Songgwang Temple Sings Song of Buddha
This is the sixth first in a 10-part series on templestays. ― ED.
By Roger Shepherd
On a late grey afternoon, I stepped off the bus in the busy car park area of Songgwang Temple near Suncheon in South Jeolla Province. Watching the busy restaurants go about their trade to serve the eating crowds, I walked up the sealed road that leads to the entrance of this famous temple. Immediately, as if I was transported, I found myself walking in the splendor and charm of the autumn forest, away from the mundane.
Like me, many had come to this fabulous place to view the savannah like speckles of the mountain interior leading to Songgwang Temple. The neutral grey skyline cast a surreal ``out of this world'' appearance as its heaviness loomed above the glimmering gold-flecked forest. The coffee-brown limbs of the maple trees networked behind the dangling leaves as they shimmered inside the dying forest. The kaleidoscopic leaves danced in colors of vermillion orange, deep crimson reds, mustard yellows and copper gold's.
At the top of the short road, the Songgwang Temple, one of Korea's Three Jewel Temples, awaits its weekend visitors. Moved by the power and peace the temple, some become humble and subdued, some wander in amazement while others marvel excitedly about being here. Songgwang Temple is one of those places that just can't be properly ignored. The temple is located about 30 kilometers northwest of Suncheon, South Jeolla Province. It can be accessed by bus, directly from Gwangju Bus Terminal, or from Suncheon Station on bus number 111. Both journeys take about an hour-and-a-half to complete. The temple grounds are nestled on the north western side of the small Mt. Jogye Provincial Park. On its opposite flank is another great temple called Seonam Temple. Jutting up between the two temples is Mt. Jogye standing at 884 meters as part of the 700 kilometer-long Honam-Ridge that wiggles its way like a contorted dragon through South Jeolla province.
Songgwang Temple was founded in the late Silla Kingdom (57 BC-Ad 936) period by Ven. Hae Rin in the 10th century. It was originally called Gilsang Temple, and Mt. Jogye that it currently sits under was then called Mt. Songgwang. During the mid-Goryeo (918-1392) period of the 12th and 13th centuries, Ven. Chin Ul spent nine years improving the size and importance of Songgwang Temple, where it developed into a major Zen temple. The name ``songgwang'' is translated as meaning ``a temple where 18 great monks reside to spread the word of Buddhism.'' Its name also translates as ``an area of extensive pine forest.'' Songgwang Temple has several prominent buildings dedicated to the aforementioned monastic community that over its course of history has produced 16 National Masters. Nowadays, there are anywhere between 50 to 100 monks living as part of the Buddhist brotherhood. This brotherhood allows Songgwang Temple to emanate itself as a place of historical religious kinship. This unique bond is called ``sangha.''
Sangha forms one of the Three Jewels of Buddhism, the other two being the Dharma and the Buddha. The concept of Three Jewels is based around the fact that jewels and gems are precious commodities that need protection and security.
In Buddhism, these jewels are Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Buddha is the acknowledgement of the Shakyamuni Buddha himself. Tongdo Temple in Yongnam, South Gyeongsang Province is heir to this title with some of the Buddha's ``sarira'' (coveted relics) housed there. The second is the Dharma, which is the written way of Buddha as it has been recorded and passed down for the last 2600 years. Haein Temple in Mt. Gaya, west of Daegu is responsible for this jewel. Testament to that are there 82,000 Tripitaka Koreana collections of wooden tablets containing Buddhist scriptures that abide there. Thirdly and more pertinent to this article is the Sangha, a Buddhist brotherhood of devoted monks that practise the way of Buddha, Songgwang Temple is the home of this brotherhood in Korean Buddhism.
The Three Jewel formula is really quite simple. There is the Shakyamuni Buddha and Buddhism. Then there is the Dharma with its rules and ways that form its literature, and then there is the Sangha consisting of the monks who have been practising, delivering, and protecting the way of Buddhism and its search for the truth for the past 2,600 years. The Sangha, to an extent, are the extended lineage of the original disciples of Shakyamuni Buddha, the Bhikku's of India. Taking refuge in these three jewels is what makes them precious, following them is where one will find the truth and the real self.
The word Sangha is derived from the ancient script of Sanskrit. It means an association, assembly or a community that has a common goal. The word could be better recognised as a regime of beings that possess a higher realization, or the noble Sangha. Forming or being part of such a noble group is a supportive way to attaining the true path of Buddha ― enlightenment, happiness and content with oneself.
Throughout my previous temple visits in Korea, Songgwang Temple was always a temple name that popped up. It was always spoken of as being a place of great connecting spirituality and comradeship. Every time I heard a haunting sutra, the monks would quietly tell me that if you need to hear the best sutra in the country then go to Songgwang Temple. As I entered the grounds of Songgwang Temple, I reminded myself about those remarks. I met Ven. Ja Young who was to host this weekend's program.
Unfortunately, I was the only foreigner there this weekend and the rest of the program was to be conducted in Korean. However, this didn't prevent me from being treated warmly by the 12 Korean participants. At 6 p.m., we went to watch the monks summon the suffering souls of the universe through there chorus of drum, bell and gong, followed by our arrival at the Daewoongjeon (main building and prayer hall). The large beautifully crafted Daewoongjeon quickly filled with devotees.
This was the first time I had seen an assembly of 60 plus monks gather to sing sutra. I relaxed and the chant began. The hall shuddered with energy as the brotherhood released their humble inhibitions via way of song. As the sutra swept through the hall I looked up at the Buddha statues and got caught up in a mixture of song and legend. Legend has it that the statues have been known to shed sweat and tears when the country suffers national tragedy.
Two recent examples were when in 1987 a Korean Airlines flight blew up in mid-air killing all its passengers, and a 1993 sinking of a ferry, that resulted in hundreds of its passengers drowning. As the sutra wound down and the Sangha departed the temple, I noted that there were certainly no national tragedies here today to cause the statues to sweat and cry, but there had certainly been enough presence and volume in the main prayer hall to make this lone traveler sit in awe as he got his chance to hear the national Buddhist voice of Korea sing to the universe. I felt content and obligated to have finally heard and seen such a fine national tradition.
The temple stay program at Songgwang Temple is no different from all other temple stay programs in Korea. What make these programs unique are the characters and identities of the temples that host them. Songgwang Temple, in this sense, is definitely a temple that should be visited, not only for its national treasures, beautiful grounds and mountains, but more so for its human national treasure ― the monk jewels of the Sangha ― and their universal contribution to Korean Buddhism by way of their song.