Author: Anna Franco Ucar
Besides being the biggest city and capital of South Korea, Seoul contains such a varied collection of areas that it feels like a whole world in itself. Being a perfect mix between traditional and futuristic, the city forms a beautiful tapestry intertwining modern architecture, like the incredible underground shopping centre Starfield COEX, and historical areas, like the millennial Buddhist temple Bongeunsa (봉은사).
History of the Temple
Founded in 794 by State Preceptor Yeonhoe (highest ranking monk of Silla, a Korean kingdom during the Three Kingdoms period), during the reign of King Wonseong, and under the name Gyeonseongsa, the Temple was the home of many monks and a space to practise Mahayana Buddhism, Korea’s predominant religious ideology at that time. Later, during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897 CE), Buddhism was severely repressed, being overtaken by (Neo-)Confucianism and, in 1498, Queen Jeonghyeon reconstructed the Temple and renamed it Bongeunsa, a term that means ‘to honour the king’, in prayer to her late husband and popular Joseon ruler King Seongjong, whose tomb was at the original location of the Temple. Then, during the reign of Queen Munjeong (1545-1553), who was an avid and influential supporter of Buddhism, Bongeunsa was relocated to its current site on the slope of Sudo Mountain (to the north of where Starfield COEX is located in the present), and it briefly became the main temple of the Korean Seon (Zen). Until 1564, it was also the centre of the Buddhist National Exam. However, towards the end of Munjeong’s reign, anti-Buddhist factions regained dominance once again, and it was not until Buddhist monks helped fend off the Japanese invasions of Korea (1592-98) that Buddhists stopped being persecuted.
In 1902, Bongeunsa was designated as one of the 14 major temples of the Korean Empire, and it became the headquarters of 80 smaller Buddhist temples around Seoul throughout Japanese occupation (1910-1945). Unfortunately, a fire in 1939 destroyed most of the temple’s buildings, and later, during the Korean War (1950-1953), other parts of the temple were also demolished. Since then, Bongeunsa has undergone many repairs and renovations (the reconstruction efforts are still ongoing to this day), and is thriving once again as the cornerstone for the revival and propagation of Korean Buddhism.
Notable features of the Temple
Perhaps what is most surprising about Bongeunsa is the fact that, despite being a temple for relaxation and meditation practices, it is located in the middle of Gangnam, Seoul’s most modern district, surrounded by skyscrapers and the bustling city. However, contrary to what it may seem, the Temple features a rather secluded and quiet atmosphere, due to many of its halls being spread out on a forested hillside. This makes Bongeunsa a perfect example of Seoul’s visual contrasts.
Another notable feature is Panjeon, one of the very few halls that were unaffected by the war. It is a library built by monk Yeonggi during the late Joseon Dynasty that houses the 81 volumes of the woodblock carvings of the Flower Garland Sutra (one of the most influential Mahayana scriptures), as well as 3,479 Buddhist scriptures of 13 types, including the works of Kim Jeonghee (acclaimed scholar and calligrapher) in his own calligraphy style called the ‘Chusache’ (추사체).
However, the temple’s main attraction is the 23-metre tall statue of Maitreya (the future Buddha), constructed between 1986 and 1996 and surrounded at the base by a collection of Vajra Warriors that protect the Buddha from harm. At night, the statue is illuminated from all angles, making it an even more impressive sight.
Bongeunsa is a very popular tourist spot to visit, but it also offers two temple-stay programs (of one and two days) to allow visitors to experience Buddhist tradition through monastic daily life as a way of relaxing and purifying the mind, body, and soul. There are various activities included in the programs, such as a tour through the Buddhist Temple to visit its different areas, as well as experience Korean Buddhism and culture; Cham-Seon (Zen meditation), to learn mindfulness and concentration; Da-Seon (tea ceremony), a meditation practice that involves all five senses at once; Balwoongongyang (monastic meal), a practice surrounding the spirit of equality, cleanliness, and thrift, and which can help you learn the wisdom of non-possession; and Yebool, a ceremony to pay respect to the Sakyamuni Buddha, and to practise self-reflection, amongst others. In addition, every year on the Buddha’s birthday, the Temple holds the Lotus Lantern Festival, which features the delightful sight of hundreds of colourful lanterns.
With the busy lifestyle that is so characteristic of the 21st century, it is often difficult to take the time to unplug and truly relax, even though this is something that everyone needs every once in a while. That is why many South Korean temples offer this much needed opportunity.
So now you know, if you find yourself wandering around Gangnam and fancy having a unique experience, go explore the marvels of Bongeunsa Temple and spend a couple of days following the practices of monastic life. You’ll come out refreshed and renewed!
Written by: Anna Franco Ucar
Revised by: Luisa Quintero
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