Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Korea, a Nirvana Treasure

Professor David Mason, 30 years an expat of Korea and currently working at Korean Cultural Tourism at Nam-Seoul University and as a researcher on religious characteristics of Korea's mountains, presented on "Korea as a Silent Nirvana Treasure Palace: The Legacy of Great Master Jajang-yulsa".

The abstract of his presentation reads:

"Early 7th-century Master Jajang (one of the most important revered Buddhist masters in Korea but not much known outside of Korea) can be credited with much of the foundation and early organization of the Silla Kingdom's Buddhism, and therefore what later became of Korean Buddhism. Yet, he remains notably under-appreciated in most reviews of that history. He remains the only monk honored with the title "yulsa" [Master of the Vinaya/Sangha; Benevolent Concealment Yulsa; Vinaya teacher, a master of how a temple functions, its rules, rituals and details] although it was attached to his posthumous name. Perhaps the most interesting part of his legacy, however, has been his implementation of the concept of Korea as a holy Buddhist nation on an equal footing with China and India, in his consecration of some of its major mountains and establishment of jeokmyeol-bogung [silent-nirvana treasure-palace] shrines within them. This presentation will detail what we know of his biography and accomplishments from the various available sources, and show dozens of photos of the spectacular sites that he founded, which are still among Korea's top pilgrimage destinations."

Master Jajang was born in 590 to an important aristocratic Kim family. His birth was supposed to be from the blessing from his father's 1000 prayers to Gwanse-eum-bosal and his mother dreaming of a star. He was born on the illustrious birthday of Buddha. By 12 years of age, he was known as diligent and brilliant, and by that young age he became a Buddhist student and practitioner.

It is important to note here that Buddhism started in the Silla Kingdom in 527 and he was born in 590, so Buddhism was "young". It was not well-organized and temples were not really established as yet.

After the death of his parents around 620, he renounced all worldly attachments, donated his estate as a temple, left home and retreated to the mountains where he meditated focused on a skeleton in a tiny hut he lined with thorny brambles to keep himself from dozing off. Over time, the meditations and ministrations of Jajang became known.

Because of his origins and growing reputation, he was called several times to serve as a high palace official by King Jinpyeong (r. 579-632), but he always decline the offer, finally writing to the king, "I would rather die keeping the precepts for one more day than five hundred years breaking them." The king relented in his persuasions and allowed the determined Jajang to become a bigu (Buddhist monk). Jajang was granted the five precepts, the criteria for becoming a monk (he had received the 5 Precepts by a "heavenly being" in a dream and that was considered sufficient).  

636 C.E. - 642 C.E. - in Tang, China

Monk Jajang lamented the lack of Buddhist knowledge in his "remote" nation, and so attained royal permission to leave Silla in 636, at the age of 46, and with 10 dongja ("youthful disciples") he went to seek advanced Buddhist education in Tang China. They first made pilgrimage to Wutai-shan to pay homage and pray to a clay statue of Munsu-bosal, the boddhavista for wisdom. The importance of Wutai-shan is that it is a Five Platform Mountain, the five platforms are earthly mounts for the celestial Buddhas. It was so famous for Buddhism that at the time the peaks were populated with no less than 250 temples for the boddhavista of wisdom (although only about 35 temples remain today). (The pattern and concept of the 5 Platforms at Wutai-shan, now a holy mountain for Buddhism in North Korea, was later brought back to Korea and Odae-san also having a uniquely similar 5 peaked platforms was rendered a Korean Buddhism pilgrimage site.)

Essentially, Buddha is from India and boddhavistas are from China, and so China, a more advanced country could accept religious concepts from another country by incorporating their own religious images. Likewise, Jajang was to establish temples in Korea on already recognized shamanic mountains and combine shamanic practices with the new Buddhism, and so the new religion were more palatable to the Korean commoners because of already known and established Korean traditions.

During his pilgrimage years (636-637) at Wutai-shan Monk Jajang had a series of revelatory mystical visions of Munsu-bosal and a dragon-king of Taihe Pond. In the dreams Jajang was advised to build a nine-storey pagoda, find similar mountains, and given precious gifts, the holy relics of Sokgamoni-bul or Sakyamuni Buddha. Those relics were 100 of the Buddha's sari/sarira, a fragment of his skull, his monastic robe (or a piece of it), and his wooden begging bowl (or a piece of it). With these relics he was to find other sites for temples to Buddha and there revere the relics given and gather others to do so too.

Monk Jajang then continued on to Tang, China where from 638 to 643 he received advanced Buddhist education in Zhongnan (now Chang-an, the Tang capital city), and where he built his own hut in the mountains outside of it. His studies included Consciousness-only (유식종), Vinaya (계울종), and Avatamsaka (화음종). In 643 he felt his studies were complete and received many gifts from the emperor who favored him before his departure.

Queen Seondeok has so captured the Korean's imagination that a very popular TV drama has been created portraying the woman who became a titular queen. Actually little is known about her except that she was very instrumental in establishing Buddhism in Silla, had a reputation as a wise ruler, and even the Chinese viewed her favorably.
Upon his return to Silla in 643 C.E. he was summoned to the court by Queen Seondeok (queen from 632-647 C.E.), who then authorized him to be a Buddhist monk and use the holy relics to establish new temples throughout her realm in order to consecrate its territory and spiritually inspire its citizens with the intention of expanding the authority of the empire. She also appointed him as Supreme Buddhist Overseer (antecedent to the title Guksa), granting him authority to impose structure and discipline on all Silla Buddhism. 

In result, he established the first Royal Office of Buddhism. He also founded the Korean Yul-jong (Vinaya School), which established regulations for registering temples and practicing Buddhist monasticism, and established exams for becoming and remaining a bigu or bigu-ni. He mandated Chinese-style robes and headgear. And these are the actions that accorded him the posthumous title of Master Jajang-yulsa, the only Korean monk with the formal yulsa title posthumously attached to his name.

Performing in the offices under Queen Seondeok, Master Jajang established six jeokmyeol-bogung [silent-nirvana treasure-palace], or rather six special holy sites in Korea which still stand today. The concept of 적멸 meaning "silent nirvana" or "sublime equanimity" and 보궁 meaning "treasure palace" was in total a shrine of higher status than a palace, a hall ( 전) or a pavilion (각). Together, jeokmyeol-bogung  means a shrine containing sari/sarira relics of Sakyamuni Buddha, and therefore was to be an especially holy site of Korean Buddhism and an object of pilgrimage and intensive veneration practices. [Origin was Geumgang-jwa [Diamond Throne] stupa under the Bodhi Tree.] 

To establish these venerable places, the sari/sarira which Master Jajang had brought from Tang were enshrined in a stone pagoda or budo reliquary monument in three cases, and in an earthen mound in two cases. All five extent ones are at sacred and scenic mountain sites -- two down in valleys, one at mid-altitude, and two up high near peaks. The vanished one had been buried under the central pillar of the Nine-storey Pagoda of Hwangryong-sa Temple in the old center of Gyeongju City in 645, but when the great tower was destroyed by Mongol invaders in the 1200s, the sari were never recovered. This one is the only one within a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Any connection to UNESCO that South Korea can make, they do so.)

Source: Plans to rebuild one of Korea's oldest temple, Hwangryong-sa
The building of Hwangryong-sa was an amazing feat at that time for it was the tallest religious structure known to be erected in Asia at that time. China and Japan, due to geologic features, could not build such a tall structure. Each tier on the 9-storey pagoda was an incredible 9 meters tall!
The 6 jeokmyeol-bogung temples created by Master Jajang:

  • 2 are now in national parks
  • 2 are in provincial parks
  • 2 are in protected areas
  • Interestingly, all six have different monument styles, various pagoda and mounds

To establish temples with good ki (energy), commanding views, natural springs, and mountain vegetables to name a few, Master Jajang scoped out the mountain range that is the spine of the Korean peninsula. On his first trip he went north and granted the major mountains Buddhist names, to sacralize them and the entire region.


On a subsequent trip, he went south and identified other major mountains for dedication to Buddhist temples -- but these did not house sari or sarira, although some make later claim to do so.


Mt. Odae-san, Korea's Wutai-shan, and literally meaning Five (Platform) Mountain was the site for Woljeong-sa or "Moon-Vitality Temple" and was founded in 643 C.E.

In Seorak-san, Bongjeong-am Jeokmyeol-bogung was established in 643 C.E.

Also in 643 C.E. Beopheung-sa was built on Saja-san.

The 5th special holy site housing the jeokmyeol-gogung temples created by Master Jajang was established in 646 C.E. Yang-san Yeongchwi-san, otherwise known as "Vulture Peak" (named after a revered mountain in India, the home of Buddhism) houses one of Korea's grandest Buddhist Temples, is designated as a national treasure of Korea, is considered the "capital" of Korean Buddhism, and is proposed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Geumgang Gyedan (National Treasure #290) is a Jeokmyeol-bogung Budo still used as a main ordination alter for the Jogye Order, for Gujokgye Ceremonies; and it remains a major pilgrimage destination.  
Korea has a unique system of Sambo Sachal (Temples of the Three Treasures). The Three Treasures comprise Buddha (Yeongchwi-san Tongdo-sa), Dharma (Gaya-san Haein-sa), and Sangha (Jogye-san Songgwang-sa)

The death of Master Jajang

Jajang-yulsa passed into Nirvana in 658 C.E. at 68 years of age, just a decade before Silla Unification.  He was living in retirement at Suda-sa in Gangneung, had a dream of a spirit who told him to meet at Daesong-deong. He went there and met Munsu-boal, who told him to meet again at Taebaek-san. He climbed the mountain and found a galbanji snake. He waited at jeongam-sa, then a strange shabby monk came by and bluntly asked to see him, but monks or followers or others drove him off as a rude madman, but he turned out to be Munsu-bosal. Jajang chased his light until he died at the southern pass. He was cremated and enshrined in a cave.

The legacy of Master Jajang

By establishing the six original Jeokmyeol-bogung temples, and sacralizing Munsu-bong of holy Taebaek-san, and granting Buddhist names to major mountains, establishing shrines within them, Jajang consecrated the mountains of Silla's East Coast, and sacralized all of Korea as a "Holy Land", equivalent in Buddhist sacredness to China and India, but stamping his development of Buddhism with a unique Korean flavor.

Master Jajang founded the Korean Yul-jong (Vinaya School), becoming the first, primary and possibly only "yulsa". He advised the building of the great 71-meter Pagoda at Hwangryong-sa and made it his headquarters.

Master Jajang sacralized only six Jeokmyeol-bogung, but other temples with their own historic tales make claim that they too have Jeokmyeol-bogung status.

Mt. Moak-san, Geumsan-sa
Mt. Biseul-san, Yongyeon-sa
Mt. Seorak-san, Baekdam-sa
Mt. Jiri-san, Ssanggye-sa
Mt. Songni-san, Beopju-sa
Mt. Bangjang-san, Dasol-sa
and the 10-storey pagoda at Seoul's Jogye-sa

Other famous temples claim that Master Jajang founded them, a total of 34, including the popular cluster at Mt. Seorak-san:


Other famous temples that claim that he founded them are:

Mt. Palgong-san, Sudo-sa
Cheonan Gwangdeok-san, Gwangdeok-sa
Jeonbuk Gochang Munsu-am, Munsu-sa
Yeongdeok Chilbo-san, Yugeum-sa
Jajang-am Hermitages at Tongdo-sa, Oeo-sa and etc.
Several temples in Gangneung city and Ulsan City

And for further information about Master Jajang-yulsa, go to www.san-shin.org.

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