During most of the Yi dynasty (1392-1910), Buddhism was suppressed, both politically and spiritually, by the Confucian government. Partly through the anti-Buddhist measures and partly through the internal deterioration of the sangha, Buddhism entered a long period of decline that was especially marked during the last two hundred years of the Yi dynasty. However, at the end of the nineteenth century, a great personality emerged among Korean Buddhist monks. This was Kyŏnghŏ Sŏng'u who was born into a poor peasant family in 1849. After losing his father at an early age, Kyŏnghŏ joined the sangha, where he received instruction in traditional Buddhism and classical Confucianism. By age twenty-three his mastery of the scriptures had earned him high ecclesiastical rank, but he eventually became disillusioned with the limited understanding he had acquired through study and decided to seek a practical realization of the innermost truth of Buddhism through intensive Sŏn meditation. After a long and grueling retreat, he had a major spiritual awakening in the autumn of 1879, at age thirty-one. Following his awakening he taught widely across the country, successfully contributing to the revival of Buddhism in Korea.

Kyŏnghŏ's thought as revealed in his extant writings and recorded dharma talks follow traditional Sŏn doctrines, highlighted by his thorough knowledge of the Mahāyāna scriptures. He appears to have been particularly fond of the great Chinese Ch'an masters Hui-neng (638-713) and Kuei-feng Tsung-mi (780-841), as well as the Koryŏ Sŏn master, Pojo Kuksa (1158-1210).

Viewed from a doctrinal standpoint, Kyŏnghŏ's Buddhism contains nothing new or extraordinary. That he was a powerful spiritual teacher, however, can be seen in his more informal addresses and mundap exchanges with his disciples. Precisely because he followed a well-trod path, Kyŏnghŏ was able to reassert the Buddhist roots of Korea and bring fresh impetus to an old and weak, but still living, Korean tradition.


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