Chiwon (崔致遠, 668-?), Seolchong was greatly respected as one of the three wisest practitioners and three greatest writers at that time. Afterwards, as the founding father of Confucianism in Korea, he was honored as first among the eighteen Confucius sages. Among his writings, those that remain include Hwawanggye (花王戒), creative tales, and Gamsansa Amitayeorae Josanggi (甘山寺阿彌陀如來造像記), the record of constructing the Standing Stone Amitabha Buddha (National Treasure No. 82) of Gamsansa Temple in Gyeongsangbuk-do Province. Ultimately, as Bhikku Wonhyo had a relationship with Princess Yoseok, ties with the royal family could be established. Thus, he was able to expand the basis for his studies later. Furthermore, because he fathered a son, Seolchong could firmly set up a foundation for the humanities in ancient Korea. As a result, declaring himself a completely free man, Venerable Wonhyo was able to become the pioneer in popularizing Buddhism, opening a door for the mass lay community, and going beyond the religion of the royal family. At the same time, he created a wide passage to the practice for male and female devotees of Buddhism in the country. What’s more, along with Lady Yoseok, Grhapati Soseong came to be a signpost for the popularization of the religion and a rudder of the vessel carrying the future of Buddhism.

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