Ŭich'ŏn (1055-1101) is recognized as a Buddhist master of great stature in the East Asian tradition. Born a prince in the medieval Korean state of Koryŏ (960-1279), he traveled to Song China (960-1279) to study Buddhism and later compiled and published the first collection of East Asian exegetical texts. According to the received scholarly tradition, after returning to Korea, Ŭich'ŏn left the Hwaŏm (Huayan) school to found a new Ch'ŏnt'ae (Tiantai) school when he realized that the synthesis between doctrinal learning and meditative practice in the latter would help bring together the discordant sects of Koryŏ Buddhism. In the late twentieth century, however, scholars began to question the assertion that Ŭich'ŏn forsook one school for another, arguing that his writings assembled in The Collected Works of State Preceptor Taegak (Taegak kuksa munjip) do not portray a committed sectarian but a monk dedicated to developing a sophisticated and rigorous system of monastic education that encompassed all Buddhist intellectual traditions.
In this first comprehensive study of Ŭich'ŏn's life and work in English, Richard McBride presents translations of select lectures, letters, essays, and poetry from The Collected Works to provide a more balanced view of Ŭich'ŏn's philosophy of life and understanding of key Buddhist teachings. The translations center on the monk's activities in the pan-East Asian Buddhist world and his compilation of scholarly texts, writings related to his interactions with royalty, and correspondence with his Chinese mentor, Jinshui Jingyuan (1011-1088). By incorporating Ŭich'ŏn's work associated with doctrinal Buddhism and his poetry, McBride clearly shows that even in his most personal work Ŭich'ŏn did not abandon Hwaŏm teachings for those of the Ch'ŏnt'ae but rather he encouraged monks to blend the best learning from all doctrinal traditions with meditative practice.