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Hyujong (1520-1604)

Hyujong (1520-1604)

Hyujong, a sixteenth-century Korean Buddhist meditation master, was born at Anju in P'yongan Province. His parents died when he was a child, and he was adopted by a local magistrate. He was sent to the National Academy in the capital and seemed destined for life as a civil servant. However, he failed the civil service examination and left the city to wander through the countryside. He studied Buddhism with various teachers and spent considerable time in meditation. Then in 1549 his early training came to his aid as he took an exam for an administrative position with the national Buddhist establishment. Passing at the top of his group, he was offered an important monastic title. He served for eight years before resigning and returning to a life of meditation.

Hyujong's writings reflect in part the secondary position of Buddhism in Korea during the century in which he lived. Confucian thought reigned supreme. He tried to argue that in essence, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism were in agreement, though they differed in outward appearance. He argued for the superiority of the way of Buddhist meditation without denigrating Confucian thought.

Hyujong's major work, The Mirror of the Meditation School, appeared in 1564. Essentially a manual for monks, it attempted to bridge the difference between those more interested in Buddhist teachings and those more interested in meditation. Adopting a similar approach to his perspective on Confucianism, he argued that doctrine and meditation were ultimately the same, with meditation being Buddha's mind and doctrine Buddha's words. In the end, however, the identification breaks down and meditation is superior to doctrines. Doctrines are the passageway to the goal that is only reached with meditation.

Hyujong argued that everyone had the potential for enlightenment. Those spiritually inclined could do it through the identification of their own mind with the Buddha's mind and work to bring their thought and action into conformity with that realization. For others, enlightenment could be reached through such outward practices as chanting the Buddha's name and the use of mantras and spells to assist in ridding one of past karmic accretions.

Toward the end of his life, Hyujong was called to lead an army of monks against the Japanese who invaded Korea in 1592. He survived the fighting and lived to 1604. He was little appreciated outside of Buddhist circles in his own day, but has been given renewed attention in the decades since the Korean War (1950s). His writings have not yet been translated into English or other Western languages.


McGreal, Ian P. Great Thinkers of the Eastern World. New York: Harper, 1995.

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