Breaking Dawn: The Wonhyo Effect

Part 1

I must begin with a cute story. As you may know, Holly and I taught conversational English in Korea some 16 years ago. We taught both children and adults. One middle school class I had gave me a nickname. The Korean word for money is DON, spelled in English usually as D-O-N. One of the boys when he saw my name made the connection and started calling me “money.” At the end of the class, a couple of the  boys gave me this very hat. They said the D is for D-o-n.

There is a kind of related story that applies to the D word we are going to talk about today, dawn – D-A-W-N. There was a woman in the church I grew up in. She had a really thick Boston accent. When she would say my name, it sounded more like dawn than Don. Actually, when I was young, she called me “dawny.” When I got older, she started calling me “dawn.” I am not sure why I remember that. But I do.

Well, here is the connection – the cameras here today are being used to film a documentary on the Korean saint Wonhyo whom I’ve studied, been inspired by, and incorporate into my role as minister all the time. Well, Wonhyo literally means “First Dawn” or “Breaking dawn.”

So First Dawn – dawn, not don – or Wonhyo. That is why the cameras are here. He is why in many ways I am here. But what is all the fuss about?

Well, the easy answer is Wonhyo is the founder of a uniquely Korean style and form of Buddhism. Before Wonhyo, the Buddhism in Korea was more Chinese in style and form. Wonhyo “koreanized” Buddhism, giving to the world a beautiful and important understanding of Buddhism.

But Wonhyo’s influence doesn’t’ stop at Buddhism. All of Korean religion has been influenced by Wonhyo.

There is something else Wonhyo gave to Korea – a unique, indelible character, a renegade, an iconoclast.

To understand what his religious significance is I am going to use a metaphor.
Imagine 10-11 musicians. These musicians represent different religious factions in Korea when Wonhyo was around. The musicians all play different instruments – guitar, drums, keyboards - or sing different parts – soprano, alto, tenor. And they all play different styles of music. Styles born somewhere else. What’s more, they are in competition for who is best and what style of music is best.

As I said, these various musicians represent the various denominations of Buddhism in Korea and even the non-Buddhist religions of Taoism and Confucianism when Wonhyo was around. These 9 Buddhist denominations and Taoism and Confucianism were all competing for the title of best and truest religion in Korea, if you will. This was despite the fact they were religions based in China, not Korea.

Wonhyo was living amid all of this conflict and competition. He didn’t like it.
So he sought to bring all the various religions together. He sought to make a single band out of all these competing musicians and show how their different instruments and different styles did not contradict each other, did not rule each other out, but in fact could be brought together and harmonized to sing the same song. A song called Truth. He showed just because the rhythm guitar is playing a different sound and differently than the solo guitarist, they did not contradict but could play together and make a great sound. The same with the drums, and keyboards and different singers.

The song should be the focus, not the different instruments and styles.
So Wonhyo wrote the song they would sing. It was a Korean song, not Chinese. And he would be the lead singer on this song.

This act of creating of a single band made up of the different instrumentalists and singers to sing one Korean song, this amounts to Wonhyo creating a unique form of Korean Buddhism. A Buddhism of various religious denominations together pointing to the Truth of Wisdom and Compassion.

This bringing conflicting things together to harmonize around the truth of wisdom and compassion, this ecumenical approach, this was Wonhyo’s greatness.

Now, it took a unique person to do this. Wonhyo was certainly a unique individual.
First of all, he was a non-conformist. Yes, he was in his early life a Buddhist monk. He had to shave his head and wear the same clothes as all the other monks. But still, he stood out. Think James Dean or Marlon Brando or Bruce Springsteen. He followed his own muse. Saw the world through his own lens. Sang his own song. We might say his was ADHD before ADHD was a thing.

But it was exactly this non-conformist spirit that helped him to avoid being too attached to the various denominations or religions. In fact, in the age where Buddhists aligned themselves with denominations, Wonhyo did not. He was intentionally non-denominational. Not attached to one denomination, he was able to stand above and see the denominations as they were and find a harmony, a way for them to play together and sing together the song of truth.

Wonhyo’s non-conformity to any single denomination or philosophy also allowed him to see the various ways of seeing things and match them to people who needed that approach. To explain what I mean, let’s go back to the example of music.

Imagine there is a young man struggling to find his way. He is a musician but lost, with no direction. Wonhyo would initiate a relationship with the young man, find out where he was at, what his propensities and needs were. Then Wonhyo would adapt his teaching in a way that met the young man where he was.  He might point to the rhythm guitar as the path for the young musician. Or the soprano singer in the band.  In other words, Wonhyo would see where a person was, and meet him there, the show a path that best helped him. He would offer up whatever denomination’s teaching and philosophy that was most helpful to the seeker.  This required a lot of knowledge of the various denominations and their teaching. And he had that knowledge. He was a bit of a geek that way, in fact. A true genius.

Wonhyo’s use of what is known in Buddhism as Upaya, or using the best means to help someone learn the way, is perfectly exampled in his latter years. We will look at this in the next segment.

Part 2

When Wonhyo was in his 40’s, he decided he wanted to leave the monastic life. He met a princess, as the story goes, named Yoseok, and married.  They conceived a child named Seol-chang who would become an important Confucian philosopher and linguist.

But as a simple lay person, Wonhyo did not stop preaching the Truth. In fact, he kicked it into high gear. He took his drum and his songs to the street. He was a touring street and roadside performer who used his performances to preach the way of wisdom and compassion to those in the streets, and backstreets and byways.

He’d enter a town as a dancing monk beating on a drum and singing folk songs. He’d  garner a crowd, and then spread the simple message of a simple faith that could transform souls.

That simple message was what? Wonhyo preached Pure Land Buddhism.
Pure Land Buddhism claims that our day and age has lost its way so much that recovering our Buddha-nature, the goodness and enlightenment within us, returning to the Garden of Eden, if you will, is no longer possible. Self-power cannot do it. So there is a need for some kind of salvation given to us from Other-Power, given to us by the power of Grace.

And in Pure Land there is told the story of a Buddha, Amita Buddha, who though perfect and fully enlightened and due the paradise of Nirvana, humbles herself out of compassion, returns to this world of suffering and sin to save all beings.  A sincere and faithful recitation of the name of Amita Buddha gives way to being saved.

I should acknowledge that this sounds a lot like Christianity. Scholars are not sure if it was influenced by Christianity. Christianity, an Eastern form of it called Nestorian Christianity, did exist in China and possibly in Korea during the time of Wonhyo and other early proponents of Pure Land Buddhism. There is a terrific book called The Jesus Sutras that describes this form of Chinese Christianity that became heavily influenced by Buddhism and Taoism. I taught a class on the Jesus Sutras a couple years ago here.

Amita’s name is what Wonhyo goes to city streets and byways preaching, and singing, and dancing to. He actually becomes quite popular in this role as street performer and preacher. He is described as a kind of rock star of his day.

To the common person daily experiencing the ravages of a world filled with suffering and struggle, Wonhyo preaches this simple path of praying Amita’s name and following her way of compassion. To those more fortunate, to those living an easier life, either it be members of the literati or monks like himself, he expounded Buddhist philosophy and pointed to the rigorous path of cultivating wisdom through study and meditation and almsgiving.

The common denominator was wisdom and compassion.

Wonhyo met people where they were and taught the Truth of Wisdom and Compassion based on where they were.

As a minister, it is this approach I incorporate more than anything in my work. Meeting people where they are and ministering accordingly.

I close with the story of Wonhyo’s enlightenment to make my final point. The story is a really interesting one and is known by virtually every Korean under the age of 45, I’d say. A young Wonhyo and his best friend, another monastic named Uisang decided they wanted to find the greatest Buddhist teacher they could find. The perception was that China was the place that offered the best teachers. So they headed to China. En route, they encountered a huge storm that forced them to stop their journey and seek shelter. By the time they found a place, it was dark. They came across a cave along their path and took advantage of the shelter. They settled in for the night. 

Wonhyo before turning in for the night needed a drink of water. He heard in the near distance water dripping into water. He crawled in the dark to where the sound was, groping for the destination of the water’s dripping. His hands touched a bowl. He grabbed that bowl and drank the rain water straight down, refreshed by the wonderful water that tasted so sweet as it quenched his great thirst. He then went to sleep. 

In the morning, he awoke. He soon became aghast at what the daylight shone. They were sleeping not in a cave but a tomb and the bowl he drank from was actually the crown of a skull filled with old leaves and maggots. He grew sick to his stomach and began vomiting. He then began running from the cave as fast as he could. It was at this point he experienced enlightenment.

During the night, the same bowl that disgusted him and made him nauseous had tasted good and quenched his thirst just the night before. He realized then that our perception of things rules the mind. Change the perception, change the mind and how we encounter reality within our minds. This was Wonhyo’s enlightenment experience. With that transformative experience now a part of him, he realized he didn’t need to go to China to find a master. He could stay right where he was and cultivate himself right where he was. He never stepped foot in China

It is Wonhyo’s staying put that taught me something absolutely vital some 12 years ago coming out of seminary. While Buddhism and Buddhist teachers taught me so much, changed my life really, Wonhyo’s staying put helped me to see that I didn’t need to become a Buddhist or become a monastic to cultivate wisdom and compassion in myself and help cultivate it in others. I didn’t need to leave behind the faith of my family and culture, even. I did not need to dismiss my first and most important teacher, Jesus of Nazareth. I just needed to change my mind’s perceptions, see the wisdom and compassion in the tradition closest to me, cultivate it in myself, and preach it and teach it to others. That is what I do here every Sunday and everyday as a minister.

Yes, I know I am a bit odd to many folks, but the work doesn’t feel odd. It is not lofty work. It is nothing too exciting or extraordinary. At the same time, it is the greatest, most exciting, most extraordinary and oddest gig in the world. And I love it.


So thank you Dawning Dawn, aka Wonhyo! You’ve helped me to stay put yet at the same time have a crazy and creative blast doing it!

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