Thursday, October 11, 2012

Painting of Wonhyo's Awakening, at Musangsa

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When you've been from one end of South Korea to the other, visiting temples, enough times, there are a few temple images that become familiar.

One that I've spotted five or six times, so far, is of an elated monk, dancing, while holding a scull in his hand while another monk bids him farewell in the background.

When I first spotted this image, it just seemed so peculiar that I didn't forget it, then when I saw it again at another temple, I realized there must be a story attached.

The story, it turns out, it quite an interesting one.

There are probably a few versions of the 1300 year-old story, but the one I first heard went like this...

Wonhyo Seunim, along with his friend, Uisang Seunim, were on their way to Tang China to study with a great master. When they reached the coast, it was already dark and a bit stormy, so they took shelter in a cave. During the night, Wonhyo was thirsty, so he reached out and found a bowl that was filled with rain water. He took a drink and fell back to sleep.

In the morning, as sunlight lit the cave, the two monks found that they'd actually been sleeping in an old burial site and the bowl that Wonhyo had drunk from was actually a maggot infested skull. He ran out of the cave and began vomiting when he realized that, "all phenomena arise when the mind arises."

According to, The Great Seon Masters of Korea, a book I received from Jogyesa, the drinking from the skull was a detail later added from dramatic effect, and what actually happened was that they did in fact unknowingly sleep in a graveyard, but because the rain didn't let up, they stayed in the cave for a second night. Though he slept quite well the first night, the knowledge that they were sleeping in a graveyard kept him from sleeping well during the second night. That is when he realized the dualistic nature of mind, "all phenomena arise when the mind arises and when the mind does not trigger the phenomena, the cave and the graveyard are not two; there is no sense of duality."

Wonhyo said to his friend, "The three worlds are nothing but mind, all phenomena arise from the mind and consciousness. If truth is present in the mind, how could it be found outside the mind! I will not go to Tang." Parting ways with Uisang, who did travel to Tang, he returned to Silla.

Wonhyo had a very eccentric existence, though, as far as I know, none of his other stories are found on any temple walls. He is revered as Korea's first pioneer in Buddhist and philosophical thought.

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