Uisang (의상625 - 702) was one of the most eminent early Silla scholar-monks, a Buddhist philosopher, and a close friend of Wonhyo (원효 元曉617-686 ). In 661, he traveled to Tang China and studied the Huayan (華嚴) doctrine, based on the Avatamsaka-sutra (Garland Sutra), under Zhiyan (Chih-yen, 智儼) (602 - 668). In 670, he returned to Korea to warn King Munmo that the Chinese were planning an invasion of Silla. Silla thwarted the attack, and in 676 C.E. the king sponsored the construction of Pusŏk monastery on Mount T'aebaek and made Ŭisang its abbot. This monastery became the center of Korean Hwaeom (Hua-yen 華嚴; Pinyin: Huáyán; Japanese: Kegon; Sanskrit: Avatamsaka) Buddhism, a tradition which taught the interpenetration of all existence: that all things consist of elements of everything else, and all individuals exist by and originate in each other. Hwaeom Buddhism came to predominate in the Korean peninsula, and provided ideological support for the political system of the state of Unified Silla (668-935).

Uisang's major work was Hwaeom ilseung peopkye to (An Explanatory Diagram on the Garland World System.) He was a close friend of monk Wonhyo, and both of their biographies are recorded in Samguk Yusa (The Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms), one of the oldest Korean documents extant, written by Iryon (1206-1289). A well-known Korean legend tells the story of Seonmyo, a young woman who fell in love with Uisang and, since he had taken vows of celibacy, threw herself into the sea and was transformed into a dragon to protect him.


Uisang and Wonhyo

Venerable Uisang was born in 625 into the gentry class. In 644 (the thirteenth year of Queen Seondeok), he became a monk at Hwangboksa (Hwangbok) Temple in Gyeongju (Kyŏngju). After taking his vows, he studied Seop daeseongnon and the Mind Only School. In 650 C.E., Uisang and his dharma friend, Wonhyo (元曉), set out for Tang China to study the Buddhist philosophies being taught there. They were unsuccessful in leaving the peninsula, and could go no further than the frontier of the northern kingdom of Goguryeo, so Uisang studied the theory of the Buddha Nature and other disciplines under Bodeok.

Wonhyo and Uisang decided to attempt the journey again in 661, this time by sea, and went to the harbor of Dangjugye, in the territory of Baekje. When they arrived, it was storming and they had to take refuge in what they thought was an earthen cave, but was actually a graveyard. During the night, Wonhyo became thirsty and dank from what seemed to be a container of refreshing water. In the morning he saw that it was really an old skull full of brackish rainwater, and had a revelation that all phenomena arose from the consciousness. He decided that it was unnecessary to travel in search of truth, and turned back, while Uisang went on to China alone.

Study in the Tang Dynasty

Arriving in Yangzhou on the lower Yangtze River, Ŭisang went to Zhixiang monastery on Mount Zhongnan, where he studied under Zhiyan (智儼, 602-668), the second patriarch of the Huayan school, who, according to legend, had anticipated his arrival. Ŭisang's arrival at Zhixiang monastery is said to have been anticipated by Zhiyan, and he quickly became one of his chief disciples along with Fazang (法藏, 643-712), who would eventually be recognized as the third patriarch of the school. Uisang became an expert in Huayan (華嚴) doctrine, based on the Avatamsaka-sutra (Garland Sutra). When Zhiyan died in 668, Ŭisang became one of the leaders of the developing Chinese Huayan tradition.

Return to Silla

In 670, Ŭisang learned from two Korean envoys detained in the Tang capital that China was planning an invasion of Silla. Ŭisang immediately returned to Korea to warn King Munmu (r. 661-680), and Silla was able to forestall the attack. Partially out of gratitude, the king sponsored the construction of Pusŏk monastery on Mount T'aebaek in 676 C.E. and made Ŭisang its abbot. This monastery became the center of Avatamsaka study, and Uisang became the founder of Hwaeom (Huayan in Chinese)in Silla. Uisang built ten more temples of the Hwaeom School in different places in Korea, and propagated its teachings throughout the peninsula. He became so widely renowned in Korea that more than three thousand students are said to have congregated to hear his lectures.

Uisang ignored the prevailing social hierarchy and gave prominent positions within his Buddhist community to people of all social classes; one of his disciples, Jinjeong, was from the lower classes, and Jitong had been a slave in a nobleman's household. An anecdote illustrates his concern for the welfare of the people. King Munmu, who had unified the Three Kingdoms, made the people build and restore fortresses again and again. Once, when Uisang heard that the king was ordering the people to supply labor for building another new fortress, he sent a letter to King Munmu, saying, “If the king rules the people in the right way, even a fortress can be made out of just a line on the ground. Then people don't dare to cross the line and disaster will be changed into good fortune. But if the king rules unjustly then, though the largest possible fortress is set up, calamity cannot be avoided.” On reading Uisang's letter, the king canceled the project of building a new fortress.

Uisang kept the precepts very strictly and lived an ascetic life; his only possessions were his robes and an alms bowl. One day King Munmu, who respected Uisang, gave him a house and slaves. Uisang refused saying, “We, monks, treat people equally whether they be from noble class or below. How can I have slaves? The dharma world is my house, and I am satisfied with living by my alms bowl.”

He passed away at the age of 77 in 702 C.E… Largely due to Ŭisang's efforts, Hwaŏm philosophy came to dominate Korean Buddhist scholasticism. His disciples, referred to as “Uisang's ten wise ones,” were masters Ojin, Jitong, Pyohun, Jinjeong, Jinjang, Doyung, Yangwon, Sangwon, Neungin, and Uijeok.

The Story of Seonmyo (Shanmiao)

When Uisang arrived in China, he accepted an invitation to stay with some Buddhist laypeople. Their daughter, Seonmyo (Shan-miao), fell in love with him, but he had long ago sworn himself to celibacy and so he could not accept her. Seonmyo then decided to become his disciple forever, and vowed to protect him. Various popular legends have grown up around Seonmyo's sacrifice. One recounts that when Venerable Uisang decided to return to Korea, she prepared a box of gifts for him containing Buddhist artifacts and vestments. When she reached the harbor, Usiang's ship had already sailed and was far off in the distance. Deeply disappointed, she prayed and dropped the box into the ocean. The wind blew the box across the water until it reached Uisang's ship. Inspired by this miraculous event, Seonmyo prayed that she could transform into a dragon, so that she might safely lead Uisang's ship to Korea. When she threw herself into the water, she became a dragon and was able to guide the ship across the hazardous waters. 12

In another version of the story, Uisang was staying in the house of Seonmyo's family when Seonmyo herself warned him that China was planning to attack Silla. He immediately set out to warn his countrymen. Seonmyo rushed after him, and found that his ship was already far out to sea. In desperation, she flung herself into the sea and drowned. This supreme sacrifice transformed her into a guardian dragon which protected Uisang on his journey back to Korea. In Korea, Uisang found the ideal site for a temple on Mount Ponhwang-san, but it was occupied by villagers who refused to move. Once again, the dragon appeared and threatened to crush the village with a massive boulder. The villagers ran away, and the dragon crashed to the earth and exhaled its last breath, in the exact spot where the Main Hall of Pusok-sa stands today. To the west is a piece of rock, said to be a small portion of the one hurled by the dragon, giving Pusok-sa its name, "Temple of the Floating Stone." Uisang averted another Chinese invasion by performing a special ceremony some years later.3

Hwaeom Philosophy

Uisang's Hwaeom philosophy is is considered to be the philosophical origin of Korean Buddhism. The essential precept is “One is all, all is one. One is identical to all. All is identical to one,” or the dependent origination of dharmadhathu (the world of the Law), relying on the Middle way. The Middle Way is the teaching that all things do not have Self Nature; each one consists of elements of everything else. As each one involves all in each, there are no barriers between them. The theory of dependent origination holds that the unchanging is nonexistent and nothing has an independent nature. All individuals exist by and originate in each other.

According to the Hwaeom concept of “the revelation of Buddhahood,” all phenomena represent the Awakened One. All are the same and equal in value, because the existence of each one depends on the existence of all the others. Since all phenomena represent the Awakened One, everything implies a deeper meaning. Every phenomenon symbolizes the equality and the harmony of all of the components. Uisang used this philosophy to reconcile extremes, resolve the conflicts and difficulties of worldly life, and establish religious harmony.4

The Hwa Om sect (Hua yen in Chinese, Kegon in Japanese, and Avatamsaka in Sanskrit) was founded in China as an independent school of Buddhism by the Chinese priest Fa Shun (557-640). Its final systematization was made by Fazang (法藏Fa Tsang , 643-712), a fellow student of Uisang.5


Uisang's writings were Diagram of the Dharmadhatu of the One Vehicle of Hwaeom, Abstract of Gandhavyha sutra (Ipbeop gyepum chogi), Contemplation on the ten immeasurable revelations (Hwaeom sipmun ganbeop gwan), Explanation on the Sukavativyha sutra (Amitha gyeong uigi), Entreaty to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas (Jeban cheongmun), Written vows to dedicate Baekhwa Monastery (Baekhwa doryang Barwonmun), A Written Statement of One's Vow to the One Vehicle of Hwaeom (Hwaeom ilsung Barwonmun), and Adoration of Teachers (Tusarye). Among these, Diagram of the Dharmadhatu of the One Vehicle of Hwaeom, was the clearest explanation of Hwaeom philosophy. It was continuously studied by his disciples and was compiled as Essential Record of Dharmadhatu Diagrams (Beopgye dogi chongsurok) in the Goryeo Period. Besides Ŭisang's autocommentary to this poem, his only other extant work is the short Paekhwa toryang parwŏn mun (Vow made at the White Lotus enlightenment site).

Diagram of the Dharmadhatu of the One Vehicle of Hwaeom (Hwaŏm ilsŭng pŏpkyedo), written in 668 while he was still a member of Zhiyan's congregation, is a short poem of 210 logographs in a total of 30 stanzas The poem is arranged in a wavelike form, the "ocean seal diagram" (Sāgaramudrā Maṇḍala), which symbolizes the Hwaŏm teaching of the "six marks" (yuksang): universality and particularity, identity and difference, and integration and disintegration. The entire structure of the diagram represents the marks of universality, identity, and integration, while its curves designate the particularity, difference, and disintegration marks. The chart is woven into one continuous line to show that all phenomena are interconnected and unified in the dharma-nature; the fact that this line ends at the same place where it began illustrates the cardinal Hwaŏm doctrine of interpenetration. The diagram is divided into four equal blocks, indicating that the dharma-nature is perfected through such salutary practices as the four means of conversion: giving, kind words, helpfulness, and cooperation. Finally, the 54 corners found along the meanderings of the line of verse indicate the 54 teachers visited by the pilgrim Sudhana in his quest for knowledge as narrated in the Gaṇḍavyūha chapter of the Avataṃsaka Sūtra. Hence, the diagram serves as a comprehensive summary of all the teachings found in the sixty-fascicle recension of the Avataṃsaka Sūtra.6

See also

  • List of Korea-related topics
  • Buddhism in Korea
  • History of Korea


  1. ↑ Sae Hyang Chung, The Silla Priests Uisang and Wonhyo, Hyundae Bulkyo Media Center. Retrieved September 17, 2007.
  2. ↑ Buddhism Masters Before introducing Seon Uisang ( 625 ~ 702 ), Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. Retrieved September 17, 2007.
  3. ↑ What is Korean Buddhism, Buddhapia. Retrieved September 17, 2007.
  4. ↑ Buddhism Masters Before introducing Seon Uisang ( 625 ~ 702 ), Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. Retrieved September 17, 2007.
  5. ↑ Sae Hyang Chung. Ibid. Retrieved September 17, 2007.
  6. ↑ Encyclopedia of Religion© on ŬIsang. Retrieved September 17, 2007.


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