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The Life and Teachings of Master Wonhyo

The life of Master Wonhyo (617-686 A.D.) is a typical Korean paradox. He was a scholar who composed over 100 works on Buddhist philosophy, whose influence in scholarship and teaching was felt in China and other surrounding countries. He is acknowledged today as the foremost figure in the history of Korean Buddhism. And yet, many accounts of his actions also give the picture of an eccentric vagrant.

There were various pivotal moments in Wonhyo’s career. One such moment came as he was writing his Commentary on the Flower Ornament Sutra. Partway through a chapter entitled ‘Returning one’s merit to others’, he broke his brush into two pieces, having realised that he could not truly share his knowledge with others through words, but only through actions. From this point he lived his life outside the monastery among the people.

Master WonhyoOne day, passing a pair of acrobats performing to a large crowd beside the road, it occurred to Wonhyo that he should compose a popular song containing the teaching of the Pure Land, and teach it to people wherever he went. This song became widely known in Korea, and as well as spreading the knowledge of Buddhism – up to this point restricted to the upper classes only – he succeeded in bridging the gap between the nobility and the commoners, and laying the ground spiritually for the unification of his divided country.

His doctrines also had a great impact on the course of Korean Buddhism. Hugely fragmented at the time, the different schools of Buddhism were constantly in conflict, and Wonhyo’s efforts to resolve their disputes through Hwajaeng (harmonizing disputations) and his vision of ‘One-Vehicle’ Buddhism have meant that the tendency of Korean Buddhism has since been towards harmony rather than fragmentation.

The most famous story concerning Wonhyo is the tale of his journey to the Tang, interrupted by a thunderstorm which caused him to seek shelter from the rain overnight in an underground cave. Learning upon the next day that it was a burial chamber, he found himself unable to sleep there peacefully the following night. Realising that physical circumstances had not changed, but only his mind, he arrived at the principle of Mind-Only, expressed in the following words:

Because a mind arises, many kinds of dharma come into being.

When the mind subsides, a sanctuary and a graveyard are one.

The Three Worlds are simply the mind, And all phenomenona are based on consciousness.

Since there is only the mind, what else is there to seek!

While few of his writings survive to us today, the fragments that remain are profound and awe-inspiring. Enigmatic and heartwhole, his character and life are among Korea’s most precious national treasures.

Master Wonhyo - Drinking Water from a Skull
A scene depicting his revelation in the underground cave, later told as the story of ‘drinking water from a skull’

The life and philosophy of Master Wonhyo is covered in the short book ‘Master Wonhyo’ recently released by the Korean Spirit and Culture Promotion Project

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