My hotel in Korea is fortuitously located at the foot of Soyosan Mountain, a popular regional tourist attraction, famous for its brilliant maple trees. The mountain’s rocky slopes are laced with hiking trails, and there is an ancient Buddhist temple, still active with its own community of monks, about half-way to the top.
A couple of hours of daylight after work and a hiking trail with nice vistas and cool historical stuff along the way? I’m there!
And this being Korea, if you’ve got a mountain and a trail, chances are, there’s a story to go along with it. It didn’t take long to find this one. A few steps along the path up the mountain, I discovered the legend of Wonhyo and Yoseok.
Wonhyo (617-686 AD) is listed as one of the Ten Sages of the Ancient Korean Kingdom. He was the first to systematically define Korean Buddhism as a distinctive branch of the faith, and he founded the Jajaeam Temple on Soyosan Mountain. He was popular for his embrace of the common man—singing and dancing in the city streets was his favored manner of teaching.
One might plausibly make the case that Wonhyo was the first practitioner of Korean Hip-Hop.
Anyhow, he was busting a few moves one day on a bridge within earshot of King Muyeol. The monarch enjoyed Wonhyo’s song and dance stylings and figured the musical monk would make a good match for his widowed daughter, the lovely Princess Yoseok. He arranged for Wonhyo to tumble into the river, then had him escorted to Princess Yoseok’s apartments, to dry his soaked clothes.
Wonhyo stayed overnight, and the rest is history. He set aside his monk’s robes for secular life, having broken his oath of celibacy, and took his teaching to the streets. He remained an influential advisor to the royal court his entire life. Meanwhile, Yoseok gave birth to a son, Seol Chong, who became a prominent Confucian scholar and developed the first rigorous method for translating the Korean language into Chinese characters.
Despite a culture that values propriety and modesty, Koreans don’t seem to have much trouble accepting a one-night-stand between a prominent Buddhist monk and a royal princess. On Soyosan, at least, it’s all about the romance.
They do make a pretty cute couple.