March 13, 2015
The weather was beautiful this past weekend! Spring is on its way… at some point. I was looking for something to see and stumbled upon something about Bongwonsa, a Buddhist temple near Yonsei University. So we decided to check it out!
Bongwonsa belongs to the Taego Order of Buddhism which is the second largest order in Korea. It is apart of the Seon (Zen) school of Buddhism. The Taego Order doesn’t promote separation between the temple and society, so their ordained monks are allowed to marry and have children. (Monks can remain celibate if they choose.) Bongwonsa is located in proximity to a very busy area of Seoul so I would imagine many of its monks are married with families. As we were walking up to the temple it felt like we were walking through a small neighborhood so we figured that they were probably the homes of the monks who live at Bongwonsa.
Bongwonsa was founded in 889 CE where Yonsei University is now located. Destroyed during the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592, it was rebuilt and moved to its current site at the foot of Ansan (Mt. An) in 1748 and given its name, Bongwonsa. Many of the buildings and artifacts were destroyed again during the recapture of Seoul in 1950.
The most recent buildings date back to the early 1990s. I’ve had quite a difficult time finding the exact details of when buildings were constructed or reconstructed that I can’t definitively write how old some of the buildings are. There isn’t an abundance of English information available online unless I rely on other expat blogs. Oh well.
Since it is still winter, there weren’t many visitors on Sunday. We were lucky to have most of the buildings to ourselves so that we could freely wander and take photos. The most impressive building was The Hall of 3,000 Buddhas. It’s stature alone is grand from the exterior but once you step over the threshold its size is stunning. Filled with small golden Buddhas and brightly painted surfaces, it still manages to be an incredibly serene place.
We were also able to peek at some of the other buildings that were open. It was even more special since we were the only people inside the buildings. It gave us time to quietly admire and appreciate all of the colors, symbols, and rituals of Buddhism, even though we don’t understand a lot of it.
When we first moved to Korea it was slightly jarring to see the swastika on buildings and signs since my only association with it was from Nazi Germany. However, I have come to appreciate the swastika as a religious symbol throughout Asia for Hindus, Buddhists, and Jainists. In Buddhism the swastika is a symbol of auspiciousness and good fortune. Also, unlike the Nazi appropriation, the Hakenkreuz (hook cross), it is not tilted at a 45 degree angle.
We spent quite a bit of time admiring the various buildings. There were a couple of buildings that seemed significantly older. The paint was faded and worn. Although I love the bright colors of the temples, it was wonderful to see something older and weathered by the elements, something a bit more authentic.
As we were leaving, we noticed a line of 16 strange statues. Their faces were incredibly bizarre! We thought they were hysterical. After leaving, I learned that they were statues of Arahats, people who have attained enlightenment. I’m still unclear as to why their faces are so… interesting.
Bongwonsa was a delightful find amidst the chaos that is often Seoul. I bet when spring finally makes its appearance the grounds will be even more welcoming.