Friday, September 30, 2011

Up Odaesan on the Way to Birobong

Odaesan in 1975 was proclaimed the 11th national park in South Korea; at present I believe there are 20, and 14 of them have "major" mountains, at least mountains that attract a number of people for climbing purposes. The Odaesan National Park attracts over a million visitors each year, but it is by no means popular compared to Jirisan and Seolaksan National Parks.

There are three particular legends concerning the naming of the mountain, but which one is correct is unknown. "Odaeson" meaning Big Five is said to be named after its five peaks (Birobong, Dongdaesan, Durobong, Sangwandbong and Horyeongbong). It is also said to be named after the five famous temples recessed on its dirt slopes (Gwaneumam to the east, Sujeonam to the west, Jijangam to the north, Mireudam to the north, and Sajaam in the center) ... it seems these five temples represent the five heavenly directions as they spread out fan-like over the mountains, while the "mountains topography is said to resemble a crane with outstretched wings, as if about to take flight". Another belief in the origin of the name is based on the story that Janjangyulsa, a monk of the Silla Dynasty, studied in China and upon his return and arrival at this mountain, named the mountain Odaesan because it looked so similar to where he studied in China.

Other myths shape the belief systems of people visiting Odaesan. At the entrance to the trail to Sangwon-sa is Gwandaegeori, or "coat hanger". As legend has it, King Sejo (of the 15th Century) was praying in Sangwon-sa and left for a moment of cleansing in the clear waters of Odaecheon, Odae mountain stream. While he bathed he hung his clothes on the spot now revered as "the coat hanger". As he was bathing alone, a young monk passed by and asked if he wanted a back scrub, which King Sejo accepted. Afterwards, however, he told the young monk, "Wherever you go, do not tell anyone you washed the king's noble body." The young monk is said to have smiled and responded, "Wherever you go, do not tell anyone you met Munsubosal (a Buddhist saint) up close," and he disappeared. The surprised King Sejo looked around but could find no trace of the Buddhist monk, and he discovered that the tumor [in some versions, his incurable skin disease] on his body had completely disappeared. Moved by such a gift of a cure, King Sejo ordered a painter to make a drawing and wood sculpture of the young monk. [According to a pamphlet, the pictured Buddha image is the wooden sculpture of Manjusri, the Bodhisatttva of Incisive Wisdom and who assisted King Sejo; the image is also referred to as a casting by order of King Sejo ... somewhat confusing, but this is National Treasure #221 and is one of Korea's most highly venerated icons.]

There were many temples on the way to the peak, and each temple was ornate and unique. I believe the temple which Manjusri is housed is the Sajaam, a temple of four peaks on a steep slope.

Something I noted in the splendid artwork on temple walls and ceilings is that the young monks are very similar to the Christian concept of a cherub, usually depicted as fat nearly naked babies with wings and halos. The Buddhistic iconography portrays their young (cherub) monks without wings but with trailing clothes that give them a weightless aspect, without halos but these particular Bodhisattva have hair knotted in two knots on the tops of their heads. Other bohisattvas I've seen were bald like the present-day practicing monks, a hair-style I realize is dependent on type of Buddhism being practices, location where it's practiced and time period. Bodhisattvas are round, fat and usually portray innocence like Christian cherub icons.

Jeolmyeolbogung (Precious Palace of Nirvana)

Referring back to the monk Jajangyulsa who studied in China and possibly named Odaesan, the famous shrine where the Great Master enshrined authentic relics of the historical Buddha [Sakyamuni sarira] is behind the Jeolmyeolbogung. Many people visit annually to worship at this sacred place, which is one of the five "Precious Palaces of Nirvana" because of the relic-containing shrine.

The temple is elaboratedly decorated with dragons - dragons on the roof tiles that look over the valley with the long (futuristic) gaze of a celestial creature, dragons on the doors in different colors, but the significance of the colors is beyond me, dragons under the eaves carved in wood and holding celestrial golden balls in their mouths. The dragon is viewed as the celestial creature linking heaven and earth, and so such a symbol would elevate the perception of a temple dedicated to the dragon guardian.

Festivities were in session, not sure what event they were celebrating, but after the rhythmically worship and ritual bowing [one picture even reveals deep prostrations to the sarira of the Buddha underneath the stones behind the temple], steaming-hot rice cakes were served to the participants, and wow, they tasted so good in the chilly fall weather and put smiles on the people who had previously been deep in religious meditation.

Birobong (1,563 meters)

Birobong is also considered one of the sacred mountains in Korea; however, the Three Sacred Mountains are Geumgangsan, Jirisan and Hallasan. I didn't climb the mountain for any religious reasons but because before I leave Korea I must climb the highest mountain peak in every national park; that is 14 of the 20 national parks in Korea are considered to have major peaks and by climbing Birobong I knocked another peak off my bucket list. [I think I have 2 left!]

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