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Philosophy Home

Who are Hwa Rang Warriors?

By David Bannon, Ph.D.

You can still go there today. Nestled high in a wooden dale, remote and hidden on Tansok Mountain, lies the Korean temple Shinson, which means "Spirit of Supernatural Being." Outside of Kyongju, past the small village of Ujunggok, climb down to the stream and hike up through the pottery kilns of the village, following a trail to the right of the stream through a terraced rice field. Near several rock slides, the trail crosses the stream and begins a sharp ascent up the left slope. This path reaches a higher valley to the left of the main valley. Hike from the village over an hour, and like the Hwarang warriors of old, enter the grounds of Shinson temple (Shinson-sa), which gained fame during the Silla period when Kim Yushin used these mountain ridges as his training area for the Hwarang.

Historians have been fascinated by the Hwarang in recent years. While there is significant historical material concerning the Hwarang warriors as an institution, there are still considerable mystery and speculation as to their function. We don't know that generals from the Silla period - which took place from BC 57- 935 AD; Korean year Silla Founder King Hyok Gosoi 1 to Korean year Sill 56th King Kyongsun 9 - claimed early training with the Hwarang movement. Probably because of this, the Hwarang have become known as "Korean Silla knighthood," with the word hwarang often being translated as "flower knights," though it literally means "flower of manhood," or "flowering manhood."

Modern martial artists should be wary of such simplistic interpretations, though, for the Hwarang movement has no similarities to the knights of medieval Europe. Some believe that Hwarang-do and Japanese Bushido are similar way of warriorship, but the Hwarang movement pre-dates Bushido, and did not gain the political influence of the Samurai class. Silla youth did not remain Hwarang for life, as did the Samurai, and were not born into the class and its privileges. Instead, Koreans and practitioners of Korean martial arts may take special pride in the heritage of the Hwarang movement - a unique spiritual and physical training that has never been duplicated in Korea or anywhere else in the world.

Hwarang Beginnings

The Hwarang were a group of aristocratic young men who gathered to study, play and learn the arts of war. Though the Hwarang were not a part of the regular army, their military spirit, their sense of loyalty to king and nation, and their bravery on the battlefield contributed greatly to the power of the Silla army.

It should be noted the Hwarang-do was a philosophical and religious code followed by valiant warriors - not a fighting style or combat technique in itself. Generally, King Chinhung (534-576; 24th Silla King, reigned 540-576) is acknowledged to have organized Hwarang-do as a philosophical study in the 37th year of his reign. The Hwarang spread their influence throughout the Korean pennisula and excelled in archery - mounted and unmounted. Though they practiced fencing, no set fencing or unarmed combat styles developed from the Hwarang warriors. Instead, they focused on studying Chinese classics and military strategies, as well as the fighting arts, and in July and August, an annual national festival was conducted for the Hwarang to demonstrate martial skills.

But it was in their devotion to furthering the unity and well-being of the nation as a whole that the Hwarang played their most important role. They went in groups to the mountains - for physical training, to enjoy the beauties of nature, and to make their peace with the Spirit of the Mountain. They were highly literate, and they composed ritual songs and performed ritual dances whose purpose was to pray for the country's welfare. They also involved themselves directly in intellectual and political affairs.

The Hwarang movement appeared to be a type of schooling for the sons of Silla's aristocrats; however, there are cases of sons of low ranking parents belonging to this elite group. The movement was certainly royally supported as kings themselves served as Hwarang before taking their responsibilities on the throne.

The Hwarang movement was a Korean warrior corps that adhered to strict philosophical and moral codes. Most of the great military leaders of the Silla Dynasty had been Hwarang. Their exploits were recorded in The Records of the Hwarang (Hwarang Segi) by the Eighth Century scholar Kim Tae-mun. Although this book has not survived, passages and synopses were recorded by Kim Pu-sik (1075-1151), the Koryo historian said to have compiled the History of the Three Kingdoms (Samguk Sagi) in 1145.<>/P>

Today many Korean novels and films have portrayed the Hwarang as a zealous military strategist whose unflinching goal was the unification of Silla and protection of the kingdom. In modern Korea, the Hwarang ideal continues in unfailing patriotism and military prowess. The modern martial art, Hwarang-do, claims its roots from this ancient practice and attmpts to continue some of its ideals.

Hwarang Legends

The legends, history and pageantry of ancient Silla have left a beautiful and mysterious legacy across the Kyongju valley, where in a capital city of one million people, kings and queens once reigned supreme for almost a millenium. The Silla culture's vibrant achievements, carried to unprecedented heights, can still be felt in today's society.

From 57 BC through the next millennium of Silla Dynasty rule, geographic isolation somewhat delayed the kingdom's cultural growth but undoubtedly saved the kingdom from China's predatory advances. The brave young Hwarang warriors were equal to the task of military defense while the rulers knew the advantages of strategic alliances.

In the Seventh Century, Silla turned to defeat the other two Korean kingdoms in a coalition with the T'ang Dynasty (618-906) of China. Paekche fell in 660 and Koguryo 668. Because China was unable to subjugate Silla, she soon left all the territorial peninsula sought of the Taedong River to Silla. Unified Silla came to a peaceful end in the the Tenth Century, leaving scores of undamaged valuable remains for scholars in the Twentieth Century, and important hints as to the real nautre of Hwarang warrior culture.

From 632 to 654, two queens inherited the throne in their own right, indicating a significant difference beween ancient Silla practices and China's male-dominated hirearchy. Queen Son-dok (Silla's 27th ruler; reigned 632-647) quickly established good relations with T'ang China, and introduced many foreign customs which included Chinese fashions in court dress, improvement in technological fields and cutural innovations which were in vogue in China. She sent students to Chinese universities, built temples and schools, and astutely patroned Confucianism and shamanism as well as the state religion of Buddhism. One of her passionate interests was astronomy and she built for the court a "star gazing tower" called chomsong-dae which can still be seen. This observatory is considered one of the oldest structures left from the Silla period. Under Queen Son-dok's nephew and later King Mu-yol (Silla's 29th ruler; reigned 654-661) and his son Mun-mu (30th ruler; reigned 661-681), Silla finally achieved unification. Queen Son-dok personally sponsored and supported Hwarang-do, and sent many of the Hwarang warriors on expeditions to China to learn Chinese war tactics.

Buddhism became the chief channel of foreign importation, and the first institution to grow under it's guidance was the religious, military and chivalric organization called Hwarang-do. This "way" included a code of personal conduct and philosophy of service. Through the Hwarang-do schooling, an elite corps of public officials was recruited and trained over a ten-year period to be later employed by the state. Both the martial arts and the Buddhist ideals of self-sacrifice and compassion for the weak were stressed. The Hwarang corps led the fighting forces fo the king or queen, and owed personal loyalty to the throne. Largely throught this system, Silla was able to weather many crises, both domestic and foreign.

Had it not been for these accomplished men, the ablest of whom was General Kim Yushin (595-673), Silla might have been conquered by China in the succeeding years. General Kim Yushin was a remarkable military leader who led the Silla troops with the Chinese T'ang troops when they defeated Paekche in 660. A stabilizing force in society, the Hwarang were a group trained together and pledged to the same ideals and goals. It was among the Hwarang that the Silla court could find its leaders in time of peace and generals in Time of war. Modern South Koea pays tribute to this tradition at the Korean Military Academy near Seoul, where the campus itself is known as Hwarang-dae, or "Hwarang Hill."

Hwarang-do, with origins in the spirit worship of the peninsula, soon took on elements of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism (Taoism) as well. This mixing across the centuries of early Asia's three main religions an the shamanism of the peninsula produced a way of looking at life that was uniquely Korean. Buddhism was the protector of Silla and the following Koryo Dynasty (935 - 11392), while Confucianism took first place in the subsequent Yi Dynasty (1392 - 1909), but none ever totally eclipsed the other, and even unorganized Daoism had more than an occasional advocate along the way. Of course, this is another reason modern Koreans look back to Silla: While they may admire Koguryo (BC37 - AD 668) for strength and Paekche (BC 18 - AD 660) for refinement, Silla alone seems to have been truly Korean.

But however sophisticated the court, Silla remained a land of villages where the farmer went out to the fields every day. Agriculture was the kingdom's economic base, as it has been for all Korea well into the Twentieth Century. From early days, poetry and music played an important part in the Korean people's daily life. The oldest recorded Korean poetry is called hyangga, of which only twenty-five are extant: 14 in the Samguk Yusa (1285), and 11 in the "Life of Great Master Kyunyo" (1075). Though most of these are Buddhist in inspiration and content, two are dedicated to great Hwarang warriors.

The following work by the poet Siro (692-702) captures the transient emotions and sense of loss many Koreans feel toward the lost glory days of the Hwarang warriors. Martial artists may echo the lament of the poet:

All men sorrow and lament
Over the spring that is past;
Your face once bright and fair,
Where has it gone with deep furrows?
I must glimpse you,
Even for an awesome moment.
My fervent mind cannot rest at night,
In the hollow rank with mugwort.

(Note: Mugwort refers to the tomb of the Hwarang warrior, whose passing, along with the greatness of his Hwarang brothers, is lamented by the poet.)

By 918, the Silla court was dead, sapped by internal corruption and the rulling aristorcracy's wateful living. By 935 even the name Silla had disappeared. A once-great kingdom had surrendered to the strongest of many rebel forces eating away at its territory. Even the once-great Hwarang, around whom so many legends had been spun, were reduced to a disorganized band of effete dilettantes. This result of the time's politics in no way detracts from the great traditions of Hwarang warriors, so sadly defamed by later history. Today, Koreans look to the golden age of Silla and the exploits of its great Hwarang warriors, as exmplars of all that is honorable, just and courageous.

Buddhist Influences and the Miruk

Many Buddhist priests, including the famed Won-hyo (617-686), were Hwarang during their youth. There was a definite religious emphasis to the Hwarang movement, especially directed toward the Miruk deity (Future Buddha).

Silla referred to the Hwarang group as "Yonghwa hyangdo." Traditionally, yonghwa is a mountain in India where the Miruk lived. Linguists realize today that the terms "hwarang," "Miruk," and "shinson" can be used almost interchangeably. The Hwarang were followers of the Miruk. A reference in the Samguk Yusa (Legends of the Three Kingdoms) implies that shinson, the spirit of the supernatural being, was often called Miruk by the Koreans.

During the Koean Silla Dynasty, the elite paramilitary youth corps, the Hwarang, became closely related with the Miruk sect. The Hwarang trained under austere conditions, practiicing archery and the equestrian arts, and making arduous religious pilgrimages, primarily to the slopes of Kyongju, which has relatively few large rocks, and where one massive rock formation of rectangular columns is now seen.

A legend tells that the young Hwarang leader Kim Yushin dreamed that a bearded mountain spirit appeared and presented him a mystic sword. Picking the sword up, he severed the rocks beside him. The mountain was thus named Tansok (Divided Rock) because of this feat. Another legend indicates that the teacher of Kim Yushin, Nansung, presented this famous sword to Kim Yushin. Near the small temple of Shinson is a cluster of columned granite rocks which form what is considered the remains of Korea's oldest temple grotto. The roof has long ago collapsed, but many tile pieces can still be found.

The north wall is severed with one rectangular column standing thirty feet high with a fifty foot girth. Between this portion and the main rock is a four-foot passage-way. The surface is smooth and straight as if cut by a sharp blade. Beyond this passageway several ma-aebnul (Buddhist relic) images are carved.

This grotto consists of an inner and outer chamber. In the more sacred inner chamber are triad ma-aebul images. The outer chamber at the west was reserved for the worshippers. The largest relief image on the north wall is twenty feet high and represents the Miruk. This Miruk was probably the central image of the triad for this Buddhist cave temple built during the late 6th century. The head in bold relief portrays a face with an archaic smile typical of the earliest period when Buddhism was first introduced. The image is one of the oldest and largest examples among the stone Buddhist sculpturing of Silla. Seemingly lost in contemplation, the Miruk's facial expression imparts a captivating sense of delicate gentleness that complemented the religious and aesthetic training of the Hwarang warriors who came here to worship.

On the far wall facing down the ten foot wide corridor is another eighteen-foot relief image of the second, barely discernible, Bodhisattva and attendant of the Miruk Buddha. In front of the Miruk Buddha on the opposite cliff at the south wall is another relief image barely discernible. This image is about fifteen feet high with the head more distinct. To the left of this image within reach of the ground, is a carved inscription, with the name of Shinson Temple clearly recongizable. The inscription is twenty lines with each line containing exactly nineteen Chinese characters. It tells of the construction of this temple grotto. Only one fourth of entire inscriptions is legible and was tranlated in 1969. Inscribed on the grotto wall prior to the Silla unification, the faint words include this passage: "This sanctuary is dedicated to worship of the Miruk and to the valiant Hwarang forces."

On the northern cliff surface thirteen feet above the ground and along the inside passageway are four additional relief carvings approximately four feet in height each representing Buddhist images important to Hwarang warriors. They are significant to understanding pre-unification Silla religious and warrior culture. However, near the ground are the two most unusal relief images seen anywhere in Korea. Believed by scholars to represent Hwarang warriors; it is generally accepted that these two figures are the Hwarang who founded the temple. The larger figure is four feet high while the smaller one stands three and a half feet high. They both wear high pointed caps which dip forward at the top. The collar and lower hem of the Chogori (vest) is quite pronounced. Under the chogori appears to be a cremonial apron which reaches well below the waist. The trousers are voluminous, typical of the Korean style paji.

The toes of the shoes turn up typical of the wooden shoes of early Korea. The front figure appears to be carrying a long handled incense burner while the second figure in the rear is holding a willow branch used to brush away pesky spirits or for calling on the rain spirits. Even today, shamans use damp willow branches to spatter water in praying for rain. It is interesting to note that the village below shinson-sa is call Ujung-gok, which means "rain center valley." Confirming the identification of these figures as Hwarang warriors paying religious homage, are the military accouterments on both images, including arrows, bows, spears, and what appear to be swords, although some scholars believe the idealized sword images are merely religious icons.

The two worshipping Hwarang appear to be paying homage to the main Miruk ma-aebul. The Hwarang movement and worship of the Miruk are interwoven into Silla's history and legends. Founded by the Hwarang centuries ago, the eyes of the Miruk image gaze as worshippers continue to pray and pay homage today. The spirit of the Hwarang warrior still seems to haunt the mysterious slopes Tansok Mountain.

At Shinson Temple outside of Kyongju, out from the wooded valley on the bare slope, a visitor can imagine the pageantry of the Hwarang in training, dancing over the hillside with powdered faces and jeweled garb. Far below in the valley, the silvery mist permeates the steep slopes while the restless wind rustles the dry leaves under the gnarled oaks. The vaporous mist reaches the higher slopes while the blue-green mountain on the far horizon beyond appear to lose identity with each - yet like the Hwarang long ago, they still belong to this country once called Silla. And the spirit of the Hwarang is still present in the courage and strength of the Korean people.

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