20 July 2008

Beomeosa Temple

I walked out the door into a pouring rain to go to the old Buddhist temple in the hills north of town. Undeterred, I took the subway out and found the right bus (90) with the help of my trusty Lonely Planet guide and took a harrowing trip up the mountain. The bus driver used both lanes and actually passed cars going up to the temple. All arrived safely and disembarked. It was then I was actually glad that it had been raining (it having stopped by then), as I was met by the sound of cascading water. The whole hillside was filled with running streams and waterfalls. Water basically runs through the whole temple complex. It made for a very peaceful sound.

I walked up the path toward the temple entrance and was met by a group of people who offered me tea. One, a man named Kim, could speak some English and told me he was a tour guide. I asked him some questions and he was very helpful, accompanying me as far as the main gate and taking my picture there. When I began to walk through he stopped me and showed me the respectful way to enter. Holding my hands in the prayer position just below the chin I was to say 'hananim annyong haseyo,' which translates 'good morning Buddha." He gave me a quick breakdown of the rules regarding photography and sent me on my way. A series of buildings were lined up on the path up to the main courtyard. The first held a group of four large Buddhas, two on each side. They were seated and measured about ten feet tall in that posture. Each held a different set of objects and they represented different attributes of God. See the photo section for my interpretation of the attributes. No pictures allowed in there so you will just have to imagine. On up further there was another building that I don't know what purpose it served except maybe an inner gate. Then I reached the main courtyard.

The path up from the main gate actually led to the back of the main temple. Inside of the main building there was an altar made of gold and mats for sitting meditation and a piano among other things. The courtyard held two of the temples most revered and ancient objects. A stone lantern and a pagoda. Both of these objects are on the Korean list of National Treasures. Surrounding the main courtyard on the next level up were a series of shrines. I don't know why, but I was surprised to see that they were all full of worshipers. Some were sitting in meditation. Some were bowing in a seated position. Some were doing a bow that started in the standing position and ended with the forehead touching the floor. These latter were completely soaked in sweat.

Korean Buddhism is kind of a mix of Chinese, Japanese, Confucian, and Shamanistic influences. Buddhism first came to Korea in 370 AD and has coexisted with the original Shamanistic religion since. Many temples have shrines occupied by both Buddha and shamanic dieties like the Mountain God. There are also traces of Japanese elements like ancestor worship. The shrines were lined with shelves filled with tiny statues with names printed under them. A lot of the bowing was going on in front of these. I believe that they were somehow related to ancestor worship. Large altars held sacrifices of rice and incense and candles and each was mounted by a large golden Buddha. There were at least five of these shrines.

I was kind of milling around in the courtyard when here came the monks. They were dressed in simple grey outfits with shaved heads. A couple looked at me with what I thought was sheepish curiosity. Most were rather young and the oldest was in the lead. They all appeared to be extremely happy. They walked through a courtyard to a door on a shrine at the right and disappeared. It was about this time that a gong started sounding. I looked at my watch and noted that it was noon and thought about how that gong must have been sounding at that time of day in that place for the last thousand years. Quite a thought. The gong sounded huge, and it had extremely deep and complex resonant undertones. I looked around but could never see where it was coming from. I have never heard a sound like that before.

I headed back down the way I came and near the main gate I noticed a little stand with souvenirs. I wanted to find a set of postcards. There were none but the guy pointed me over to the other side of the gate where there was another large temple and a parking lot. He said there were postcards over there. When I went out of the shop there were two men standing by a large stack of grey terra cotta roof tiles. They asked me if I would like to write something on one of them. They would be used when a new roof was put on the temple. I said of course and wrote a little message on there and my name and the date and gave them a donation of 10000 won and off I went.

When I got over to the other side of the gate a woman sitting by a little waterfall made the eating sign to me and pointed me toward a large building just up the hill. I was a bit hungry but I was on a mission for postcards. The building looked far newer than all the others and I thought there might be a gift shop there. When I got up there I was approached by three more older women who pointed me in the door and made the same sign and said "Eat, eat." I looked in and there was a large room full of tables and people were eating. Well, you don't have to tell me twice (OK, I guess they did), I went in. There was a serving line of women in a row of windows like a cafeteria. A little table with large and small stainless steel bowls sat at the head of the line. I turned around to see where I was supposed to pay, figuring I missed it, but there stood the three old ladies (they had likely followed me in anticipating this) and they took my wallet out of my hand and shoved it into my pocket and pushed me back toward the food line. I gave up. I was given a big scoop of rice and four different veggies and some red pepper sauce and some cold soup. I found a place to sit and took a picture of the food for you all to see and then I ate it. It was delicious, the cold cucumber and seaweed soup especially.

I finished up and headed out to find the postcards. I never did. I went down to the entrance and there was a group of women getting in a cab and the driver told me to hop in, too. I tried to pay for all of us but neither he nor they would hear of it. Got the train back to Yongsandong and walked home from there. It is so humid here right now that I am soaked with sweat within minutes. It must be good for me.

In a land of very pleasant people, the people at this temple were the nicest. And that really is saying something. They just made it really special. The women at the tea stand and in the kitchen must have been members of that congregation. I think they do that feed every Sunday. If it isn't raining and the weather is nice there are thousands of people at that place. My guide book said don't even go on Sunday. But they were all pitching in and finding strangers and shooing them in and everybody was just smiling their faces off. A truly wonderful experience. Kim told me to come back next Sunday and maybe I will.

There are some nice pictures.