Hojun and Buddhism by Michael J. Wilson
On Korean television this year is one of the most spellbinding series that I have even seen. After watching Korean TV for more than three years, this one program alone has riveted me to the screen every Monday and Tuesday night at ten o¡¯clock on MBC. The program is called Hojun and it is about the life and times of the most famous Korean medical doctor who ever lived, back in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
I want to discuss some of the Buddhist elements in this drama. Please bear in my mind that I am not fluent in Korean and I do not understand everything that is going on. I do get translation from my Korean wife from time to time, but I can understand a lot just by following the scenes and picking up occasional dialogues. The series has first class acting as well, with very well known actors and some fresh talent.
Hojun wrote a masterpiece of Chinese medicine called the Dong-ui Pogam, a work that is revered throughout most of North East Asia. Hojun was a master of acupuncture , herbal medicine, calligraphy, and medical history. Not much is known about his life but there are portraits of him. The TV drama is kind of a fictionalized account of his life. But the legend is greater than the man. They say if he was alive today, he could cure cancer or almost any disease. And in the TV drama, he does at times seem to be a miraculous larger-than-life phenomenon.
But this miracle working did not happen without extreme bad fortune, poverty, and hard work. The story of how Hojun became a doctor is a story that illustrates the Korean class system as it existed at the time. In this story we meet yangban, aristocrats, peasants, servants, and the occasional Buddhist monk.
We see housewives toiling, aristocratic consorts scheming, nurses and doctors immersed in study, the whole panorama of daily life of the time recreated. And it is always interspersed with comic relief, by some great acting, so this often very sad life history, doesn¡¯t come off as completely gloomy. As much as Hojun tries to become the best doctor in Korean history, the more social forces at large, mostly caused by jealousy and ignorance, push him down. Through all these trials and tribulations, Hojun always keeps his compassion and humility. In fact, he is an icon of compassion, a great bodhisattva.
I will only relate one or two stories with Buddhist themes to illustrate the intensity of the drama. This drama is about bodhisattvas, those who sacrifice their lives for the happiness of others, and many of the characters in it look like the Korean Zen or ¡°Son¡± brush drawing of ¡°Dalma¡± or Bodhidharma. One is the wild bearded hermit who lives in the mountains meditating and studying the effects of animal parts used for medicine. He looks like any portrait of Dalma found in any Korean temple. He becomes one of Hojun¡¯s teachers on the path to unlocking the secrets of medicine. Hojun has to sit outside his primitive hut in the mountains for days before he is accepted by the gruff and difficult looking hermit. Hojun knew that this wild looking character had great knowledge to impart though the he always denied it. In fact we eventually learn that this hermit was once one of the best doctors in court of the King in Seoul. But after becoming disillusioned by the pettiness of palace politics, he fled for refuge in the mountains. We see scenes of him meditating and doing Ki exercises on the top of craggy cliffs in the Korean highlands.
A colleague of his in the elite medical corps at the palace was a physician who came first in the medical exams at that time. How this doctor came to be a Buddhist monk who lived alone in a leper colony was an amazing story. We encounter this monk many times as a friend of Hojun¡¯s first and most revered teacher. Hojun worked preparing herbs in the clinic of his teacher. His teacher had a son who was being trained as a doctor as well. Hojun had a terrible thirst for medical knowledge and just by watching the doctor carefully was beginning to learn almost as much as the son. It is clear to us all that the son has great intellectual ability but not the real compassion of Hojun, who has a real heart for the patient¡¯s well being. Eventually there is jealousy when Hojun is favored more than the son. The son is in love with the nurse in the clinic but she is in love with Hojun. Hojun, however, is married to a long suffering wife of great virtue to whom he is eternally faithful. Hojun¡¯s great heart extends to all the people but his charity of course will get him into trouble many times.
Anyway, why did the Buddhist monk take robes and leave the King¡¯s palace just as the wild Dalma-like hermit did? (They were in fact colleagues). This doctor had one very young son. One day the son was missing from home. They heard a rumor that a group of lepers were seen at around the same time that the boy was missing. At news of this the wife of the doctor faints dead away. Leprosy was very common in Korea and still exists. At that time lepers believed that eating a human liver would cure their illness. This is what passed through the mind of the doctor¡¯s wife, that her son was kidnapped to eat his liver.
They looked for the boy everywhere, eventually giving up. As the doctor is walking home alone he finds one of his son¡¯s shoes which leads him to an abandoned house. Inside he finds a family of lepers sitting around a fire eating. His rage sets him on fire and forgetting himself completely he murders the family with a farming implement. Covered with blood he goes outside and meets a boy wearing his son¡¯s robes. He first thought is it was his son, and that he had wrongly slaughtered the family. But the boy was a member of the leper family. He tells him he did not partake of the meal with his family. At that moment the doctor breaks down. He decides to become a Buddhist monk and live with this boy in a leper village, trying all the time with his great medical knowledge to find a cure for the disease.
Eventually Hojun ends up in the leper village and actually cures this boy and many others of the terrible disease. The Buddhist doctor himself once took a dangerous experimental medicine for the lepers as a guinea pig. He might have died if Hojun did not administer to him. Many times in the drama Hojun brings people out of serious jeopardy. This is no easy art, especially if the people are high class aristocrats where the consequence of failure was the loss of a hand.
There are many scenes of doctors practicing acupuncture and brewing herbal medicines. There are some scenes of Hojun and his teacher doing ¡°sucking medicine¡± on great welts on some patient¡¯s body, which may have a shamanic origin. There are many occasions for doctors to group around making diagnosis while only Hojun, with the greatest humility, comes up with the right one. Many dramas unfold around Hojun staying constantly at someone¡¯s bedside in order to cure some almost impossible disease.
The most riveting of all situations is where HoJjn¡¯s revered teacher goes off secretly alone to a cave to prepare his death. Discovering this, Hojun, the Buddhist monk, and the wild hermit go to the caveonly to discover that the great medical doctor and teacher had committed suicide, but had left a will asking that Hojun perform an operation on his body to find out what kind of cancer had killed him. This was a traumatic moment for Hojun because in Korean Confucian society, the body was never to be cut open. This was certainly one of the great secrets that Hojun learned in his long apprenticeship with his teachers, but it taxed his will to the limit to perform the operation and draw the evidence on paper for future study. Revealing this secret to the doctor¡¯s son was even more fuel for his animosity and jealousy, who, along with Hojun, eventually became physicians in the Royal palace.
One hour of the TV drama goes by and we get a preview of the next day¡¯s episodes, just enough to whet the curiosity. What will happen? I think the program is one of the most popular on Korean television with the general public, which bodes well for Korean television viewers who have so much light hearted fluff to view most days. The Hojun series is very illuminating about Korea and I can¡¯t wait to see how it ends, now that Hojun has finally been recognized in the Royal Court as the greatest physician in history after being on the bottom for so long.
Michael Wilson bio for Ho Jun article
Michael J. Wilson has studied Tibetan Buddhism for
over 18 years. He has been to Nepal and India on
Tibetan Buddhist pilgrimages three times where he
supports Tibetan refugees. He taught English in Korea
for almost four years from 1996, chosing Korea in order to study its
Buddhist traditions. Now in Canada, he hopes to
integrate his Korean family of three into Canadian
society. He studied Korean culture and language with great enthusiasm
and has a deep respect for the beauty and sacredness
of Korea's religious traditions.