Donghwa-sa, Temple of the Paulownia Blossom
This is the 10th and final in 10-part series on templestay programs _ ED
By Andrew Douch
Look north through a gap in the buildings from anywhere in Daegu City and you will see the Palgong ridgeline. This great range of rocky peaks creates a dramatic backdrop to the skyline of the city as it stretches northwest, forming a natural border with Daegu and the small counties of North Gyeongsang Province. The name ``palgong’’ commemorates eight great generals who fell in battle defending its slopes more than 1,000 years ago.
The grand summits and deep valleys of this ridge are home to dozens of important Buddhist temples and shrines, including the famous and highly venerated ``Gat-bawi’’ seated stone Buddha and the major temple complex of Donghwa Temple. It was to Donghwa Temple that I was visiting on this crisp and clear Saturday afternoon to participate in their templestay program.
The temple sits in the shadow of the highest peaks on the Palgong ridge, and has a long and colorful history. In 493 A.D, the monk Geuk Dal established a temple here and called it Yuga Temple. In 1832, the Great Master Sim Ji began a project to completely rebuild Yuga Temple. Throwing eight spoons in the air he decided to construct the temple where they landed, which is where the temple has stood to this day.
Deeply impressed with the beautiful Paulownia trees in full bloom he decided to re-name the temple Donghwa Temple, which means ``temple of the Paulownia Blossom.’’ The main pavilion Temple is known as ``bongseoru’’, named for an ancient phoenix which was known to nest in the Paulownia Trees. The tail of the phoenix is symbolized by a flat-topped rock which the staircase to the temple has been built around. In front of the flat rock are three oval granite stones that represent the phoenix’s eggs. If you look you can see that the tops of these stones have been polished a deep grey as a result of visitors who rub their wishes into them.
Although ancient, Donghwa Temple has always been a changing and evolving space, with many additions over its centuries of existence, one of the more recent is the massive ``Tongil Daebul’’ (Great Unification Buddha) statue, built in 1992. This huge granite statue of the Medicinal Buddha stands 33 meters tall, making it one of the tallest Stone Buddha Statues on earth. The brain-child of former President Roh Tae-woo, Tongil Daebul was constructed to save the wishes of devotees for the unification of the two Korea’s. It gains its power from two relics of The Buddha’s ``sari’’ (cremation remains) _ a gift from the government of Myanmar _ which is set inside its massive frame.
The temple is home to a number of supporting hermitages, or amja, one of which, Biro-am, was to be our base for the templestay program. Biro-am is the closest hermitage to the temple and is named after the 1,192m peak, Biro-bong which it sits directly beneath. Biro-am is a beautiful temple with a wonderful stone relief carving of ``Birojanabul,’’ the Buddha of the Infinite Cosmic Light, in its courtyard. It was here that I was introduced to my guide and translator Park O-hyeon, a long-term volunteer who has aided visiting foreigners in Daegu for over 20 years.
Our group of mostly young students, here during vacation, was greeted by our main guide for the weekend, templestay manager Hong Ryeon-hwa. We were then led into the study hall alongside the main pavilion. After introductions and schedule information we were given a quick lesson on temple etiquette and taught the sutra’s to be performed at both the evening and morning ceremonies, for which I was given handouts in English. After getting clued up on our etiquette we were ready for our first activity of the templestay, the balwoo-gongyang, meal ceremony, which was demonstrated to us by resident monk Ven. Bo Gyeong. It is the traditional way in which meals are taken in the temple, and is a very measured and methodical way of eating. Ven. Bo Gyeong described this as true of every aspect of a monk’s daily life. We were presented with four bowls of descending sizes which fit together in the fashion of a Matryoshka doll. The objective is to eat your food thoroughly leaving no trace of food.
Following our meal we joined the monks in the main hall for the evening ceremony, putting into practice our newly learned sutras alongside the masters, whose powerful voices threatened to raise the pavilion. As a conclusion to the evening ceremony our group completed the ``chamhoi-mun,’’ the prayers of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, performing 108 full bows between each prayer. This is quite an exercise of both the mind and the body, but our exercise had a twist, as with the completion of every bow we attached a linseed bead to a string, slowly making our own ``yeomju;’’ the necklace used by Buddhist devotees to count prayers, in the same fashion that Catholics use Rosary Beads. Our yeomju, we were told, was a physical manifestation of our commitment to the prayers of the chamhoi-mun and also a very good personal memento!
Generally lights go off at the temple at 9 p.m., but such was the enthusiasm of our young group of crafts folk that we were still working on the intricate knots and designs of our yeomju past well 10 p.m. It was at this time when Ven. Beom Sa, our meditation leader, finally managed to pull us from our task to guide us in a session of Seon meditation, which relaxed all minds before a well earned sleep.
The monks’ day starts early, and at 3 a.m. we were woken by the gentle tap of the ``mok-tak’’ rousing us for the morning prayer ceremony. Walking through the cold night to the main pavilion all spirits were lifted by a blanket of stars in the clear mountain sky. With most of the participants living in well-lit city areas this is quite an occasion, and the ``oohs!’’ and ``ahs!’’ of our group almost seemed to compete with the growing pulse of a drum from the temple. The beating of the Dharma drum calling all to morning prayer is a must see in Korea, and the ritual at Donghwa Temple is very impressive, with monks working together to create a deep, growing, continuous rhythm before reaching a dramatic final crescendo. At this point comes the first ``gong’’ of the bronze temple bell. The deep chime of the massive instrument penetrates deep into the night, far across the mountain, and I am told, can be heard in the northern suburbs of Daegu on a still night. The bell is struck 28 times every morning, a number which represents the 28 Buddhist realms of hell. Its sound is designed to awaken all suffering beings of the universe. Before evening service the bell is struck 33 times, representing the 33 realms of heaven.
Due to the sub-zero conditions, participants in the templestay program conduct their morning service at Biro-am, where the floor is heated, as opposed to joining the main group of monks in the high ceiling main pavilion which is said to be bitterly cold in the middle of winter.
Following a warm, hearty breakfast, the group was ready for more activity, and as the first rays of sun touched the paper windows of our study hall we began our traditional tea ceremony. The preparation of green tea is a very important and time-honored ceremony in Korea, and we were patiently introduced to this by our guide. All details are carefully observed and considered, ranging from the placement of the utensils, to the temperature of the porcelain teacups, and then we are asked to be aware of all five senses when making and drinking the tea. A big tea drinker myself, this was the highlight for me, and I’m proud to say my rich green brew was unanimously voted best on program.
Our thirst quenched from the green tea, we leave our study hall for a final time to join volunteer temple guide Sudeok-shim, who takes us for an informative stroll through the temple complex. As we walk she explains to us the stories of the murals around the main hall, followed by a visit to some interesting sites of the outlying area. The sites included memorial stupas to some of the great masters that have resided in Donghwa Temple, and an excellent stone-relief carving of the Buddha said to be carved by the founding master Simji himself.
Our final destination was the site of the massive Tongil-Daebul. Standing tall above the surrounding forest, the great Buddha commands the respect of all who see it, and our group stood in silent awe beneath him. Tongil-Daebul faces a large meditation center where devotees focus on his calm face through crystal clear windows, sending their wishes for peace throughout the land. We are asked to do the same, before enjoying a relaxing lunch and saying goodbye to the Nesting Phoenix and the Temple of the Paulownia Blossom.
Donghwa Temple’s templestay program provides a great introduction to temple life and customs, made easy with friendly monks and helpful staff. Waking up in such an historic setting on a magnificent mountain is an awe-inspiring experience, which I heartily recommend to all visitors in Korea.
Daegu City Tour buses run six times daily from East Daegu Train Station to Mt. Palgong. For more information, visit www.donghwasa.net.