Ichadon – 이차돈 (503-527)

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The Martyr monk, Ichadon, of the Silla Kingdom.

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This is the eleventh installment about prominent monks; and this week, I thought I would focus on the martyr, Ichadon, from the Silla Kingdom. Ichadon was a Buddhist monk that supported the introduction of Buddhism to the Silla Kingdom (57 B.C.E. – 668 C.E.).

While Buddhism had spread throughout the rest of the Korean peninsula in the Baekje and Goguryeo Kingdoms, Buddhism was still illegal in Silla up until 527 C.E. The reason for its slow acceptance is that the Silla Kingdom had weak state administrative powers. However, the common people were more willing to accept Buddhism than the Silla aristocracy who resisted all forms of Chinese culture; instead, preferring to adhere to the local religions. These two reasons, above all others, is why it took a full 150 years to be accepted in the Silla Kingdom after its neighbours had already accepted it as a state religion.

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A Silla Sacrifice from a Mural at Heungnyunsa Temple in Gyeongju.

King Beopheung (514-540), the king of Ichadon, had considered giving permission to the practice of Buddhist teachings in the Silla Kingdom. And in 527, Ichadon, while presenting himself to the royal court, announced that he had become a Buddhist monk. Not only that, but he had established a Buddhist temple on his land. Finally giving into palace aristocrats demands, King Beopheung had Ichadon beheaded. However, and rather miraculously during Ichadon’s execution, instead of blood, milk poured forth from his wound. Also, his head flew upwards and onwards to Mt. Sogeumgansan in Gyeongju. Due to these miracles, as well as Ichadon’s sacrifice, the royal court relented and Buddhism was finally accepted. Also, it led to the first state temple, Heungnyunsa Temple, being established in Silla territory.

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The Martyrdom of Ichadon from the Bell at Baeknyulsa Temple in Gyeongju.

Ilyeon – 일연 (1206-1289)

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Ilyeon, the Author of the Famed Samguk Yusa

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This is the tenth installment about prominent Korean monks. And this article is about the famed monk Ilyeon, who wrote the historic Samguk Yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms).

Ilyeon was born during the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) in Korean history. Ilyeon’s birth name was Kim Gyeong-myeong. Amazingly, Ilyeon became a monk at the age of nine at Muryangsa Temple in Haeyang. Then, at the age of 13, he became a novice monk at Jinjeonsa Temple. And he passed the Seon national exam at the age of 22.

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The Samguk Yusa

During his lifetime, Ilyeon was a prolific writer. In total, and according to his tombstone, he wrote 80 volumes of work that focused on Buddhist topics. His most famed contribution, and the only one to survive to the present day, was the Samguk Yusa. The Samguk Yusa was written in Classical Chinese, which was used by the literate at that time, and it focused on folktales, legends, and biographies of famous monks from the early period in Korean history. Also, it is the earliest record of the Dangun foundation legend. It was written at the end of the 13th century, purportedly, at Unmunsa Temple in Cheongdo, Gyeongsangbuk-do.

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Unmunsa Temple, Where Ilyeon Purportedly Wrote the Samguk Yusa

At the age of 54, Ilyeon was given the rank of Great Teacher. Also, he traveled to Ganghwa-do Island, as instructed by King Wonjong (r. 1260-1274), to establish Seonwolsa Temple. Then, at the age of 63, in 1268, he was appointed the chief presider of the Tripitaka consummation ceremony at Eunhaesa Temple at Mt. Palgongsan over 100 prominent Seon masters. And at the age of 78, King Chungnyeol (r. 1274-1308) offered the position of National Preceptor (보각국사) to Ilyeon, which he declined. Once more, he was appointed to the position of National Preceptor (Guksa), and he arrived in the then capital of Gaeseong (then Gaegyeong) to assume the position. However, not long after assuming the position, he returned to his mountain temple with the excuse that his mother was sick. Finally, on the eighth day of the seventh month in 1289, Ilyeon passed away after conducting interviews with various monks.

Bodhidharma – 달마 (5th to 6th Cent.)

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An Image of the Bodhidharma from a Temple Wall.

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This is the ninth installment about prominent Korean monks. And while the Bodhidharma wasn’t Korean, he had a heavy and wide-sweeping influence on Korean Buddhism, especially Seon Buddhism.

The Bodhidharma, which is shortened to just Dharma in Korea, was the legendary founder of the Seon/Zen/Chan tradition of meditative Buddhism. He first traveled to China, from northern India, in the early 6th century. He came to China to help enlighten people through meditation and through a minimal amount of studying texts.

The Bodhidharma first arrived in China in the capital of the southern kingdom. While there, he had a famous dialogue with the king, King Liang Wudi. During this dialogue, the Bodhidharma told the king that all the king’s donations to temples and monks would gain him nothing. Instead, he had no idea of who he was. Out of frustration, the king sent the Bodhidharma north to a minor temple on the remote Mt. Song-shan.

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A Painting of the Bodhidharma from Jogyeam Hermitage in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do.

The Bodhidharma had to cross the great Yangtze River by standing on a reed. After arriving at the temple, the monks simply couldn’t understand what it was that the Bodhidharma was attempting to teach them. From this inability to be understood, the Bodhidharma retreated to an isolated cave high up in the mountains where he continuously meditated for nine years in front of a rock wall.

At the end of the nine years, a military officer by the name of Dazu Huike visited the Bodhidharma because he was curious. Dazu Huike begged the Bodhidharma to allow him to become his student. After being refused, Dazu Huike cut off his left arm with his sword as a sign of his commitment. Finally, the Bodhidharma relented and Huike became his student. After this incident, the Bodhidharma returned to the temple from his cave to teach his new form of Buddhism. This little known temple would become famous as the Shaolin Temple, while the Bodhidharma’s new form of Buddhism would famously become known as Zen Buddhism (or Seon in Korea, or Chan in China).

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Dazu Huike and Bodhidharma Mural from Bohyunsa Temple in Goseong, Gyeongsangnam-do.

Dazu Huike would become known as the second patriarch of Chan Buddhism. There would be four more patriarchs that followed culminating in the teachings of Huineng (638-713). Visiting Korean monks that learned under Huineng would transmit his teachings back to the Korean peninsula. This resulted in the Gusan Seonmun (The Korean Seon’s Nine Original Sects). Some of these temples include Silsangsa Temple in Jirisan National Park, Borimsa Temple on Mt. Gajisan, and Taeansa Temple in Jeollanam-do. This form of Buddhism would gain popularity among the lay-people and continue to grow. As a result, the Bodhidharma is regarded as the founder of Seon Buddhism in Korea. He’s even referred to as the Dalma-josa (the founding master Bodhidharma) in Korea.

The Bodhidharma can often be seen depicted in a variety of manners and in a variety of locations. The paintings of the Bodhidharma, for instance, are known as the Dalma-do. The Bodhidharma often sports a heavy beard, a big nose, and he often wears large earrings. He has a knitted brow, suspicious eyes, and he sometimes dons a hood. You can find the image of the Bodhidharma in paintings around temple halls or in a person’s house or even their jewelry. This famous monk knows no bounds and is as popular as ever among the Korean population.

Jinpyo – 진표 (8th Century)

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 A Portrait of the monk Jinpyo.

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This is the eighth installment about prominent Korean monks. This time, I thought I would talk about the famed monk, Jinpyo. Jinpyo was a consciousness-only doctrinal scholar who lived during the Unified Silla Dynasty (668-935) during the 8th century. And Jinpyo’s name, in English, means “symbol of truth.”

Jinpyo was originally from Wansanju, which is present day Jeonju. He was both a good archer and hunter as a child. According to the Goseung-jeon (“Old Monks’ Tales), and while out hunting one day as a child, he tied a frog’s legs together before heading up into the neighbouring mountains. While hunting, he completely forgot about the frog that he had tied up. A year later, he heard something crying, so he went to see what it was. Amazed, he discovered the exact same frog still tied up. As a result, and at the age of 12, Jinpyo decided to renounce the secular world and become a monk. He became a monk at Mt. Geumgangsan, and he later studied under Masters Shandao and Sengji in Tang China.

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Geumsansa Temple

When Jinpyo finally did return to the Korean peninsula, he underwent a strict regimen of Buddhist monastic training. He did this in the form of forgetting the body. And he underwent this form of repentance at the famed Geumsansa Temple at Mt. Moaksan. Through visions of Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife) and Mireuk-bosal (The Future Bodhisattva), he became a devout follower of the two. He is also said to have had an encounter with Munsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom) in 740 on Mt. Odaesan. This was then followed by an encounter with Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha) at Yeongsansa Temple after years of meditation.

After this last encounter, Jinpyo was invited to the Silla royal court. While there, he was given money to distribute it among the various Buddhist temples in the kingdom. Specifically, Jinpyo led the Beopsang school of Buddhism that focused on strong devotional practices, as well as belief. In addition, and not so surprisingly, he placed an emphasis on repentance.

Through his influence, as well as his disciples’ actions, his beliefs were passed down to Wang Geon, King Taejo, who was the founder of the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). And to the present day, his teachings have had a long lasting effect on Korean Buddhism.

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 A Portrait of King Taejo, who Jinpyo helped influence.

Uicheon – 의천 (1055-1101)

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The Creator of the Cheontae Order, Uicheon (1055-1101)

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This is the seventh installment on prominent Korean monks. This time, I thought I would talk about the royal monk, Uicheon, who helped found the Cheontae Order of Korean Buddhism.

Uicheon was born the fourth son of King Munjong (r. 1046-1083), which was during the early part of the Goryeo Dynasty. And while Uicheon was a royal prince, he devoted himself to Buddhism and Buddhist scholarship. He did this by collecting various scriptures. Amazingly, Uicheon became the head of the Buddhist seungga (community) at the very early age of 13.

In 1085, at the age of 30, Uicheon boarded a boat bound for China. And while he was well versed in Buddhist doctrine, he believed that he could still advance his studies by traveling to China. In total, he stayed for 14 months. While there, he met and consulted with some fifty leading masters of Buddhism from varying sects. While in China, he studied at Hiuyan Temple in the city of Hangzhou with the monk Jingyuan (1011-1088).

When Uicheon returned to Korea, he became the spiritual master of Heunggwangsa Temple. During his time at this temple, he successfully brought both Gyo (doctrinal Buddhism) and Seon (meditative Buddhism) together under the inclusive Cheontae-jong (“Heavenly Platform Buddhism,” in English) Order of Korean Buddhism. With royal financing, as well as influence, Uicheon collected various Buddhist scriptures and organized them in a palace library in the city of Gaeseong.

Sadly, Uicheon passed away in 1101. Upon his death, he was given the honourific name of Daegak-guksa: Daegak meaning “Grand Enlightenment,” while guksa means “national preceptor.”

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The Cheontae Buddhist Order sign.

Seosan Hyujeong – 서산 휴정 (1520-1604)

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The Warrior Monk, Seosan Hyujeong

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This is the sixth installment about prominent monks in Korean Buddhism. This week, I thought I would talk about another warrior monk: Seosan Hyujeong. Like his student, Samyeong-daesa, Seosan would rise up against the invading Japanese to defend the Korean peninsula.

Seosan was a great Seon master during the early to mid-Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). Seosan is remembered both as a national hero, as well as one of the most important figures in Korean Buddhist history.

Seosan’s Buddhist name was Cheongheo Hyujeong; however, he’s most commonly known by the respectful title of Seosan-daesa. During his lifetime, he taught hundreds of students that became prominent Seon masters in their own right. At the age of 32, Seosan scored the highest score in his class exam on monastic studies. Afterwards, he ascended to the highest position in Seon Buddhism, as well as the master arbitrator between Seon (meditative) and Gyo (doctrinal) schools of Buddhism. Eventually, he resigned his position after already assuming the position reluctantly in the first place. He didn’t strictly want to be an administrator. So he retreated to Mt. Geumgangsan, where he continued to practice and teach monks.

In 1592, and at the age of 72, the Japanese invaded the Korean peninsula. At this time, and two hundred years prior, Korean Buddhism had been dealt with contemptuously by Joseon Confucians. During this time in Korean history, monks had been driven out of cities and temples were closed. In fact, sacred Buddhist artwork was confiscated by Korean court officials. However, and in spite of all this, Seosan believed Korean Buddhism should come to the defence of the nation. In doing this, he cited the idea of doryang (the sacred practice of awakening), where people suffering needed to be saved through compassion; and for Seosan, there was no greater show of this than to come to the aid of the nation.

Even though he was 72 years old, he took the battlefield with parts of the Korean militias, as well as troops from Ming China (1368-1644). Through his efforts, he was successful in recapturing Pyeongyang. In greater support, Seosan asked all of his disciples to come to Korea’s aid. One of these monks was the famed Samyeong-daesa, who fought successfully in the southern portion of the Korean peninsula. As a result of their collective actions, the nation-protecting tradition of Korean Buddhism helped to partially re-legitimize the religion in officials’ minds.

In addition to his militaristic efforts to save his nation, Seosan was also a great meditation master. He helped to consolidate the forms of Gyo and Seon Buddhism, which are used in unison most commonly to the present day. Sadly, Seosan-daesa passed away at the age of 84 in 1604.

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Another image of the elderly warrior monk, Seosan

Samyeong-daesa – 사명 대사 (1544-1610)

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A picture of Samyeong-daesa from Jikjisa Temple

Hello Again Everyone!!

This is the fifth installment on prominent Buddhist monks in Korean history. And this time, I thought I would talk about Master Samyeong-daesa, who I have long found very interesting for a number of reasons. So keep reading and find out why, as you learn a bit more about the Joseon Dynasty monk, Samyeong-daesa.

Samyeong was a Seon master with the Buddhist name, at least during his lifetime, of Yujeong; however, he became posthumously known as Samyeong-daesa. Samyeong-daesa was born at a time in the mid-Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) where there was a lot of upheaval. It was a period that included the Imjin War from 1592 to 1598. Samyeong-daesa would become one of the leading warrior monks during this hellish period in Korean history.

Samyeong-daesa was born in the city of Miryang in Gyeongsangnam-do Province. Tragically, his mom would die in 1558, which was followed by the death of his father in 1559. Shortly after their deaths, Samyeong became a monk at the famed Jikjisa Temple in Gimcheon, Gyeongsangbuk-do. During his studies, he studied both Buddhist and Confucian texts. Later, in 1575, Samyeong was nominated to become the head of the Seon Order; however, he refused. Instead, he chose to travel to Mt. Myohyangsan instead. It was here that he became the disciple of Master Seosan.

Samyeong-daesa was one of the leading disciples of Master Seosan. And it was through Seosan’s influence and instruction that Samyeong-daesa took up arms against the invading Japanese during the Imjin War. In fact, and after joining forces with Seosan, Samyeong helped defend Haeinsa Temple, Gounsa Temple, and the Haenam region of Jeollanam-do from the Japanese.

After the war, Samyeong was appointed as the royal envoy. During his negotiation with the Japanese, to which he traveled to Japan, Samyeong successfully negotiated a peace agreement. After the war, Samyeong returned to Korea with Korean prisoners of war, as well as priceless religious artifacts.

Not long after the Imjin War, Samyeong retired. As a sign of appreciation, the king built Hongjeam Hermitage near Haeinsa Temple. With failing health, Samyeong-daesa passed away in 1610. His stupa and stele remain at this hermitage to this very day. After his death, special shrines were built at Pyochungsa Temple, Jikjisa Temple, and Daeheungsa Temple. To this very day, Samyeong-daesa continues to be remembered as one of Korea’s greatest heroes, and his writings are preserved in the Samyeong-daesa-jip.

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 Samyeong-daesa: The warrior monk

Naong Hyegeun – 나옹 혜근 (1320-1376)

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Meditation Master, master Naong Hyegeun (1320-1376)

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In the fourth installment of leading luminaries in Korean Buddhism, I thought I would talk about the meditation master, Master Naong Hyegeun. He was a master of the Imje Seon lineage, and he taught and lived during the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). It was a period of increasing negativity towards Buddhism due to the corruption that was rampant in the religion at that time. He is best known for laying the foundation for Buddhism in the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910).

Naong was believed to have been born as Gang Wolheon in the city of Yeonghae. At the age of 20, he became an ordained monk, which happened after the death of a close friend. At the age of 27, Naong traveled to Tang China to further his Buddhist education. Uniquely, he was the student of the Indian master, Jigong. He was later to further his studies when he traveled to China and studied under various masters while in the southern part of China. While there, he learned under the most prominent monk teaching in China at that time, Master Dhyanabhadra at Wutai-shan.

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The Gwaneeum-jeon Hall at Songgwangsa Temple.

Upon his return to the Korean peninsula, he became the abbot (juji) of the famed Woljeongsa Temple in 1360. It was during this time that he had a mystical experience with Munsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom). He also became the primary teacher of Muhak, who he had met in China, and would go on to become prominent in his own right within Korean Buddhism. And then, in 1371, not only did he become the abbot at Suseonsa Temple (now the famed Songgwangsa Temple), but he also became the Royal Preceptor. Eventually, he became the abbot of Hoeamsa Temple.

In 1376, Naong Hyegeun passed away while in the process of moving to Yeongwosa Temple in present day Miryang. He died at Silleuksa Temple in Yeoju on May 15th. In total, he had over 2,000 disciples, the most famous being Muhak Jacho (1327-1425), who helped contribute to the foundation of the Joseon Dynasty.

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Doui-guksa – 도의 국사 (? – 825)

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A picture of Master Doui-guksa, who was the first monk to transmit Seon Buddhism throughout Korea.

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In this third article, I thought I would talk about Doui-guksa, who was the first Korean monk to transmit patriarchal Seon Buddhism, which became an integral part of Buddhism throughout the Korean peninsula.

Doui was born in Bukhan-gu, which is present day Seoul. His surname was Wang. Before Doui was born, and according to the “Doui Jeon” (Biography of Doui), in the 17th Volume of the Jodangjip (Records of the Ancestral Hall), Doui’s father and mother had a dream of his impending birth. While Doui’s father dreamt of a white rainbow across the sky which entered their room, his mother had a dream that she had slept with a monk. About a month and a half after this dream, Doui’s mom started showing signs that she was pregnant. Strangely, she didn’t give birth for another 39 months. Talk about a long pregnancy!

In 784, Doui made his way to Tang China by ship, which was pretty standard for Korean monks at that time. When he first arrived, he visited Mt. Wutai-shan. While there, he was ordained a monk at Baotan-si Temple in Guangfu. After becoming ordained, Doui headed south for Mt. Caoxi-shan (or Mt. Jogye in Korean). There, he paid his respects to the sixth patriarch of Seon Buddhism, Huineng, who is still enshrined there to the present day. According to legend, when he arrived at this temple, the temple doors mysteriously opened for him on their own accord. After his visit to Mt. Caoxi-shan, he traveled to Kaiyuan-si Temple next to help further his studies under Master Zhizang, who was a fourth generation disciple of Huineng. Doui attained enlightenment under Master Zhizang’s guidance.

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Borimsa Temple in Jangheung, Jeollanam-do.

Eventually, Master Doui returned to the Korean peninsula in 821, where he established a small temple to teach. This temple was located in Jangheung, Jeollanam-do; and while there, he started to transmit the little known Seon doctrine of meditative Buddhism. Doui was also known as a strong critic of scholastic-driven Buddhist practices, which were prevalent during his lifetime.

Doui’s main disciple was Yeomgeo, whose main disciple was Chejing (804-880). Master Chejing was to later expand the little known temple that Doui had founded. This temple is still around today, and it’s known as Borimsa Temple. In doing this, Chejing founded the Gaji-sanmun (Buddhist Wisdom Sect), as the first of the nine Gusan-seonmun (Korean Seon’s Nine Original Sects). As a result of this lineage and his efforts, Master Doui is held in high regard as one of the key founders of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, which is the largest sect of Buddhism throughout South Korea.

In 825, after retiring to Jinjeonsa Temple in Mt. Seoraksan, Doui-guksa passed away. Master Chejing put it best when he wrote about Doui’s brand of Buddhism that it was “the tenant of unconditioned spontaneity,” which sums up the new brand of Seon Buddhism that he brought to the Korean peninsula. Doui-guksa’s budo, which houses his earthly remains, can be found at Seoknamsa Temple in Eonyang, Gyeongsangnam-do.

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Doui-guksa’s budo from Seoknamsa Temple in Eonyang, Gyeongsangnam-do.

Doseon-guksa – 도선 국사 (826-898)

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Seon master, Doseon-guksa, who founded Korean feng-shui (pungsu-jiri).

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In my second article on famous or prominent monks, I decided to write about the great master of meditation: Doseon-guksa. And while Doseon was a great master of meditation in Seon Buddhism, he is best remembered for his creation of Korean feng-shui (geomancy or pungsu-jiri in Korean).

Doseon was born in Yeongnam-gun, Jeollanam-do. It’s believed that his surname was Kim. And he was first introduced to Buddhism at an early age when he learned chants and basic sutras soon after he was able to speak. Doseon also spent a part of his childhood, around 835, at Munsuam Hermitage. He first officially started to study Buddhism at Dogapsa Temple in the city of his birth. He became an ordained monk at the age of 15 in 841. Doseon was then accepted to study at the famed Hwaeomsa Temple. Later, Doseon was to study under the great Master Hyecheol at Taeansa Temple.

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Dogapsa Temple, the temple where Doseon-guksa first started to study Buddhism.

Doseon was like most monks of his day, he traveled to Tang China to further his Buddhist studies in 850. While there, he focused on esoteric Taoist and Buddhist teachings. He especially enjoyed the geomantic ideas of Master Ihsing (673-727).

Finally, when Doseon returned to the Silla Kingdom, he traveled extensively throughout the Korean peninsula. During his travels he focused on observing its geography. Doseon adapted Chinese feng-shui (or pungsu-jiri in Korea) to the Korean landscape. It focused on harmony with nature, while placing a great emphasis on the spiritual and material energies that flowed from the mountains and what effect this had on a community or the nation as a whole. So instead of simply focusing on the house, like Chinese feng-shui did, Doseon broadened it in the Korean context of pungsu-jiri.

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Hwaeomsa Temple, where Doseon-guksa trained after becoming an ordained monk.

Doseon was later to found Okryongsa Temple (Jade Dragon Temple) in the city of Gwangyong. He did this after determining that the site had an auspicious geomantic location. He taught at this temple for the next 35 years of his life with the occasional trip outside its four walls to travel the Silla Kingdom.

During his lifetime, Doseon purportedly helped hundreds of monks and lay people achieve enlightenment. Later on in his life, Doseon was made Silla’s leading Master monk for his wisdom by King Heongang (r. 875-886). In total, around 70 temples and hermitage are claimed to have been founded by him. And most of them still thrive to this very day. In addition to these 70, there are dozens more that were re-constructed or renovated under his geomantic ideals.

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The Dogapsa-doseon-sumi-bi at Dogapsa Temple dedicated to both Doseon-guksa and the monk Sumi.

Interestingly, a lot of Doseon’s fame comes from his influence as an advisor to King Taejo (r. 918-943), who founded the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). What’s interesting is that they never met. But as a result of Doseon’s geomantic principals, the capital of Seoul was selected for its auspicious location. So if you’ve ever wondered why Seoul became the capital, and it’s located where it is, you now know the answer to those questions.

Finally, in 898, Doseon died. He died while in the lotus position in front of his many disciples at Okryongsa Temple. After his death, a budo was erected in honour of this master; unfortunately, it no longer exists. The great influence of Doseon was justifiably rewarded, posthumously, when Goryeo King Sukjong promoted Doseon to the rank of Wangsa (Royal Preceptor). This was only furthered by King Injong, when he promoted Doseon to the highest possible rank that a monk can hold in Korea when he named him a National Master: a Guksa. Ever since, Doseon-guksa remains a prominent figure in Korean Buddhism.

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The portrait of Doseon-guksa from Dogapsa Temple.