In which we hike to Beopgyesa to cut the ribbon at the 타종식: the ceremonial first ringing of the highest temple bell in South Korea.
Donguibogam Village, Sancheong-gun, Tuesday 10 June. We wake up at 5:30, dilute our espresso with boiling water from the kettle and carefully eat the cake. I have a dull feeling in my head, grateful that I do not have a hangover but suspecting that one might kick in later that morning.
Moving slowly and carefully, I pack up and load the car with my things (I will be travelling to Seoul later in the day), and we drive to Mr Yoon’s apartments for our 7am rendez-vous. I am silent as we drive to Jungsanri where the trail to Beopgyesa starts, working on the assumption that if I don’t disturb my brain too much I won’t provoke the onset of the hangover.
When we arrive at Jungsanri, we unexpectedly find the retiring mayor and his wife in the village. Sena’s mother will be joining us in our hike up to the temple. As promised, Mr Yoon has brought a stick for me. But whereas the first time I had gone walking in Jirisan my hosts had insisted on my wearing appropriate boots, hiking trousers and hat, this time, as my hike was unplanned, I’m wearing a pair of Mr Yoon’s trainers, and my everyday cotton trousers, and no hat. I’m puzzled at the lack of concern this time, but am also slightly relieved.
We say our farewells to Kyung-sook, who will not be joining us, and Mr Yoon, Sena’s mother and I set off up the path that leads to the trail to Beopgyesa. The day is warm but misty. There’s the potential for rain, but at least it looks as if we won’t be scorched by the sun.
As we approach the gate that marks the formal start of the trail, Sena’s mother makes me pause. We bow three times, saying 감사합니다 with each bow. This is Sena’s mother’s way of expressing gratitude to the mountain spirits for letting us enter the mountain. On my first Jirisan hike I had not observed this formality, and I never got beyond Beopgyesa – the trail had been too slippery. The second time I said a silent prayer and had been rewarded with a fabulous sunrise on the peak.
Since returning to London I have had a conversation with someone who agrees with me on the power of the sanshin. She was travelling in Jeju-do, and desperate to get a view of Hallasan on a cloudy day on the last day of her trip. It was not looking likely, but after a quick prayer to the sanshin the majestic peak suddenly appeared through a break in the clouds.
We make slow but steady progress up the mountain. Sena’s mother is reputed to make the trip up to Beopgyesa and onwards to Cheonwangbong once a month, and so I was expecting her to be racing ahead. But we settle on a very leisurely pace. Even so, we reach the temple in around an hour and a half. No matter how fast or slow I feel I am walking, this particular hike seems to take the same amount of time.
The temple gateway has not yet been rebuilt, but it looks like they have been very busy in other respects.
As I pass the small kiosk at the entrance to the temple I am handed a sprig of flowers for my buttonhole. The temple is buzzing with people. At the moment they are still arriving, and many of them are picnicking on the rocks or in the various open spaces of the temple. I had not been expecting any sustenance, but Mr Yoon and I are ushered into the temple kitchen for breakfast, while Sena’s mother wanders off to have tea with the abbot.
After breakfast I take a look at the new bell with Mr Yoon, taking a few photographs.
The is nothing quite so evocative as the mellow sound of a temple bell echoing round the valleys, marking the morning and evening prayer time. Somehow, a temple without a bell seems incomplete. Beopgyesa’s inaccessible location near the peak of Jirisan has made it difficult to install a bell until this year. But over the past few years the temple has seen some ambitious expansion, and the cost of the bell (and of the helicopter to take it to the temple) has been raised by some energetic fund-raising. Today’s ceremony would be a milestone in the temple’s growth.
The new mayor has by now arrived with his entourage, and we all retire for tea and dainties in one of the rooms – in fact the guest room in which Mr Yoon and I had slept when I first came to Beopgyesa two years previously.
The new mayor is an outgoing, earthy sort, with stocky build. If you’re in a pojangmacha late at night downing the soju, he’s the sort of man it would be nice to have as a companion, to put the world to rights. Among his entourage is someone who speaks reasonable English, and we chat a little bit as the mayor displays a memento of the upcoming occasion: a miniature version of the new Beopgyesa bell.
Mr Yoon has been wandering around outside and suddenly enters the room to tell me that Kyung-sook has decided to join us after all, and in fact had already hiked to the temple and was chatting with Sena’s mother. She hadn’t wanted her to be on her own that day.
I take my leave of the new mayor, and wander towards the bell to listen to the choir that has started signing. On the way I see that Kyung-sook and Sena’s mother have found themselves a good vantage point on a new open space higher up the temple precincts. The temple is raising money for a statue of the Jirisan Sanshin Halmoni that will preside over this particular space, and I realise that an image of the proposed statue has already been cast onto the temple bell.
While I had been having tea, the temple has really filled up with the faithful who have come to celebrate. I learn afterwards that 2,000 people came to the ceremony, though as many as 5,000 had been expected: the gloomy weather forecast had discouraged many of them. I could see that it was going to be problematic to get anywhere to sit: ajummas pushed past me to occupy the last available spaces.
Mr Yoon escorts me to a place close to where the ceremony is to take place, where I can perch and take photographs. He defends me from the various ushers who keep trying to clear the area, the spring of flowers attached to my chest acting as a passport.
The bell has now been wrapped in a white cloth, for a formal unveiling later. But before the ceremonial unveiling, there is to be the dharma talk.
A stocky monk is escorted to the ceremonial area, and after some chanting he begins his talk. Judging by the reaction of the congregation, he is clearly a rock star among monks – with people taking photographs of him as he walked through the crowd as if he was something approaching the pope. And his sermon was clearly enthralling. He held the congregation’s attention with a mixture of serious talk, banter (he was at times working the audience like a stand-up comedian) and sacred chant. At one point he seemed to be talking about his deformed hands – earlier in his life he had burned off many of his fingers as a sign of devotion to his calling. The only finger remaining on his right hand is his pinky, and he started picking his nose with it, much to the amusement of the audience. But he was soon able to bring back the congregation to more serious matters, and he rounded off his talk with more sacred chant. Meanwhile the mist wafted in, and at times the people at the back of the audience must have lost sight of him in the cloud.
The preacher was Hyeguk Sunim (혜국 스님), a senior monk from Seokjongsa near Chungju in Chungcheonbuk-do, a monastery renowned for its meditation training. According to a scholar from the University of Michigan [pdf download],
As a young monk, Hyeguk Sunim burned off four of his fingers as an expression of his resolve and further vowed not to lie down to sleep or to eat cooked food until he had “penetrated” his hwadu (the key phrase of a kōan). After more than two and a half years, he told us, he was finally able to rest.
Robert E Buswell Jr, who spent much time in Korean temples and has written a number of books on Korean Buddhism, has a detailed account of how finger-burning is conducted in The Zen Monastic Experience (p196). I’ll spare you the details but, somewhat surprisingly, he says:
Monks I knew who had perfored this act said that the actual burning was relatively painless; it was the shock and anxiety about what was happening that bothered them the most. They did complain of later having to endure a dull, gnawing pain before the stump healed completely.
A website devoted to Japanese Buddhist sculpture traces the practice of self-mutilation back to the days of Bodhidharma himself:
Huìkě (慧可) … is so eager to become Bodhidharma’s student that he stands in the snow outside the cave (where Bodhidharma is meditating) for one whole week and then cuts off his left arm and presents it to the master to demonstrate his resolve to undergo the hardships and rigors of Zen training.
Buswell provides an alternative locus classicus in The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lives:
Sadaprarudita had nothing of value with which to make offerings to Dharamodgata Bodhisattva and decided to sell his own body in the marketplace as a way of raising money. As a test, Sakra, king of the gods, conjured up a young man, who offered to buy only his heart, blood and bone marrow. Sadaprarudita gladly accepted his offer and enthusiastically started cutting into himself, until Sakra stopped him and restored him to his former condition.1
In more recent times, Buswell tells of a monk who burned off the three middle fingers of his right hand so that he would not be able to fire a rifle, thus avoiding military service.
Hyeguk Sunim left the stage, trying to make his way through the excited throng, leaving the temple officials to move on to the official opening of the bell. This was the point at which the various dignitaries, myself included, had to do their stuff. I follow the lead of my fellow officials as best I can, trying to stay in the shadows as much as possible. The most worrying moment for me occurred when each of the officials was introduced to the audience. We each had to stand up and bow. And then one by one each official gave a little speech. My heart sank as I wondered whether each one of us had to say a few words and I hurriedly tried to put together a paragraph of platitudes should I be called upon. Thankfully it was just the three most important officials who had to speak: the Mayor; the President of the temple’s lay association (crucial for funding all the improvements at the temple); and a provincial politician.
After the speeches, we were given a pair of white gloves and a pair of scissors each, and lined up to cut the ribbon. Then, four by four, we were each given the chance to ring the temple bell. I fear that we must have walloped the bell far harder than was necessary – surely a gentle tap with such a heavy hammer must have been sufficient – but the melodious tone of the bell was very forgiving.
The ceremony was now over, and it was time to start thinking about going back down the mountain. But before we did so I had one personal task to perform: to make a donation to the creation of the statue of the Jirisan Sanshin Halmoni, so that I can, in my small way, feel that I have contributed to the temple in a way other than simply cutting the ribbon on the bell.
Sena’s mother stayed at the temple for a while – she is a regular visitor there – leaving Kyung-sook, Mr Yoon and me to descend the mountain without her.
We take the walk down the mountain very slowly. In part, this is to ensure minimal strain on the knees. Given that Kyung-sook had not originally intended to accompany us, she had no knee braces so I gave her mine – another reason to descend slowly. But for some of the time it’s impossible to progress at any speed. There are traffic jams of hikers descending the slopes, and as we approach a more difficult stretch on the path the procession grinds to a halt as the more cautious hikers pick their way with care. Every now and then a less timid group of hikers would work their way to the head of the queue, hiking poles snapping at the heels of the slower walkers in front.
So, unlike my previous trips to Beopgyesa when we reach the car I feel I have had little more exercise than walking down the road to the corner shop. But nevertheless we all feel we’ve earned a bowl or two of dongdongju at what is now our regular post-hike haunt. We have the usual pyogo mushroom pajeon, and follow it with a vegetable bibimbap.
As we eat contentedly in the shade overlooking the valley, we discuss the best way for me to get back to Seoul. There’s the option of the KTX from Jinju slightly later in the afternoon, or the bus from Wonji. It’s on my to-do list to visit Jinju – particularly the fortress walls which withstood the Japanese armies in 1592, and the spot where a year later the gisaeng Nongae is said to have thrown herself off the cliff, taking with her to his death the Japanese general. But there’s not quite enough time to fit this in before the train leaves, so that’s another thing that will be deferred to next year. We order another bowl of dongdongju to keep us going till it’s time to leave for Wonji (원지)
The 4:20pm bus is prompt as usual, and I settle into the allotted seat, dozing most of the way to Seoul. The taxi from Nambu terminal to my hotel in Myeongdong, which had taken an hour and a half the previous year, took around half that. The courteous check-in staff at the Lotte Hotel is a nice end to the journey. And the club sandwich and beer in the bar a very pleasant end to the day.
- Robert E Buswell, Jr., The Zen Monastic Experience p 196.