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Little is known of the early life of Choi Hyong Ung (Seosan) other than that he was born in 1520 and that he became a monk. As was common for monks in this time, he travelled from place to place, living in a succession of monasteries. Buddhist monks had been forced to keep a low profile since General Yi Seonggye had been forced to eject Buddhism from its state of total permeation of government, in order to gain the support of Neo-Confucian scholar-officials to consolidate his position against his Buddhist political opponents when he overthrew King Gongyang in 1392 to become King Taejo of Joseon.

Before ever having tested his hand as a military commander, Seosan was a first-rate Seon (Korean Buddhism) master and the author of a number of important religious texts, the most important of which is probably his "Seon gugam", a guide to Seon practice which is studied by Korean monks even today. Like most monks of the Joseon period, Seosan had been initially educated in Neo-Confucian philosophy. Dissatisfied, though, he wandered through the mountain monasteries. Later, after making a name for himself as a teacher, he was made arbiter of the Seon school by King Myeongjeong, who was sympathetic towards Buddhism. He soon resigned from this responsibility, though, returning to the itinerant life, advancing his Seon studies and teaching at monasteries all around Korea.

The mountains where the monasteries were located were dangerous, and so the monks had to learn to defend themselves. Seosan recognised that the development of armour made striking and kicking much less effective, but he also noticed that wherever the armour bends, so does the body. He saw that by manipulation of these joints one could defeat an armoured opponent on the battlefield. He also applied this same principle to the use of a rope or belt as a weapon, which he discovered can be wrapped around the body of your attacker, trapping weapons and, when necessary, breaking joints as it wraps. It was used by Seosan and the soldiers he trained to immobilise, carry and even kill their opponents. Wrapped around the mouth and nose the rope would prevent the opponent from breathing, bringing about unconsciousness and allowing them to be taken as a prisoner. Many of these techniques were adopted and developed to give birth to the modern art of Hapkido.

At the beginning of the 1590s, Japanese Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi, after stabilising Japan during this era of warring nations, made preparations for a large scale invasion of Joseon. Joseon was unaware of the situation in Japan, however, and was unprepared for the Japanese aggression. In 1592, after rebuffing Japanís request for aid in conquering China, approximately 200,000 Japanese soldiers invaded Joseon, and the Waeran (Japanese War) began. At the beginning of the invasion, King Seonjo fled the capital, leaving a weak, poorly-trained army to defend the country. In desperation he called on Seosan to organise monks into guerilla units. Even at 73 years of age he managed to recruit and deploy some 5,000 of these warrior monks, who enjoyed some instrumental successes.

At first, the government armies of Joseon suffered repeated defeats, and the Japanese armies marched north up to Pyongyang and the Hamgyong provinces. At sea, however, the Joseon navy, under the command of Admiral Yi Sun-sin, enjoyed successive victories. Throughout the country, loyal volunteer armies formed and fought against the Japanese together with the warrior monks and the government armies of Joseon.

The presence of Seosan's monks' army, operating out of the Heungguksa temple deep in Mt. Yeongchwisan, was a critical factor in the eventual expulsion of the Japanese invaders in 1593 and again in 1598.