The Amazing Grottos Of Seoamjeongsa Zen Temple, Meditating In Byeoksongsa Zen Temple And A Hike In Jirisan, South Korea
I have heard travelers say that after visiting many Buddhist temples in one trip, they got “All Templed Out.”
This means that all the beautiful temples that looked so fresh and interesting at first, started looking exactly the same, and the travelers ended up losing their enthusiasm to see more.
At first, the traveler stands in awe at the impressive temple gates, the stunning architecture, the colorfully decorated halls and the serene temple gardens.
But after trekking up to many mountaintop monasteries, cliff side hermitages and remote temples, their eyes get dulled, and their appetite to visit more temples decreases.
I never agreed with those statements, because I do not visit temples like a tourist attraction or a sightseeing trip; I visit them as a spiritual pilgrim yearning for knowledge and more inner clarity.
If possible, we sit and meditate in the temples we visit, and I always walk among them as if on sacred grounds.
I always enjoy the sweetness, attentiveness and gentleness of the monks and nuns that we meet in the temples, and I have tremendous respect for the lives they lead.
They blend daily spiritual practices with hard work, gardening, reading, meditating and everything that we like to do, but without the bounds of religion, tradition and certain abstinence vows.
Our day started with a visit to two temples situated next to one another.
We parked our car in the lower parking lot and climbed a very steep road.
The fork in the road had two names, both written only in Korean.
We guessed that the arrows pointed to the two different temples.
We chose the road on the left.
When we entered Seoamjeongsa Temple, I realized how different each Zen temple is from another.
This temple was absolutely stunning.
It harmonized into the mountain as if it was always meant to be there.
Some manmade structures like museums and public buildings dominate the landscape that they are situated in, and some just harmonize into it and even enhance the beauty of the mountains surrounding them.
Seoamjeongsa Temple is one of those unique places which exists in perfect harmony with the surrounding rock cliff.
Dozens of Buddha images were engraved into the natural rock cliffs, and the peaks of Jirisan Mountain surround the temple as if to protect this special jewel-like place.
Guardians carved into the natural stone stood at the entrance.
The whole hill was ablaze with red maples, pink azaleas and flowering magnolias.
A pond filled with koi fish and stone sculptures lay at the bottom of a grotto.
We entered the grotto and my mouth dropped open.
Every wall, every nook, and even the ceiling was decorated with beautiful stone carvings of the Buddha, wise enlightened monks, angels and deities.
This Grotto Hall and Sajagul Cave were created by laboriously digging a cave into the natural cliff.
The carved images of the Buddha, were carved inside this cave.
After visiting the temple and climbing up the hill to another grotto, we came down and lingered, admiring the beauty of the place and not feeling ready to leave yet.
The head monk of the temple came over to us and asked where we were from.
We answered together.
I said: “From the US,”
While Jules said: “From New Zealand.”
Jules was closer to the monk and it was his answer that registered with the monk.
He came closer to us and said:
“Really, you are visiting from New Zealand? How wonderful, I just got back from a trip to Auckland NZ, I was there for two weeks.”
Jules said: “Oh how wonderful, did you have a good time in NZ?”
The monk said: “Yes! of course!”
And so we started chatting.
We talked about the celebration they had had at the temple for Buddha’s birthday, and about our trip around Korea.
The monk asked if we had an interest in Buddhism.
We said we did.
He asked us to wait a minute, and told us that he was going to get his key and that he planned to show us a special place.
He came back with the key and asked us to follow him underground.
He opened the doors of a beautiful gallery with wooden floors, white walls and great lighting.
He told us that his master, (Zen Master Woneung) came here to Jirisan, 50 years ago after the Korean war, when North Korea and South Korea fought one another.
He found many skulls of dead human beings spread across the mountains.
He collected them all and prayed for them.
But the images of the dead haunted his mind.
He started a lifelong project of writing in gold ink calligraphy the whole teaching of the Buddha, while praying for those war victims.
The head monk told us that once every summer and every winter, they sit in Zazen meditation that lasts for ninety days.
They were about to start their summer 90 day meditation session in five days.
Normal life in the temple, when not sitting Zazen, starts at 2:30 AM.
After face and teeth washing, they sit and chant (the Buddha’s Sutras) starting at 3:00 AM.
After the chanting they meditate, eat breakfast by 6:00AM, and work until noon.
Lunch is at noon and after it they are free to do personal studies, reading, rest, or in his case, he goes to give lessons in Buddhism, to lay people and to the general public.
Dinner is eaten at 5:00 PM, and afterward they sit for chanting and meditation until 8:00 PM.
Bedtime is at 9:00-10:00 PM.
The underground gallery was donated by a group of Buddhist Nuns from Taiwan who came to this temple as visitors, and were very impressed with the work of the master and the stone carvings.
They raised the money and donated it to build a gallery to display the many calligraphy books that the master has completed.
The gallery also hosts decorated fans, calligraphy scriptures, art, and some painted pagodas, shaped from Chinese characters depicting the teachings of the Buddha.
We talked about the different branches of Buddhism.
The head monk told us that in Korea, they practice mostly the Mahayana branch of Buddhism.
He laughed, shrugged his shoulders and said that the methods might be different, but the goal of Enlightenment and Nirvana is the same for all branches of Buddhism.
We fully agreed and Jules mentioned that recently we heard a lecture by the Dalai Lama.
He said that all branches are the same, working for the same goal, like the fingers of one hand, and that it is ridiculous that some people think that their Buddhist way is better than the other….
I added that people often ask me why I became Buddhist.
I said that I never intended to become a Buddhist, but that I wish to become a Buddha….
The monk was happy to agree with me that we all must aim to develop the mind and heart of the Buddha.
He laughed and said YES!
But I could feel his discomfort.
Does he really believe that lay people, people who have sex, eat tasty, diverse and tantalizing foods, who do not live like monks and nuns, can truly become a Buddha?
I have to say that I was not sure that he felt it was possible….
As for me, I am not sure that living a good and righteous life, a life centered on the Truth and devoted moment by moment to examining your mind and transcending your body’s limitations in the favor of the Spirit, has anything to do with abstinence from sex or a married life…..
Before we left, the head monk gifted us two reproductions of the calligraphy written by his master.
We were so touched and secretly made a donation into one of the wooden boxes by the main altar.
We left the temple and walked to the other temple, located up another very steep hill.
Byeoksongsa Temple was originally built at the end of the Shilla Dynasty.
It was burnt down, and in the year 1520, it was rebuilt by Joseon Byeoksong Jieomdaesa, who was a Korean Zen practitioner, and the temple was renamed after him as Byeoksongsa Temple.
A friendly monk with a vibrant smile told us that nowadays this temple is famous as a Zen Meditation center.
This explains why the temple does not feature any glorious halls or manicured gardens.
It has a humble and small main hall, a very large and green garden with many trees, and a big bare meditation hall.
The rest of the buildings were for residents and sleeping quarters.
But this place does not need gloriously painted beams and eaves, nor golden Buddhas…
It is famous for the many people who have achieved enlightenment while meditating in this place.
A common joke says that you can get enlightened, simply by holding a doorknob in this place….
Not taking any chances and NEVER missing an opportunity, we took off our backpacks, our hiking shoes, put aside our cameras and hats, and sat to meditate in the temple’s hall.
We meditated in this famous Zen meditation center alone, with nothing but the breeze shaking the maple leaves.
My mind got quiet very quickly.
I let go of my body’s consciousness…
The ache in my feet, my overworked muscles, all faded away from my mind quickly.
I sat there feeling that I was Spirit…. My body, nothing but a collection of low vibrations….
An image came to me, that my body is composed of a rainbow full of colorful light rays.
Suddenly half of my body disappeared from my awareness (the left side).
The sensation felt wonderful and freeing.
Then it came back and then it came again, only this time my upper body disappeared and then it came back.
My mind was filled with quiet and peace.
It felt like it did not matter if I exist as myself, as Tali, or not…
The “Or Not” actually felt much better….
Who am I?
Not my very essence, but who am I, as I define myself?
A collection of memories and ideas, assumptions and limited perceptions….
What is so dear about holding on to any of it?…..
I swirled in emptiness, content and happy.
Then my awareness came back and we left the hall.
The friendly monk invited us to refresh ourselves from our long walk, offering us a drink of coffee or tea.
The sun was moving west and we wanted to go for a hike in the nearby Chilseongyegok Valley, which is considered as one of three the most beautiful and magnificent valleys in Korea.
Our hike meandered between small villages and farmland, rice paddies and into a beautiful thick forest.
The forest ground was uneven, with many rocky waterfalls to cross over and large boulders.
It was such a fun day…. But we forgot to hold onto a doorknob in the Zen temple…..