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Hangul 원효
Hanja 元曉
Revised Romanization Wonhyo
McCune–Reischauer Wŏnhyo
Birth name
Hangul 서당 or 신당
Hanja 誓幢 or 新幢
Revised Romanization Seodang, or Sindang
McCune–Reischauer Sŏtang or Sintang

Wonhyo (617 - 686 CE) was one of the leading thinkers, writers and commentators of the Korean Buddhist tradition. Essence-Function (體用), a key concept in Southeast Asian Buddhism and particularly that of Korean Buddhism, was refined in the syncretic philosophy and worldview of Wonhyo.[1]

With his life spanning the end of the Three Kingdoms period and the beginning of the Unified Silla, Wonhyo played a vital role in the reception and assimilation of the broad range of doctrinal Buddhist streams that flowed into the Korean peninsula at the time. Wonhyo was most interested in, and affected by Tathāgatagarbha, Yogācāra and Hwaom thought. However, in his extensive scholarly works, composed as commentaries and essays, he embraced the whole spectrum of the Buddhist teachings which were received in Korea, including such schools as Pure Land, Nirvana , Sanlun and Tiantai (Lotus Sūtra school).



Bogwangjeon hall at Bunhwangsa, Gyeongju which is a dedicated shrine to Wonhyo.

Wonhyo was born in Apnyang (押梁), nowadays the city of Gyeongsan, North Gyeongsang province, South Korea. He had a son, Seol Chong, who is considered to be one of the great Confucian scholars of Silla.

Keel (2004: p.432), in mentioning bodhisattva and sentient beings, holds that Wŏnhyo:

...tried to embody in his own life the ideal of a bodhisattva who works for the well-being of all sentient beings. Transcending the distinction of the sacred and the secular, he married a widower princess, visited villages and towns, and taught people with songs and dances.[2]

He is thought to have founded Korea's lone riverside temple, Silleuksa, in the late 600s. While Wonhyo was in Bunhwangsa temple located in Guhwang-dong, Gyeongju, he wrote a number of books. For such strong association with Wonhyo, a research center and a shrine named Bogwangjeon hall dedicated to Wonhyo's legacy are located in Bunhwangsa.[3]

Contribution to commentarial tradition

He wrote commentaries on virtually all of the most influential Mahāyāna scriptures, altogether including over eighty works in over two hundred fascicles. Among his most influential works were the commentaries he wrote on the Awakening of Faith, Nirvana Sutra and Vajrasamādhi Sutra, along with his exposition on the meaning of the two hindrances, the ijangui. These were treated with utmost respect by leading Buddhist scholars in China and Japan, and served to help in placing the Awakening of Faith as the most influential text in the Korean tradition.

Keel (2004: pp.431-432) positions Wŏnhyo in the emergent context of flux:

Wŏnhyo, commonly regarded as the greatest thinker in Korean Buddhism, was a prolific writer who produced no less than eighty-six works, of which twenty-three are extant either completely or partially. By his time, most of the important sūtras and treatises had flowed into Korea from China, and they were causing a great deal of confusion for Silla Buddhists, as they had for the Chinese. It was Wŏnhyo's genius to interpret all of the texts known to him in a way that would reveal their underlying unity of truth without sacrificing the distinctive message of each text. He found his hermeneutical key in the famous Mahāyāna text, the Awakening of Faith (Dasheng Qixin Lun).[4]

Teaching story

Wonhyo spent the earlier part of his career as a monk. In 661 he and a close friend - Uisang (625–702, founder of the Korean Hwaom school) - were traveling to China where they hoped to study Buddhism further. Somewhere in the region of Baekje the pair were caught in a heavy downpour and forced to take shelter in what they believed to be an earthen sanctuary. During the night Wonhyo was overcome with thirst, and reaching out grasped what he perceived to be a gourd, and drinking from it was refreshed with a draught of cool, refreshing water. Upon waking the next morning, however, the companions discovered much to their amazement that their shelter was in fact an ancient tomb littered with human skulls, and the vessel from which Wonhyo had drunk was in fact a human skull full of brackish water. Moved by the experience of believing a gruesome site to be a comfortable haven, and skull of mildewy water a refreshing drink, Wonhyo was astonished at the power of the human mind to transform reality. After this "consciousness-only" enlightenment experience, he abandoned his plan to go to China. He left the priesthood and turned to the spreading of the Buddhadharma as a layman. Because of this aspect of his character, Wonhyo ended up becoming a popular folk hero in Korea. He was a colleague and friend of the influential Silla Hwaom monk Uisang, and an important result of their combined works was the establishment of Hwaeom as the dominant stream of doctrinal thought on the Korean peninsula.

English translation project

Wonhyo's twenty-three extant works are currently in the process of being translated into English as a joint project between Dongguk University and State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Taekwondo sequence

The International Taekwondo Federation pattern "Won-Hyo" is named in Wonhyo's honor. This pattern consists of 28 movements, and is the pattern for the green belt student.


  1. ^ Muller, Charles A. (1995). "The Key Operative Concepts in Korean Buddhist Syncretic Philosophy: Interpenetration (通達) and Essence-Function (體用) in Wŏnhyo, Chinul and Kihwa" cited in Bulletin of Toyo Gakuen University No. 3, March 1995, pp 33-48.Source: [1] (accessed: September 18, 2008)
  2. ^ Keel, Hee-Sung (2004). "Korea"; cited in Buswell, Robert E. (2004). Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Volume 1. New York, USA: Macmillan Reference USA. ISBN 0-02-865719-5 (Volume 1): pp.432
  3. ^ (in Korean) 분황사 창건과 역사 Establishment and History of Bunhangsa Korea Temple
  4. ^ Keel, Hee-Sung (2004). "Korea"; cited in Buswell, Robert E. (2004). Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Volume 1. New York, USA: Macmillan Reference USA. ISBN 0-02-865719-5 (Volume 1): pp.431-432

See also

Further reading

  • Buswell, Robert E., Jr. "The Biographies of the Korean Monk Wŏnhyo (617-686): A Study in Buddhist Hagiography." Peter H Lee, ed. Biography as Genre in Korean Literature. Berkeley: Center for Korean Studies, 1989.
  • Buswell, Robert E., Jr. Cultivating Original Enlightenment: Wonhyo's Exposition of the Vajrasamādhi-Sūtra. University of Hawaii Press, 2007.
  • Muller, A. Charles (2007). "Wonhyo's Reliance on Huiyuan in his Exposition of the Two Hindrances". In Reflecting Mirrors: Perspectives on Huayan Buddhism (Imre Hamar, ed., Harrassowitz Verlag), p. 281-295. Source: [2] (accessed: January 7, 2008)
  • Muller, A. Charles (2002). "Wŏnhyo's Interpretation of the Hindrances". International Journal of Buddhist Thought and Culture. Vol. 2, 2003. pp. 123-135.Source: [3] (accessed: January 7, 2008)
  • Muller, A. Charles (2000). "On Wŏnhyo's Ijangui (二障義)." Journal of Korean Buddhist Seminar, Vol. 8, July 2000, p. 322-336.Source: [4] (accessed: January 7, 2008)
  • Muller, A. Charles (1995). "The Key Operative Concepts in Korean Buddhist Syncretic Philosophy; Interpenetration and Essence-Function in Wŏnhyo, Chinul and Kihwa." Bulletin of Toyo Gakuen University, vol. 3 (1995), pp. 33-48.Source: [5] (accessed: January 7, 2008)
  • Sung-bae Park (2008). 'Wonhyo: Coming to the West―Yet No One Recognizes Him.' International Journal of Buddhist Thought & Culture February 2008, Vol.10, pp.7-18. International Association for Buddhist Thought and Culture. Source: [6] (accessed: Saturday October 31, 2009)

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