Jajang-yulsa – 자장 율사 (590-658)


A portrait of the Silla monk, Jajang-yulsa.

Hello Again Everyone!!

In yet another new series on the site, I thought I would finally bring attention to some of the spiritual leaders, Korean monks, that helped Buddhism not only survive, but flourish throughout the Korean peninsula.

For the very first article, I thought I would acknowledge one of the most prominent monks in Korean history that helped guide such luminaries as Wonhyo-daesa and Uisang-daesa. I thought I would discuss Jajang-yulsa.

Jajang was a precepts Buddhist master from the Silla Kingdom. As a result of this distinction, he’s known as Jajang-yulsa. He’s the only famous monk in Korean history that has the title “yulsa” attached to his name.  He’s also one of the key founders of Buddhism in Korea. Jajang helped nurture the newly developing Buddhist community in Korea. But he’s probably most famous for founding the five most famous, and ancient, Jeokmyeol-bogung that house the Buddha’s earthly remains. In addition to these five famous temples, he also founded other famous temples like Sinheungsa Temple and Magoksa Temple.


A picture of Magoksa Temple.

Jajang came from an important aristocratic family that ranked just below the royal family. He was born Kim Seonjong (김선종). Jajang was a bright student that started to study Buddhism at an early age. After the death of his parents, Jajang started to shun the material world. Later in life, he left both his wife and kids to practice meditation on mountains. During his meditative practices, or at least one story states, Jajang would focus on a skeleton, while having his hut lined with brambles to prevent him from dozing off and losing focus.

Jajang was called several times to serve the king, King Jinpyeong (r.579-632), as a palace official. He called him to office before he became a monk. However, Jajang declined the offer in a letter when he famously stated, “I would rather die keeping precepts for one more day than live a hundred years breaking them.” Eventually, the king relented, and Jajang became an ordained monk (bigu).


A portrait of Jajang from Jajangam Hermitage near Tongdosa Temple.

After this episode in his life, Jajang traveled to Tang China in 636 at the age of 46. He did this to help further his Buddhist education that was not available in Korea at that time. He went on to study in the capital of Tang China: Zhongnan (now, Changan). He also studied at Mt. Wutai-shan (The Five Platforms Mountains). This monastery had a centuries old history devoted to Munsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom). During his time at the monastery, Jajang had mystical visions of Munsu-bosal. He also received 100 sari (crystalized remains) of the Buddha, a fragment of his skull, a piece of his robe, as well as a piece of the Buddha’s begging bowl.


A portrait of Jajang-yulsa from Jajangam Hermitage.

Finally, Jajang returned to Silla Korea in 643. As soon as he returned, Queen Seondeok authorized Jajang to use the holy relics to help further establish Buddhism in Korea, while also founding new temples throughout the Silla Kingdom. She also appointed him as Supreme Buddhist Overseer (National Preceptor), which granted him authority to create structure and discipline throughout Silla Buddhism.

In addition to all the temples that Jajang helped found like Tongdosa Temple, Bongjeongam Hermitage, and Woljeongsa Temple, he also advised the Queen to build the famous nine-story wooden pagoda at Hwangnyongsa Temple in Gyeongju. And then, in 658, Jajang-yulsa, who had given so much to establish Buddhism throughout the Silla Kingdom, died.


Tongdosa Temple during Buddha’s birthday.