Tour Through Time: Stop 25: Bunhwangsa Temple

14 miles later and we arrive at the Bunhwangsa Temple in Gyeongju. Bunhwangsa means “Fragrant Emperor/Imperial Temple” and it was first established in 634 AD under Queen Seondeok of the Silla Dynasty. Buddhism had been adopted by the Silla Dynasty in 527 AD by King Beop-Heung, and the temple was originally several acres in size, consisting of an inner gate, three golden halls, an assembly hall, a gallery and a stone pagoda; the stone pagoda is the only part still standing today. Buddhism however remained out of reach of the common people until Won Hyo came along.

Won Hyo (meaning “break of dawn”) was the penname of Sol-Sedang, who was born in Apnyang in 617 AD. His penname was derived from his nickname “Sedak” meaning “dawn” which was given to him because he was born at dawn under a chestnut tree.

Won Hyo was so gifted as a child it was said that he could “infer ten things after learning one” and quickly became a skilled horse rider and javelin thrower, joining the Hwa Rang. He took part in many civil wars between the three Kingdoms of Silla, Goguryo and Baekje and watched many of his friends die in battle. It was realising the briefness of human life that drove him to become a Buddhist monk.

In 650 AD Won Hyo and his friend Uisang were travelling to China to study under Huan-Tchuang the Buddhist Scholar, when a Goguryo patrol boarded their boat and wrongly identified them as spies. It is said that what Won Hyo witness during his detainment impacted his Buddhist philosophies. They tried again in 661 AD to travel to China, but a storm hit and they were forced to take shelter in in a cave. Waking in the dark thirsty, Won Hyo fumbled around and found a vessel from which he quenched his thirst with the refreshing rain water. The following morning Won Hyo discovered that the vessel was in fact a rotten skull swimming with maggots, and he fell down and vomited. They were not in cave at all but a burial chamber. With the storm still raging on they were forced to sleep in the burial chamber another night; but Won Hyo could not sleep, reporting that he had heard terrifying sounds and seen visions of ghosts. From this observation he determined “When a thought arises, all dharmas (phenomenon) arise, and when a thought disappears, the shelter and the tomb are as one.”

Won Hyo’s “awakening” was the inner enlightenment that “everything is created by the mind alone”. Deciding he now understood life and death, he felt there was no need for him to find a master to learn from. He left Uisang to continue to China alone and instead headed back to Korea. His revelation changed his philosophy and he developed the Chongto-Gyo (Pure Land) Sect. He believed in teaching through word of mouth, spreading the word of Buddha through the lower classes who could not read, making it more popular among the entire population. It is said that through his efforts, leaving the Priest Hood and travelling and living among the people, that the whole of Silla turned to Buddhism.

In his travels he met Princess Yosok (the second daughter of King Muyeol, whose wife was the younger sister of General Kim Yoo Sin). The Princess was a widower, having lost her husband, a Hwa Rang warrior, in battle. She took comfort in Won Hyo’s words. After becoming ill she summoned Won Hyo to a meeting at the palace, begging him for help, explaining that is was her thoughts of wanting him that had made her sick. Won Hyo pondered what to do; Buddhist monks were not permitted to marry, but leaving her to die from sickness would also be a sin. After meditating on the situation for many days, he returned to Palace grounds to sing, until the King agreed for Won Hyo to marry his daughter.

After a few months his conscious weighed heavily on him and Won Hyo left his new wife to return to his original path. After he left the princess discovered that she was pregnant with his child, and gave birth to their son Sol-Ch’ong, who later became a great Confucian Scholar.

During his life, Won Hyo saw the unification of the three Kingdoms of Korea in 668 AD and brought about great changes in Korea through his Buddhist teachings, which impacted not just Korea but Japan and China as well. He wrote 86 pieces in 240 fascicles, of which 23 still exist. One of his works, the “Awakening of Faith” is considered the most influential Korean text ever.

He passed away in 686 AD, aged 70, and his body was laid to rest by Sol-Ch’ong at the Bunhwangsa Temple. Upon his gravestone it says “He strove to master the principles of the universe, and made his goal the most profound truth of all.”

We will be marking our arrival here with 14 Mountain Climber Burpees before continuing 26 miles south to another burial place.

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