One thing you do when visiting Asian countries, is visit lots of temples. Living in South Korea really gave us the opportunity to go out and find the best of them, and I would say there are three temples in Korea that are the most beautiful and important, and should be on everyone’s itinerary. All of them are important religious sites. They symbolize the three key tenets of Buddhism.
Songgwangsa represents the Buddhist community or sangha, Tongdosa represents Buddha, and Haeinsa represents dharma or Buddhist teachings. These are immortalized in their library of UNESCO World Heritage Tripitaka Koreana, on a collection of woodblocks.
Songgwangsa temple is considered the greatest of the three temples and was founded in 1190 by a zen master whose teachings have been carried into modern Korean life.
We rented a car and wanted to go explore the western coast of the Korean Peninsula. We were on a quest to find the UNESCO World Heritage Site ancient dolmens. A dolmen is a very large rock, somewhat shaped by tools, but basically a rock. The purpose of the rock is to cover the grave of ancestors.
In the old days, Koreans would visit the dolmen and pray to their ancestors to gain favor, have a good crop, and many other types of things to make their harsh lives a little easier. As it was much more important to have a boy, the families would chisel a small hole in the dolmen and burn an offering in the hole to wish for a boy. Once you had a boy, that hole was all used up and if you, or your descendants, wanted to wish for another, you had to chisel a different offering hole.
At any rate, these dolmen are scattered throughout the Korean countryside, and some are much more obvious than others. It is near impossible for a foreigner, like myself, to determine what is just a rock and what is a revered ancient burial site. What’s the answer? Go to the Dolmen Park, where the government collected over 140 of them before flooding a town with a new dam.
So, that was our destination. We did eventually make it there…the second day. It wasn’t that easy to find. Once we found it, it took approximately 20 minutes to see what there was to see, just mildly disappointing to say the least.
In comes “chance” and “opportunity” to interfere. Along the way, as we were looking for these reverent reminders of the Korean past, we drove by sign after sign that said this way to Songhwasa temple. Each time we read it; each time we pretty much ignored it. After all, it was not our destination.
Having exhausted the Dolmen Park, though, we had to decide where to go next. We decided to look up the Songwhasa temple in our book and see what was so darn special about it that warranted hundreds of signs pointing out its direction. As it turns out, there are three very important, or “jewel” temples, in Korea, and Songwhasa was one of them; Tongdosa outside of Pusan, and Haeinsa outside of Daegu, are the others.
Each of the three “jewel” temples holds one third of the critical aspects of Korean Buddhism. Songwhasa is a famous school for monks and has many monks still who live and learn there. Tongdosa is famous because it houses some relics of Buddha himself, and Haeinsa is the keeper of the Koreana Tripitaka, ancient Buddhist scriptures carved on wooden tablets.
Ok, at this point, we’re more than a little irritated with ourselves; after three years in Korea, we were not aware of these three “jewel” temples at all, let alone realizing that two of the three were within one and a half hours’ drive from our house. Did we feel like travel imbeciles, or what? Here we are exactly one month prior to our departure from this country and now we have another full goal to fulfill before we can leave.
All three temples were absolutely gorgeous and worth going to regardless of the added importance to the spiritual well-being of the country. Most Korean temples have been built in idyllic locations, and they are kept impeccably clean. First the pilgrim, or visitor, is required to walk to the entrance.
This is not for the weak-kneed as it usually involves climbing up a hill, in which the temple seems to fit quite nicely in a valley or along the river. Once you enter the grounds, though, there is a feeling of peace and tranquility, leaving the frenetic chaos of vegetable vendors and restaurant hawkers outside the gate.
As we approached this gorgeous temple, flowers were in full bloom, and the river held millions of tadpoles underneath the colorful lanterns celebrating Buddha’s birthday (May 5th). The entrance to the temple was a bridge and once inside, people go about their business. Everyone is laughing, playing, and of course praying and buying offerings. The roofs are gabled and brightly painted and the monks happily stop and talk to you, answer questions, and even lead tourist groups.
When we visited this temple, we were impressed at how old it seemed. Most of the temples were built originally in the late 600s, and have weathered invasions, fires, bombings, and who know what else, but these building really seemed to be old. The paint was faded and the colors were very muted. It definitely leant a spiritual feeling to the place.
Whenever I go to a temple that holds an important relic, I always want to see it, but as it true of most, the relics were safe under a stone stupa. We did see the people circling the stupa praying and making offerings.
We realized we had happened upon a special occasion. We never found out what it was, but there were banners hanging from the main temple, and there were hundreds of people praying with the monks, and making their 108 prostrations.
Living or backpacking around Korea can feel hectic or chaotic. There is a lot of noise, traffic, and people, but taking the time to walk around one of the many Buddhist temples sprinkled around the country does bring some zen and peace to your day.
In the spring, the temples are especially beautiful with the greenery and blooming flowers, but the best time to visit is on Buddha’s birthday. The temples I visited during this time always had celebrations with lots of pilgrims, 108 prostrations, and even a pop concert or two.