The sound of monks chanting echoes through the forest. Birds chirp in the trees. The humming sound of cicadas lowers and rises in waves. At the end of a tree-lined trail is a stone bridge covered in white lanterns known as Paradise Bridge. It crosses over a lazy stream where water bubbles over smooth stones. On the other side is a temple, sitting right in the middle of it all, where it has for centuries.
If there were a recipe for building temples, Magoksa would be it. Step 1: find a beautiful secluded spot in the middle of the forest, preferably at the base of a mountain and beside a stream. Step 2: build wooden temple with intricate carvings and paint it red. Step 3: put stone pagoda in the center. What makes Magoksa special though is not just its dreamy surroundings or intricate history, it’s the people who bring it to life: the monks and Buddhist followers.
It can be difficult to get to know monks and their way of life, especially if you don’t speak Korean. With the new Temple Stay and Temple Life programs at Magoksa though, learning about the temple and Buddhism is easier than ever.
Kim Hui Yeong is one of the people who works in the temple stay program, as well as assist with interpretation for the monks who don’t speak English. Her Buddhist name is Bo Hyun after Bo Hyun Bo Sal who is a kind of deity in Buddhism that represents action. During the week she lives in Seoul and teaches English. She commutes to Mageoksa every weekend. When asked why she travels the long distance every week, her devotion to the temple and her faith are clear.
“Do you know what inyeon is?” she asks. “It means karma. And I have a karmic relationship with this temple. I can’t say if it is with the temple itself or the people here. It just is, so I follow the moment.”
She now knows the temple grounds as well as anyone. One of her favorite places is the walking meditation course. She says with a smile, “If you go there you will feel something in the forest. Everything opens up.”
As if on cue, a monk hits a massive gong under the pagoda – once, twice, three times – the sound carries throughout the temple grounds. Bo Hyun apologizes. “Sorry, I must go. A new tour group has just arrived.” Ten or so tourists from around the world are waiting for her in front of the bridge. Bo Hyun greets them and then starts the tour.
Yin and Yang Balance
The site of the temple grounds was chosen because it is said to be in perfect harmony with the universe. A stream carves it’s way through the middle of the grounds forming a perfect Taegeuk or yin and yang symbol, just like the one in the middle of the Korean flag. The symbol represents the “great polarity”, the harmonious balance of the primal state of the universe. The temple, established around AD 640, is one of 24 “head temples” around Korea of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism.
Off in one of the temple buildings, Il Yang Sunim or monk prepares tea for the newly arrived group. But the tea is not just a polite way to welcome the group, it’s a lesson about life. She teaches them about the importance of the Buddhist tea ritual.
“Usually we don’t concentrate on our five senses when we do things. So while making and drinking tea, we concentrate our mind. It’s a kind of practice. First, look at the color, then feel the warmth, smell it, and finally taste. Then we concentrate our senses and then think in our mind about the process.”
She lived in Toronto for two years at a Korean temple there. Then she moved to another Bugwangsa temple in San Francisco. One of her goals was to learn English because she met many foreigners at the temple in Korea but she couldn’t communicate with them. It wasn’t easy for her to move to North America. In the end though, she was able to learn English and share her devotion to Buddhism. “But still my English is so limited,” she says bursting out in laughter.
Before the tour finishes, the group members ask the monk questions and then take a photo with her. One of the members of the tour, Anabellia Gonzalez from Mexico, has been traveling around Korea for a month. For her, the tea ceremony was a highlight – to learn how they do it and the meaning behind it. Brad Townsend from Illinois is visiting Korea for 12 days. Their son is studying at graduate school in Busan. He’s really interested in the architecture, especially the Korean woodwork. “Seeing the temple grounds and interiors, how everything was put together, the techniques they used, it was very interesting,” he says.
Magoksa Temple Programs
It’s true that temples can look quite similar. In the end though, it’s just a structure. What makes it come to life are the people who live and practice there. It’s a side of temple life most tourists never get to see or learn about – until now. Magoksa offers two programs where tourists can interact with the monks and feel what it’s like to live at a temple. And for those looking to take a break from their busy life, Il Yang Sunim advises: “Please come to the temple to rest, refresh, and recharge yourself.” Come and walk over the bridge to paradise.
For more information:
Where to stay
- If you don’t want to spend the night at the temple, the Cello Motel (T: 041-841-5800) has clean and basic rooms for around 40-50 thousand won. It’s located close to the entrance of the temple.
- There are plenty of motels next to the bus station in Gongju.
- Take a train or bus to Daejeon, then a bus to Gongju about 45 min. to the west of Daejeon. From there you can find local busses that go out to the temple. They leave just across from the main bus station in Gongju.
[This article was previously published in the July 2014 issue of Seoul Magazine.]
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