On the northern edge of Gyeongsanbuk-do, past the ginseng fields of Punggi, just south of the middle of nowhere, sits Buseoksa, Temple of the Floating Stone. No matter where you’re traveling from, it’s far away, hence it’s appeal.
The path to the temple is surrounded by terraced gardens and orchards, and lined with cherry trees. As I made my journey up the hill toward the temple, the rain fell intermittently but the dense mist creeping through the hills made it worth the damp clothes and foggy camera lens. The only sounds were the drips of condensation falling from the branches and the distant chants of Mahayana’s Greatest Hits being played in the temples sound system. From a distance, it sounded less like a recording and the echoes of the mokteok and sutras added to the environment.
Like most country temples, the gate is still a ways from the rest of the complex, creating a nice space between the temple, the car park and everything before it. It’s a nice time to thumb through my yeomju and whisper 108 Namo Amitabuls, Gwan Sae Eum Bosals, or whichever other Bodhisattva is with me at that moment. I followed a small side road and admired the cherry blossoms, then returned on my way to the temple.
Buseoksa dates back to 676 CE (1220 BE – Buddhist Era) and was founded by Venerable UiSang. UiSang Daesa, along with his friend WonHyo Daesa, were the first truly influential monks in Korean Zen history. Uisang Daesa studied the Mind Only and Buddha Nature teachings at Hwangbok temple in GyungJu, during the reign of Silla’s SeonDeok YeoWang (Lady King). Eventually he made his way to Tang Dynasty China to study the doctrine of the Avatamsaka Sutra (Flower Garland Sutra), which Buseoksa became a center of. He is also known for doing away with social hierarchies and indiscriminately gave positions to all classes of people within the Buddhist community.
Given the soggy and chilly weather, there were only a few other people visiting, which maintained the silent atmosphere. I climbed a short flight of stairs, passed beneath the first roof and greeted the ubiquitous guardians of the four corners, who stand before most temple complexes in Korea. Once through, you are in the complex. In Buseoksa, you are immediately confronted by an impressive and massive two storey pavilion that houses the temple’s drum. The wooden dragon-headed fish, carved from a log, hung beside the drum, the belly hollowed out to be used as a percussion. The grounds are surrounded by a short, horse-shoe slope that wrapped the temple with the first buds of Spring. Muryangsujeon, the main hall, remains one of Korea’s oldest wooden structures. Within, there lingers an air of clarity, the scent of that which was never born, never dies, and cannot be named.
Beside the main hall sits, or rather floats, the stone Buseoksa owes its name to. When UiSang arrived in China he was exhausted from the long trip across the sea. He was invited by a local Buddhist lay-family to stay in their home. The daughter, SeonMyo, immediately fell deeply in love with UiSang. But, since he was a monk, who took his precepts seriously, he could not accept her love. She became his faithful disciple and made a vow of eternal devotion to him as her mentor. When he attained Buddhahood in China and returned to Silla, she followed. That’s history’s version of the story, but legend tells it differently. When he left China, SeonMyo was distraught. Running out to the pier after his ship, she threw herself into the waters and became a dragon, protecting UiSang’s ship on his return to the peninsula. Later, when UiSang was threatened by a group of locals while building his temple, SeonMyo flew into the sky with a large boulder to protect UiSang. In the 17th century, it was documented in the official text of the Joseon Dynasty that a string could be pulled beneath the entire length of the stone, proving that it is indeed floating.
I followed a path up the slope, behind the ridge, to a small hermitage, exactly the kind of place I’d love to live in, plant a garden, and practice meditation. The path continued further and I discover two small shrines. The first was firmly closed, but I was able to jar the doors of the second one open. Inside were three carved Buddhas, more impressive for their age than their over all aesthetic, but still interesting enough to me. I was able to spend a few minutes alone before finally being caught-up with by the first tour group of the day. That’s usually a good sign that it’s time to go, so I gathered myself and began my way back down. A small portion of the group was in front of me and I was behind a young woman and her mother. Being slightly quieter than the average Korean tourist, the mom must not have known I was behind her. As she walked, talking loudly to her daughter, she let out a fart like a penny whistle caught in a bullfrog. I, in turn, let out a bit of a giggle, and she turned her head to see the foreigner behind her. They both burst out laughing and sped up their way down the hill, and I was left struck with the epiphany; If you’re not going to look behind you before you fart, don’t bother looking after!