Posted by: Matt Kelley | 11 June 2009

Video: Bongwon Temple

Before Buddhism was introduced to the Korean Peninsula some 1,600 years ago, many Koreans practiced an indigenous shamanism that worshipped mountains. When Buddhism arrived, it mixed with local traditions, which is why, even today, most Korean temples are located on mountain slopes.

In 889, Bongwon Temple (봉원사) was founded by the great master Doseon on what is today the campus of Yonsei University. But in 1748 the temple was moved a few hundred meters away to the south foot of An Mountain (안산).

20090611_3000buddhashallBongwon Temple is located on the slopes of An Mountain, in western Seoul.

Bongwonsa is the head temple of the Taego Order (태고종), the second largest sect of Korean Buddhism. Like the larger Jogye Order, Taego is a traditional seon, or zen school of Buddhism. Taego resists segregating monks and temples from society. For example, its clergy can marry and have families.

20090611_bongwonsaforestBongwonsa is the head temple of the Taego Order of Korean Buddhism.

It makes sense that the sect’s head temple would be located in one of Seoul’s busiest neighborhoods. Set only a short walk from Sinchon Station, Bongwonsa’s forested setting still feels serene. The compound consists of about 15 buildings painted in the traditional red, green and turquoise detail of most Korean temples and palaces.

20090611_bongwonsaolderAlthough most of the buildings were constructed in recent decades, some have escaped the ravages of fire and warfare.

Among the buildings, the massive “3000 Buddhas Hall” is the most impressive. The Hall was rebuilt in 1991, as most of the buildings were destroyed during the Korean War. However, the faded paint on structures like the “Shrine Hall of the Seven Stars” and the “Amitabha Hall” suggest that some have stood 100 years or more.

20090611_arahatsThe 16 Arahats, which represent individuals who achieved “proto-enlightenment,” have interesting expressions.

Also on the grounds is a line of curious white statues called the “16 Arahats.” Despite their sometimes bizarre or grotesque faces, an “arahat” is someone who has achieved a special peace and clarity about life… think of it as a kind of a proto-enlightenment.

20090611_doorOne of Bongwon Temple’s monks was named a “Living National Treasure” for his mastery of temple ornamentation.

Today some 50 monks live at Bongwonsa. Two residents have been designated “Living National Treasures” for their mastery of Buddhist chant and temple ornamentation. The temple is also well known for its educational programs, like the Okcheon Buddhist Music College, and its many charitable works benefiting the incarcerated, orphans, elderly and the military.

20090611_yeongsanjaeYeongsanjae is a ceremony that’s been practiced in Korea as early as 613.

But Bongwonsa is probably most famous for its annual Yeongsanjae (영산재) ceremony. Practiced in Korea at least as early as 613 during ancient Korea’s Goryeo Dynasty, the elaborate and beautiful performance is a reenactment of the Buddha’s delivery of the lotus sutra.

20090611_drumThe elaborate ceremony has been designated Korean Important Cultural Property no. 50.

The elaborate ceremony, designated Korean Important Cultural Property no. 50, begins with a palanquin symbolically carrying the spirits of the Buddha and other gods into the ceremonial site. Next, huge paintings are raised to signify the Buddha’s presence. An incantation of the Avalokitesvara is followed by a cymbols dance and a purifying Butterfly Dance.

20090611_butterflydancersThese women perform the beautiful “Butterfly Dance.”

The latter features women in long, white robes with pagoda-shaped hats. Drumming, chants, prayer and offerings of flowers, food and incense follow. The several-hour ceremony concludes with Gongdeokgye (공덕계), which is prayers offered to enable all sufferers to reach Nirvana. Finally, the gods depart and the spirits of the deceased escape to paradise.

20090611_paintingThe walls of Bongwonsa’s 15 buildings are covered in beautiful paintings.

It’s incredible to watch a ceremony that’s been preserved for some 1,400 years with Seoul’s urban jungle in the distance. This mix of the ancient with the modern at Bongwon Temple is part of what makes Seoul a truly exciting place to live.

More Information:
Bongwon Temple Official Site (in English)
Taego Order of Korean Buddhism Official Site (in English)

map_bongwonsaGetting There:
→ Take subway line 2 to Sinchon Station or Sinchon Train Station. Then, take bus No. 7024 directly to Bongwonsa. Or, from the back gate of Ewha Womans University, simply walk north alongside the main road until you reach an intersection underneath the freeway. From there, go up the hill 500 meters. Entrance is free.

(A version of this text aired on KBS World Radio on June 10, 2009.)

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