Wonhyo and Uisang Temple Paintings

WonhyoamThe famous pair of monks from Wonhyoam Hermitage in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do. Uisang-daesa is on the left and his close friend Wonhyo-daesa to the right.

Hello Again Everyone!!

At the occasional temple, you’ll see a unique painting of two monks. In this unique painting one monk is holding a human skull as he dances, while the other waves good-bye. So who are these two monks? What does the painting look like exactly? And what does it all mean?


The famous painting of Wonhyo-daesa on the left with his friend Uisang-daesa to the right from the Jogyeam Hermitage.

In this painting, which usually adorns the main hall of a temple or hermitage, are two monks realistically rendered on a beautiful landscape painting. The monk on the left is holding a human skull as he smiles, while he’s dancing away from his fellow monk. The second monk to the right is waving good-bye with a bag on his back. He is apparently continuing on some sort of journey. To the uninitiated eye this may look like nothing more than any number of murals that adorn the exterior of a Korean temple or hermitage hall; however, this painting, and these two monks in particular, have a lot of loaded meaning to Korean Buddhism.

So who exactly are these two monks? And what exactly is the meaning of this mural? The easier answer to these two questions is that the monk on the left in the mural is Wonhyo-daesa, and the monk on the right is his friend, and fellow monk, Uisang.


A better look at Wonhyo-daesa (617-686 A.D.)

Wonhyo (617-686 A.D.) was born in Apnyang, Gyeongsan-gun, in Gyeongsangbuk-do province. His secular name was Seol, and he originally came from a middle-class background (Head-rank six: Yukdupum, in Korean).


And a better look at Uisang-daesa (625-702 A.D.)

Uisang (625-702 A.D.), on the other hand, couldn’t have been more different than his friend. Very little is known about Uisang’s early life other than a few basic facts. First, he came from Gyeongju from a noble royal family. Second, his secular family name was Kim, and his father’s name was Han-sin. At the age of nineteen Uisang became a monk at Hwangboksa Temple.

Initially, Wonhyo and Uisang attempted to travel to China to further their Buddhist education in 650 A.D., when Wonhyo was 34 and Uisang was 26. Unfortunately, they were captured by Goguryeo guards as they attempted to travel to China by land. They were treated as spies and for several weeks they were in jail. And even though they wouldn’t make it to China on their first attempt, because of the heightened tension between Tang China and Korea as a result of the recent invasion of the Tang army into Korea, this would not quell the desire to visit Tang China to further their education of Buddhism. However, this helps to partially explain the mural that is now painted on some Korean temple and hermitage halls.

In 661 A.D., Wonhyo and Uisang would attempt to visit Tang China one more time. This time, however, they would attempt to arrive in China by sea. Again, they were attempting to visit Tang China to help further their education and understanding of Buddhism. As they travelled towards China, they stayed in Liaodong, Goguryeo (modern day Incheon). This was to be their point of departure to sail towards Tang China; however, their ship was delayed due to stormy winds and torrential rain. Caught in the storm without a place to stay, both Wonhyo and Uisang took shelter for the night in a nearby cave. As they were resting, they became thirsty, so they found gourds of water inside the cave to drink from. After drinking from the gourds, they both had a good night’s sleep.

HaegwangsaThe two friends finding a source of water to drink from late at night. This painting is from Haegwangsa Temple.


And the two friends quenching their thirst from “gourds.” This painting is from Baekryeongjeongsa Temple near Tongdosa Temple.

 It wasn’t until the next morning, at first light, that they realized that they hadn’t stayed in any ordinary cave; instead, the cave that they had stayed in was in fact a grave. And the gourds that they thought they had drunk from were in fact maggoty and putridly decaying human skulls. This realization is beautifully painted along the main hall at Songgwangsa Temple and Unmunsa Temple. And with this realization, they couldn’t stop vomiting.


The moment of realization by Wonhyo-daesa from Songgwangsa Temple.

For a second day and night, stormy weather was all about Liaodong, Goguryeo (modern day Incheon), so they were forced once more to spend another night in the same cave. During their second night, both Wonhyo and Uisang were unable to sleep because they were haunted by the nightmares and imagined ghosts from that morning’s realization. It was at this point that Wonhyo had his revelation known as “conscious-only enlightenment.” What Wonhyo realized was that the water he drank was the same water, but that his mind had changed towards what he had drank. It is in this revelation that he realized that a subjective mind can change an objective object. He would famously write that “there is nothing clean and nothing dirty; all things are made by the mind.”


The famous painting of Wonhyo and Uisang, with Wonhyo to the right dancing with a skull and Uisang to the left waving good-bye and determined to complete his travels to Tang China.

With this knowledge, Wonhyo decided to return to his home. He believed it would be more fruitful to learn practical wisdom than to achieve ideal knowledge. So while Wonhyo returned home after his revelation, Uisang would continue on towards China. And it is from this departure that the two are idealized in the present paintings that adorn temple and hermitage halls of these two famous Korean monks and their famous legend.

After their leave from one another, both Wonhyo and Uisang would go on to become two of  Korea’s most popular and famous monks.


Another artisitic interpretation of Wonhyo’s revelation from Unmunsa Temple.

Wonhyo would return to Korea and leave the Buddhist clergy and become a common practitioner of Buddhism. Of his revelatory experience, Wonhyo would later write:

When a thought arises, all dharma (phenomena) arises and when a thought disappears the shelter and the tomb are as one. The Three Worlds are simply the mind,

All phenomena are mere perception.

There being no Dharma outside the mind.

What else is there to seek? I shall not go to Tang.


The shrine hall, Bogwang-jeon, at Bunhwangsa Temple in Gyeongju, which is dedicated to Wonhyo-daesa.

Wonhyo would go on to author 240 volumes of work which cover all aspects of Buddhism including Mahayana, Hinayana, and the Tripitaka sutras. A large number of these texts were written at Bunhwangsa Temple in Gyeongju. To have written so many volumes in one lifetime is nearly superhuman. Wonhyo is recognized for his depth of perception and clarity of thought on Buddhist Truths. And all of this was made possible by the one event that took place in Liaodong, Goguryeo, when Wonhyo drank from a perceived gourd. At his death, Wonhyo’s son, Seol Chong, would be at his side. Also at his side would be his lifelong friend, Uisang. Wonhyo died suddenly at a temple near Hyol in Gyeongju in 686.

Uisang, on the other hand, would go on to visit China. He would go to Zhixiangsi Temple at Mt. Zhongnan, where he met the great master, Zhiyam. Uisang would study under Zhiyam for the next ten years, where he learned about the “Flower Ornament Sutra.” Uisang eventually returned to Korea, where he became the founder of the Korean Hwaeom school of Buddhism. Uisang would also go on to be known as the “ Temple Builder” for the number of temples and hermitages he either established or extended during his lifetime like Buseoksa Temple and Beomeosa Temple. Finally, and on a more personal level, Uisang stressed the equality of all individuals, which was unique at that time in Korean society, when there was a rigid caste system in place. He also attempted to lessen the suffering of all individuals in their daily lives. Eventually, and sadly, Uisang would pass away in 702, a full sixteen years after his friend, Wonhyo, died.

These murals of a dancing Wonhyo holding a human skull, and a determined Uisang waving good-bye to his friend as he continues on his journey towards Tang China aren’t at a lot of temples or hermitages. However, when you do spot one in the future, you’ll have a better idea of the story the mural is trying to convey about these two seminal figures in Korean Buddhism.