Destination: Bongamsa – the temple that opens only one day a year
TO call Bongamsa in South Korea a temple is like calling Stanford a university – a gross understatement at best. Being one of the founding Nine Mountain Schools of Zen, it has a history that dates back to the 9th century and the end of the Shilla Dynasty.
To the monks, it’s a peaceful, solemn place about as far from modern civilization as you can get. It’s a zen (seon) meditation center for the Jogye order, one of the largest Buddhist orders in the country. I’m told there’s a competitive process to get to attend this center, although I’m not privy to the selection process. Monks that are selected will spend the majority of their waking hours in meditation. They aren’t messing around here.
To the tourists / layperson, it may be known for being the temple that’s only open one day a year – on Buddha’s Birthday. Show up any day other than the holiday and you’ll be turned away, presumably by a polite but firm monk. Come on Buddha’s Birthday (the 8th day of the 4th month on the lunar calendar – usually April or May), and you’ll be welcomed into an utterly different world.
A shrine with Huiyangsan in the background.
It took about five minutes for the weather to go from cloudy to downpour, which put a sudden pause on everything. For us, we had the first world problem of attempting to keep cameras dry and backpacks less exposed to the elements – no easy feat when virtually every area where one could stay dry was taken. Let that be a lesson to you – look at the weather forecast for the area before you go!
Once the rain cleared up, however, the backpacks were set aside to dry while we explored the center.
One of the few non-solemn sights around. It was also about here that, out of habit, I looked at my phone for the time. In four years, I had never seen a ‘No Service’ message on a Korean handphone (except in elevators or perhaps a basement several stories underground). There it was, however – perhaps one of the only areas in Korea where handphones don’t have a signal.
Not pictured here, but worth mentioning, are the thousands of people making the journey to the temple. For better or worse, this solemn place turns into a place of people taking hundreds of photos, kids running wildly, and more than a bit of noise. It you’re genuinely seeking a bit of enlightenment or peace, you would more easily find it at an easier-to-reach temple during a weekday.
One of the temple’s five Treasures, mostly protected from the elements. A couple of registered Tangible Cultural Properties are also around, and the crowds will gather around to get pictures from every angle (this blogger included, naturally).
Not pictured nearby was a small army of volunteers passing out a simple but filling lunch: bibimbap (rice with mixed veggies) and a bowl of soup.
Plenty of lanterns about, as well – hundreds of white lanterns filled the main courtyard.
Treasure no. 169: A 6.3 meter tall three-story pagoda dating from the 9th century. The upper part is in exceptional condition, supposedly very rare for a pagoda this old.
It’s certainly an interesting destination, albeit one that required far more time to arrive than it did to enjoy. To the uninitiated, it may look and feel like just another temple, and you’ll likely feel disappointed to have spent the time and effort in arriving. It’s definitely unusual, and even with the crowds around there are ample spots to find some peace and quiet.
Ratings (out of 5 taeguks – How do I rate destinations?):
Ease to arrive:
Worth the visit:
Address: Gyeongsangbuk-do Mun-gyeong-si Ga-eun-eup Won-buk-ri 485
Korean address: 경상북도 문경시 가은읍 원북리 485
Directions: First head to Jeomchon station – take a Mugunghwa (third-class) train. You can also head to Dong Seoul Bus Terminal (Gangbyeon Station, Line 2) and take an Intercity bus to Jeomchon, but reserve your tickets well in advance! From Jeomchon station, walk straight out the exit about 300 meters to a four-way intersection. Cross the street, turn right, and walk to the bus stop. Jump on red bus 300, which will take you to Bongamsa. This leg of the trip takes about an hour. Get off at the last bus stop, then make a choice – wait in line for a 10-15 minute shuttle bus ride, or walk about an hour along a picturesque road. You’ll get there either way – and you may enjoy the picture-taking as you walk!
Hours: Open on Buddha’s birthday ONLY – you’ll be turned away any other day of the year.
Website: http://www.bongamsa.or.kr (Korean only)