Learn about the coun­try by stay­ing in its tem­ples

The National - News - - FRONT PAGE - says Ro­nan O’Con­nell

It takes me by sur­prise. As I fo­cus my cam­era lens on the mul­ti­coloured fa­cade of Gyeongju’s Bul­guksa Tem­ple, I spot some­thing in my pe­riph­eral vi­sion. I lower my cam­era, turn my head and see a pro­ces­sion of Cau­casian for­eign­ers walk­ing with their heads bowed and their hands clasped to­gether in front of them. What makes them so no­tice­able is they’re wear­ing se­ung bok, the loose, grey robes com­monly donned by Korean Bud­dhist monks.

The se­ung bok is sim­i­lar to, but looser than han­bok, the fa­mous form of Korean dress that dates back more than 1,500 years. It is com­mon in South Korea to see for­eign­ers wear­ing han­bok – there are shops, cul­tural bu­reaus and tourist sites across the coun­try that of­fer trav­ellers the chance to try on th­ese stately out­fits. But I’ve never seen for­eign­ers wear­ing Korea’s holy garb.

A quick Google search ex­plains. Bul­guksa Tem­ple is one of 30 his­toric Bud­dhist tem­ples across the coun­try that al­low tourists to stay on site for a short pe­riod of time. Liv­ing inside a Unesco World

Her­itage Site sounds like a tourism fan­tasy, but in South Korea it’s a re­al­ity, thanks to the coun­try’s na­tion­wide Tem­plestay pro­gramme, which lets vis­i­tors stay at a tem­ple for be­tween one and three nights, while learn­ing and en­gag­ing in monas­tic ac­tiv­i­ties.

Although monas­ter­ies across Asia ac­cept for­eign­ers into their midst, it is typ­i­cally as stu­dents or ap­pren­tice monks who live and train on site for an ex­tended pe­riod. The short time frame and easy ac­cess to the pro­gramme is what makes South Korea’s tem­plestays so unique.

Founded by the Jo­gye Or­der of Korean Bud­dhism in 2002, the pro­gramme has sev­eral aims. Firstly, it is de­signed to give for­eign­ers an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of Korean cul­ture, which has been shaped by Bud­dhism since it ar­rived in the coun­try more than 1,600 years ago. Se­condly, it at­tempts to con­vey the peace and sat­is­fac­tion that can be achieved by liv­ing in a monas­tic fash­ion. Thirdly, the pro­gramme high­lights some of the most ex­tra­or­di­nary pieces of ar­chi­tec­ture in South Korea. Dur­ing their stay, guests dress, sleep, eat and be­have as the monks do. They take part in Bud­dhist ser­vices, Seon med­i­ta­tion, com­mu­nal chores, tea cer­e­monies, rit­u­al­is­tic meal of­fer­ings and lo­tus lantern­mak­ing classes. Here are four to try.

Beomeosa tem­ple

Beomeosa tem­ple has sat on this hill­side for 1,300 years. Yet, it is hard to imag­ine that it has ever looked more beau­ti­ful than it does right now. It is late af­ter­noon on a clear au­tumn day and the colours within my field of vi­sion are al­most end­less.

In the for­est draped across this hill­side, over­look­ing the south­ern city of Bu­san, dark greens give way to var­i­ous shades of ma­roon, fuch­sia, or­ange and gold. All of th­ese hues sit below a cloud­less and deep-blue sky, along­side the wildly colour­ful ex­te­rior of the clus­ter of build­ings that make up Beomeosa tem­ple.

The dense mix of colours, lines, flo­ral mo­tifs and geo­met­ric pat­terns that adorn the tem­ple are called Dan­cheong – a de­sign sys­tem that has been used to dec­o­rate Korean tem­ples for more than 2,000 years. It is this de­sign that makes the coun­try’s tem­ples so dis­tinc­tive, but Beomeosa stands out any­way. Its lofty perch on Mount Geum­jeong makes it vis­i­ble from count­less van­tage points in down­town Bu­san.

Not to men­tion that it is pro­tected by a band of fight­ing monks. Be­fore the Imjin War in the 1590s, when Korea was in­vaded by Ja­pan, Beomeosa’s monks learnt a style of Korean mar­tial arts called Sun­mudo. Le­gend has it that they used th­ese com­bat tech­niques to help re­pel the Ja­panese. One of the most unique as­pects of the Beomeosa tem­plestay is that guests can par­take in Sun­mundo train­ing with the monks.

Bul­guksa tem­ple

Chances are you haven’t heard of the fas­ci­nat­ing Gyeongju. It must be one of the low­est-pro­file cities with a large concentrat­ion of cul­tural at­trac­tions that are Unesco-listed. Gyeongju was the cap­i­tal of the penin­sula’s Silla king­dom for about 1,000 years up to the 10th cen­tury AD. It was, dur­ing that pe­riod, one of the largest and grand­est cities in the world. But th­ese days, it is a rel­a­tively anony­mous me­trop­o­lis of fewer than 300,000 peo­ple that is over­shad­owed by the huge South Korean cities of Seoul and Bu­san.

It is, how­ever, still a very pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tion for Kore­ans due to its trove of re­mains from the Silla king­dom era. Th­ese in­clude pago­das, cas­tles, im­pe­rial mau­soleums and tem­ples. More than 1,200 years old, Bul­guksa, a sprawl­ing com­plex built on a forested hill­side, is among the most im­por­tant of th­ese ar­chi­tec­tural relics.

Tourists at­tend­ing the tem­plestay can pray at the Hall of Great En­light­en­ment, Vairo­cana Bud­dha Hall and the Hall of Supreme Bliss. They can also hike up the hill to see the in­cred­i­ble Seokgu­ram Grotto shrine, which is hid­den inside a cave and boasts unique rock sculp­tures.

Jo­gyesa tem­ple

I al­most feel hyp­no­tised. Never in my life have I seen so many lay­ers of pat­tern and colour on one build­ing, each com­pet­ing for my at­ten­tion so strongly that my eyes are over­whelmed. Be­neath an in­tri­cate mu­ral of a Korean scholar, through a green lat­tice win­dow, I see a gi­ant paint­ing of Bud­dha flanked by a panel of glow­ing LCD lights. The best way to de­scribe what I’m look­ing at is a word I would never have as­so­ci­ated with a re­li­gious struc­ture – psy­che­delic.

The be­yond bold de­sign of the 14th-cen­tury Jo­gyesa tem­ple cre­ates a star­tling con­trast with the uni­form steel and glass sky­scrapers that sur­round it here in the Seoul Cen­tral Busi­ness District. This part of Seoul is so mod­ern and or­derly that, with

The short time frame and easy ac­cess to the pro­gramme is what makes South Korea’s tem­plestays so unique

its an­cient his­tory and chaotic de­sign, Jo­gyesa of­fers a won­der­ful coun­ter­point.

There is per­haps no more im­por­tant tem­ple in all of Korea. Jo­gyesa is the head­quar­ters of the Jo­gye Or­der, the tra­di­tional or­der of Korean Bud­dhism. It at­tracts wor­ship­pers from all over the coun­try and, as a re­sult, is very busy. Each time I have vis­ited Jo­gyesa, its main prayer area, Dharma Hall, has been filled with peo­ple kneel­ing in de­vo­tion. It is a key venue for Bud­dhist fes­ti­vals, cer­e­monies, lec­tures and rit­u­als through­out the year, so if you want to do a tem­plestay here, be sure to check for con­flict­ing dates.

Bonge­unsa tem­ple

It is the trendi­est part of Seoul, made glob­ally fa­mous by a smash hit pop song. Yet, the neigh­bour­hood of Gang­nam has long been im­por­tant be­cause of its the lo­ca­tion of the 1,200-year-old Bonge­unsa tem­ple. Scat­tered across a hill, Bonge­unsa is a clus­ter of at­trac­tive prayer halls home to more than 3,000 Bud­dhist scrip­tures. Each year, monks carry th­ese scrip­tures above their heads as they march and chant dur­ing the an­nual Jeong­dae­bulsa cer­e­mony.

Its most dis­tinc­tive el­e­ment though, looms above the prayer halls at the rear of the com­plex. A 23-me­tre-tall stone statue of Bud­dha is sur­rounded by a semi-cir­cu­lar stone wall into which are carved thousands more im­ages of Bud­dha. This eye-catch­ing fea­ture, which was only built in the 1980s, has made Bonge­unsa one of Seoul’s most-vis­ited tourist at­trac­tions.

Pho­tos Ro­nan O’Con­nell

Clock­wise from left, the bold de­signs of Jo­gyesa tem­ple; inside the Bonge­unsa tem­ple, which is 1,200 years old; Gyeongju was the cap­i­tal of the Silla king­dom for about 1,000 years

Bul­guksa tem­ple is one of the most im­por­tant ar­chi­tec­tural relics in Gyeongju; far left, Beomeosa tem­ple is perched on Mount Geum­jeong

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