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WŎNHYO (617686), Buddhist philosopher and putative founder of the Pŏpsŏng (Dharma-Nature, also called Haedong) school of Korean Buddhist thought. Wŏnhyo is indisputably the greatest Buddhist exegete produced by the Silla kingdom's Buddhist tradition, if not Korea's premier philosopher of all time.

Wŏnhyo was born into the Sŏl clan, a tribal league of the Chinhae region of the southern Korean peninsula, which had been assimilated into the Silla aristocratic system (yuktu p'um) in the early years of the common era. After his ordination into the Buddhist order, Wŏnhyo and his close friend, Ŭisang (625702), founder of the Korean Hwaŏm (Chin., Huayan) school, twice decided, we are told, to undertake a pilgrimage to China in order to study with the renowned Chinese translator Xuanzang (d. 664). On their first trip in 650 the two Silla pilgrims were arrested as spies by Koguryŏ border guards and spent several weeks in prison before being repatriated. During their second attempt in 661 it is said that the friends traveled to a port in the Paekche region, where they hoped to board a ship bound for the mainland. Forced by a heavy downpour to spend the night in what they thought was an earthen sanctuary, they learned the next morning that it was actually an ancient tomb littered with human skulls. Marveling at his mind's ability to transform a thoroughly gruesome site into a comfortable haven, Wŏnhyo realized his world was created by the mind alone. His enlightenment rendered his planned pilgrimage to China unnecessary, and he returned to his home country to undertake a life of writing, preaching, and proselytizing. Sometime during his career, a liaison with a widowed princess led to the birth of a son, Sŏl Ch'ong (c. late sixth to early seventh century), who developed the Idu system of transcribing Korean, the first indigenous writing system used on the peninsula. Along with lecturing on Buddhism to the Silla aristocracy, which had only recently (and grudgingly) converted to the religion, Wŏnhyo also traveled among the peasant populace, instructing them with popular songs and verses. Hence, Wŏnhyo's prodigious efforts at proselytism helped to cement Buddhism's place as the national religion of Korea during the early years of the Unified Silla period (668935).

Wŏnhyo was a prolific writer and commentator, authoring some one hundred works, of which over twenty are still extant. His interests ran the gamut of Buddhist materials then available in East Asia, from Mādhyamika, to Yogācāra, to Pure Land. Wŏnhyo played a major role in introducing to the Korean intelligentsia to Buddhist scriptures and commentaries, which, prior to his time had been virtually nonexistent in Silla. Wŏnhyo was the first Korean Buddhist to attempt to reconcile the disparate teachings of Chinese and Indian Buddhist philosophy, in particular the Mādhyamika and Yogācāra traditions. In his commentaries he eschewed the explication of scriptures according to the hermeneutics of any particular school; rather, he attempted to reveal the unifying principle, the "one mind," that vivified each of those texts. In one of his principal works devoted to his synthetic philosophy, Simmun hwajaengnon (Ten approaches to the reconciliation of doctrinal controversy), Wŏnhyo states that his fundamental intent is to harmonize the differences that characterize the various schools of Buddhist philosophy and merge their views into two all-inclusive perspectives. These were, first, the dependent origination approach (saenggi-mun), in which the myriads of qualities were shown to be the products of a perdurable causal process, and, second, the return to the source approach (kwiwŏn-mun), in which all such phenomenal characteristics were abandoned so that one could return to their ultimate source, the one mind. This dichotomy is seen, with slight variations, in many of Wŏnhyo's writings.

Perhaps Wŏnhyo's most influential works were his commentaries to the Tasheng qixin lun (Awakening of faith in Mahāyāna) and the Huayan jing (Skt., Avatasaka Sūtra, Flower Garland Sūtra ). In the former commentary, Wŏnhyo outlines a four-stage soteriologyfrom nonenlightenment, to apparent enlightenment, advanced enlightenment, and finally ultimate enlightenmentthat demonstrates how ordinary persons can hope to achieve spiritual liberation. Both of these texts had such a profound effect on the philosophical development of Fazang (643712), the systematizer of the Chinese Huayan school of Buddhist thought, that Wŏnhyo is now considered to be an important vaunt-courier of that school. Wŏnhyo's many outlines (chongyo) to Buddhist sūtras also sought to treat those texts in terms that would result in fraternal harmony rather than sectarian controversy. The synthetic tendencies in Wŏnhyo's thought were to inspire all future Korean Buddhist writers and establish doctrinal synthesis as the hallmark of the Korean Buddhist tradition. It is for this reason that Wŏnhyo is traditionally regarded as the founder of the synthetic Pŏpsŏng school, one of the five Buddhist scholastic schools of the mature Silla tradition.

See Also

Buddhism, article on Buddhism in Korea; Fazang; Huayan; Ŭisang.


Buswell, Robert E., Jr. The Formation of Ch'an Ideology in China and Korea: The Vajrasamādhi-Sūtra, a Buddhist Apocryphon. Princeton, 1989. Chapters two and three discuss Wŏnhyo's life and thought.

Buswell, Robert E., Jr. "Hagiographies of the Korean Monk Wŏnhyo." In Buddhism in Practice, edited by Donald S. Lopez, Jr., pp. 553562. Princeton, 1995.

Hong, Jung-shik. "The Thought and Life of Wŏnhyo." In Buddhist Culture in Korea, pp. 1530. Seoul, 1982.

Koh, Ik-jin. "Wŏnhyo's Hua-yen Thought." Korea Journal 23, no. 8 (August 1983): 3033.

Nam, Dong-shin. "Wŏnhyo's Ilsim Philosophy and Mass Proselytization Movement." Seoul Journal of Korean Studies 8 (1995): 143162.

Rhi, Ki-yong. "Wŏnhyo and His Thought." Korea Journal 11, no. 1 (January 1971): 49.

Robert Evans Buswell, Jr. (1987 and 2005)

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