Last time I was in Korea, I had a few days where I was left to my own devices and got to do and go whatever and wherever I wanted. One of the hotels I was staying at was in the Gangnam/Samseong area, and I remembered being told about a large temple that wasn’t far from where I was staying, so on one of these days, decided to visit.
Here is a brief history of this historic site: Built in the 10th year of Silla King Weongseong’s reign (the year 794), the Bongeunsa temple was originally named Gyeonseonsa Temple. At the time of completion, it was located approximately 1km southwest of King Seongjong’s royal mausoleum, however was moved to its current location of just north of the COEX building in downtown Gangnam, Seoul, during the Joseon era by King Myeongjong.
By the time I visited, I was still not 100% confident using the Seoul subway (seriously look at a map of it compared to the Sydney rails, it’s scary), so I flagged down a taxi from outside of my hotel and asked him to take me to the temple. Side note, my level of Korean I would say is intermediate, I know enough to have very basic conversations and to ask for help. However, a lot of taxi drivers over there always assume that because I can say “Hello, please can you take me to X”, that means I am fluent in Korean….I am not. Not yet, anyway. This is just a little quirk I always find fun while I’m there – always find myself getting caught in conversations with taxi drivers where I can only understand about 30-40% of what they are saying, so I just sit there smiling and nodding, hoping I’m not making a fool of myself.
We arrived at the temple literally within 10 minutes of leaving my hotel, so I paid the taxi driver and got out. At this point in time, it was late Autumn in Korea, so the weather for the first few days was quite chilly, however on this particular day, it was pleasantly warm. I walked up the hill and immediately was greeted by a huge archway welcoming me to the temple. There are also about 5 or 6 statues to the right, leading the way up the hill you have to walk. I was happy to see that there was no entry fee – but of course, it is a religious site so why would there be.
One of my favorite things about the temple is the incredible contrast it creates with its surroundings. Everyone knows that Seoul is a huge, bustling city, with people everywhere. Gangnam in particular is known as one of the main business districts, so inevitably the area is basically made up of hundreds of tall (and I mean TALL) office buildings. However right in the middle of all of this busyness, is the quiet and tranquil Bongeunsa Temple.
Once I got to the top of the hill, I could see the entire temple as a whole – it is huge. There are individual prayer and ritual rooms that are open for the public and of course used by the Buddhist Monks too. I was lucky enough to witness one such ritual, where everyone was bowing and hymning in harmony. One Monk went around the circle and touched everyone’s hands, which I later learned was a ritual of repentance and forgiveness. In addition, at the very top of the temple, there is a giant Buddha statue, with an open area in front. I saw many people sitting on the floor and praying, bowing to him, or simply just standing and looking at him. I noticed one person had stood up after praying, and she walked to what looked like an enclosed cart, she lit a candle and placed it inside, joining many, many others. I asked one of the Monks what this represented, and he told me that the candle represents the person’s prayer – the longer it stays lit, the longer Buddha will answer their prayers. They keep the candles inside an enclosed case so that the flame never dies. This really touched me – I thought it was beautiful. He also explained that it could also be a sign of respect to Buddha.
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Walking around the temple, you can see many of the original 3,479 Buddhist scriptures that were preserved and are now stored there. These include some of the works of Kim Jeong-Hee (김정희), who was one of the most celebrated calligraphers, epigraphists and scholars during the Joseon era. He also introduced his own calligraphy style, which he named Chusache, after his pen name.
With thanks to the efforts of today’s Buddhist Monks, the public can enjoy various activities and rituals in the temple itself, such as the tea experience ceremony, a temple tour, 108 bows, Buddhist Services and meals, as well as being able to occasionally interact with the Monks – something that was forbidden even in the modern world. Additionally, they offer informative classes that deliver the teachings of Buddha. The site is open to the public all year round, however, to maintain the peace and respect it is asked that noise is kept to a minimum.
Personally, visiting Bongeunsa temple was surprisingly a very eye-opening experience – everything I have mentioned in this article, I learned at the temple. It is a good place to go to escape the craziness of Seoul, and to get some treasured peace and quiet. I love that they have managed to maintain structures and artworks that are hundreds of years old, I truly think it speaks volumes for how much they value and respect their traditions and ancestors.
I would definitely recommend it as a place to see – even if it is to just get away from the mania of downtown Seoul.
Thank you for reading and I hope you have a great day! 🙂