Buddhist Reformer and Resistance Poet, Manhae Han Yong-un

2011-03-11

Han Yong-un and his time
The month of March in 1919 began with a nationwide civic uprising. Rebelling against the Japanese colonial government, Koreans issued the Declaration of Independence and proclaimed to the world its resolve to gain freedom and independence. But more than 20 thousand out of the 1.1 million Koreans who took part in 1,214 protests from March to April of that year either died or sustained injury and some 47 thousand were arrested by the Japanese police. The entire nation plunged into despair in the wake of such devastating tolls. But one person restored hope in the Korean people.

You have gone. Ah, my love, you have gone.
However, since I know that to make parting the fountain of needless tears is to shatter love, I have transferred the irresistible power of sadness and poured it over my brow to quench the oil, ill with fresh hope.
Just as we fear parting when we meet, we believe we will meet again when we part.
Ah, even though you are gone I have never said goodbye.


Mahhae transformed despair into hope with his poem “Your Silence.” Let’s look into his life as a Buddhist monk, poet, and freedom fighter.

Converting to Buddhism
Our understanding of his life should begin at Baekdam Temple, a millennium-old Buddhist temple nestled in Naeseorak Mountain in Gangwon Province. This temple is where 26-year-old Yu-cheon, who was born in Hongseong, South Chungcheong Province on August 29, 1879, was reborn as a Buddhist monk named Yong-un.

When the Japanese Empire was engulfed Korea in its imperial ambition, Han attempted to wrest back Korea’s sovereignty by taking part in a farmers’ resistance movement in 1894 and a vigilante uprising in 1895. The rebellions were quashed by the Japanese authorities, however, which eventually prompted Han to sever his ties to the secular world and enter Baekdam Temple to follow Buddhism in 1905. The temple was where Avalokitesvara Guan Yin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, and Bodhisattva, a Buddhist saint of wisdom, were kept. Tormented over the future of Korea and its people at the temple, Manhae came to publish in 1913 a practical guideline called the Joseon Buddhism Reform Theory, which called for Buddhists to participate in real issues and take action. He also published Buddhist magazine “Yushim” in 1918 to galvanize the Korean people.

Transcending the boundaries of religion with his power of spiritual writing, Manhae took on a leading role in the nationwide March 1st movement in1919, driven by the faithful of the indigenous Cheondogyo religion, Christianity, Buddhism, and other religious sects.

Lighting the Torch of Independence
Representing the Buddhists, Manhae announced the Declaration of Independence and led the shouts of protest with other representatives at two in the afternoon of March 1st, 1919. At the same hour a Korean flag was draped over a pavilion at Tabgol Park in the middle of Seoul and the crowd cried “Independence for Korea” throughout the nation. But the representatives were immediately arrested and Manhae was sentenced to seven years in prison, the harshest sentence among the 33 representatives of the Korean people. He served three years.

The Japanese authorities were especially unforgiving with Manhae because of his fearless and unwavering attitude. Despite excruciating torture, he continued to call for Korea’s independence. When demanded by the Japanese to write a letter regretting his participation in the resistance movement, he instead wrote them a letter of resistance, in which said that Korea’s independence was like a rock rolling down the mountain, never stopping until it reached its destination, and that Korea’s independence was only a matter of time.

Singing of the Beloved with His Poems
Released from prison after three years in 1922, Manhae lent his support to the nationwide economic self-sufficiency movement. In 1926 he published a collection of poems entitled “Your Silence,” which included his epiphany about Buddhist’s role in the real world. Through his poems he gave hope to the Korean people, urging them to believe that independence would come if they endured hardship.

Manhae lived as a Buddhist monk, freedom fighter, and poet. He stayed in Seongbuk-dong in the old town Seoul while taking an active part in the 1940 protest against changing Korean surnames into Japanese ones, and the 1943 demonstration against drafting Korean students for the Japanese military. Manhae passed away in 1944 in his home, which he had kept unheated even in winter in respect for imprisoned resistance members. He has passed on, but his poem urging us to love each other and believe that we will meet again resonates through our hearts to this day. When the times are dark and life seems hopeless we Koreans recite Manhae’s poem and are filled with hope.

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