Great Master Samyeong Yujeong (泗溟大師 惟政) and Katō Kiyomasa (加藤 清正)

Could exchanges between Joseon and Japan in the 16th and 17th centuries be explained without the using the keyword 'war'? We can find the answer in the exchanges between the Great Monk Master Yujeong (1544–1610), a Buddhist monk from Joseon, and the Japanese general Katō Kiyomasa (1562–1611), and his forces. After the Japanese Invasion of 1592, Master Samyeong served as both as a military commander of “warrior monks” and as a “secret diplomatic envoy.” He met with Kiyomasa, a retainer of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣 秀吉, 1537–1598), who was the leader of the Japanese vanguard. They held four meetings in Joseon and Japan. Ironically, the encounters between these two men in wartime were linked through Buddhism.


Portrait of the monk Samyeongdang Yujeong 

Joseon period, 19th century, colors on silk, 99.3 cm x 77.7 cm. Dongguk University Museum, Korea ⓒDongguk University Museum 

Ninagawa Noritane (蜷川式胤), Portrait of Katō Kiyomasa (copy)

Edo period, 1858, original: Azuchi-Momoyama period, 16th century, colors on paper, Tokyo National Museum, Japan ⓒColBase (https://colbase.nich.go.jp/)

While monks were considered near the lowest class in Joseon Confucianism society, they occupied socially significant positions in Japan and were frequently involved in important matters of state. For that reason, Kiyomasa addressed the priest of Sa'meyongdang as the "Imminent Monk from Mountain Geumgangsan (金剛山高僧)," showing great respect for his visitor. These two portraits show a contrast between the priest of Sa'myeongdang, who is dressed in a Buddhist robe, and Katō Kiyomasa, who is dressed as a warrior.


Encounter of the two people, and “Buddhism”


To my dearest Ambassador Nissin (日眞) of Japan

We were born in different places, and we look different

Yet our minds are in one law(法). We serve one same teacher, and we follow one same real sutra of Shakyamuni

Thus, our hearts would not be different regardless of the location

I shall pray, may we serve and follow the lines in the Sutra, and shall aspire to live in the Pure Land

Willing to become Buddhist fellow together with thee,

Please consider my suggestion within your deep concerns. 


- Monk Sa’myeong from Joseon writes, on April 15th, 1594 -


Master Samyeong met with Katō Kiyomasa on four occasions after 1594. They had very different social statuses and positions and lived very different lives, but as practitioners of Buddhism, they both showed courtesy to one another. In particular, the letter quoted above is from Samyeong to the Priest Nissin (日眞和尙, 1565–1626) who was the teacher of Katō Kiyomasa. You can sense the firm bond between them.


A Record of Great Master Songun's Overcoming Difficulties with Fierce Loyalty, Joseon dynasty, 1739, paper, 29.8x20.5cm, National Museum of Korea ©eMuseum

Another pen name of Great Master Samyeong’s is “Songun” (松雲), thus he is often also called the Master Songun. The title of this record means "a record of the relief of the national crisis by undertaking loyal duties," and contains his personal journal in his own hand along with letters. Records of diplomatic talks with Katō Kiyomasa are the main contents. In these records, you can find the two figures interacting, confronting and doubting one another, via pildam (筆談) with Nissin (日眞). Pildam was a way of communication in East Asian where educated people used the shared medium of Chinese characters to exchange their thoughts.


Their relationship cannot be judged “amicable” except in terms of their shared religion, which, at least, allowed the two enemies to lower their guards during the confrontation. Moreover, Master Samyeong was able to expand his Japanese network as he was dispatched to Japan for diplomatic reasons after the war. He communicated with the diplomat-monk Keitetsu Kenso (景轍玄蘇), the Sō Yoshitoshi (宗義智) , the lord of Tsushima, and the monks of the Five Zen Temples of Kyoto. Buddhism played a crucial role in maintaining their communications.


The Great Monk Master Yujeong


On the left
Great master Songun’s personal Buddha from Nakseoam at Geonbongsa (temple) located in Goseong, Gangwon province, South Korea, glass dry plates, 1912, 11.9x16.4cm, List of Glass Plates Vol. I, 72


Top and bottom of the right side

Dharma Robe and Jangsam, Joseon period, robe: 84.0cm x 240cm, Jangsam: 142.5cm, Pyochungsa Museum, Korea, National Folklore Cultural Heritage No. 29

These artifacts were possessions of the Master Samyeong, and through them, we may can see that Yujeong was also a true practitioner of the Buddhist law dharma in addition to being a victorious commander and monk-diplomat.


Katō Kiyomasa


On the left

Armor with variegated lacing, Edo period, 18th century, Iron, leather, lacquer, silk, gilt copper, H: 70.4cm, National Museum of Korea ⓒNational Museum of Korea 


Top right

"Katakama" Type Spearhead, Muromachi period, 16th century, Tokyo National Museum, Japan ⓒColBase (https://colbase.nich.go.jp/)


Bottom right

The Warrior Katō Kiyomasa's Tiger Hunt (Hikifuda Handbill), Meiji Period, 36.3cm x 50.5cm, Kyoto National Museum, Japan ⓒColBase (https://colbase.nich.go.jp/)

This is an archetypical image of Katō Kiyomasa. Dressed in Japanese armor, he is widely known as the "tiger hunting" warrior.

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