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2017 travel diary 5: Wolbong’s hermitage and Buddha’s Birthday at Bongamsa

The seated rock-carved buddha at Baekundae, Bongamsa
The seated rock-carved buddha at Baekundae, Bongamsa

Mungyeong-si, Gyeongsangbuk-do, Wednesday 5th May 2017, 4am. An early start this morning is required to beat the crowds. Slightly groggy, Master Oh, Kyung-sook and I drag ourselves into the car at 4:30am and drive for half-hour or so to Bongamsa. We get the last space in the temple’s car park. Even at that time in the morning the crowds are beginning to build.

Bongamsa's main hall; 5:40am
5:40am: Bongamsa’s main hall

Along with Borimsa Temple in Jangheung, Bongamsa is one of the two remaining temples that served as headquarters of the Nine Mountain Schools of Seon Buddhism from late Silla to early Goryeo. Devoted to meditation and spiritual study for 364 days of the year, it is only officially open to the public on Buddha’s Birthday. It is said that if you turn up on any other day you will be politely turned away. But it is such an important temple that it is an extremely popular attraction for visitors on the one day that it is open.

5:50am: Laying out the flowers
5:50am: Laying out the flowers

A friend in Seoul had advised against visiting. “it will be raaaammed” he warned. I didn’t realise how right he was, but fortunately we had already completed our visit by the time the crowds were really lining up. And line up they did: for miles, along the roads leading to the temple, cars were parked by the roadside. School car parks in nearby towns were crammed to overflowing, and shuttle buses were ferrying visitors from their cars to a spot nearer the temple. But all that was later.

5:50am: the first visitors of the day engage in silent meditation as they circle Bongamsa's 3-storey stone pagoda, treasure # 169
5:50am: the first visitors of the day engage in silent meditation as they circle Bongamsa’s 3-storey stone pagoda, treasure # 169, believed to have been erected in the ninth century during the reign of King Heondeok of the Unified Silla Dynasty

We arrived as the sky was beginning to lighten just before dawn. We walked up the slope from the car park to the main temple, entering the main courtyard at around 5:15. Our first stop was to make a quick devotion to Buddha in the main hall: three prostrations and a quick prayer. Having thanked the Buddha for admitting us, we walked up a woodland path to the right of the temple and soon came to an open space where there were two tombs. One was clearly older than the other. And the more recent had the dates 1911 – 2011. This was the tomb of Wolbong Sunim, a famous monk who had spent 70 years of his life at Bongamsa. Wolbong was the grandfather of our ceramist host Oh Jeong-taek, and our host is well-known at the temple as a regular visitor to his grandfather’s memorial.

Master Oh pulls away at the grass that had grown up around the tomb’s base and makes his devotions. I silently bow my head. Our respects paid, we do a quick tour of some of the key spots in the temple, not least of which is the stele to the great monk Jijeung, who built the temple in 879 during the reign of King Heongang (r 875–86). The stele (National Treasure # 315) sits on an interesting-looking dragon-headed tortoise, and the inscription was composed by the famous sage Choe Chi-won.

The stele to Monk Jijeung at Bongamsa
The stele to Monk Jijeung at Bongamsa. photo: Cultural Heritage Administration (because my own is inexcusably blurred)

We continue up the valley along a woodland path, before turning right up a narrow trail that led after half an hour or so to the hermitage where Wolbong spent 37 years of his life. A huge flat boulder rests against the hillside. Underneath is a cave-like gap, enclosing a space for habitation: a rough shack has been constructed by fixing a doorway at the entrance to the cavity, creating a room just large enough for someone to sleep and meditate. The inside has been given a wooden floor, and on a shelf is a gold-painted clay Buddha statue, made for the hermit by his son and grandson using their skill as potters. We light the votive candles either side of the buddha and say a silent prayer.

Outside the shack is a small circular area of grass enclosed by a low wooden fence. Around the outside edge of this lawn is a path worn into the grass by the shack’s inhabitants over the years as they engage in walking meditation, patrolling round and round the garden in silence.

Early morning tea at Wolbong's hermitage
7:30am: Early morning tea at Wolbong’s hermitage

Enjoying the morning air outside the hermitage is its current inhabitant. He seems to know Master Oh, Wolbong’s grandson, and it seems natural for us to sit down for some tea. It is one of the more informal tea sessions I have encountered. If the ceramics were once pristine, they had definitely seen better days. Most of them were cracked or chipped. And on the slightly grubby cloth on the tea tray a visiting mouse has left its small dark spherical calling cards. The monk casually brushed them away as the kettle gradually comes to the boil on a portable gas ring. This is rough living in the countryside, not refined temple living (if indeed temple living is ever refined). It was like camping, and you didn’t mind the lack of creature comforts. At Bongamsa, and particularly at this austere hermitage, the focus is on cultivating the spirit and attaining mental discipline.

A rare shot of Baekundae with no visitors
A rare shot of Baekundae with no visitors – from the Mungyeong City website

As we sit around the large rock the sun begins to warm the air. By now it’s about 8am and we walk back down the valley towards the mother temple. But before we get there we have a detour to make, to Baekundae (White Cloud Platform), one of Mungyeong’s eight official scenic views.

The stream that runs down the valley past the front of the temple is remarkably pretty. As it draws near the temple its clear waters flow over some perfectly flat granite rocks, forming still pools and picturesque waterfalls. But the centrepiece of the beauty spot is a 4.5 metre high Buddha carved into the vertical rock-face. The area is already busy with photographers and worshippers, taking advantage of the one day in the year that they can visit.

We continue down the valley to the main entrance to the temple, which is now thronging with visitors. People are queueing to purchase white lotus lanterns to which they will affix a prayer before hanging it on the wires that criss-cross the main temple courtyard. The sun is warming the air, and we know it is going to be a hot day. We return to the temple car park, now less full, and then proceed to be shocked at the miles we have to drive, past stewards, traffic wardens, shuttle buses and parked cars, before we are clear of the evidence that Bongamsa is indeed a popular visitor attraction on Buddha’s Birthday.

Geungnakjeon Hall of Bongamsa Temple, Treasure #1574
Geungnakjeon Hall of Bongamsa Temple, Treasure #1574

We drive to Master Oh’s pottery studio – actually more of a small factory – and sit in the sun. We have a look at the kiln that he built. He and Kyung-sook, fellow potters, talk about the quality of the local clay, and Kyung-sook loads some sample cylinders of the local clay into the boot of her car, to experiment with in her studio in Sancheong.

Prayer lanterns at Bongamsa, Buddha's Birthday 2017
Prayer lanterns at Bongamsa, Buddha’s Birthday 2017

We make our way to a splendid restaurant for lunch, and Kyung drops me off at the bus station from where I can catch the bus back to Seoul.


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