Saturday, June 23, 2012

Geumsansa Temple & Tea Culture

Intro to the Tour

A small busload of people gathered for the 'Geumsan-sa (temple) and its surroundings' excursion. Because our group size was relatively small and probably because we all had some long-term and/or professional experience with Korea, our group really bonded.

One couple who really caught my attention first were not here as English professionals but rather we here working with molecular studies related to pharmaceutics, distribution. What was particularly interesting is that the husband was originally here back in 1978-1981 (?) with the Peace Corps working out of Jeollanamdo area where are tour was going. He did a lot of work in the health field, particularly with leprosy patients. Even more interesting, he was one of the three Peace Corps workers who actually was a witness to acts in the Kwangju 1980 Uprising, and there is a recorded picture of him on brochures of the time - he was carrying a badly injured student to safety. Another couple - an American and his Japanese wife who avidly studies Korean and blogs - have been in Korea for two years because of job relocation from Japan where they had met and the husband had lived for the past 20 years. He works at Standard Charter Bank and through the bank there is a lot of volunteering with the blind. His business card even had Braille on it, thus, the information about the company's volunteer program. I'm interested! And then there was a PhD student of art history studying pottery. Although her family is Korea, they currently live in Japan, and not surprising, the student is studying the variations of onggi and other pottery types between the two countries. A young man rather new but very keen on Korea and an older gentleman who is intensely interested in Korean bird calls and nature itself also joined our tour ... which was given by Brother Anthony himself, a 32-year resident of Korea!

Our first stop after traveling to the deep south was to fuel our tanks with a wonderful spread of side dishes, the famous 정식 meal, and with toasts of warm makkoli, a fermented rice wine that's low in alcoholic content and vaguely tangy.

Geumsan-sa (temple) and the Temple Grounds

Geumsan-sa literally means "Golden Mountain Temple" and it stands on the slopes of Moaksan in Gimje City, Jeollabuk-do. As one of the largest temples in the regions, many national treasures have been relocated to its 'protective' pastoral grounds for public viewing. Like most Korean temples, its buildings were completely destroyed during the Japanese invasion of 1590s, then rebuilt in following decades. Also, as in the quick invasion, the stone monuments survived unscathed. In the surrounding mountains, there were approximately 80 temples, and during times of invasion, the monks would go into training to fight the outside forces. In Korean history, there is no record of major dissent between the varying types of Buddhism, so there was not regional or belief competition between the religious forms. All energy was directed at outside forces. In any case, Geumsan-sa, being a very large temple grounds at one time, was where the training of Buddhist monks took place to fight the Japanese invaders. 10,000 monks were said to be in training here at one time! With Buddhism headquarters being places of military training and dissent, the Japanese came in and destroyed all known temples.

Mireukjeon (Maitreya Hall)
National Treasure No. 62
Mireuk Hall is one of the greatest treasures in Geumsan-sa. It is of unusual construction, having three tiers - the first is called Daejabojeon (Hall of Great Mercy and Healing), the second is Yonghwajihoe (Gathering of Dragon and Beauty), and the third is Mirekjeon (Hall of Maitreya). The hall though tiered is just a spacious room inside housing the world's largest indoor standing Buddha, 11.82 meters in height, the gigantic gilded statue of Mireuk who is the Maitreya or the Buddha of the future. Two other statues stand to left and right, 8.8 meters. I'm unclear who they are but they are very old. The central figure of Maitreya is a modern creation said to have been modeled on a Silla statue, as the original burned in a fire in the hall in 1934. This statue was replaced the Joseon statue in 1938. As can easily be seen, it is considerably taller than the preceding one, shown in a photo from Frederick Starr's Korean Buddhism of 1918.

As legend has it, Mireukjeon was built on the former sight of a pond where a dragon resided. According to the teachings of an old monk, the people filled in the pond with ashes, which chased the dragon away, and on that site, Mireuk hall was built.

Yukgak Taechung Soktap (Hexagonal multi-storied stupa)
Treasure No. 27
The 11-tiered hexagonal eaves of the stupa differs from typical granite pagodas of the time in that the tiers are made of black-and-white clay slate (the main ingredient of ink-stones). The decorative granite addition to the top was added later to give a feeling of completion to the believed-to-be Goryeo period stupa. This is considered one of the other "prizes" of the temple grounds and is located centrally in the wide courtyard.

Seokdeung (stone lamp)
Treasure No. 828
The lamp of enlightenment was used to light the front of the Buddha hall. It was also called changmyeong teung (overnight lamp). Its base is covered with carvings of the double lotus, and the octagonal pillar is lined with streaks resembling the cosmos. The upper portion is the lamp is carved with the fully bloomed lotus, the symbol of complete enlightenment. This lamp stands 4 meters tall and dates back to the Goryeo period.

Ocheung Seoktap (front) and Bangdeung Gyedan (back right)
Treasures No. 25 and No. 26
Ocheong pagoda is five-storied (7.2 meters) and stands atop a two-storied stylobate (a large platform). Generally, a stupa is erected in front of the main Buddhist hall which preserves the sari (Buddha's relics) but in this case, this stupa dates to the Goryeo period and stands in front of the Bangdeung gyedan, which holds the Buddha's relics. [The Bangdeun gyedan is supposed to have been erected in the Silla Dynasty, hmmm on time logistics.] In 1971, when the stupa was dismantled and restored, the two relics of the Cheongkangrae and five relics of Sakyamuni Buddha were found within the stupa. The information posting on this suggests but does not directly say that the relics are presently located in the Geumsan-sa museum. Keeping in mind that the Buddha's relics were thought to be contained within the Bangdeung gyedan, the small worship hall next to the stylobate, raised platform, has no Buddha image or boddhivisattvas within but instead has an open window out of which worshippers can view the Bandeung gyedan containing the relics of Buddha himself.

Inside the Taejeok Kwangjeon
Five Buddhas and six boddhivisattvas are enshrined in the Taejeok Kwangjeon (Hall). The hall has been recently built but since its destruction in a 1986 fire, the Taejeok Kwangjeon has lost its status as National Treasure No. 476.

Oops, I seem to have misplaced my notes on this, but it is very usual in design, height and artistic presentation that I think it needs posting. This reminds me much more of Indian art than Korean art. I do realize that Korea borrowed Buddhism via India and Tibet and China, but the way Korean art depicts Buddhism is much more simplistic and in much more squat presentation than this. The color backgrounds, though very recently painted, are modern-artistic using Confucian cultural motifs and Buddhist temple colors (a bit greener than usual). In fact, the majority of the buildings in this temple compound are modern-artistic. I think the painting designer is very good ... but unrealistic to the time, just my opinion.

Tea Ceremony with a Monk

Our tour was invited for tea after we wandered around the temple grounds, took our pictures and learned about the Buddhism iconography. Then we met in a central great learning hall for tea with the monk, who is in charge of Templestays and welcoming guests.

A tea ceremony is very ritualized. Our serving monk served us with toned-down ritual gestures - (even our rural monks use electric water pots, and to expedite serving several people, we passed in ceremony our own drinks). Anyway, first of all he rinsed each of the glasses in a bowl of hot water, and set each tiny washed cup on a bamboo saucer.

The washing of the cups also warmed our cups so that the tea would not be cooled by their coolness. The weather was rather hot, but aw well, 이열치열, use heat to burn the heat out of one's self is the belief.

Then in the warmed teapot with green tea leaves he poured boiling hot water and immediately poured it into the pouring bowl and from that passed the pouring bowl to the guests to serve themselves with. The pouring bowl is used so that tea is never over steeped. Good tea leaves can be used up to five times, and over steeped tea becomes acidic and bitter. The traditionalists had a knowledge about tea that deserves contemplation ... but then that's the whole purpose of the ceremony - to contemplate on being a "good" person.

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