South Korea – Guin-sa Temple

“It is better to travel well than to arrive.”  Buddha

Guin-sa (Salvation and Kindness Temple) is squeezed into a narrow, secluded valley located in the shade of Mt. Sobaeksan.  The sprawling temple complex is the spectacular headquarters of the Cheontae school of Buddhism and the religious centre for 2 million adherents who follow the precepts of the Grand Patriarch Sangwol-Wongak.  Less than a 30 minute drive from Danyang City, the mysterious aura of the rugged mountains has led to its reputation as a holy place of Mahayana Buddhism. The hermit monk’s vow to revive Buddhism, to protect the nation and create a sanctuary to save all sentient beings saw its modest beginning in 1945.  In an isolated location, the Grand Patriarch built a tiny thatched hut with intertwined arrowroot vines; solitary he led a life of austerity, seeking a complete awakening through fast and meditation. His wisdom and integrity shone brightly and soon numerous disciples flocked to his side.  In tandem with the nation’s economic miracle since the end of the 1953 Korean War, it has prospered until it is as now the biggest temple in Korea.

(Note: To improve your viewing experience click on the photos below to enlarge – once for medium, twice to zoom in.)

P1110442

P1100618

From a passenger car and bus parking lot we begin what turned out to be a long and tiring walk up a steep, curving road.  Nothing prepared me for the sights that unfolded as we progressed  and each new corner unveiled yet another startling vista.   Past the first ornate entrance a steady stream of pilgrims moved on without undue haste or chatter, only the muted shuffle of feet and a fresh wind in the pines.  Widely known to worshipers as a miraculous and mystic retreat, words of encouragement whisper that everyone’s prayers come trueHere as in any of the several places of pilgrimage I’ve visited, be it Lourdes or Fatima, believers the world over gather to seek relief to physical ailments, emotional distress and spiritual enlightment.  Bless us all!

P1100571

The early spring season with cool temperatures in the mountains is not known for being particularly busy, even so coming and going the foot traffic is never at a stand still.  

P1100634

Further up a massive stone gate houses two fearsome deities vigilantly guarding the entrance to the grounds.  Notice the intricate, colourful carvings and meticulous tile work.   Throughout the grounds the work of hundreds of Korean artisans was a uniform display of the highest order of traditional artistry.

P1100572

P1100633

P1100579_2

P1100586

Numerous believers daily flock to pray, meditate and seek a peaceful respite from daily travails encountered in an intense success driven country.  By most standards the complex although relatively new (1945) now comprises 50 intricately designed buildings that offer all the trappings of a small but efficient  town.   

P1100594

The buildings unfold in layers as you make your way upwards.  The temple as well as a place of worship provides sleeping accommodations for those who wish to stay a few days to reflect and pray.  Balconies are strewn with drying bags and patios occupied by neatly arranged Onggi kimchi pots; a huge cafeteria caters free vegetarian meals.  

P1100584

P1100582

P1100607

Morning ablutions and getting ready for a day of meditation, prayer and discovering the nooks and crannies of this vast complex.  

P1100608

You’d have to be the worst kind of photographer to not discover a great angle or a colourful scene.  Gung-sa reminded me of a thought I had when viewing my photos of the Taj Mahal  – each appeared to be perfect.  In fact, I concluded one could throw a camera in the air and the perfect angle would be an automatic result.  The construction plan of this unique temple is truly striking as it includes placing fifty odd structures in different angled positions so each melds seamlessly within the whole panoply of buildings.   

P1100599

P1100606

P1100591

I came across what to my eyes was an unusual sight among the splendid buildings – dozens of large glazed terra cotta pots that my companion assured were filled with kimchi, the pungent, spicy concoction of fermented cabbage unique to this country, in actual fact it is the national dish. In traditional preparation kimchi is often allowed to ferment underground in jars for months.

P1100610

I’ll take this opportunity to reveal my appreciation of kimchi (also kimchee) since I was first introduced to this very particularly Korean condiment.  Types are determined by the main vegetable ingredients most often Napa (Chinese) cabbage, sometimes chopped radish or cucumber and the mix of seasonings; the most common are brine, scallions, spices, ginger, the indispensable garlic, anchovy paste, shrimp or fish sauce and other spices depending on the regional preference.  A  mainstay on any Korea table it is used in everything from soups to pancakes, and even as a topping on pizza and burgers.

P1110452

Kimchi is said to be excellent for one’s health and after an initial trial period I came to love it, anytime.  In Vancouver there are several Korean food outlets and I regularly buy the stuff for my use, often times simply to jazz up an omelet, rice or noodles.  Below, a Korean-style pancake easily made at home that meets my stringent standards for tastiness; after all I eat what I cook, right? 

P1110450

On any table  the guest will discover a tasty array of varied appetizers in the form of pickles and kimchi.   

P1100095

This super-condiment served at every meal with an average 18 kilos (40 pounds) per person each year is part of a high-fiber, low-fat diet that has kept obesity at bay in Korea.  Kimchi is loaded with vitamins A, B, and C, however its biggest benefit may be in its ‘healthy bacteria’ called lactobacilli, this good bacteria facilitates good digestion, plus according to a recent study it appears to help stop and even prevent yeast infections. Furthermore, some studies show fermented cabbage has compounds that may prevent the growth of stomach cancer.  (I read of such a study recently published in the US that caused a precipitous run on traditional East-European sauerkraut.  A life long lover of the dish in its many forms, I was pleased by the good news although miffed by the sudden doubling in price.  The old supply and demand routine that a capitalist society imposes every time – the more you want it the more you’ll pay or do without.)  How important is kimchi within the national lore? Its history has long been studied and documented along with many serious books written and the Kimchi Field Museum in Seoul has documented no fewer than 187 traditional and current varieties.  In traditional preparation kimchi is often allowed to ferment underground in jars for months.  As a group activity the women folk in a village prepare the delicious and absolute necessary staple.  

P1100727

Kimchi types are determined by the main vegetable ingredients and the mix of seasonings used for flavouring as well as region of origin and season.   

P1090835_2

My impression is whenever I encounter Buddhist monks they are invariably smiling or failing that display an expression of unperturbed inner peace.  Do they know something we don’t?   I sense that they must.   

P1100613_2

Unfortunately I didn’t feel as if I dared walk in this inner sanctum even with shoes removed, I simply didn’t know what was acceptable and rather than risk offending I merely looked on from outside and spent a moment in respectful  reflection and awareness of the deep spirituality of the surroundings.

P1100625

P1100622

P1100624

P1100620_2

At this conjuncture it is appropriate to leave this peaceful haven from the pressing daily cares of the world.  I’ll meet you again for a final close up look at Seoul, that vast, varied and vital metropolis.    It’s a rendez-vous between us, a bientôt.  Annyeonghi-gaseyo!

Advertisements

2 responses to “South Korea – Guin-sa Temple

  1. Good news ! Pope Francis will be visiting Korea this coming August 14th.
    Twenty years earlier, St. Pope John Paul II was in Korea. I hope to learn more about the history of Korean Catholic Church.

    • The history of Catholicism in Korea began in 1784 and has since grown to over ten percent of the population. During the 19th century, the Catholic Church suffered persecution during the Joseon Dynasty, chiefly for its refusal to carry out ancestral worship which the State prescribed as a cornerstone of its culture. The century-long persecution produced thousands of martyrs, 103 of whom were canonized by Pope John Paul II in May 1984, including the first Korean priest, now Saint Andrew Taegon Kim. Let us hope Pope Francis will bring a message of hope and friendship that will have a lasting impact on promoting peace between North and South Korea.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s