A Look At Jinul, Korean Buddhism’s Superstar


In the past, I wrote about Wonhyo, a kind of Buddhist hero in Korean history who was important in spreading Buddhism to the masses. This time, I wanted to talk about another famous Buddhist in Korean history named Jinul, or Bojo Jinul (보조지눌, 普照知訥, 1158–1210). I started reading a book about the life and writings of Jinul called Tracing Back the Radiance: Chinul’s Korean Way of Zen by Robert Buswell, whom I mentioned here as well.

Jinul is largely responsible for Korean Buddhism as we know it today,1 because he helped consolidate various Buddhist schools into a single order called the Jogye Order (jogye jong 조계종, 曹溪宗). Where Japanese Buddhism tended to branch out into many, many sects, Korean Buddhism combined into a single Buddhist order for the whole nation. The Jogye Order combined the original “Nine Schools of Seon” (Zen) into a single order, but Jogye Order also absorbed Korean Pure Land Buddhism, the Lotus Sutra-based Tiantai schools, Yogacara Buddhism, and Flower-Garland Buddhism as well. It was intended to be a single order combining the best aspects of each school, while providing Seon Buddhist meditation as the core practice.

How and why did this happen? Buswell’s book has a really nice explanation of Korean Buddhist history until Jinul’s time, which I used to go back and updated this post. In Jinul’s time, the Goreyo Kingdom of Korea (高麗) suffered hard times. It was invaded by the Khitans’ and their Liao Dynasty three times in 25 years (993, 1010 and 1018) and the kingdom itself was very unstable with revolts, assassinations and so on. Many monks at the time were concerned with wealth and power, and monastic discipline and greatly declined as a result.

Meanwhile the Chinese Southern Song Dynasty (宋朝) was facing invasion from the North. But ironically Song Dynasty China had a very sophisticated and brilliant culture, and Buddhism reached a high-point. Much of Japanese Zen culture we know now comes from Song-Dynasty Buddhism through men like Eisai, Dogen and others. In the case of Korea, that same Song-Dynasty style Zen was an important source and inspiration for Jinul’s Buddhist community and for Korean Buddhism as a whole.

Jinul was deeply influenced by a Chinese monk named Da-Hui Zong-gao who was one of the first monks to advocate the using special questions called Hua Tou (話頭), which are used in meditation. In Korean Buddhism these are called Hwadu (화두). This article has a nice summary of the differences between Zen Koans and Korean-style Hwadu. In short, hwadu are used as a focus for meditation, and a student will use the same hwadu throughout their life.

Jinul was also deeply influenced by the Flower Garland Sutra and the Hwaeom (華嚴, 화엄) School in Korean Buddhism. Jinul’s approach to Seon (Zen) Buddhism combined the theory and study of the Flower-Garland school with the practice of Zen through Hwadu and meditation. For example, in his magnum opus, Excerpts From The Dharma Collection and Special Practice Record with Personal Notes (beopjip pyeolhaeng nok jeolyo byeongip sagi 법집별행녹절요병입사기, 法集別行錄節要幷入私記), he writes:

I have observed that people of the present time who are cultivating their minds do not depend on the guidance of the written teachings, but straightaway assume that the successive transmission of the esoteric idea [of Seon] is the path. They then sit around dozing with their minds in a haze, their labors all in vain, or else they lose their presence of mind in agitation and confusion during their practice of meditation. For these reasons, I feel you should follow words and teachings which were expounded in accordance with reality in order to determine the proper procedure in regard to awakening and cultivation. Once you mirror your own minds, you may contemplate with insight at all times, without wasting your efforts (pg. 151-152 of Tracing Back the Radiance)

….and this helps explains Jinul’s approach to Buddhism: a balance of scholastic study in the sutras which describes reality, and dedicated meditation practice to help realize it first-hand. He was not the first to do this: a famous Chinese Zen monk named Zongmi (圭峰) had done the same thing 400 years earlier, but Zongmi’s efforts didn’t survive after the Tang Dynasty, but Jinul was heavily inspired by Zongmi to revive the same methodology: the sutras provide the framework, but through direct-realization (through meditation, etc) one can validate the wisdom of the sutras.

Years later, when Jinul started a community of dedicated monks called the Samadhi and Prajna Community, this community and its inclusive approach to Buddhism soon drew many other monks and lay-followers. By this time, Jinul and the community had created a community from an abandoned temple called Gilsang-sa Temple, but it was renamed to Suseon-sa Temple, and the mountain was renamed to Jogye-san (from Songgwang-san). This is the beginnings of the Jogye Order.

Further, under Hyesim, Jinul’s talented disciple and successor, the community at Suseon-sa Temple greatly flourished and further absorbed the other Buddhist schools in Korea forming the Jogye Order we see today.

Personally, I respect Jinul quite a bit. He seems like a really sharp guy who took his Buddhist practice very seriously, but also was humble enough to realize he didn’t have all the answers.

As for the book, I definitely recommend it for any serious student of Korean Buddhism and/or Zen. Jinul’s approach has much in common with the well-known Zen schools of Japan and China, but at the same time, he brings a lot of energy and deep insights too. Professor Buswell did a great job in describing Korean Buddhist history, describing Jinul’s life and thought, but also translating critical Korean Seon works that weren’t available before.

P.S. Recently I had the pleasure of talking with Professor Buswell over email (after I wrote this post) and he was very nice to talk to. Definitely support his efforts if you can.

1 Sadly, the Jogye Order today has its challenges to overcome: in-fighting, scandals, and changing society. Then again, these problems plague Buddhist institutions everywhere, and other religions as well.


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.

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