Hwaeom Temple and Nogodans sea of clouds
By Roger Dix
Along the upper reaches of the Seomjin River in South Jeolla Province lies the town of Gurye. Not far from Gurye in the foothills of Mount Jiri National Park is one of Korea’s oldest and most famous temples, Hwaeom Temple. The story has it that Hwaeom Temple was founded in 544 CE by the Indian saint, Yeongi, who, with his mother, came to Korea on the back of a flying Yeon, an auspicious dragon headed turtle-like creature that carried good omens wherever it traveled.
Hwaeom Temple is a large complex nestled in aesthetically beautiful surroundings, where pine trees hundreds of years old, gnarled with the wisdom of their age, stand sentry-like next to buildings and pagodas and ponds. Oaks and maples and hollies stand old and proud like the pines along the temple’s walkways and staircases and terraces. Shrubbery and flowering bush grow sculpted and arbor-like just about everywhere around the grounds, and lion-headed fountains and cold mountain streams add the sound of flowing water to the scene.
Hwaeom Temple is not just for the ritual routines of Buddhist monks and Zen masters dedicating their lives to the enlightenment of body and soul, but it is a temple that has opened its doors to the secular world, offering educational programs and solitary retreats for those feeling the need to get away from the fast-paced stressfulness of modern times.
Recently, I had the fortunate opportunity to visit Hwaeom Temple with a Korean colleague of mine who knows one of the monks at the temple. My colleague wanted to visit his friend from many years ago and to offer me a chance to see first-hand the inner-workings of temple life. Together we spent an evening with my colleague’s friend, the two of them reminiscing of their friendship from earlier times and then the venerable monk giving me some insight to the ways of his daily routines.
Since my colleague and I arrived at Hwaeom Temple late on a Saturday afternoon, the sun was already setting its light in horizontal streaks of mauves and pink across Gurye Valley, lending a cold, gray darkening to the temple’s grounds. After we were met by my colleague’s friend, we were shown to the room where we would be staying for the night. Our abode for the evening was in a long temple-like building facing a courtyard surrounded by trees lifeless of any leaves. Our room was accessed by two solid wood doors on the exterior and two wood-frame and paper doors behind them on the interior. It was a small room, barren of any furniture save for a tiny table for writing or resting a book upon. The walls were particularly tall for the floor dimensions of the room but they had two built-in closets that held the quilts, blankets and pillows that we used for sleeping on the “ondol” heated floor. A small fluorescent light hung from the ceiling lending an austere glow to the place.
After we put our gear down, we washed up at a stone-carved water trough in the center of the courtyard (very cold water indeed) and then proceeded to the kitchen building for our dinner. Monks at the temple eat dinner early as their evening prayer session starts at six o’clock. My dinner with my colleague and his friend was a simple meal of rice and some vegetables, a small bowl of bean paste stew and barley tea.
After we completed our monastic meal, our host explained that we could attend and watch the evening prayers held in the temple’s main prayer hall as long as we remained respectful, of course. So, respectfully we did.
In the prayer hall the evening’s cold was filling fast, but only in temperature, for the atmosphere was clement and tempered, hearing mystical notes chanted from some long ago mantras maybe handed down from the venerable Yeongi himself. Further tempering the mood about the setting of the room was the burning of incense and orchids and bird of paradise flowers and persimmons and pears, all lending their fragrances to the air. A small tinkling bell softly counted cadence to the measured movements of the praying, giving a transcendental aura to the whole scene. After the prayer session was through we were invited to the monk’s office where we talked over a cup of tea or two, then saying our ‘good-evenings,’ my colleague and I returned to our room for the night, for bedtime at Hwaeom Temple is at nine-thirty.
At three a.m., life around the temple grounds came awake again as the clapping of a wooden gong [moktak] signaled the ringing of the temple’s bell that called the sleeping to morning prayers. Again my colleague and I were invited to the prayer hall to watch the proceedings, and as with the evening meeting, the morning air in the prayer hall was cold, the atmosphere mystically aesthetic and the aura about the place peaceful and calm. When that session ended, our monk host took us to a building used for educational lectures and yoga exercises, where my colleague and I tried our hand at yoga but to not much avail. So we decided to leave that strenuousness to more skilled hands such as our host, who contorted his rotund body into shapes I didn’t know the human body could be twisted into.
After our failure at twisting and contorting our bodies, our host took us on a short stroll along a quiet mountain path just above the temple grounds where he walks every morning in meditation, and even though it was very cold that morning, the walk was quite pleasant. That same mountain path if followed to its end will take visitors all the way up to Nogodan Peak, one of the scenic spots of Mount Jiri National Park. Nogodan is often referred to as the ‘Peak in a Sea of Clouds,’ as that particular part of the national forest is often laden with heavy clouds that lay just below the mountain’s summit.
Returning to the temple grounds, heading for the kitchen room after our walk, we had our breakfast of rice gruel, along with some winter spinach and diced radishes. Barley tea again was our drink, which we took in our host’s office over some goodbye conversation. But before we said our final goodbye, my colleague and I took a stroll around Hwaeom Temple’s grounds stopping at the various temple buildings and their landscaping for one last look and a few photos, also stopping to read some of the informative didactic panels in one of the buildings that houses historic scripture and artifacts.
Hwaeom Temple is a lovely place to visit in December for not only its antiquity and historic value, but for its solitude in peaceful setting among the massive winter mountains of Mount Jiri. So take a visit to South Jeolla Province around the town of Gurye and Hwaeom Temple sometime, and if time permits hike up to the “Peak in a Sea of Clouds.” You might just find that all that’s good about Korea is not only in Seoul. But dress warmly as Hwaeomsa Valley and the Mount Jiri are very cold this time of year.