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Woljeongsa and Sangwonsa - Home of Manjusuri Bodhisattva

By Jang Eun-hwa (or Jigwang), The Korea Times, Aug 23, 2007

Seoul, South Korea -- At dusk on a hot summer day, grand chanting sounds reverberate through the roaring stream at the facade of the temple. ``Seokga Moni Bul, Seokga Moni Bul, Seokga Moni Bul...'' The chanting in unison accompanied with the sound of the ``moktak,'' a wooden percussion instrument for monks, emanates from a group of almost one hundred people.

<< An octagonal nine-story stone pagoda. Supposed to be made in the 10th century, this pagoda has been designated as National Treasure No. 48.

Right now, they are performing the practice of ``samboilbae'' or ``one prostration per three steps.'' The solemn procession has continued for more than a mile starting from the ``One Pillar Gate,'' or the first temple gate, to the ``Guardians' Gate'' or the second gate. Participants' faces, though tired looking and soaked with sweat, seem to radiate their utmost eagerness. The fir forest trail they follow is a scenic walk, a one of a kind in Korea.

In exploring Woljeongsa Temple and Sangwonsa Temple, we must mention the legend of Manjusuri Bodhisattva, namely the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, and Mt. Odae. A Bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism, to which Korean Buddhism belongs, is a being qualified to be a Buddha but willingly postpones becoming one until completing the salvation of all sentient beings. Master Jajang, a famous monk in the Silla Kingdom, strongly believed Mt. Odae to be Manjusuri Bodhisattva's abode and founded Woljeongsa and Sangwonsa temples here in the 7th century.

The Manjusuri worship practice has since been rooted more strongly due to a phrase in the Avatamska Sutra: ``In the northeastern Mt. Cheongryang, ie, Mt. Odae, Manjusuri Bodhisattva resides and delivers Dharma Sermon all the time, leading 10,000 followers.''

Later on it developed further into 50,000 Bodhisattva worshipers. Brother princes of the Silla Kingdom, Bocheon and Hyomyeong, cultivated themselves on Mt. Odae, and also held services for the 50,000 Bodhisattvas residing among its five peaks.

In the Joseon Kingdom, an anecdote has it that King Sejo encountered the Child Manjusuri in person and was mysteriously cured of his chronic skin disease. After having a hard time remembering his exact appearance, the king had the image of Child Manjusuri carved into a wooden statue, which we now can find in the Manjusuri Hall of Sangwonsa Temple. This story provided a strong motive for the Manjusuri to be worshiped even firmer than ever.

Woljeongsa Temple, located at the eastern foot of Mt. Odae, is one of Korea's 10 national parks and is the head temple for the 4th district of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, having Sangwonsa Temple as its branch. The temple grounds are spacious but possess a cozy atmosphere probably due to the circular arrangement of its halls and pavilions.

At the center of the temple compound stands an elegant pagoda. Pagodas in Buddhism are considered as a part of Buddha's body, so they are objects to be worshiped. This is why they are generally erected at the heart of a temple.

Located in front of Jeokgwangjeon, the main hall, the octagonal nine-story stone pagoda was supposedly made in the early Goryeo Kingdom in the 10th century. Like others, it is composed of three parts: two-tier foundation decorated with lotus flowers; nine-story body part laid above that foundation; and lastly the top part adornment portraying the culmination of delicacy. All the three components make perfect harmony with each other, emitting grace, solemnity and formative beauty.

The two-tier base part reminds us of a lotus pedestal on which the Buddha is seated, while the nine-story body part symbolizes Buddha himself. Singularly enough, a few meters away from the pagoda opposite to the main hall, a stone Bodhisattva takes an offering posture toward the pagoda. What a dynamic and dignified sight it is! The duo - the pagoda and the Bodhisattva - are so thorough as to evoke celestial beauty.

But regrettably the stone Bodhisattva, under the name of protection from the elements, has been removed. Thus viewers have been deprived of the vivid, fantastic match between the offered Buddha and the offering Bodhisattva. Once separated, the two seem to have lost much of their life force. When looking at the seated offering Bodhisattva that was dragged into the museum, I could not grasp the meaning of his kneeling postures and graceful smile vividly. Of course, his appearance may look much cleaner and sleeker but that didn't impress me much.

Walking at night through the fir alley gave us unforgettable experiences. Completely secluded from urban noises and lights, we entered a wholly different world of nature and our senses seemed in tune with its sound.

In the darkness, I thought over the rough history of the temple. Since its foundation in the 7th century, the temple has suffered from many disasters, the Korean War causing the most serious damage. Today's Woljeongsa Temple, showing no trace of the past sorrow, stands out high as a major center of Korean Buddhism. Perhaps Manjusuri's protecting power has been working throughout the mountains.

Sangwonsa, a branch temple of Woljeongsa, is located about 9 kilometers away from it. The unpaved road to Sangwonsa is full of dangerous holes around two feet wide. Intermittent showers have aggravated the road condition. I had to make every effort in driving to evade them, not to fall into any in case they struck a deadly blow to our eight-year-old car. The beautiful scenery unfolded along the clear stream on the right side, however, gave us some compensation. It took more than 30 minutes to drive just 9 kilometers.

The cement-paved upward alley from the parking lot to Sangwonsa provided us with as much delight as that of Woljeongsa's fir walk. The temple lies halfway up the mountain, commanding a fine clear view. In the temple compound, lots of tourists walked around making noise but generally I felt a silent and solemn atmosphere.

On the right side lies Cheongryang Meditation Hall. This Seon center is well known for its strictly practiced rule among Seon monks. I peeped into the meditation hall through the gate, which is open, however entry is prohibited. There seemed to be nothing but a lingering silence, into complete stillness.

After appreciating Child Manjusuri Statue and the Brahma Copper Bell briefly, we headed for Jeokmyeolbogung, or literally a valuable palace of no agony. On the way, we stopped at Sajaam Hermitage on Jungdae Peak, where 10,000 Manjusuri Bodhisattvas are enshrined. Gulping down a bowl of water at the foundation, I pondered upon what had caused them to build these massive structures on this steep hill.

About 10 minutes of climbing brought us to our destination, a sacred ground where Sakyamuni Buddha's relics are enshrined. Interestingly enough, like all the other four Jeokmyeolbogungs in Korea, there was no Buddha statue on the pedestal - instead, his relics lay there, though no one knows of their exact location.

On returning from the tour, I tried to look back upon the moment I spent exploring. There is a saying that one can see things only as much as one knows. If I had just remained a casual viewer lacking any interest in what our forefathers thought, said and did, I surely could not have seen things as they are, whatever and whoever they may be.

The writer is an English translator and a trainee international Dharma instructor, Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism.

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