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Visit to Tongdo Temple, the First Jewel

By Roger Shepherd, The Korea Times, Dec 3, 2009

Busan, South Korea -- On a warm mid-afternoon in early November, I arrived at my next jewel of the Three Jewel Temples of Korean Buddhism, the Tongdo Temple. Located on the southeast coast in South Gyeongsang Province and about 40 kilometers north of Busan, the temple is one of largest temples in Korea.

The name "tongdo" means "to master the teachings and redeem all sentient beings from suffering," or simply to "pass into enlightenment." The temple was established in 646 by Master Jajang Yulsa.

Before then, he traveled to China in 636 where he received the sarira (relics) of Buddha, and then returned to Korea with them. With the support of Queen Seondeok of the Silla Kingdom (53 B.C.-A.D. 935), Master Jajang Yulsa oversaw the construction of the temple from a small hermitage located beneath the summit of Mt. Yeongchuk (1,090 meters). The name derives from Mt. Yeongchuk in India where the Buddha taught his followers.

The templestay program I was visiting was attended by a medium-sized group consisting of 25 participants. Fifteen of those were from the English teaching foreign community. The program was led by two young, English speaking monks. The first, Ven. Yeo Yeok was from Korea, and had studied Buddhism. His Dharma name means one who gives many things around the world. The second monk was called Ven. Dok Jang. His Dharma name means "hidden virtue."

After a light-hearted session of lantern-making, we were given an opportunity to conduct a question and answer session with the two young monks. This is a great way to start a program. I have also found out over time, that it is important for Western-educated participants to have the opportunity to ask enquiring questions formed from a genuine curiosity for Buddhism, which helps to dispel any pre-conceived misconceptions or religious misunderstandings.

The conversation was sometimes personal: why did they become monks? Ven. Yeo Yeok answered that it is the ambition and goal of all monks to become enlightened that is the true reason why one becomes a monk. He continued by saying that this is not always achievable, and some monks never reach enlightenment, while others have been known to obtain it sooner.

Another participant then asked whether they had ever met enlightened beings. Ven. Dok Jang explained that enlightenment is not an esoteric or divine formula; it is a rather simple concept that may be hard to reach. In essence, he said, it is your pursuit or search for it that puts you onto a path of knowing who you truly are, which is most important.

The main tool that Zen Buddhism uses to guide individuals on this path to self-acknowledgement is meditation. Someone then asked if enlightenment could be obtained by non-Buddhist people. They both responded by saying that anyone can obtain enlightenment; it's just a process of getting to know yourself through meditation and living life in the present time.

In the evening, we arrived at the new prayer hall where the monks sang the heart sutra of Tongdo Temple.

After that we were taken to the Varja Diamond platform situated outside the northern side of the Daewungjeon. Holding their lanterns we walked around the relics of Buddha. This form is called "tapdori," a walking-meditation technique involving deep reflection. As we performed this in the eerie darkness, the main prayer hall emitted a hallowed sutra that added an aura of mystery and humility to the occasion.

After walking, we were asked to sit and meditate in front of the stupa that contains the relics of Buddha. As they sat in the windy warm night they were then asked to take in the natural elements, to feel and absorb the surroundings, not to think of the past or future but to try to grasp what is happening now, and be one with your breath!

The next morning we arose to attend Morning Prayer. They were then taken back to the Varja Diamond platform, where they performed what is known as the three-steps, one-bow movement. Each of the three steps represents the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. We were led by a senior monk as they walked around the stupa containing Buddha's relics. The method involved taking three slow steps and then crouching down onto the cold hard concrete surface to bow. We were not alone, sharing the occasion with members of the local Korean community, chanting "Shakyamuni Bul" (Buddha) as they did so. United, under the early morning glow of the coming dawn, caressed by the trickling warm East Sea breeze, the foreigners, locals and monks continued with this remarkable form of worship for the next hour as the sun slowly rose.

After breakfast, we walked the temple grounds to a nearby hermitage named after its founder.

Jajang-am, a small and beautiful temple was built before Tongdo Temple and was the residence of founder Jajang Yulsa some 1350 years ago. Behind the prayer hall at the hermitage is a rock face containing a small hole. Legend has it that Jajang Yulsa bored the small hole into the rock with his finger so as to allow a blue-bodied frog with golden lips to live there. This frog was said to be able to transform into a butterfly or a bee as Jajang Yulsa gave it supernatural powers. It has never left the temple, apart from one occasion, when it was stolen by an unbelieving local officer who smuggled it away in a box. On his way down, he checked inside the box to find it had gone and returned to its hole.

Nowadays they say that only those with strong belief can see the golden frog deep inside its finger sized hole. We eagerly lined up to peer into the rock, and indeed for those whom believed, it was possible from a certain angle to make out the vague moist impression of a gold colored frog.

After lunch, the last schedule for the day was conducted. The tea ceremony was to be performed by professional choreographers dressed in traditional dress under the step-by-step orated description by Ven. Yeo Yeok. The participants were then invited to drink tea with the ladies before the program ended. Overall, the session was well choreographed and elegant.

I held high expectations for Tongdo Temple before my visit. Although the architecture, placement and history of a temple is critical for its tourist visitors, the suitability of the accommodations and general facilities for its temple stay participants is also important. Tongdo Temple didn't let down on any of these factors, and let's not forget that temple life isn't hotel life!

What really topped the stay off was having two young English speaking monks. Modern day Buddhist Monks are more in tune and adapted to modern society - they themselves have come from it as well, often erring regularly along their way. So when question time arises, they are able to relate a lot of their answers towards that form of modern conceptual thinking.

However, the real advantage of Tongdo Temple was having a foreign-educated English speaking monk on its program. He was able to understand more deeply some of the questions the young foreigners had. This is sometimes the unavoidable difference between cultures, and it is only curbed through time and experience with each other. Adding to that, the real jewel of the program was sitting and listening to the two young English speaking monks engage with the young curious western educated foreigners. In a non-propagandist way, this is the real jewel for Korean Buddhism if it is to engage positively with the outside world.

Tongdo Temple can be reached by catching a bus from Nopodong Bus terminal in Busan. Buses also run to Sinpyeong (Tongdo Temple) from Gyeongju, stopping at other locations on its way. For more information, visit www.tongdosa.or.kr or call (055) 382-7182.

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