As the name of the sect already hints at, the Nirvana sect, or Yeolbang-jong (열반종) in Korean, follows the Nirvana sutra as its primary source of teaching. The main interpretation of this sutra is that beings have a Buddha-nature. And that Nirvana is obtained and expressed by acquiring the Buddha-nature that exists within all of us. It’s believed by scholars that the sutra dates back to around the second century based upon physical evidence and Chinese canonical catalogs. As for the Korean Buddhist form, it was transmitted by the Korean monk Bodeok-hwasang during the reign of King Muyeol of Silla (r. 654 – 661 A.D.). Before Bodeok, there was a monk named Wongwang of Silla that also studied the Nirvana Sutra in Chen (557 – 589 A.D.). However, it isn’t until a century later that the Nirvana sect grew to prominence under Bodeok.
Bodeok was originally from Yonggang, Goguryeo (present-day North Korea). While in Goguryeo, and as a monk, he was the abbot of Ballyeongsa Temple. Then, in 624 A.D., a messenger from the Goguryeo king, King Yeongnyu of Goguryeo (r. 618-642 A.D.) was sent to Tang China (618–690, 705–907) to ask for help to introduce Daoism to the Goguryeo Kingdom. The Tang emperor, Emperor Gaozu (r. 618-626 A.D.) gave consent and sent Daoist monks and images of heavenly deities to the Goguryeo Kingdom. As King Bojang of Goguryeo (r. 642 – 688 A.D.) ascended the throne, both Buddhism and Confucianism were doing quite well and flourishing within the borders of the Goguryeo Kingdom. However, Daoism was still in its infancy, so a special enjoy was sent to Tang China to ask for support from the Tang concerning Daoism.
Bodeok was critical of King Bojang of Goguryeo. Bodeok believed that the king was supporting the wrong belief system in the form of Daoism. In fact, Bodeok believed that the future of the kingdom was in jeopardy because of the king’s support of Daoism. And because the king wouldn’t listen to Bodeok, the monk voiced his displeasure and sorrow, and then he fled to the southern part of the Korean peninsula. Bodeok would flee all the way to Wansan-ju, which is now known as Jeonju, Jeollabuk-do. He would take up residence on Mt. Godaesan, which is now known as Mt. Godalsan.
As Bodeok expected, the Goguryeo Kingdom would fall in 668 A.D. After the fall of the Goguryeo Kingdom, Bodeok would found Gyeongboksa Temple, which would act as a home for him to help spread the teachings of the Nirvana sutra and the Nirvana sect. Among Bodeok’s eleven disciples, eight would found temples of their own which would help in the expansion of the Nirvana sect. Of the numerous temples established by Bodeok and his disciples, perhaps the most famous still in existence is Daewonsa Temple in Boseong, Jeollanam-do, which was founded by two brothers, Iljong and Simjeong.
After Bodeok, such prominent monks as Wonhyo-daesa (617-686 A.D.), Uisang-daesa (625-702 A.D.), and Gyeongheung would write commentaries on the Nirvana sutra, which would help to understand and expand the sutras meaning. However, it should be noted that none of these monks used the Nirvana sutra as a primary source of study; instead, it was used as a secondary source.