Ruby Ramblings

Geumsansa Temple
February 22, 2010, 12:01 am
Filed under: Buddhism, Korea, Travel | Tags: ,

After nine months, I finally did one of the first things I intended to do in Korea – go on a temple stay.  I wasn’t the only one in this boat, several of the folks I talked to on the trip (of 33 people, I think), were doing the same thing.  Some were on their way out within the next couple of weeks, and were finally getting around to doing the stay.  It is less of a meditation retreat, and more of an introduction to Buddhist temple life turned craft camp. Overall it left me feeling better about being in Korea, was relaxing, and was a great chance to hang out with like-minded foreigners and some cool Korean folks.

For me, the highlight of going to temples is the art.  Besides finding it inspiring, it is a relaxing dose of color compared to the concrete jungle with neon signs that is the rest of Korea.

Gemsansa is made up of many buildings holding a different main Bodhisattva, but this one is particularly spectacular. It is three stories high, and on the inside holds a statue that takes up every bit of that three stories. We were allowed to take pictures, which is very rare inside temples.

Temple Housing Maitreya Buddha.

Close up of the artwork on the building.

Our monk host and translator describing how it is unique to Korean temples to use the natural shape of the tree as pillars to the the buildings. He was a wonderful host, extremely open, friendly, and excited to share. He said the first time he was given the temple stay for foreigners as an assignment, but ever since 2004 he’s volunteered to be the person to be in charge of leading them.

The warriors: mean, scary-looking, but ultimately fighting for compassion against the evils of greed, hatred, and ignorance.

Inside. I think it’s hard to tell from the pictures, but keep in mind that these statues are three stories tall.

At the base rubbing the wishing rock and looking up.

In our monastic wear.

After a meditation session, and lengthy Q&A with the monk we settled in for the arts and crafts part of our sleep-over. Some grandmas came in to show us how to make tissue paper lotus lanterns. It was great to see that out of all the people, no two were exactly the same. People came up with some pretty clever designs.
At first the grandmas seemed a little unsettled by our creative license, but they warmed up to it after a while.

Lotus Lanterns

I asked the same question that I asked a monk in Yeosu a while back to our monk here and got a completely different answer. “What do you think about the turn in your own culture away from Buddhist principles to completely embracing capitolism to the point of extreme materialism, and a huge focus of physical appearnce and material success?”

Since I’ve come to Korea, I’ve had this question in my mind. Although the people here have every right to develop their culture and society however they want, it has been a personal disappointment to me that a country that used to be Buddhist has become so extremely consumerist. This question had been burning in my mind even more the last couple weeks after a great project I did with some of the students at school. They were asked to create a new superhero, and had to list the three top qualities a hero should have. Almost all the groups put being handsome/beautiful as the top quality because, “No one can trust someone who isn’t beautiful.” This was hugely disheartening to me, especially in light of the western concept of heroes where they are often the underdog and end up having an inner quality that puts them above the rest.

The monk in Yeosu basically said that people are going to do what they are going to do, and that monks live in a realm above that. It almost seemed like he didn’t care. It was an unusual temple were it appeared, to me, that the monk had completely surrounded himself with quite expensive looking material comforts, and although he was kind and informative, he seemed to be the ruler of his domain.

The response I got at Geumsansa was much different. This monk went into a lengthy description of Korean history, and how the materialism we see today is born of a desire to fight their way out of extreme poverty and the devastation left by Japanese occupation and the war. He kind of described it as the natural projection of that success, but that he sincerely hopes that Korea is going to enter a new cultural age. He ended by saying that Korea is going to need a lot of encouragement from foreigners who are interested in actual culture. There are some of us interested in more than just the new cell phone technology.

The next morning we were up at 3am to observe the monks’ daily morning prayers in the main temple hall. It is a gorgeous temple with statues representing several of the main Buddhas – medicine, shakyamuni. I wish I had written down the list when they were doing the tour because I can’t remember them all, and some are specific to Korean Buddhism. One thing I’ve noticed in almost all the Korean temples I’ve visited is a lack of the Taras – the 24 female Buddhas.

Later in the day, our second craft project entailed making our own set of prayer beads. I have several sets from various travels, and the set I use the most was a gift from a guitar player friend in Nashville, but these ones are particularly special, in that I really had to work to earn them. Instead of just stringing the beads, we had to pick a temple to go into (I have to admit to being selfish here – I picked the main hall because it had heaters and it was freezing outside), and then between stringing each bead we had to do a full prostration. The classic 108. I made it, and feel all the better, if sore, for it.

I would highly recommend this temple stay. I’ve heard some of the other’s described as “being a straight jacket for the weekend” or “we were like slave labor for the temple for the weekend.” This temple stay was beautiful, informative, and busy – but with enough time to collect yourself. Everyone on the trip was a good sport as well, which made for a much smoother weekend. I went with Adventure Korea, which is doing the same tour again the end of March.