Wonhyo (元曉, 원효; "Genngyo" in Japanese) (617 – 686), was one of the leading philosophers, writers and commentators of the Korean Buddhist tradition. He was a reformer, who took Buddhism to the common people and lived the life of a secular monk, emphasizing the need to harmonize spiritual ideals with the realities of everyday life in order to achieve spiritual goals. He used music, literature, and dance to express the meaning of Buddhism.
With his life spanning the end of the Three Kingdoms period and the beginning of the Unified Silla, Wonhyo played a vital role in the reception and assimilation of the broad range of doctrinal Buddhist streams that flowed into the Korean peninsula at the time. He was the first to systematize Korean Buddhism, bringing the various Buddhist doctrines into a unity that served both philosophers and laypeople. Essential to his Principle of Harmonization was the concept that enlightenment does not exist beyond this world, but is achieved when one achieves true understanding in this life. Wonhyo is considered one of the Ten Sages of the Ancient Korean Kingdom.
Buddhism was first introduced into Korea from China during the period of the Three Kingdoms of Baekje, Koguryo, and Silla. During the fourth century, Chinese monks brought Buddhism to the court of the northern Koguryo kingdom, from where it spread gradually to the other two kingdoms. Buddhism was first embraced by the court and members of the aristocracy, then promulgated to the lower classes. Koguryo made Buddhism their state religion in 372, Silla before 514, and Baekje in 528. After the unification of the country by the kingdom of Silla in the 660s, Buddhism began to flourish throughout Korea.
Venerable Wonhyo was born in 617 C.E. at Buljichon (present-day Sinwol-ri, Amnyang-myeon, Gyeongsan). His name, “Wonhyo,” means “dawn.” He entered Hwangnyongsa Temple as a monk, studied Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, and diligently practiced meditation. Wonhyo spent the earlier part of his career as a monk. In 661 he and a close friend Uisang (625–702, founder of the Korean Hwaom school) decided to travel to China, where they hoped to study Buddhism further. They crossed the Amnokgang River but the trip was a failure and they had to return. They then planned to take a sea route to Tang, leaving from the harbor of Dangjugye, in the territory of Baekje. When they arrived at Dangjugye, night had fallen and it was storming, so they took shelter in a cave which had been hollowed out of the earth. During the night Wonhyo was overcome with thirst, and reaching out grasped what he perceived to be a gourd, and drinking from it was refreshed with a draught of cool, refreshing water. Upon waking the next morning, however, the companions discovered much to their amazement that their shelter was in fact an ancient tomb littered with human skulls, and the vessel from which Wonhyo had drunk was in fact a human skull full of brackish rainwater. Moved by the experience of believing a gruesome site to be a comfortable haven, and skull of mildewy water a refreshing drink, Wonhyo was astonished at the power of the human mind to transform reality. He realized that “all phenomena arise when the mind arises and when the mind is absent, the cave and the graveyard were not two; there was no sense of duality.” From the skull, he learned that “there is nothing clean and nothing dirty; all things are made by mind.” This sudden realization gave rise to a profound understanding of the world. Wonhyo said, “The three worlds are only mind, and all phenomena arise from the mind, consciousness. If the truth is present in the mind, how could it be found outside of the mind! I won’t go to Tang.” He abandoned his journey and returned to Silla.
After this "consciousness-only" enlightenment experience, Wonhyo left the priesthood and turned to the spreading of the Buddhadharma as a layman. Another account relates that Wonhyo gave up his monk’s robes after he met the widowed Princess Yoseok at Yoseokgung Palace and had a son, Seol Chong, by her. Wonhyo called himself “Soseong Geosa” (“Small Layman”). His behavior and appearance were eccentric; he did not conform to the accepted social code or care about his language. He drummed on an empty gourd while singing, “Only a man with no worries and fears can go straight and overcome life and death and transmigration.”
While most Buddhist monks lived an affluent lifestyle in big temples, honored and revered by the royal family, Wonhyo wandered the streets, living a secular life and educating the common people. He became a trusted advisor of the King of Silla. He collaborated with his friend, the influential Silla Hwaom monk Uisang, and an important result of their combined works was the establishment of Hwaeom as the dominant stream of doctrinal thought on the Korean peninsula.
In 686 C.E. Venerable Wonhyo passed away at his retreat hut. He became a legendary Korean folk hero because of his devotion to the common people.
Wonhyo’s son, Seol Chong, is considered to be one of the great Confucian scholars of Silla.
The International Taekwondo Federation pattern "Won-Hyo" is named in Wonhyo's honor.
Wonhyo was the first to systematize Korean Buddhism, bringing the various Buddhist doctrines into a unity that served both philosophers and laypeople. He advocated maintaining harmony between the real and the ideal in life in order to pursue spiritual goals. His commentaries on Mahayana sutras, had profound influence on Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Buddhists.
With his life spanning the end of the Three Kingdoms period and the beginning of the Unified Silla, Wonhyo played a vital role in the reception and assimilation of the broad range of doctrinal Buddhist streams that flowed into the Korean peninsula at the time. Wonhyo was most interested in, and affected by Tathāgatagarbha, Yogācāra and Hwaom thought. However, in his extensive scholarly works, composed as commentaries and essays, he embraced the whole spectrum of the Buddhist teachings which were received in Korea, including such schools as Pure Land, Nirvana , Sanlun and Tiantai (Lotus Sūtra school).
Wonhyo wrote commentaries on virtually all of the most influential Mahāyāna scriptures, altogether including over eighty works in over two hundred fascicles. Among his most influential works were the commentaries he wrote on the Awakening of Faith, Nirvana Sutra and Vajrasamādhi Sutra, along with his exposition on the meaning of the two hindrances, the ijangui. These were treated with utmost respect by leading Buddhist scholars in China and Japan, and served to help in placing the Awakening of Faith as the most influential text in the Korean tradition. The Doctrine to Unite Sectarian Opinions was transmitted to India and translated into Sanskrit.
Wonhyo's twenty-three extant works are currently in the process of being translated into English as a joint project between Dongguk University and State University of New York at Stony Brook. The representative writings are Treatise on the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana, “Treatise of the Huayan Sutra (Hwaeom gyeong so),” Repentance of Six Feelings in the Mahayana (Daeseung yukjeong chamhoe), Arousing the Mind to Practice, The Doctrine to Unite Ten Sectarian Opinions, Treatise on the Sutra of Unraveling Though, Treatise on Sukhavati-vyuha, and Commentary of Vajrasamadhi Sutra.
Wonhyo strove to popularize Buddhism among the common people as was well as among scholars and the aristocracy. His primary concern was to harmonize the ideal with the realities of everyday life. The five commandments which he formulated for the people to follow in order to achieve nirvana not only show how to achieve the final land of true peace, unity, and freedom, but also how to find spiritual harmony in ordinary life. His principles are illustrated by the story of his relationship with the royal Princess Yoseok, while he was living as an ascetic monk. Whonhyo simply admitted that true spirituality was to be obtained, not by pursuing unrealistic ends, but by recognizing one’s personal limitations. He tried to use music, literature, and dance to express the meaning of Buddhism, and is said to have led the people in dancing and singing in the streets, to demonstrate the harmony between the present life and the eternal. Wonhyo insisted that the ultimate aim of Buddhism is to save all beings. He emphasized the necessity of a unified view of Buddhist doctrine, and created a unique synthesis of Buddhist thought, the Principle of Harmonization, which identified the specific traits of each doctrine and found a way to resolve conflicts and disputes among them. Modern Korean scholars call this approach “Hwajaeng-sasang” (Philosophy of Reconciliation and Harmonization). Essential to the Principle of Harmonization was the concept that enlightenment does not exist beyond this world, but is achieved when one achieves true understanding in this life. Universal Truth harmonizes the one with the totality, without any obstacles to their interrelatedness.
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