Saturday, November 28, 2009

Maya Tathagata Buddha

Gyeongju - Part IV

On the slopes of Mount Hamwol, some 20 km east of Gyeongju, is the Golgulsa Temple. Famed for being the only cave temple in South Korea, it is believed to have been built in the 6th century by Buddhist monks from India.

It is also provides a destination for those wishing to get away from their busy, materialistic and stressful lives, to participate in the temple stay programme that is on offer there.

Temple stays were originally established for tourists during the World Cup in 2002 and their continued success has meant that the programme has now been extended. They allow people to experience first hand how Buddhist monks live and there are currently 43 temples involved in the programme throughout South Korea.

The popularity of them shows no signs of waning and upwards of 30,000 people take part in them each year to experience that elusive getaway to a place a million miles from the humdrum of modern life.

Having visited many temples in Thailand, Korea and Japan I've always been fascinated by Buddhism, so on Saturday I set off for the Golgulsa Temple to experience first hand the Buddhist way of life.

Arriving at the temple at around four o'clock, I was then shown to my room by one of the monks. Although quite basic and sparse, mattresses and bed clothes were provided and fortunately there was Korean ondol underfloor heating, so I had no worries about feeling cold during my nights sleep.

On the wall was a schedule, as well as list of rules. Most of these were related to behaviour and etiquette, such as not smoking or drinking alcohol and really just required common sense. What I did find interesting though was the punishment for being late to any of the various activities would involve having to carry out a thousand bows. At this point I decided to make sure that I arrived everywhere in good time and I also set my alarm clock, just in case I overslept for meditation at 4.30 the following morning.

After unpacking I decided to explore the temple grounds. Many of the buildings are recent constructions, but are fortunately built in a traditional Korean style so they take nothing away from the atmosphere of the experience.

Cave Temple

I made my way up the hill and past the main temple hall and then climbed up onto some rocks to see the cave temple. Inside there was a statue of the Buddha against the rear of the cave with burning candles alongside it and against the sides of the cave were many more smaller images of the Buddha. As I looked inside, people visiting put their palms together and bowed in front of the main Buddha.

Exploring more, I came across other caves with images of the Buddha and candles burning inside them. Originally there twelve but now there are only seven.

Climbing further up, above the caves was the Maya Tathagata Buddha carved on the rockface. Even though I have seen many similar images of the Buddha recently, this one was by far the most beautiful. Sadly, due to the weak nature of the rock much of the lower half of the Buddha has crumbled away, so it is now protected with a perspex cover to prevent further erosion.

After dinner, I made my way I made my way to the sunmudo hall for the evenings activities. As I went in everyone was lined up in rows, so I took a cushion and sat down with them. We firstly had to do 108 bows, which is a way of repenting and it also acts as a way of removing desires and purifying the mind and body.

To complete the 108 bows, you must firstly complete a full standing bow by putting both palms together(hapchang) as if to pray, whilst also keeping your feet together. You then bow fully from the hips and return to the vertical postion. This is done once at the beginning and once at the end.

This is the easy part.

You then bend your knees and drop to the floor, whilst maintaining the hapchang position and then rock forward onto all fours and back. Your forehead should then be touching the floor and both hands should be upturned. This position should then be held for a brief moment and then you should rock forward to be back on all fours. After this you must sit back with both hands in hapchang and return to the upright standing position.

The entire process is then repeated a further 107 times and believe me when I say it may sound very straight forward, but once you've been doing it a short time there does come a point when it starts to hurt.

Once everyone had finished their 108 bows, it was then time for a warm up before the rigours of sunmudo training.

Based on martial arts techniques handed down through the centuries from generation to generation of Buddhist monks, sunmudo is a way of harmonising the spirit to bring about an inner peace and ultimately reach spiritual enlightenment.

Revived in the 1960s by the Venerable Yang-ik, these techniques were then taken by the Venerable Seol Jeog-un, who renamed them sunmudo and created the Sunmudo University at the Golgulsa Temple.

Unlike other martial arts that rely more on physical strength, it focuses on breathing, meditation and body movement, to help attain a higher state of mind and in many ways the techniques used are not dissimilar to those in yoga and tai chi.

After the warm up we split into two groups, those who were more experienced and those new to sunmudo and just at the temple for the weekend.

We moved to the other end of the hall and sat down in front of our instructor.

'I am Sun. I will teach you sunmudo. First we will learn Seon meditation.'

Seon Buddhism is the Korean equivalent of Japanese Zen Buddhism. Originally believed to have been founded in China by an Indian Buddhist monk called Bodhidharma , it focuses primarily on meditation as being one of the main ways of achieving enlightenment. There are two forms of meditation used Jwaseon(sitting-style) meditation and Haengseon(walking-style meditation), both of which allow a person time to reflect on life and search for their true self.

Sun firstly showed us the half lotus position. Sitting down I crossed my legs, placing the sole of my left foot against the inside of my right knee. With my hands I formed a circle on my lap, the left palm covering my the fingers of my right hand and my thumbs slightly touching.

He then showed us the different movements with our hands, all done very slowly, which I followed whilst breathing deeply.

Once we had mastered the basics of meditation, it was time for the sunmudo training. We began by firstly walking round in a circle on all fours, which was then followed by kicking as high as we could with both the left and right legs.

After this we practiced some basic sunmudo moves that involved kicking and punching in the air, sometimes at the same time, which required some extremely good balancing skills. Fortunately I didn't completely embarrass myself and managed to maintain my equilibrium for much of the time.

'Very good for a first try. You will be a sunmudo master in no time', said Sun.

I appreciated his comments, although I did take them with a slight pinch of salt.

After the sunmudo training, we rejoined the main group and gathered round in a circle for Seon meditation. I had read in the literature before coming that apparently if you fall asleep, someone comes up to you and pokes you in the back with a stick. Fortunately I managed to avoid dozing off and thus avoided any unwanted prodding sensations in my back, despite feeling incredibly relaxed whilst doing the meditation and maybe even a little bit drowsy.

Once the meditation was finished at nine thirty, we all made our way back to our rooms, whereupon it was lights off almost immediately, to make sure of a good nights sleep for the early start the next day.

Just after four o'clock the next morning I was awoken by the sound by a Buddhist monk walking around the temple grounds hitting a wooden block, known as a moktak. After getting ready I made my way up towards the main hall of the temple.

The ceiling of the temple was lined with pink lotus lanterns from one end of the room to the other and on the walls were pictures of various Buddhist deities. Once again we did 108 bows, which were followed the reading of Buddhist scriptures and then meditation.

Then we went outside to a hill, where we formed a circle around a pagoda for walking meditation, to give us time to reflect and prepare for the coming day. In complete silence we walked around it, five metres apart in single file and then down to the Il-Ju Gate at the front of the temple and then back, which took about 20 minutes.

Once we had returned to the pagoda it was then time for the traditional morning Buddhist meal, known as Balwoo-gongyang.

I was extremely glad to back into the warm and once inside everyone sat along the edges of the dining area crossed legged, in the half lotus position, awaiting their rice and vegetables.

We were given four bowls all of which fitted into each other. The largest bowl was for rice and the others were for soup, side dishes and water. Performed in silence, the entire process is highly ritualized.

Everything must be eaten so that nothing is left, not even a grain of rice and the bowls must be cleaned with water which is then drunk, as nothing must be wasted. Once the meal is completed, everything is reassembled to as it was when first received and the chopsticks must be placed back in their cover, on top of the bowls along with the towl.

After the meal was the tea ceremony, which also gave us the opportunity to talk to Grandmaster Seol Jeog Un. Originally introduced from China, it is not as formal the one I experienced in Japan and also acts a means for Buddhist monks to reflect upon themselves, nature and the universe.

Sitting in a semi-circle around Grandmaster Seol Jeog Un, it proved to be very interesting and informative and I was surprised at how relaxed and open he was to everyone's questions.

He told us of how he was trained in traditional martial arts under the tutorage of the Venerable Yang-ik and that he attained enlightenment in 1975, at the Beomeosa Temple in Busan.

We also learned from him how he had first built a road and started renovating the temple during the 1980s, up until the present day. He also talked in depth about Buddhism in South Korea and how he enjoyed having people on the Temple stay programme, as it gave people the opportunity to learn more about the Buddhist way of life and Korean culture.

Just before it was time to go, we had the additional bonus of being able to watch a martial arts demonstration from different schools around Korea, who were visiting for the weekend. It was extremely enjoyable to see and I even had the opportunity to join in and practise the traditional Korean martial art of taekwondo, which helped provide a perfect end to the weekend. This proved to to be great fun, despite the language barrier and hopefully before my time here is over, I'll get to try it out again before I return to Britain in March.

Did I leave feeling more fulfilled and a step closer to enlightenment? Maybe not, but I left with a greater understanding of a religion I knew little about beforehand, as well as some wonderful memories, not to mention some extremely sore legs.

For all the photos click here.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Let's Get Ready To Ramble

Gyeongju - Part III

Around Gyeongju there are hundreds of scattered remains from the Silla period. In particular, Mount Namsan is home to many Buddhist relics from this era, when during this time it was regarded as a sacred mountain.

At 494 metres high, its rugged peaks and beautiful scenery provide a popular destination for South Korea's huge brigade of hikers who flock to the national parks and mountains every weekend, especially at this time of year with the changing colours of the leaves.

Hiking is so popular you could easily be forgiven for believing that it is in fact the national sport. There are shops selling all manner of hiking equipment wherever you go and there are also numerous hiking clubs for people to join.

Korean people also take it very seriously and unlike me, dressed in a pair of dirty trainers and an old plastic mac in case it rained, Korean hikers really push the boat out and the fashion concious hiker here definitely dresses to impress.

At the bottom of Mount Namsan people were busy getting ready for their Sunday sojourn, all looking very professional in their walking boots, knee high socks and gore-tex jackets.

In fact, from what I could gather your average Korean hiker looks more equipped for an assault on K2, rather than a leisurely stroll up what many people would describe as being a rather steep hill.

So with a bottle of Lucozade Sport and a Wagon Wheel in hand(or the Korean equivalent at least), I set off on my expedition.

At the beginning of the trail are the Samneung Royal Tombs, which are thought to belong to King Adalla(154-184), King Sindeok(912-917) and King Gyeongmyeong(917-924). Wherever you go in Gyeongju, you seem to come across a tomb of an important monarch who once ruled the land.

Walking on, I decided to veer off the main path slightly in the direction of the Sambulsa Temple to see the Three Statues of Bae-ri. Away from hordes of walkers making their way up Namsan, the temple was small and peaceful. As I was taking some photos, a Buddhist monk who was dressed in grey robes, typical of Korean Buddhist attire, came over to talk to me.

He asked me where I was from and what I was doing in South Korea and I told him my story of how I was teaching here and the wonderful time I was having travelling around and meeting so many new people.

' must love Korea', he replied.

He then went on to talk about the history of Mount Namsan, how beautiful it was and that he was learning English, but was finding it very difficult. I complimented him on his use of the language and told him that I had no problem understanding him.

'Oh no. My pronunciation is not good.'

Then the conversation turned in to an impromptu English lesson, probably the last thing I was expecting on my day out. I helped him practise the different sounds for words and some dialogues he had obviously learnt from a home study tape he had been listening to. I was more than happy to help and in the end we must have ended up talking for nearly twenty minutes.

'You are a good teacher. Wait here. I have something.'

He went back into his living quarters just next to the temple and to my surprise brought out for me a small wooden Buddha and a postcard of the statues of Bae-ri.

'Have good memories of Korea.'

As I left I thanked him for his generosity and complimented him on his English once again, before leaving to see the statues.

Located at the foot of Mount Namsan, the Three Statues of Bae-ri were brought to their present site in 1923 from the nearby Seonbang Temple site and it is believed they were made during the 7th century. The central statue is of the Buddha, which is flanked on the left by the Bodhisattva Avolokitesvra(the Bodhisattva of Compassion) and on the right by the Bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta(the Bodhisattva of Power).


After looking at the three Statues of Bae-ri I walked back the way I had come and rejoined the main path leading to the peak. There was now a steady stream of walkers all making their way upward.

After a short time I came to a Buddhist statue in the sitting position with its head missing, removed in one of the many invasions of Korea. Just above this was another image of the Buddha carved into the rock.

I made my way onwards and the climb gradually became harder. On my way I passed more Buddhas and Bodhisattvas carved into the rock, all exquisite in their craftsmenship. In front of them were altars with burning incense and candles. Many people put their hands together and bowed in front of them. Some even left offerings of food and drink.

As I started to near the top, my legs began to ache and I thought back to my time climbing Mount Fuji in Japan. Fortunately this climb was a lot shorter, so I didn't have to worry about the ill effects of altitude sickness or feeling unable to move the next day, this time around.

Top of Mount Namsan

Once at the top I stopped to have rest and survey the view. The scenery all around was breathtaking and sitting around were people having picnics. Others who had just reached the top were having their photo taken in front of the summit marker.

I stopped for a short rest to take in my surroundings and the achievement of reaching the top and then made my way back down with the other walkers, to return home back to Seoul.

Namsan is a treasure trove of history and there is nothing else quite like it in the rest of South Korea. It provides a window into a time when the Buddhist faith was at its peak in Korea and at almost every turn it seems as if there is something interesting. Having only explored a small portion of the many sights it has to offer, as I finally made my way home, I promised myself that one day I would hopefully return to this place to sample more of its unique history and beauty.

You can see all the photos here.

Here's a short film I made of the day.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Dabotap Pagoda(Bulguksa)

Gyeongju - Part II

The next stage of my trip took me to South Korea's most famous temple, Bulguksa, which means 'Buddha Land Temple'. Home to the Jogye order of Buddhist monks, it was originally built in 528 and then later abandoned. Rebuilt in 751 by the chief minister Kim Tae-song to pacify the spirits of his parents, it was completed in 774, when it received its present name.

Throughout its history parts of it have been destroyed, most notably during the Japanese invasions of 1592 and 1598, when the wooden buildings here were burnt to the ground. Rebuilt in 1605, the temple fell into a state of disrepair under the repression of Buddhism during the 19th century and subsequent Japanese occupation. It was most recently renovated between 1967 and 1973.

Walking towards the temple I first passed two lotus ponds on either side of a bridge. Just beyond this is a gate with huge statues of the Heavenly Kings inside, guarding the entrance of the temple, similar to the ones I saw in Busan during my visit there in August.


At the front of the temple complex is a huge stairway known as Sokgyemun, its 33 steps signifying the 33 steps to enlightenment, which symbolically lead to the 'Land of the Buddha'.

The lower part of the staircase is called Cheongungyo(Blue Cloud Bridge) and the upper part is called Baegungyo(White Cloud Bridge). As they are national treasures it's not possible to go up them, so I went up a path to one of the two side entrances.

The main courtyard was full of people, many of them busily milling about looking for that all important photo opportunity. Located here is the main hall and although not the biggest of the buildings in the complex, it is by far the most important. Known as Daeungjeon, inside a bronze image of the Historic Buddha, Sakyamuni, is enshrined and alongside this statue are others including his attendants and disciples.

In front of the main hall are two of South Korea's most famous pagodas, Dabotap and Seokgatap. At 8.2 metres tall, the traditional Korean pagoda Seokgatap is the more simplistic in design of the two and is ringed by eight lotus shaped flowers. Supposedly it is meant to represent spiritual ascent according to the rules put forth by Sakyamuni, the historical founder of Buddhism.

The most visually interesting of the two pagodas is Dabotap(Many Treasures Pagoda), an image of which can be seen on the Korean 10 won coin. Intricately carved and ornate in its design, the 10.4 metre tall pagoda symbolizes the complexity of the universe.

View From The Top of Mount Tohamsan

Located near the summit of Mt. Tohamsan, overlooking Bulguksa is the Seokguram Grotto. Located at the end of a winding mountain road some 4km from Bulguksa, it is home to a huge statue of the Buddha that is considered to be one of South Korea's most important national treasures.

The cave housing the Buddha is man made and constructed from slabs of carved granite and is remarkably similar in design to cave temples found in both China and India.

Walking into the cave, the 3.5 metre tall Buddha carved out of granite, sits cross legged in the lotus position on a pedestal, right foot over the left knee and its right hand draped over its right leg. Known as the Earth-touching mudra, the position of its hands symbolize the Buddha's enlightenment.

The ceiling is decorated with half moons and surrounding the Buddha are images of Bodhisattvas, the Four Heavenly Kings, Dharma-protectors and disciples.

Sublime in its design, it is unfortunately kept behind a glass screen in order to preserve it, the result of previous damage to the cave.

Also built during the 8th century by Kim Tae-song at the same time as the rebuilding of Bulguksa, for many centuries it was left abandoned until being rediscovered in 1909, apparently by a postman, who according to the story was seeking shelter from the rain.

During the Japanese occupation, restoration work was carried out three times by the Japanese which resulted in damage to the caves ventilation, causing increased humidity and condensation. After the Second World War it faced neglect once again until the 1960s, when under the Presidency of Park Chung-hee it was restored.

After walking around and taking few photos of some of the spectacular views on offer, I made my way back into Gyeongju for a good night's sleep, in preparation for my assault on Mount Namsan the following day.

You can see all the photos here.

Here's a short film I made of the day.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


Part I

I first visited Gyeongju a couple of weeks after my arrival in South Korea, for the annual Traditional Rice Cake and Alcohol Festival held there, which I enjoyed immensely and ever since going I've been promising myself I would go back.

One of South Korea's most popular tourist destinations, visiting Gyeongju is like taking a time machine back into the past and last weekend I finally got around to returning.

Wherever you go, you come across something intersting, from beautiful temples and mountain shrines, to ancient tombs of royalty that once ruled Korea and centuries old images of the Buddha, carved in stone.

The capital of the Silla Kingdom(57 BC-935 AD), it was once one of the world's largest cities in its heyday, with a population of nearly 1 million people living there.

The Silla Dynasty lasted for 992 years and most of the sights Gyeongju has to offer date from the 7th century, when the peninsula was reunified.

With the decline of the Silla Empire and the following Goryeo and Joseon dynasties, Gyeongju lost much of its national importance, but remained a regional centre throughout and approximately 350,000 people currently reside there today.

The Three Buddha Statues Of Bae-ri

Having travelled on the coach from Seoul the previous night, I awoke early for a busy day of sightseeing and once ready I headed towards the tourist information office, in Gyeongju Station.

Walking through the centre of Gyeongju I passed through the market set up along the side of the road, on the pavement. Less of a tourist trap than others I have visited, there were stalls selling everything from fruit and vegetables to ginseng, fish and kitchen utensils. Many of the stallholders were very old, some were well into their late seventies, their faces weathered by old age.

When I arrived at the tourist office they provided me with an invaluable itinary to get the most out of my weekend, with lots of advice allowing me to see as much as possible in the available time. The woman here advised me to start off by looking around the city centre itself before going further afield, so after thanking her I made my way to Tumuli Park, to visit the royal tombs there.

The largest burial site in Gyeongju with 23 tombs, it's the ideal place for a leisurely stroll in the middle of autumn.

The tombs themselves are covered by huge mounds of stone and earth, in all manner of sizes, some of them even spanning 80 metres in diameter. Similar to the ones I visited recently in Seoul, visually they were a lot simpler, without the elaborate statues and sculptures associated with those of the Joseon era that I had seen previously.

The largest tomb here is Hwangnamdaechong and is believed to have housed a king and a queen. Excavated between 1973 to 1975, it is 23 metres high and its length from north to south is 47 metres and from east to west it is 80 metres. Inside many valuable treasures were found, such as necklaces and other jewellery, which are now on display in the nearby Gyeongju National Museum

Also known as the Heavenly Horse Tomb, Cheonmachong was first excavated in 1974 and over 10,000 treasures were found in it, including a gold crown and a painting of a mounted horse, the only discovered painting from the Silla era. It is actually possible to walk inside this tomb and on display are replicas of objects that were found, as well as the remains of the person inside.

The 13th king of the Silla Dynasty, King Mich'u, is also buried here in a tomb known as Chukhyonnung or 'Bamboo Soldier Tomb'. During his reign of 22 years, the Silla Kingdom grew in power and he was also successful in fending off attacks from the nearby Baekje Kingdom.

The tomb gains its name from the myth that when the country was under attack, warriors with bamboo leaves in their ears would emerge from the tomb to repel the invaders. Regarding the significance of the bamboo leaves, be it some sort of mystical device for aiding the warriors in battle or a Silla Military fashion statement, I unfortunately have no idea whatsoever.


A short walk then led me to Cheomseongdae, which is the oldest existing observatory in the Far East. Looking somewhat similar to the top of a bottle, it is 9 metres in height and in the south side there is small window. Built during the reign of Queen Seonduk, believed to be the 27th ruler of the Silla Dynasty, it has 27 layers of granite bricks on top of a square base which may represent this. At the top are four stone bars arranged in a square shape.

It is filled up with earth to the height of the window and it is through here that a person would have entered to observe the heavens. The actual use of the observatory has fuelled much debate regarding its use. Whilst there are those that believe its purpose was astronomical, others have critiscised this viewpoint, pointing out that the building is not actually suitable for observing the stars and that nothing similar can be found in China.

Another explanation is that the observatory may have been used for astrological purposes. During the Silla period, studying the movements of the stars and planets was very important and would have been used in all aspects of policy making. From matters of state to agricultural practices, astronomy would have been used for determining whether battles should be fought, to when crops should be planted.

You can see all the photos here.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009