Wonhyo (617-686 CE) was one of the most important Buddhist philosophers of his time and a highly influential scholar whose works impacted a wide array of philosophers and writers who came after him. He is highly regarded as the greatest thinker of his time and a prolific writer, producing almost 90 works of philosophy in his lifetime, many of which still exist in whole or in part. Although little known in the west, Wonhyo continues to be highly regarded in the east and in his native Korea in particular. His writing remains as influential in the modern day as it was during his lifetime centuries ago.
Early Life & Enlightenment
Little is known of Wonhyo's early life. He was born in Amnyang (in modern-day South Korea) into a Buddhist family, but nothing is known of them. When he was fairly young, he decided to go to China to study Buddhism with the great masters, and it was on this trip that he attained his early enlightenment.
Wonhyo emphasized the actual emptiness of the universe which has no 'dark' and no 'light' but only has itself, what it is, without labels.
According to Wonhyo's famous story, he had traveled a long way and was very tired and thirsty as night fell. He found what he thought was a cave and crawled in. As he groped across the ground, his hand touched a bowl that was full of rain water, and he drank before going to sleep. When he woke up the next morning he discovered that the 'bowl' was a decomposing skull full of old water, decaying leaves, and maggots and that he had slept in a tomb. He was so disgusted that he vomited and began to run from the tomb — that was when enlightenment came. Wonhyo realized that the horrid skull cup was the same 'bowl' he had been so happy to find filled with water the night before, and the tomb was the same place of refuge he had been so grateful to find. There was no difference in these things themselves; the only difference was in his perception of these things. His interpretation of the skull and the tomb made them 'good' in the dark and 'bad' in the light, but nothing had changed about those objects themselves. This led him to his great revelation that 'Thinking makes good and bad," which just means that individual perception creates values that people call 'good' or 'bad' but the objects themselves might be neither.
Realizing the importance of his new understanding, Wonhyo abandoned his trip to China and returned home. He became a teacher and devoted himself to the enlightenment of his students, while always remaining aware that he was a student himself and was always learning. The historian John M. Koller comments:
Not only did he create a unique Korean Buddhist philosophy, but also some of his writing came to influence the greatest Buddhist thinkers in China and Japan. His remark upon his enlightenment that "all is one and this one is empty" reflects what was to become the foundation of his metaphysics, namely the principle of total interpenetration of everything. His remark that "thinking makes good and bad" . . . reflects his view that originally there is one mind, and delusion and enlightenment only arise within the mind as the result of thoughts and feelings (300).
Wonhyo's experience with the skull and the tomb convinced him that the world of sense perception is an illusion. All that we think we see is colored by our perceptions, which we have learned from others. When we learn to look truly at the world around us, without these learned perceptions, we recognize that everything is One and there are no distinctions and no differences between people or objects. Everything proceeds from the One Mind, and everything a person experiences is a part of that One Mind. The trick is to recognize this and awaken to the existence of the One Mind and all that it means, but to do this, one must first want to awaken.
People are so comfortable with their dream delusions that they are unwilling to let them go and cling to them when they are threatened. Wonhyo tried to alleviate people's fears by writing a treatise on the philosopher Ashvaghosa's work Awakening of Aspiration. Ashvaghosa felt sorry for people because they were so blind and deluded, and he tried to encourage them to seek something higher than pursuit of food and drink and physical pleasure. Wonhyo's commentary on Ashvaghosa's work simplified the teaching. It emphasized the actual emptiness of the universe which has no 'dark' and no 'light' and no 'life' and no 'death' but only has itself, what it is, without labels.
People tend to label things, and as soon as they do, they claim to know what those things are and what they mean, but those things one labels are never what one thinks they are. One thinks one is right in one's labels and then finds other people who agree with one's labels and subsequent world view, but that does not mean that those labels are right. Once a person has awakened from delusion and self-satisfaction, then they can recognize the One Mind and the fact that all things are one. Humans are here in this world to accomplish this one goal because it is only here that one is faced with so many temptations to be led astray, and so the brilliance of illumination shines more clearly once recognized.
Wonhyo's vision greatly affected Korean Buddhism, and his influence was felt throughout China and Japan and reverberated even further. By emphasizing Buddha's ideal of One and explaining it so clearly, Wonhyo was able to make the concept of enlightenment easier to grasp. Enlightenment was no longer the lofty goal of an ascetic or even an ideal but was simply a way to live a better and more peaceful life. By recognizing that all is One, a person would be set free from the delusion of the senses and could stop acting and reacting to circumstances wrongly.
In this aspect of his philosophy, Wonhyo's vision is very close to Plato's as presented in the allegory of the cave in Book VII of his Republic: one must free one's self of the belief in the reality of the shadows on the cave's walls before one can see the true objects that are casting those shadows. Wonhyo's teachings touched many people but, interestingly, the many religious institutions that maintained different views on Buddhism refused to cooperate with each other or compromise their practices. Wonhyo himself said that if they had understood the reality of the One, they would have recognized that religious differences are only one more misguided label that causes strife and prevents understanding. It is Wonhyo's universal vision of a family of humankind that often resonates with readers in the present day.