Of the many incredible and awe inspiring sites I visited while studying in South Korea, Bongeunsa, a Buddhist temple in downtown Seoul, was my favorite. Constructed in 794, during the Joseon Dynasty Buddhism was severely repressed and the temple suffered during this time; however, Bongeunsa was reconstructed in 1498. Centuries later a fire in 1939 destroyed most of the buildings and other parts of the temple were destroyed during the Korean War. Since then the temple has undergone many repairs and renovations. 3,479 Buddhist scriptures of 13 types are stored at Bongeunsa, making it an impressive and important religious site. Today it is the head temple of the Seon Buddhism.
Admission is free to the temple and docents are available. I was fortunate enough to have a private tour led by a lovely woman who spoke excellent English. My guidebook certainly explained the important features of the temple but having a native person there providing me with such an in depth background made my visit that much richer and more informative. Although I’ve long since forgotten her name, I’ll never forgot her kindness, nor the cute blush that appeared across her face when I asked if I could take her picture at the end of the tour. She was one of the many kind Koreans I met who made my summer there so memorable.
It was at Bongeunsa that I learned the importance of the color white in the Korean culture (which is also the case in other Asian cultures). Unlike in the West where the color white is reserved for joyous occasions such as weddings, the color white in Korean culture represents death. At Bongeunsa, there is an area where you are greeted by white lanterns, thousands of them, all representing the dead. It was quite beautiful.
I also discovered a symbol that is found on many Buddhist religious buildings whose meaning in the West is entirely different. Although the swastika symbol will always be equated with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, evidence points to its origins in the Indus Valley civilization of ancient India, as well as classical antiquity. It remains widely used in Indian religions, specifically in Hinduism and Buddhism, mainly as a sacred symbol of good luck. Although I had a bit of a start when I first saw the symbol on a Buddhist temple in Gyeongju, a city in the south, I soon learned how distorted the symbol and its origins had become. It’s hard to see it without picturing images of Nazi flags and unimaginable cruelties that occurred during World War II, and yet on the other side of the world in a country whose history and culture predates that of modern day Germany, it must been seen for its original origins.
A famous feature of the temple is the great statue of Maitreya Buddha, the future Buddha. The statue is 23 meters (roughly 75 feet) high and shows Maitreya coming down to earth to save all those who are suffering. I know very little about the Buddhist religion but I was extremely moved upon hearing about Maitreya.
I read somewhere where Bongeunsa Temple was described as a “resplendent oasis of peace in the steel jungle of Seoul” and it really is. Seoul is constantly moving 24 hours a day, mobs on the streets, cars in traffic, but there at Bongensa it is as if you are secluded deep in the mountains.