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Samhwa Temple on Mt. Duta: Where Real Dhuta Resides

By Jang Eun-hwa, The Korea Times, Oct 16, 2008

Donghae, South Korea -- Following a refreshing breeze of early autumn, we started for a temple about 200 kilometers east of Seoul. Our destination was Samhwa Temple, a branch temple for the Jogye Order's fourth District, in Donghae, Gangwon Province.

<< Visitors thread 108 beads while doing the 108 prostrations.

Today's team for an overnight temple stay is composed of five: a French researcher in her late 20s, and the rest in their late 40s or early 50s comprising a lawyer, a company executive, a publisher, and a freelance writer.

Although we shared one thing in common ? namely, the trip ? we were as much strangers to one another as our respective jobs. Nevertheless, we felt affinity for each other from the outset. What made the five strangers feel familiar to each other?

The ``middle-age'' to which the older four members belong is generally called ``chilgong palgong (70s and 80s) generation'' in Korea. They spent their university days under a dictatorship regime, and often took part in student activism longing for establishing justice and democracy in the country. The social atmosphere of those days was generally gloomy, oppressed, and frustrated, while being frequently thrown into turmoil, which contributed to forming a resistant, critical counterculture of their own.

The more fundamental reason for the willingness to join together, however, is perhaps the sense of emptiness arising from inside. I don't know whether the others will agree with me or not, but it is apparent that we, city dwellers, almost always aspire for a calm retreat to escape from our routine, secular affairs.

Samhwa Temple and Mt. Duta

Samhwa Temple is located on the lower part of Mt. Duta, one of the most beautiful, scenic mountains in Korea. Here, the name, Duta, comes from the Sanskrit, ``dhuta,'' or the ascetic practice forsaking the attachment for food, clothing, and shelter. Or alternatively it simply represents a dhuta-practicing monk. From Buddha's time, there have been 12 categories of strict dhuta practices, some of which are as follows:

  1. Wearing garments made of cast-off rags
  2. Dwelling in the forest as a hermit
  3. Always living on alms
  4. Begging for food in order
  5. Receiving only one meal a day
  6. Eating a limited amount

Recalling the austere lifestyle of monks, I pondered upon the extravagance of our contemporary life. Ironically, while seeking for material wealth in the hustle and bustle of city life, I occasionally long for honorable poverty, non-possession and no greed. In some sense, the more I pursue happiness outside, the more I seek for spirituality inside. As I get older, such a desire for inner happiness is likely to further intensify.

Even though the present halls and gates of the temple were built only a few decades ago, the temple seems to provide visitors with quite different circumstances from others of its kind. It is well worthy of praise for its harmony with nature. Surrounded by steep mountains in all directions, it allows no artificial interference, instead installing a sense of unity with nature. Especially at night, it is enveloped by the sounds of night creatures in harmony with the roaring valley.

Its temple stay program is also intended for peace and quiet rather than dynamics so that it can make the participants take as much rest as possible. They, therefore, have only to lay down all burdens in their mind, staying in tune with the rhythm of nature.

Three-Story Stone Pagoda

At the center of the temple compound stands an ancient pagoda of weathered appearance. It is a three-storied, 16-feet-high stone pagoda. While the temple suffered repeated closedown and restoration in the course of moving its site several times throughout its long history, the stone pagoda has survived, still maintaining its original shape, and by no means inferior to others in beauty. According to experts, the pagoda was built during the mid-ninth century of the late Silla Kingdom (57 B.C.-A.D. 935) at the latest, and is significant as rare evidence of the temple's history. It is Treasure No. 1,277.

According to a Buddhist scripture, one can accumulate infinite virtues by constructing pagodas. Therefore, in any country where Buddhism prospers, pagodas appear without exception. Currently, among the 400 pagodas designated cultural assets in Korea, the number of National Treasures amount to 25; Treasures, 103; and Provincial Tangible Assets, 271. It is not too much to say Korea is a country of stone pagodas.

Ven. Wonmyeong

Besides the scenic beauty of the temple, what made our visit more impressive was the temple people who entertained us warmheartedly. Upon reaching the temple at dusk we were greeted by Ven. Wonmyeong, an abbot in his late 40s.

At first sight, we were able to recognize him as a Seon (Zen) monk with pure and simple features in his general manners. We had a good time listening to his stories about the temple's history, its current undertakings, his practice, etc.

The interview finished at about 7 p.m. and we felt hungry not a little. Although dinnertime had already finished, we headed for the temple dining hall with eager anticipation; after all, the abbot had already arranged our dinner.

In the dining hall, no one was seen but a few cooks preparing food. There was a round table already set for us on the floor of the inside room. Five bowls of rice were neatly set around the table with all delicious vegetable side dishes. The table and wholehearted treat of the ``gongyangju'' (temple cooks) was such a touching experience that it will be unforgettable.

Almost all the things found in Buddhist temples are related to the practice and enlightenment of practitioners. Temple meals are no exception, served as a means of practice. A notice on the wall of the dining hall reminded eaters of the Five Observations Gatha:

  • Where does this food come from?
  • I feel ashamed by my poor virtues.
  • Casting away all desires from my mind
  • Realizing this food is medicine to preserve my body
  • I receive this food to attain enlightenment.

Our quarters were so close to the valley that the nocturnal calm gradually turned its sound into a violent roar, which in a sense helped remove afflictions rather than give rise to them. In the wee hours when all creatures were awakening by degrees, I got up at the sound of the predawn temple ground chanting (doryangseok), joined the predawn service, and did 108 prostrations.

While hurrying back to Seoul, as if to catch up with those 30 hours away from the city, I recalled Ven. Wonmyeong's words in the speeding car.

``Today, what we really need is `compassion without discrimination.' Here, the phrase, `without discrimination,' is very significant. All conflicts, like religious wars, environmental destruction, and social inequality constantly arising in today's world are based on such discrimination. In Buddhism, there is no duality or discrimination between you and me; hence, no separation between human and nature. Compassion without discrimination is the only way to the peace for the world.''

The writer is a visiting researcher at the Korean Buddhist Research Institute in Dongguk University. He can be reached at ehj001@dreamwiz.com.

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