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서산대사 / 西山大師
Little is known of the early life of Seosan Daesa (Korean: 서산대사, Hanja: 西山大師) other than that he was born in 1520 and that he became a monk. As was common for monks in this time, he travelled from place to place, living in a succession of monasteries. Buddhist monks had been forced to keep a low profile since General Yi Seonggye had been forced to eject Buddhism from its state of total permeation of government, in order to gain the support of Neo-Confucian scholar-officials to consolidate his position against his Buddhist political opponents when he overthrew King Gongyang in 1392 to become King Taejo of Joseon.
Before ever having tested his hand as a military commander, Seosan was a first-rate Seon (Zen) master and the author of a number of important religious texts, the most important of which is probably his "Seongaguigam (禪家龜鑑)", a guide to Seon practice which is studied by Korean monks even today. Like most monks of the Joseon period, Seosan had been initially educated in Neo-Confucian philosophy. Dissatisfied, though, he wandered through the mountain monasteries. Later, after making a name for himself as a teacher, he was made arbiter of the Seon school by King Myeongjong, who was sympathetic towards Buddhism. He soon resigned from this responsibility, though, returning to the itinerant life, advancing his Seon studies and teaching at monasteries all around Korea.
At the beginning of the 1590s, Japanese Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi, after stabilising Japan during this era of warring nations, made preparations for a large scale invasion of Joseon. Joseon was unaware of the situation in Japan, however, and was unprepared for the Japanese aggression. In 1592, after Japan’s request for aid in conquering China was rebuffed, approximately 200,000 Japanese soldiers invaded Joseon, and the Waeran (Japanese War) began. At the beginning of the invasion, King Seonjo fled the capital, leaving a weak, poorly trained army to defend the country. In desperation he called on Seosan to organise monks into guerilla units. Even at 73 years of age he managed to recruit and deploy some 5,000 of these warrior monks, who enjoyed some instrumental successes.
At first, the government armies of Joseon suffered repeated defeats, and the Japanese armies marched north up to P'yŏngyang and the Hamgyŏng provinces. At sea, however, the Joseon navy, under the command of Admiral Yi Sun-sin, enjoyed successive victories. Throughout the country, loyal volunteer armies formed and fought against the Japanese together with the warrior monks and the government armies of Joseon.
The presence of Seosan's monks' army, operating out of the Heungguksa temple deep in the mountain of Yeongchwisan, was a critical factor in the eventual expulsion of the Japanese invaders in 1593 and again in 1598.
The Taekwon-Do pattern Seo-San is named in his honor.