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Won Buddhism’s Turtle Chart

One of the first pictures you encounter upon opening the Principal Book of Wŏn Buddhism is an interesting-looking “turtle chart,” formally known as the Doctrinal Chart (kyorido, 敎理圖). The founder of Wŏn Buddhism, Sot’aesan, designed this chart and condensed Wŏn Buddhism’s essential teachings into a single image to encourage practitioners to comprehend and apply the teachings in their own lives. According to historical records, the chart underwent multiple revisions. The first version appeared in the Pogyŏng yuktae yoryŏng 寶經六大要領 (Six Essential Principles of Treasury Scripture), published in 1932. The second version appeared in the Kŭnhaengbŏp 勤行法 (The Method of Diligent Practice), and the first draft of the Pulgyo Chŏngjŏn 佛教正典 (The Correct Canon of Buddhism) in 1943. The third version featured in the Pulgyo Chŏngjŏn 佛教正典 (The Correct Canon of Buddhism) in 1945. The final version was printed in the 1962 Wŏnbulgyo kyojŏn 圓佛敎敎典 (The Scriptures of Wŏn Buddhism) and is the version widely used today.

First Doctrinal Chart Pogyŏng yuktae yoryŏng 寶經六大要領 (Six Essential Principles of Treasury Scripture), 1932. Image courtesy of the author

The initial doctrinal chart in the Pogyŏng yuktae yoryŏng (1932) was neither turtle-shaped nor did it display the Il-Wŏn-Sang (a circle image, 一圓相) as its center. Instead, the focus was on King Wen’s Eight Trigrams (文王八卦) from the ancient Chinese divination text, the I Ching 易經 (Book of Changes). The I Ching was an influential work throughout East Asia, thus it is not surprising that Sot’aesan had access to this text. In fact, the History of Wŏn Buddhism recounts a time when Sot’aesan—after attaining enlightenment—came across two Confucians discussing a passage from the I Ching. He understood with perfect clarity the meaning of the passage and realized that he had attained great enlightenment. Later, when devising the “10-person unit” (kyohwadan, 敎化團), he organized the group following the world of the ten directions. (The Doctrinal Books of Wŏn Buddhism 2016, 107) Again, this was an influence from the Confucian cosmological theory found in the I Ching

This version of the doctrinal chart found in the Pulpŏp Yŏn’guhoe 佛法硏究會 (Society for the Study of Buddhadharma, later named Wŏn Buddhism) is organized broadly into the following categories: the Essential Ways of Human Life, the Essential Ways of Practice, and Items of Training. The Fourfold Grace and The Four Essentials are listed under the Essential Ways of Human Life. Meanwhile, The Three Essential Principles and the Eight Articles are listed under the Essential Way of Human Life. At the very bottom are the items of fixed-term and daily training. 

In January 1941, during a winter retreat, Sot’aesan was working on a draft of the Principal Book of Wŏn Buddhism and showed the doctrinal chart to his disciple Pak Changsik 朴將植 (1911–2011). Pak Changsik looked at the draft and asked, “The yuktae yoryŏng 六大要領 doctrinal chart shows The Four Essentials. Why was it removed from this doctrinal chart?” Sot’aesan replied: “The spirit of The Four Essentials is all contained in the gateway of faith and practice, so I removed it from the chart and replaced it with the Agenda for Gratitude to the Graces: The Way of heaven and earth that is free of thought in its applications, the Way of parents that offers protection as best we can to those who are lacking self-power, the Way of fellow beings by benefiting ourselves and benefiting others, and the Way of laws that lives peacefully by reproving injustice and promoting justice.”

Pak Changsik followed with another question: “Since we have the motto ‘everywhere a Buddha image, every act a Buddha offering,’ is it necessary to include above the phrase ‘requiting graces is a buddha offering’?”

Sot’aesan replied: “Ah, The Fourfold Grace is above, therefore it’s important that we emphasize that ‘requiting graces is a Buddha offering.’”  (Suh 2012, par. 2).

In 1942, a winter retreat was held for one month from 26 December. Approximately 100 participants were in attendance. Sot’aesan announced to the group: “I would like each of you to design your own version of the doctrinal chart.” Each participant drew their chart and submitted it to Sot’aesan. Afterward, he examined each drawing, then, using a pencil, he re-designed the doctrinal chart, handed the draft to his disciple Pak Changsik and asked him to clarify the content, removing any ambiguity. Pak Changsik went to his office to organize the content of the revised version.

Participants of the Winter Retreat at which Sot’aesan presented the Doctrinal Chart (1943). Image courtesy of the Wŏn Buddhist Newspaper
Doctrinal chart in the Pulgyo chŏngjŏn 佛敎正典 (The Correct Canon of Buddhism), 1943. Image courtesy of the author

In January 1943, Sot’aesan presented the newly designed chart to the retreat participants during an evening session. On a board, he drew an “O” in the center and added four squares to each corner of the chart for the Four Great Principles. Then he exclaimed: “It looks like a turtle. It also looks like a person.” He continued: “They say that the Hetu Luoshu 河圖洛書 (two cosmological diagrams used in ancient China) came out of the river on the shells of a turtle, the same seems to be the case for this doctrinal chart.” (Suh 2012, par. 4).

Sotaesan beamed with happiness and said:

It looks great. It looks exactly like a turtle. Turtles are long-living creatures. The same applies to this dharma. The quintessence of my teachings and dharma lies herein; but how many of you can understand my true intention? It seems that only a few of you in this congregation today can receive it fully. This is due to your lack of one-minded concentration because, first, your spirits tend toward wealth and sex, and secondly, you are inclined toward reputation and vanity. This being the case, you must decide which to leave behind and which to seek. You will find success only by making a big decision and taking just a single road. The teachings of the Fourfold Grace, Threefold Study, and Eight Articles will last for eternity. Even small insects and thieves cannot live without The Threefold Study. The essence of my doctrine is all contained here. If you practice like this, there will be no one who can’t become a buddha. If you follow me and continue practicing with your initial intention, everyone will accumulate great blessings and reach buddhahood.

(Suh 2012, par. 5)

Starting from the 1943 versions of the chart, the Il-Wŏn-Sang is introduced in the center of the chart, replacing the eight trigrams. The chart is now in the shape of a turtle. Below the Il-Wŏn-Sang on the left side is The Fourfold Grace under the gateway of faith based on the retribution and response of cause and effect. Underneath The Fourfold Grace is listed the Principle of Gratitude to the Graces. Followed by the motto: “Everywhere a Buddha Image, Every Act a Buddha Offering.” And on the right side is The Threefold Study—formerly called the Three Essential Principles—under the gateway of practice based on true voidness and marvelous existence, which is then connected to morality, meditation, and wisdom (戒定慧). Below The Threefold Study are the Eight Articles, and then the phrase “Never Separating from Sŏn, Whether in Action or Rest.” At the bottom right is the motto “Timeless Sŏn, Placeless Sŏn.” The chart is supported by the “four legs” or Four Great Principles: Awareness of Grace and Requital of Grace, Right Enlightenment, and Right Practice, Selfless Service to the Public, and Practical Application of the Buddhadharma.

Doctrinal chart in the Wŏnbulgyo kyojŏn 圓佛敎敎典 (The Scriptures of Wŏn Buddhism), 1962. Image courtesy of the author

In the recent version printed in 1962, the explanation of Il-Wŏn-Sang is shortened to say: “Il-Wŏn is the Dharmakāya Buddha, the original source of all things in the universe, the mind-seal of all the buddhas and sages, and the original nature of all sentient beings.” Below this description is the addition of the Transmission Verse: “Being into nonbeing, and nonbeing into being, Turning and turning—in the ultimate, being and nonbeing are both void. Yet this void is complete.” (The Doctrinal Books of Wŏn Buddhism, 2016)

Including the transmission verse below the explanation of Il-Wŏn signifies that its meaning condenses the essence of Il-Wŏn and embraces all the other teachings. (Ryu 2018, 97) The significant difference between this version and the previous chart is the removal of the Principle of Gratitude to the Graces and the reinserting of The Four Essentials from the first version (1932). According to historical sources, the revision committee believed The Four Essentials should be included because it was one of Sot’aesan’s essential teachings under the Essential Way of Life. (Ro 2010, 259) By studying the evolution of the doctrinal chart, we can learn more about the historical context in which Wŏn Buddhism originated and the core principles Wŏn Buddhist teachers considered to be fundamental.


Ro, Kweon-yong. 2010. “A Review of the Doctrinal Chart of Won Buddhism throughout the Analysis and Judgment of Doctrines,” Won Buddhist Thought & Religious Culture 45: pp 253–300.

Ryu, Seongtae. 2018. “A Study of Doctrinal Chart Centering on the Issues of the Process of its transition” in Won Buddhist Thought & Religious Culture 75: pp 89–115. 

Suh, Moonsung.“Kŏbugi hyŏngsang talmŭn kyorido palp’yohada.” Wŏnbulgyo sinmun 圓佛敎新聞. 11 May 2012. 

2016. The Doctrinal Books of Wŏn Buddhism. Iksan: Wŏn’gwang Publishing.

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