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.

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.

Picture-066Haedong Yonggungsa Temple in Busan, which Naong Hyegeun founded.

Jajang-yulsa – 자장 율사 (590-658)

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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Tongdosa Temple during Buddha’s birthday.