Wonhyo: Korea’s Buddhist Hero

Recently Korea’s Yonhap News Agency had a featured article on Wonhyo, who is Korea’s most celebrated Buddhist monk. The article was inspired by recent efforts by a group of expats living in Korea to recreate the pilgrimage of Wonhyo through Korea. The pilgrimage is recorded here on this website.

Wonhyo (원효, 元曉, 617–686) is to Korea what Kūkai is to Japan: both are national heroes who transcend a particular Buddhist sect, and really helped Buddhism flourish across many levels of society, while also leaving a cultural legacy too. In my experience, everyone in Japan, even if they’re not interested in Buddhism, still has an almost mythical reverence for Kūkai. In the same way, Koreans of diverse backgrounds revere Wonhyo more than any other Buddhist monk.

According to his biography, Wonhyo lived during the era of Unified Silla, which as I mentioned in an old post, was a time when Buddhist in Korea matured and absorbed a lot of teachings from China. Wonhyo was particularly talented in his ability to synthesize many different Buddhist strains, and bring them to a wider audience. Wonhyo is widely credited for bringing Pure Land Buddhist teachings to Korea (and indirectly to Japan), but also inspiring many later generations of Korean and Chinese Buddhist scholars in the Flower Garland School, and the Tian-Tai (Cheontae) school.

One famous story about Wonhyo is worth repeating here: Wonhyo and his companion Uisang (another famous monk), were traveling to China to study Buddhism there when they encountered a terrible rainstorm one night and had to seek shelter. Wonhyo was very thirsty and luckily found a gourd of fresh water and drank to his satisfaction. The next morning, he awoke and found the gourd had been a rotten, old skull filled with stale water and his “shelter” was a old tomb. Realizing what had happened, Wonhyo vomited and had a moment of awakening. He realized that his mind could change his perception of reality so easily and that his mind was the source of everything he knew. Compare this to the teachings in Yogacara Buddhism (posted here and here), or with the famous Buddhist analogy of the monk who stepped on a piece of rope late one night, thought it was a snake, and fainted.

As the Buddha himself taught in the Vipallasa Sutta (AN 4.49 in the Pali Canon):

Sensing no change in the changing,
Sensing pleasure in suffering,
Assuming “self” where there’s no self,
Sensing the un-lovely as lovely —

Gone astray with wrong views, beings
Mis-perceive with distorted minds.

Bound in the bondage of Mara,
Those people are far from safety.
They’re beings that go on flowing:
Going again from death to birth.1

We can learn a lot from Wonhyo’s life and his example to others. 🙂

Namu Shaka Nyorai

1 A reference to samsara, the state of existence we all live with.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

2 thoughts on “Wonhyo: Korea’s Buddhist Hero”

  1. most of the time when we continuously strive to attain enlightenment we actually get more significant nuggets of insight on very unexpected events.


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