Living Spirit of Korean Buddhism
Robert Thurman, one of the most celebrated religion scholars in the world, was named one of America’s 25 most influential people by Time magazine in 1997. The professor of Columbia University expressed his respect for Venerable Gyeongheo as follows:
“If Ven. Gyeongheo were still alive, I wish I would be his disciple.”
Professor Thurman, the first Westerner to be ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist monk, cited Ven. Gyeongheo as his most respected Buddhist priest. Why is this Buddhist monk, who entered nirvana 100 years ago, held in high esteem both at home and abroad?
Enlightenment after Intense Pursuit of Truth
Born in Jeonju in 1846, Gyeongheo was called Dong-wook(동욱) when he was little. He began to live as a Buddhist monk at Cheonggyesa(청계사) Temple in Gwacheon at the tender age of nine. His older brother Taeheo(태허) was also practicing Buddhism at Magoksa Temple, and Gyeongheo found it natural to join the priesthood himself. He spent five years under Ven. Gyeheo(계허) before going to Donghaksa(동학사) Temple at the age of 14 to learn Confucian and Taoist ideas as well as Buddhist sutras under Ven. Manhwa(만화), one of the most famous lecturers in the country.
At the age of 23, the intelligent monk was appointed to the post of lecturer at a Buddhist academy, following his teacher.
In 1879, Gyeongheo was traveling to see his previous teacher, Gyeheo, who had taken good care of him like a father when he first entered the Buddhist priesthood. On a stormy night, he reached a village in Cheonan, where cholera was prevalent. He felt a pang of fear when he faced the shadow of death.
Previously, he would teach, “Life and death, like a floating cloud, are not two separate things.” At that moment, however, he suddenly realized that his Buddhist knowledge was nothing but a phrase on paper in a life-or-death situation. He returned to Donghaksa Temple and shut the door of his room to devote himself to his studies.
After three months of intense meditation and practice, he achieved enlightenment that he should move beyond life and death, transcending all prejudices and boundaries. This enlightenment is expressed in the phrase, ‘A cow with no nostrils.’
He later moved to Cheonjangam(천장암) Hermitage to continue his studies. In 1884, he taught three disciples—Mangong(만공), Hyewol(혜월) and Suwol(수월)—and revived the Korean Zen Buddhist tradition and lineage, which had been severed since Master Seosan(서산). In 1886, Gyeongheo made trips between Gaesimsa(개심사) Temple and Buseoksa(부석사) Temple in Chungcheon Province to teach young monks and spread the Zen tradition.
He founded many Zen training monasteries nationwide, including the one in Beomeosa(범어사) Temple, which became the first Zen center in the nation’s southeastern region. He also restored a tradition known as Angeo(안거), which allowed monks to stay in one place for a certain period of time every summer and winter season to practice Buddhism. As such, he revived Korea’s Zen Buddhism that had fallen into chaos during the Joseon period.
However, there are conflicting views, depending on perspective, on how to evaluate the reviver of Zen Buddhism.
Eccentricity, Another Form of Enlightenment
In fact, Gyeongheo’s life was an endless chain of eccentricity. He showed odd behaviors habitually, like snatching a kiss from a woman while walking with his disciple or drinking alcohol.
So he was often called an apostate monk, but Gyeongheo used bad behaviors as a means of testing whether or not they would agitate him. He chose to tread a thorny path of a heretic in Zen Buddhism and refused to stay within stereotyped causes and thoughts throughout his life. Rather, he took an unconventional approach to seek to practice the Zen tradition in everyday life.
In his later years, Gyeongheo disappeared in North Pyongan Province and South Hamgyeong Province. He let his hair grow and opened a village school to teach children before he died as a humble old villager in 1912.
Great Buddhist priests who had studied under Gyeongheo led a campaign of Buddhist purification after 1954 and eliminated feudalistic remnants of Joseon Buddhism to write a new history of modern Korean Buddhism. Living through the turbulent later Joseon period, Ven. Gyeongheo illuminated fading Zen Buddhism with complete enlightenment. He was a lotus flower that remains unstained by the mud, though mired in mud.