“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.)
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 true. Here 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Morning ablutions and getting ready for a day of meditation, prayer and discovering the nooks and crannies of this vast complex.
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.
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.
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.
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?
On any table the guest will discover a tasty array of varied appetizers in the form of pickles and kimchi.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!