I first posted this on my now deleted personal website (‘Marcus’ Journal’) in September, 2009. Apologies to all those who have read this before.
Founded in 794, I first went to Bongeunsa temple in 2002 and was amazed at such beauty in the centre of Gangnam. At that time I was in Korea with Dao, from Thailand, and sometimes went with her, and once I went with my best friend Colin when he came to stay on a visa run from Bangkok. And I’d often go alone. I’d find a quiet place to sit and I’d listen to the chanting going on in the halls and look up at the trees and the temple roofs.
I started going more regularly, this time with Ikumi (from Japan), when I went back to Korea in 2007. We’d go whenever we were in the area and one time, while we were still finding our way around the order of chants in the evening services, a kind Korean woman came over to us who could speak Japanese and penciled in for us what and when to chant, when to sit, when to stand, and when to bow.
Later, I used to go every week with my Dharma friends after Saturday Sangha discussions at the Buddhist English Library. We’d travel across the city together, stopping for coffee before going into the temple, and almost always pick up some Buddhist nick-knacks in the temple shop. I can still remember the smell of the main hall, a smell of evening sunshine, warm wood and incense.
The temple drums would be sounded outside as everyone settled into quietness, with laypeople sitting towards the sides of the temple and the monks on cushions of a different colour in the middle. The deep sound of bells marked the start of the service and the first chant was the Heart Sutra. That was followed by the Thousand Hands Sutra and then came the Kwan Seum Bosal chant with 108 bows, a practice I always dedicated to my sons.
To make a full prostration, oh-che-tu-ji, in a Korean temple, you start from a standing position and, with your palms together in front of you and your back upright, kneel on the floor. Then place your hands on the floor and bend until your forehead rests between them. Next turn your palms upwards and lift them from your elbows to the level of your ears. Put your hands back down and lift your body back into a kneel. Then stand and repeat.
I remember the very first time Ikumi and I tried to do a full 108 bows during the Kwan Seum Bosal chanting. After just fifteen minutes I’d totally lost count of the number of prostrations and my admiration for the mainly elderly temple regulars had skyrocketed. My leg muscles were trembling and I was worried I’d be sick. The ajumas in front of me were making two perfect bows to every one of my sloppy ones, and I redoubled my efforts.
We made it, but only just. After some half-bows, ju-doo, to the people around us with the wish that they may become Buddhas and three final painful full prostrations to the Buddha, Ikumi and I clung to each other as we shakily approached the temple steps. The slope down to the gate was agony. We crossed the road and headed straight for the nearest coffee shop, glad to be able to sit for a while and take the whole experience in.
Over the following months I got better at it, and by the time I took formal refuge in May 2008, performing 108 bows was a lot less of a challenge. That’s not to say I could do it particularly skillfully, and I certainly couldn’t match the incredible bowing of the monk with the glasses who was always there at the back of the hall every time we ever went to a service at Bongeunsa.
I later learnt his name was Venerable Myeongjin and that he was the abbot of the temple. His bows were perfect. Every prostration identical to the one before and the one after, and all in perfect timing. He was like a metronome for the rest of the hall, the model that everyone aspired to copy. He also looked like a really nice person, with a ready smile and a calm manner.
What I didn’t know was that Ven. Myeongjin was carrying out a 1000-day prayer retreat confined to the temple and performing not 108, but a full 1000 prostrations each day. This incredible practice started on December 5, 2006, and ended on August 30, 2009. During that period he left only once, to attend the funeral of the former President on May 29, 2009.
“To keep this promise with Bongensa Temple members as well as Korean Buddhists,” Myeongjin said in an interview just before he completed his retreat “I would often set two alarm clocks on the days I went to bed late. There has not been a single day that has passed in leisure. There were times of distress, but with the faith and support of the faithful I will finish in good shape.”
The aim, he said, was to make the temple a place of genuine practice. And from what I saw and experienced there, he achieved his goals. The people I met in that temple, both the regulars and others, were not just welcoming, but also clearly committed to practice. The main hall was always full of people bowing, sitting, and quietly chanting, and there was never any noise and always a feeling of complete devotion.
Venerable Myeongjin’s period of practice also saw membership of the temple rise from 200,000 in 2006 to 250,000 members now. Likewise, temple income also rose and, under Myeongjin’s leadership, all financial records were made available to the public. Again it seems to confirm what has been my overall impression of Korean Buddhism, an impression of openness, strength and a seriousness about the Dharma and its future.
Ikumi used to wait for me on the bench outside the shop before going together to the main hall, and after the service we’d walk around the temple buildings, or sit together quietly. Joseph met a woman there one week who later became his wife. Carl performed prostrations with a determination we all admired. And Joe knew the chants off by heart, and I’d follow his voice as I stumbled through them myself. There are very few places in this world I love more.
Photo: The amazing picture at the top of this post was taken by my friend Joseph and is used here with permission. For more of Joseph’s great pictures of Bongeunsa, and many other places too, follow the link below. Highly recommended.