The are a lot of great stories and legends from the Shilla dynasty. Most have to do with places around Gyeongju, so I’m hoping to retell a few of them here. Bunhwangsa temple was the home of one of the most famous Korean Buddhist saints of all time, Venerable monk Wonhyo (617 – 686 CE) . St. Wonhyo is known and respected for a lot of reasons and there are some pretty wild stories about his antics, but I figure I’ll start with the story of his Great Awakening.
According to history, Wonhyo made several attempts during his early life to travel to China to study Buddhism. The last one he made around 661 C.E., when he was about 34, together with his buddy, St. Uisang (more on him later). Somewhere along the way to catch their ship, Wonhyo experienced a very profound realization. He then decided to ditch China, turn around and return to Gyeongju. Ven. Uisang continued on to China where he studied for 10 years before returning to Korea (but again, more on that later).
Over time some popular legends developed about what caused Wonhyo’s profound realization and why he didn’t go on to China. I’ve heard a couple of different versions, but the story goes a little something like this: Wonhyo and Uisang were caught in a violent storm on the way to the port and had to take refuge in a nearby cave for the night. During the night Wonhyo woke up and found a drinking gourd next to a spring in the back of cave. He took a drink, went back to bed and slept peacefully through the night.
The next morning, Wonhyo woke up and went to take a another drink. As he was drinking from the gourd he realized that it wasn’t a gourd, but a human skull! In the morning light Wonhyo looked around and realized, they had spent the night not in a cave but in an old tomb. The storm kept raging and they were stuck in the tomb another night. Instead of sleeping peacefully this time, Wonhyo spent the night haunted by terrible visions of ghosts.
After the storm had cleared the following day, Wonhyo started wondering: how was it that he’d slept so peacefully the first night while the second he’d been tormented by ghosts? It was then he had a profound realization: the distinction between a peaceful cave and a haunted tomb (or a gourd and a skull, for that matter), are in the mind. In the end, all perception and discrimination are a product of the human mind. As such, Wonhyo decided he could seek enlightenment in Korea just as well as in China and turned back around.