Note to self: Remember to check out the Buddhist temples.
The architecture isn’t merely meant to be beautiful; features like the stone stairs, the shape of the bells, and even the grounds are imbued with meaning. A pictorial description of what Buddhism is all about, if you will. You see monks and nuns in brown robes or in gray attire, some obliging to take pictures with you, some not. If you manage to be there when people are chanting in prayer or meditation, the low thrum of their voices can be eerie to hear. Sometimes the voices swing up a note, or two, or three – to then fall back on that constant, stabilizing tone. I can feel the vibration of the chanting go through my chest, swirling gently at my center, connecting me. It’s like a mild, calm version of the dull pounding of the bass drums at a concert that just hits you in the chest.
The following are temples you can go see in and around Seoul; some I’ve been to, others I’ve not. (Sorry, it’s a work in progress.)
The only major temple inside Seoul’s antiquated city walls. Built in 1910, its name is derived from the name of a mountain where an enlightened Chinese master and Sixth Patriarch of Ch’an Buddhism, Huineng, lived about 1400 years ago.
It’s located west of Insadong, a place renowned for cultural richness. Antique shops with many-armed Shivas and other religious sculptures line the mouth of the alleyway that leads you from the noisy streets to the quiet deep reaches of the block where the temple is. The temple is comprised of many buildings.
A white pine tree near the First in the East Meditation Center is about 500 years old, brought from either China or Japan (I can’t remember what the sign said – when you go, let me know, okay?). There are benches nestled between little trees in front of the building to sit when there’s little room to do so inside.
There’s a wooden bell pavilion to the left of the Meditation Center; its stairs lead straight up to a closed gate only opened when a monk is supposed to call on all living beings by a drum, a bell, a cloud-shaped gong, and a log carved in the shape of a fish.
There’s a shop to the far right where you can buy mementos, like posters, candles, and candles.
To get to this temple, take the Seoul subway line 1 to Chonggak Station; it’s a 10-minute walk.
Phone: (02) 732-2115
Address: 45, Gyeonji-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul (Zip code: 110-170)
“The head temple of Buddhism in Korea, which has born the long history and a traditional religious order – Taego Denomination, a denomination of married monks and the second-largest in Korea. At present, Monk Lee Man-bong (Tanchongjang) and Monk Park Song-am (Yongsanje, a Buddhist ritual), both holders of the Important Intangible Cultural Properties, the 48th and 50th respectively, reside here. This temple serves for the modernization of Korea’s Buddhism and takes root in Buddhism instruction in the principle of Koreans’ life.”
— Source: Seoul Insights
Transportation: Get off subway at Shinchon station on #2 line or Tongnimmun station on #3 line and take maul bus. Or, take the bus #205 or #543.
“Hwagyesa Temple was founded by Master Shinwol in 1523, during the 17th of King Chungjong reign of the Choson Dynasty. It was burnt down in 1618, and was rebuilt the following year by Master Dowol. The present building has been handed down what [sic] repaired by two monks, Yongso and Pomun, in 1866. After that, the temple had served the Koryo royal family. Hwagyesa Temple is home to the Seoul International Zen Center under the direction of Priest Sung-san. Foreign monks and Buddhist people live and practice here.”
— Source: Seoul Insights
Admission: free of charge
Transportation: Get off subway at Sungshin Women’s University station on #4 line, take city bus(#23,27) to Wooi-dong, and get off at the entrance for Hwagyesa Temple. Or, get off at Miasamtogori subway station and take the city bus #28, get off at the entrance for Hwagyesa Temple.
If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our Asia Insiders page.