Beomeo Temple, An Urban Escape
This is the fifth in a series of templestays. ― ED
By Roger Shepherd
Recently I had the pleasure of participating in an overnight temple stay program at Busan's famous Beomeo Temple (Beomeosa). The large Buddhist complex sits under Mt. Geumjeong in the Youngnam area of what is known as the Nakdong-jeongmaek (ridge) on the eastern side of the city. It gets its name from the pillar-like rock that sits atop of Mt. Geumjeong. On top of that rock is a well (spring) that is always full of gold colored water.
Legend states that a gold-colored fish came down from the sky and played in the well giving the area the name of Geumsaem (gold spring) and fish from heaven (beomeo). Certainly, as I walked into the busy weekend grounds of the temple, there was a golden feeling about this panoramic location.
My research told me that Beomeo Temple was the 14th headquarters of the Korean Buddhist Jogye Order. The Zen Mountain Temple administers over 100 subordinate temples and 11 hermitages. Said to have been built approximately 1,300 years ago in 678 by Master Ui Sang, the temple was originally designed for practicing the imported Chinese Buddhist doctrine of Hwaeom, another method used to attain the ideal happiness (enlightenment) of the Shakyamuni Buddha.
This doctrine is more commonly known as the Lotus Flower Garland sutra or the Avatamsaka sutra, meaning the infinite cosmic light of the universe that interconnects with everything. The Hwaeom doctrine was delivered to Korea through Beomeo Temple's founder, Master Ui Sang in the mid 7th century.
A stricter and more conservative nature of Bhuddist study towards enlightenment that also utilised meditation, Hwaeom later became merged with the more meditative inspired school of Zen Buddhism as it slowly blended its way into Korea over the next three centuries.
It wasn't until the 12th century that Master Bojo Jinul managed to unite the two schools along with the smaller Chonte sect to form what is now known in Korea as the Jogye Order, another unique and outstanding aspect of Korean Buddhism.
Beomeo Temple also earned a reputation as a National Protection temple during the reign of King Heungdeok in 835. At that stage in time the east coast of Korea was under threat from tens of thousands of Japanese pirate ships. Beomeo Temple, supported by the religious ilk of Buddha, was to become a place of religious prayer and a bastion for warrior monks to rally and protect the nation. While searching for its religious goals and ideologies, Korean Buddhism has always been concerned with national glory and peace.
This point should be strongly augmented with its previous mentioned ability to harmonize with other Buddhist sects, exemplifying once again the uniqueness of Korean Buddhism under the Mahayana Branch.
As I passed through the first entrance of Beomeo Temple, I left the secular world and entered the spiritual world, leaving behind my earthly affairs. Like many large temples in Korea, Beomeo Temple's grounds are adorned with many cultural and religious relics, and it was there that I noticed the large stone water tank, made in the shape of a ship, built during the Goryeo Kingdom period. In Buddhism a ship is a tool used to cross from the present world into the ideal world of utopia.
I had turned up to Beomeo Temple to attend a templestay program there. Of the large group of about 30 people, 11 were local foreign English teachers. The program seemed well organized and efficient with an English program handed out to each individual by an enthusiastic and motivated English speaking translator. As I studied the program, I noticed that it contained the usual interesting articles on it for its visitors. These normally entail introductions to meditation, lantern making, the 108 bows, daily Korean Buddhist practices and procedures, and a question/answer period with the temples Master Monk.
However, an extra highlight to being at Beomeo-sa on this particular weekend was that the temple was celebrating its 1,331st birthday. For this the temple was packed with local devotees and tourists from the Busan area. This brought to the temple an even larger dimension of power and religious worship which by the end of the one night templestay, had permeated through all of us attending the program. Throughout the night the main temple ground was host to a series of traditional music concerts, including a chorus from a local Christian Church group.
The next day, we were all summoned at the early hour of 4 a.m. to watch the monks awaken the universe from suffering with their skilful use of the large animal skinned drum for all living animals, the 28 tolls of the cast iron bell for the 28,000 descended souls of the heavens, the hollowed out wooden fish for the creatures of the water-world, and the gong for all heaven-living creatures.
The rest of the dark hours of the morning were spent meditating. As daylight arose, breakfast was taken, and by mid-morning we were all invited to attend a mass prayer service in the courtyard of the temple. Attended by over one thousand people, the group began their 108 bows. As I roamed the temple grounds making notes and taking photographs, I noticed that not a prayer hall or space on the temples grounds was empty of worship or prayer…it truly was an empowering moment ― the energy, alive and present!
After Morning Prayer the templestay participants were invited to meet Temple Master Ven. Jung Yeo at his residence. Positioned rather strategically beneath a large framed photograph of the lotus flower, Ven. Jung Yyeo spoke to the young eager foreigners about the importance of being unattached to materialism and other strongly desired articles. He emphasized that control of these desires would help people attain greater happiness.
The members of the foreign group probed his reasoning by asking how that could be possible in a world of modern day entrapments. Ven. Jung Yeo used a Chinese folk story to answer this good question. In it he spoke of how one day two small birds were caught and placed inside a cage. About two years later, the door to the cage opened. Both birds hopped out of the cage, but neither spread their wings and flew away. With this adage, the group understood his previous comment about being over attached to environments. This could lead one to a form of entrapment, an obstacle to free will and mind so to speak.
Others asked the question of reincarnation, does it really exist? Once again, Ven. Jung Yeo answered the question openly and skillfully. He replied saying that every day we live and die, meaning that every day we wake up is like a new day. What happened the previous day is now in the past, forgotten and unobtainable, dead in other words. He concluded that this is a healthy way to approach the complex subject of reincarnation, live your life new every day, and make an effort to be happy.
As I sat there listening to his wise answers, the power of Beomeo Temple under his tutelage, suddenly dawned on me. Here was a large temple located in Korea's second largest city, right next door to the modern day entrapments of a surging and industrious nation, and though not all people can live under the same philosophies and supportive conditions as devoted monks can, what urban temples like Beomeo Temple can do, is offer its local people and foreign visitors a place to escape from the modern day hassles and stresses of the mad world we all live in.
As I left the temple grounds of Beomeo Temple on its 1331st birthday, I pondered over Ven. Jung Yeo's commentary and recalled how this sacred temple had once been a national bastion of power, defense and refuge. I took heed of the last word 'refuge' and watched people entering through the first gate, passing the stone ship, releasing their worries and anxieties as they did so. Then I thought of Ven. Jung Yeo's story of the birds, and realized that everyone that had come here today may have come to seek their own refuge, to be free from civilization, or perhaps even to be as free as a bird, even if it was only for a day.