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Venerable Wonhyo was born in 617 C.E. (the 39th year of Silla King Jinpyeong), about 1300 years ago, at Buljichon (present-day Sinwol-ri, Amnyang-myeon, Gyeongsan). He was given the name of Wonhyo which means “dawn” and he lived up to his name for he was a pioneer, not only in Korean Buddhist thought, but also in philosophical thought.
He began his monk’s life at Hwangnyongsa Temple. After that, he studied Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism and then practiced meditation diligently as a true practitioner. His life was clearly reflected in his various writings.
He tried to go to Tang China two times. First, he crossed the Amnokgang River at the age of 33 with his dharma friend, Venerable Uisang. The trip was a failure and he had to return. The next time he left for Dangjugye, which was in the territory of Baekje, in order to reach Tang through the sea route with Uisang. When he arrived at the harbor, it was already dark and windy, so he stayed in a cave which had been hewn out of the earth for one night. When he awoke he realized that place was not a cave, but an old graveyard. Yet, as the heavy rain had not stopped, he had to stay one more night. That night he could not sleep well because he knew that he was staying in an ancient graveyard and this led to the realization 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.” 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.” Then he once again returned to Silla.
There is a dramatic story which was added to these events later. It is often said that Wonhyo drank water from a skull when he awoke during the night desperately thirsty. In the darkness, he found a container with water in it and gratefully drank it. The next morning he found that the water he drank was filthy rainwater which had collected in the skull. This experience became the base of his realization that “there is nothing clean and nothing dirty; all things are made by mind.” The fact that all phenomena arise from the mind is a truth which he clearly understood. He knew that the mind exists in all human beings and so he decided not to go to Tang China and to return home. This is a well-known Korean Buddhist legend.
Wonhyo was not a man to stick to doctrinal studies or abstract ideas. He was a man dedicated to saving not only the royal and noble families, but also the ordinary and less educated members of society who were equally suffering.
One day, he was invited to Yoseokgung Palace, and there he met the widowed Princess Yoseok. The result of the relationship was a son Seol Chong who became one of the greatest Confucian scholars of Silla. After this, Wonhyo gave up his monk’s robes and called himself “Soseong Geosa” (“Small Layman”). He didn’t conform to the accepted social code, did not 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.” His behavior and appearance were eccentric and extra-ordinary.
At that time most monks were revered by the royal family and lived in the big temples a life-style that was similar to the noble men of the day; Wonhyo, on the other hand lived as a wanderer in the streets. As he lived a secular life along with the common people, he educated and inspired everyone with his talks about Buddhism. Who could imagine that this man had been an illustrious monk, highly revered by the royal family! In this way he was the trusted adviser to the king of Silla, and, at the same time, a friend of the common people. He was completely accessible to the common people who listened to his spontaneous talks with joy. The poor, the uneducated, the beggars, the street wanderers, and even children followed Wonhyo; they kept up their hope of being born in the Pure Land by reciting the name of Buddha.
In 686 C.E. (the 6th year of King Sinmun), Venerable Wonhyo passed away at his retreat hut at the age of 69; he had been a monk for 38 years.
2. WritingsTreatise on the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana,” “Special Commentary on the Awakening of Faith,” and “Commentary on the Vajrasamadhi Sutra” were considerably admired by Chinese scholars for their fine views and deep understanding. “The Doctrine to Unite Sectarian Opinions” was even transmitted to India and translated into Sanskrit. Yet only 22 works are still extant. 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.”
3. Characteristics of His Thought
Wonhyo is very diverse and difficult in his thought and yet he always focuses on the oneness. Here oneness represents the interconnection of each and every single thing, be it large or small, with the whole universe just as in a fisherman’s net, each knot is connected with all the others.
He thought that Universal Truth is to harmonize the one with the totality without any obstacles to their interrelatedness. The world of the Universal Truth is the world of the Huayan Sutra (The Flower Garland Sutra).
Wonhyo made special efforts to harmonize and integrate different viewpoints of the various Buddhist sects. This approach is called “Hwajaeng-sasang” (Philosophy of Reconciliation and Harmonization) by modern scholars. The Truth taught by the Buddha is one. Yet, as time went by, the interpretations of that teaching began to vary slightly, from teacher to teacher, from sect to sect and later this became the cause of various conflicts and arguments. Wonhyo propounded the necessity of a unified view of Buddhist doctrine in its totality, and created a unique synthesis of Buddhist thought, the Principle of Harmonization, in order to unify different interpretations and arguments. He admitted traits of each doctrine, and harmonized all contradictions and disputes.
His “Hwajaeng-sasang” led to the philosophy of One Mind which is of great benefit to all people. The philosophy of One Mind teaches that the world of enlightenment or nirvana does not exist beyond this world, but this world in which we live can be the world of Truth. Therefore, all beings are not merely destined in this life according to their rebirth, but whoever becomes enlightened in this world if they reach the oneness of mind, attains true understanding. This teaching led to the popularization of Buddhism together with faith in the Pure Land.
Wonhyo insisted that the ultimate aim of Buddhism is to save all beings through this deep philosophy. His life itself demonstrated a true practitioner’s attitude in which behavior and doctrine were unified, and at the same time he was constantly dedicated to popularizing Buddhism.