Won Hyo Dae Sa (617 – April 28, 686) is one of the most eminent and impactful monks in the 1,700 years of the history of Korean Buddhism. He is also one of my spiritual heroes of any religion, any tradition, and in any age. He was wild and free and completely without hindrance, but it was not for “him”. He only lived this way for all beings: total compassion. Later, he met a princess of Shilla Dynasty, and she became his devoted student. But she had a big problem: she was not producing a baby which could carry on the royal lineage. So Won Hyo Sunim “helped” her. She eventually became pregnant, and the dynastic lineage was preserved. Won Hyo Sunim spent the rest of his life expressing the deep truths of Dharma by making songs that the common, uneducated could understand. This was also a very, very radical gesture, because until then (and even now), Buddhist teachings were wrapped up in all sorts of archaic Chinese characters which the uneducated masses had zero access to. Won Hyo Sunim’s wild song and dance, his simple poems, and his no-hindrance behaviour spread Buddhist teachings the way no one else could ever do, perhaps until the time of Kyong Ho Sunim. This is why I respect him very much!
“As one of the most eminent scholar-monks in Korean history, he was an influential figure in the development of the East Asian Buddhist intellectual and commentarial tradition. His extensive literary output runs to over 80 works in 240 fascicles, and some of his commentaries, such as those on the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra and the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana, became classics revered throughout China and Japan as well as Korea,” according to Wikipedia.
In order to understand the wide, wide mind of Korean Buddhism, and its allowance of expedient means (upaya) to teach sentient beings, it is absolutely vital to experience the story of this one monk’s path. And of all of the innumerable pages of commentary and translation attributed to his name, and all of the folk songs he wrote in his later years to convey the teachings of the Buddha to common folk in simple sing-song that they could understand, no matter is more closely associated with Won Hyo Sunim than the turning-point story of his vomiting over a bowl full of refreshing water. Even non-Buddhists in Korea are familiar with this story — its teaching is perhaps one of the most easily-accessible enlightenment stories in the entire Buddhist canon. Everyone can relate to it!
What follows below is Stephen Mitchell’s telling of Dae Soen Sa Nim’s animated telling of that story, in Dropping Ashes on the Buddha: The Teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn (Grove Press, 1976), one of the greatest classics of modern Zen literature.
[ 한국말 아래서 ]
In Won Hyo Sunim, we see a transcendent, boundary-breaking figure relying on nothing but the power of his own wake-up moment drinking brackish water unknowingly from a skullcap in a darkened cave. “Startled by the experience of believing that a gruesome liquid was a refreshing treat, Wonhyo was astonished at the power of the human mind to transform reality. After this ‘One Mind’ 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.”
Wonhyo was famous for singing and dancing in the streets. While the Buddha discouraged such behaviors, his songs and dances were seen as upaya, or skillful means, meant to help save all sentient beings.
[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.[ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wonhyo ]
— Hee-Sung Keel