Wonhyo Film Project

The Korean War of 1950 to 1953 has left an indelible impression of Korea in Western perceptions. Through the eyes of a Western pilgrim, this documentary film explores a largely unknown aspect of Korean culture – its ancient mountain monastic way of life.

- Synopsis -

The narrator, a retired Canadian writer and Buddhist, follows in the footsteps of a beloved 7th Century Korean Buddhist saint Wonhyo who, according to popular tradition, found enlightenment in a cave near Pyeongtaek after walking across the peninsula. Scattered across the peninsula are temples linked to Wonhyo through tradition and ancient stories. The narrator visits many of these temples and others while on his journey and discusses with monks in the mountain monasteries Wonhyo’s legacy and the key question, “How do you practice to reach enlightenment?”

The end of the journey involves a visit to the cave where Wonhyo is reputed to have meditated and a talk with a meditation master there. It will finish with a ceremony involving drinking from skull-like vessels. Legend has it that Wonhyo found enlightenment after drinking rotten water from a skull-cap. This experience became the base of his realization that “there is nothing clean and nothing dirty; all things are made by mind.” Wonhyo teaches us to live in Buddha’s mind by returning to the origin of One Mind. His One Mind philosophy is of great relevance to the modern world which is characterized by division, chaos and delusion.

- Wonhyo background -

Wonhyo (617 – 686), one of Korea’s most beloved and unconventional monks, was a great scholar with more than 80 commentaries and essays to his credit. Born into a simple family in the Silla Kingdom, Wonhyo, a monk for many years, renounced the formal religion life to teach ordinary people. He was known to carry a gourd, dancing and singing around the country, encouraging people to chant and recite the Buddha’s name. He called himself “ooae-Gursah” (unhindered practitioner). For a short time he was married to a princess and had a son, who became a leading Confucian Scholar.

His philosophy centered on loneness or Ekayana, the interrelatedness of everything in the universe. Legend has it that this view arose from an event that took place while he was attempting to travel to China. That event is the focus of this documentary.

To reach China, Wonhyo journeyed with his friend Uisang to the port of Danjugye, a city no longer in existence near-present-day Incheon. Legend has it that on a dark night a storm drove Wonhyo and Uisang into a cave for shelter near Dangjugye. During the night Wonhyo was overcome with thirst and searched in the dark for something to drink. On the cave floor, he found what he thought to be a gourd filled with cool water and lifting it to his lips drank deeply from its refreshing contents. In the morning when he awoke, he looked for the vessel and was shocked.

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