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Seokbulsa Temple

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We’ve heard people claim that Seokbulsa is not just the best Buddhist temple in Busan, but the most lovely in all South Korea. Although we’re in no position to judge, Jürgen and I are in agreement that Seokbulsa is the most amazing temple we’ve seen during our three months here.

Seokbulsa-Temple

Found high up Mt. Geumjeongsan, Seokbulsa (석불사) is difficult to reach, but well worth the effort. We began our journey by returning to the cable car we’d ridden during our first ascent up the mountain, on one of our very first excursions in Busan. Back then, we had been visiting the Geumjeongsanseong Fortress, but this time we headed off in the opposite direction. An easy, downhill path led us through South Gate Village (남문 마을) and then followed a stream for a couple kilometers. It was a beautiful walk through the woods, fairly crowded with other hikers.

Eventually, the path ended at a T, and we immediately knew that we’d have to take a right to reach the temple. No, we’re not master navigators, nor did we have a map — there just happened to be a gray-clothed Buddhist monk sitting on a stone, up towards the right, bald head buried deep in a book. When you’re searching for a temple, a monk in the woods is a good sign you’re on the right track.

Monk-Friend-Friends

The final twenty minutes of our journey was steeply uphill, and very difficult. But the sight that awaited us made up for the sweat. Seokbulsa is a small temple lodged unforgettably into the side of a mountain. There are a number of buildings and cave altars to explore and, probably because of how hard it is to reach, not many other people around to detract from the experience. In fact, we were completely alone during our visit.

The altar buildings are impressive, and from the courtyard you have a superb view over Busan, but the highlights of Seokbulsa are the massive, 30-foot Buddhist figures carved out of the mountain rock. I don’t know who any of them were, Bodhisattvas of some sort, but my ignorance didn’t make them any less incredible. Past the figures, you can visit a small altar and squeeze through a narrow opening in the rocks to another cave where candles have been set.

Our trip to Seokbulsa was the only time we’ve experienced that sense of adventure that went hand-in-hand with exploring the ancient Buddhist temples of Sri Lanka. Not only is the temple itself worth the effort of hunting down, but the beautiful hike and entertaining cable car ride combine to make this one of the most rewarding excursions in Busan.

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July 26, 2012 at 12:59 am Comments (7)

Christian Korea

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Just like baseball and pop music, there’s another aspect of American culture which Korea has adopted, and then taken to the next level: in-your-face Christianity. I can’t get through a single day without encountering another proselytizing Protestant, whether in the street or the subway. They invite me to their church, push “Jesus Loves You” fliers into my hand, and pray aloud for my eternal soul. They lure me in with free orange juice, and only then reveal their true intentions. They’re trickier, these Korean Christians, and more determined than their American brethren. They see my soul, and they want it. They want to gobble it up.

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If you add up the Protestants (18%) and Catholics (11%), Christians outweigh Buddhists in Korea by a healthy margin, 29 to 23%. Their churches might not be as lovely or traditional as the Buddhist temples we’ve visited, but there are plenty of them, often advertised with a gaudy neon red cross. The world’s single largest Pentecostal church is in Korea: Seoul’s Yoido Full Gospel Church, with a congregation over a million strong.

Christianity was introduced to the peninsula in the 17th century by European missionaries. The ruling Joseon Empire was highly suspicious of all foreign influence, and targeted Catholics for abuse and murder, up until their dissolution in 1910. Which, of course, only provided the persecuted religious minority with martyrs.

During the 1910-1945 Japanese occupation of Korea, Christianity came to be identified with Korean nationalism — Japanese beliefs were being forced onto the subjugated country, including the demand to worship Japan’s Emperor as a god. Christians refused to do this out of religious principle (it’s Commandment #1, after all) and thus won a lot of respect from their compatriots, who assumed they were refusing because they loved Korea so much.

Christianity only strengthened its foothold after the Japanese occupation ended, and the period of US influence began. The menace of North Korea was looming, and the religion was thought to be a sort of spiritual immunization against communism. In the aftermath of the Korean War, Christianity was aggressively evangelized, particularly among the poor and distressed, who were in great number. South Korea would recover and grow into an international financial powerhouse, and Christian faith was thought by many to be a key factor in the transformation.

All of which goes a long way in explaining why Christianity is so popular here. What I can’t figure out, is why they so desperately want to sign me up. I suppose it’s a nice gesture, being concerned with my eternal soul, but still. Buddhists kind of just leave you alone and do their own thing. That appeals to me a whole lot more than the constant public preaching.

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June 15, 2012 at 9:30 am Comment (1)

Beomeosa Temple

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Established in the year 678, Beomeosa is probably the most important Buddhist temple in Busan. And with its location in the foothills of Mt. Geumjeongsan, it’s certainly among the most beautiful. Entering the complex is like stepping into another world, one more sacred and peaceful.

Beomeosa-Temple-Busan

A famous monk by the name of Uisang founded Beomeosa during the Silla Dynasty, and in its apex during the Goryeo period (918–1392) the temple was home to over a thousand brothers. The name Beomeosa means something like “Nirvana Fish Temple”; a legend states that near this spot, a golden fish had descended from heaven on a five-colored cloud.

Throughout its history, Beomeosa has been famed for its fighting monks, who helped fend off Japanese invaders in the 1500s. Fleeing in defeat, the Japanese managed to destroy the temple, but Beomeosa was eventually rebuilt and would become a center for monkish resistance during the 35-year Japanese occupation of Korea (1910-1945). The fighting monks practiced a secret martial arts style based on Zen called Seonmudo; the LA Times profiled a Beomeosan monk who’s ruffled a few feathers by trying to popularize the style outside of the temple walls.

Our visit to Beomeosa started with a quick tour through the temple museum. With old portraits, scrolls and ancient printing blocks, the Seongdo Museum has an interesting collection of relics, but we were eager to get into the temple itself, and only spent a few minutes looking around.

Korean-Buddism-Fresco

Beomeosa has a rich history, but is a living place of worship — a fact underlined as much by the pristine state of its buildings, as by the number of people filling its prayer halls. Everything was freshly painted or undergoing renovation, and we were astounded to be in a 1300-year-old temple which, from a few angles, might have been built a few months ago.

My favorite hall was San Ryoung Gak (the Hall of the Mountain Spirit) dedicated to the god who protects Mt. Geumjeongsan. It looks older and is set higher on the hill than the other halls, and is distinguished by the fact that it has nothing to do with Buddhism, but is a nod to local pagan beliefs. Inside, there’s a painting of the god alongside a tiger.

The various halls and structures, such as a three-story pagoda, stone lantern and bell tower, are impressive. But the best of Beomeosa is its gorgeous mountain scenery and the views over the valley below. It’s no surprise that the temple has won fame as a center for foreign students. A huge section of Beomeosa is dedicated to “Temple Stays”, which allow tourists and the curious to experience what life at a Buddhist temple is all about.

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June 7, 2012 at 7:04 am Comment (1)

A Day in Buk-Gu, Northern Busan

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Buk-Gu, whose name translates to “Northern District”, is one of the fifteen administrative zones which make up Busan. We spent a morning wandering around the area and checking out some of its touristic sights: the Fishing Village Folk Museum, a riverside park, and the Gupowaeseong Japanese Fortress.

Busan-Fishing-Village-Folk-Museum

The Busan Fishing Village Folk Museum, our first stop in Buk-Gu, was exactly as boring as its name suggests. We went on a whim, and I would bet that we were the first and only foreign tourists to ever step foot inside. The guide was clearly stunned to see us, and stammered out a memorized welcome speech, in English. It was clearly an agonizing couple minutes for the poor guy, and I felt like congratulating him when he finished.

The exhibits weren’t really all that bad, but nothing was in English. We spent a few seconds at the dioramas of fishing scenes, put together a puzzle, and looked at fish in the first-floor aquarium. In and out in ten minutes. But the price was right (free) and if you’re already in the neighborhood or have an interest in the folk traditions of Korean river people, by all means, enjoy.

Nakdong-Bridge

Leaving the museum, we went to the nearby Hwamyeong Riverside Park: a long stretch of sports facilities and nature walks with good view of the Nakdong Bridge. We passed through fields of high grass, perfect for hiding a corpse, and a couple of fitness stations. Busan has an absolute abundance of these community workout areas and the equipment is always top-notch. Clean, fully-functional. Some even have benchpresses with actual weights. It’s a testament to the respect with which Koreans treat their community. Equipment like this wouldn’t last twelve hours in an American city.

Gupowaeseong-Fortress

Eventually we made it to Deokcheon Park, a hill near the Gupo Bridge. Searching for a way up the hill to see the Gupowaeseong Fortress, we entered a small and colorful Buddhist Temple where a monk showed us to a clandestine staircase leading into the woods behind the main altar. On the way up, we passed a few people tending to small vegetable gardens, all of whom grunted “hello” at us. The remains of the fortress weren’t wonderfully upheld, but given its origin, that’s understandable. Gupowaeseong dates from the Imjin War against Japan, but was built by the Japanese and not the Koreans.

On the other side of the hill, we found a field with a towering Buddha statue and an altar where offerings had recently been made. Our next stop, the nearby Guryongsa Temple, was buzzing with activity. Little women were darting furiously about, apparently in last-minute preparations for some sort of festival. But although we were clearly in their way, they were gracious and encouraged us to kick our shoes off so that we could enter the temple buildings. There, we admired wonderfully carved wooden walls, strange paintings from Buddha’s life, and ancient statues.

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May 31, 2012 at 5:38 am Comment (1)

Samgwangsa Under a Blanket of Lanterns

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Set at the foot of the Baegyangsan Mountain in central Busan, Samgwangsa is a massive temple with enough room for 10,000 worshipers. And there were approximately that many present when we visited on a balmy May evening shortly before Buddha’s birthday.

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We had initially toured Samgwangsa a few weeks earlier, while the lanterns were still being set up. It was the first Buddhist temple we’d been to in Korea and impressed us with both its size and location. As was the case in Sri Lanka, Korean temples seem to be set in places of extreme natural beauty. Samgwangsa boasts an incredible view over Busan, and hiking trails can be found in the mountain forest behind it.

Built in 1969, Samgwangsa is not the most ancient or traditional of temples, but that doesn’t make it any less inspiring. The main prayer hall is stunning; large and intricately decorated with hundreds of small Buddha statues lining the walls. There’s a nine-story pagoda dedicated to the future reunification of Korea, and a giant bell in the courtyard. Within the complex’s various buildings, men and women were either worshiping or working. I’m not sure if this is true, but Samgwangsa seems to house a large number of senior citizens; we passed a few rooms with older women sitting cross-legged on the floor watching TV.

I’m glad we had the initial visit, because the temple was unrecognizable when we returned during the lantern festival, buried under a blanket of light. The lanterns, strung up in unbroken lines throughout the complex are each paid for by a family, who get to write their names and wishes on them. This practice dates back centuries; in Korea, lighting a lantern symbolizes a dedication to committing good deeds, and shining a light on the world’s darkness. Whatever the reasoning, the glow emitted from thousands of colorful lanterns is majestic.

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May 29, 2012 at 6:44 am Comments (4)

Haedong Yonggungsa Temple

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Haedong Yonggungsa (해동용궁사) is unique among Busan’s Buddhist temples in that it lies not in the mountains, but on the seafront. It was founded in 1376, during the Goryeo Dynasty, and completely destroyed during the Japanese invasions. Though the current construction only dates from the 1970s, the temple is a beautiful and much-beloved center of worship. In fact, I can’t imagine it being any more popular.

Haedong Yonggungsa Temple

Of course, we were visiting on the day before Buddha’s birthday, when legions of the faithful had shown up. This was definitely the only time in my life I’ve waited in a 45-minute line to enter a temple or church. But it was a sunny morning, and the queue gave us time to take in the beauty of the temple from afar. Haedong Yonggungsa looks out over the sea, with tall dagobas erected on the rock above, and has as its centerpiece a three-story pagoda protected by four lions. Inside the pagoda are bone relics brought to Korea by a Sri Lankan monk… a neat connection to our previous home.

According to the temple’s website, its motto is “At least one of your wishes will be answered here through your heartful prayers.” That’s hopeful, and at least more optimistic than the Christian slogans I grew up with like, “Repent, ye sinner”. The Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, thought to reside in the sea, is the main deity at Haedong Yonggungsa. Apparently, she’s appeared to people here, and saying her name over and over will result in good fortune.

It was a little hard to appreciate all the details of the temple, due to the celebrations underway. Lanterns were strung up everywhere, hiding from view anything higher than a couple meters, including a statue of the mercy goddess. And man, do Koreans love taking photographs. You couldn’t move an inch without accidentally intruding in someone else’s frame. It was a little amusing to hear Jürgen — who never stops taking pictures — complain about other people doing the same.

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May 28, 2012 at 5:47 am Comment (1)