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Hwagye Temple: Home of Orthodox Zen Buddhism

by Kim Chun-sung, The Korea Times, Sep 4, 3009

Seoul, South Korea -- Are you seeking a place to discover who you really are, away from the bustle of your daily life? Hwagye Temple seems to be a good choice, a nearby yet peaceful site where you may take refuge and attain wisdom that lasts for not only a day or two, or even a month, but, if fortunate, for the rest of your life.

<< Visitors are initiated to the temple stay at Hwagye Temple located in Suyu-dong in northern Seoul. The temple, home of orthodox Zen Buddhism, has attracted truth-seekers from around the world. / Courtesy of Hwagye Temple

Korea has preserved and succeeded Buddhist traditions since they arrived here in the 4th century. It is a wondrous story to hear that only Korea has preserved the orthodox Zen ("Seon" in Korean) tradition ? even through the Joseon Kingdom era (1392-1910) in which Buddhism was generally suppressed due to the designation of Neo-Confucianism as the state religion.

Monk Pohwa, direct disciple of Ven. Myoyong who succeeds the 78th patriarchal lineage of Zen Buddhism, said the spirituality of Korean Buddhism has been seeking an acute awakening according to the orthodox Zen practice, more than the other neighboring Buddhist nations.

It is a blessing to Seoul citizens that anyone may reach the Hwagye Temple at will within an hour or so, as it's not so far away. Hwagye Temple, or Flower Valley Temple, stands on a rather steep slope surrounded between the stream-valley and the deep ridges of Mt. Samgak (Three Horns Mountains) in the Mt. Bukhan National Park, northeast Seoul.

The temple became world-known when Ven. Seungsahn (1927-1994) founded his Gwaneum Zen School and opened an International Zen Center there in 1984. Now, truth-seekers come from all over the world for three-month retreats in the winter and summer, six-week sessions in the spring and fall and a week- or day-long visit any time of the year. This institution has won Hwagye Temple fame as a world-class study and practice site, and forms one of the central pillars of the Korean Temple Stay system.

The Hwagye Temple Stay program is operated rather freely so that anyone may join conveniently. You are welcome as long as space is available, on weekdays or weekends, starting at 2 p.m. The program is presented simultaneously in Korean and English, possible since you need not be bound to any particular language, manner or thought in seeking yourself. A resident-trainee was helping the participants in English during my two-day stay at the International Zen Center.

A 3 a.m. pre-dawn wake-up is the beginning of the routine monastic life. Soon you are led up to the meditation hall on the fourth floor, the International Zen Center in the main hall building, and a one-hour meditation session begins. Even If you are a newly arrived stranger, it doesn't matter much. You may simply follow in silence as others do ? come in the Zen hall, choose a seat anywhere you want and begin the meditation.

When I registered the day before, I received a "hwadu," a brief saying or conversation from the ancient masters used as a focus of meditation. Holding the hwadu and focusing all your mind on it is a major part of meditation in Zen practice.

Next comes the 108-bow ceremony. Bowing is one way of seeking yourself by displaying reverence to yourself. The instructor-monk recommends not to make haste in each bow but rather adhere to the hwadu for each bow even if you may not finish all 108. The bow is the continuation of ways of seeking yourself by humbly pressing five body parts to the ground ? arms, legs and forehead.

"Yebul," or the morning chanting ceremony, started at 4:30 a.m. in the Main Buddha Hall on the third floor. I took part in the early ritual with other enthusiastic Buddhists and program participants. A "samulnori" (four percussion band) performance in the temple courtyard coincided with the canon chanting by the lead monk and the following:

First began the bronze bell striking, which might awaken all living creatures on Earth to listen to the Buddha's sermon. I was so moved by the beautiful sound that I went out to witness the performance. Ah, the beautiful, profound and weighty sound of the famous Korean bells! I could listen to it just 5 meters off from the huge, heavy metal bell _ though it sounded not metallic at all but dreamy and friendly, resounding from afar. The strokes were repeated maybe 33 times.

When the big bell stopped ringing, another monk began beating the metal cloud-shaped plate "unpan" to awaken all the creatures in the air. The wooden fish "mogeo" percussion followed, to awaken the living beings in the water. What rhythmic beats it sounded! Then the fourth percussion instrument, the dharma drum "beopgo" performance began, first from the middle part of the drum, "dungdung dungdung," then to the round frame again that sounded like "chagakchagak shagakshagak," creating harmony with the monk's chanting from the main hall. It was the most beautiful part of my Temple Stay.

The second meditation-session began at 5 a.m. and lasted for another hour. A buffet-style breakfast was then offered but Ven. Pohwa, director of the International Zen Center, said the traditional "gongyang," or meal offering, would be restored in its original way of "baru-gongyang" (monastic meal).

Sitting on the floor all together when the server comes you may take your portion into your "baru" or wooden vessels ? but when finished you should not leave a grain. When you finish your meal, rinse all four bowls with water with a piece of kimchi saved for this purpose and drink it ? an excellent environment-friendly practice, with no waste.

In the meantime, however, the participants are served in a buffet style while sharing the same dining room. You take your dishes outside of the refectory where the dish-wash area is prepared and do your own dishes after the lunch meal. As on my second day there was the beginning day of 100-day prayer ("baegil-gido") for the college entrance examination, and many women joined us for lunch after their wish-prayers.

You may join the "ullyeok," community work in the morning and afternoon. The service includes sweeping the temple ground and picking-up trash all around. The two high school boys from New York and two Canadian ladies working for an institute in Busan took part in the service. The monk told us that many English instructors had joined the Temple Stay program.

Hwagye Temple is half-surrounded by beautiful valleys, as it is named Flower Valley Temple. Mountain-climbing was then on our program, named "outdoor meditation".

The temple busy, receiving a very important group of guests from the country that day. When Ven. Seungsahn proselytized across the world, foreign disciples inculcated by him were later formed to establish Musang Temple in Nonsan, South Chungcheong Province in 2000. Some of the foreign monks from the temple and their followers were coming up to Hwagye Temple to see their former mentor's temple. The tour leaders for the outdoor meditation for that day had been shifted to the boys who, as the residents of the Temple-Stay program, had made the hiking-meditations five times before. On the top of the mountain we enjoyed the views overlooking northeast Seoul and the highest White Cloud Peak, or Baekun-dae of Mt. Samgak.

A two-hour break was given starting at 9:30 a.m.. It must be a good relief for the ordinary laymen. At 11:30 a.m., it is lunchtime. It might be the most anticipated time for the vegetable-hungry trainees with a humble meal containing no flavoring ingredients such as garlic and onions.

Then came two yebul ceremonies, and four "seon" meditation sessions, two community works and one outdoor meditation. I thought a one-night, two-day trip was more than enough for a layman like me. I took the bus home with my digital camera on my shoulder, which seemed just as heavy as the burden of life itself.

Directions: Get off at exit 3, Suyu Station, subway line 4. Take bus number 2. After a 12-minute ride, get off at the entrance of Hwagye Temple (Hanshin University Station) and walk for 5 minutes to reach the temple. More information is available at www.zenseoul or by calling (02) 900-4326.

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Kim Chunsung is a professor at the College of Hotel and Tourism Management, Kyung Hee University in Seoul.



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