Today is Easter Sunday. I spent it worshiping at Jogyesa temple in northern Seoul. It was built in 1395 and was pretty fantastic. We arrived at the busy temple around 1:00pm to find it totally swamped. Buddhist temples in Seoul are typically seen by non-Buddhists as tourist destinations and Jogyesa was certainly no different. In fact, it's the headquarters of a particular order of Korean Buddhism. Luckily, I found a place to worship.
The temple’s about 10km north of my place and is located in the older part of Seoul which is north of the Han River. I live in the south and rarely go to the north. My wife loves it up there, though. She was raised in the north and most old historical sites are located up there. The snob in me prefers staying in the wealthier southern districts. I think it has more to do with the south’s western-like atmosphere and culture than a simple rich-poor divide.
I had planned on driving the motor scooter to the temple, but we discovered my back tire was flat as we were leaving, so a cab ride was in order. The older cab driver –who was of course curious as to why my wife and I were heading to a temple on Easter Sunday-- dropped us off right in front of the temple gates. On either side of the gates were specialty stores selling all the Buddha-related trinkets one could hope for. There were Buddhist statues, candles, rope-sandals, wide-brimmed hats, incense burners and about a thousand other things that I’d consider purchasing if, after this spiritual journey, I decide that Buddhism is the best fit for me. We decided to save the stores for afterward and headed towards the gates.
There were four greeters standing at the front entrance -two on each side. They didn’t say anything about Buddha or offer a blessing; they just put their hands together in front of their chests and bowed. I did the same to them as I passed by. It was the first genuine expression of spirituality in my life. Never have I said 'God bless you' or prayed for or with another person. Seriously, I've never even said a prayer at a family dinner. My sister, who is an observant Protestant, always does the praying. My self-imposed role has always been to interrupt her prayer with some younger brother-style annoyance. The more I think about this, the more I realize that open expressions of faith are not only difficult for me to display, but they're also hard for me to witness or share.
Once on the temple grounds, flocks of tourists were being scurried from building to building by volunteer tour guides. From looks alone, I'd guess that most of them were Japanese. There were handfuls or SE Asians, Westerners and Chinese as well. Tourists in these places --especially from the West-- typically peer through the doors hoping to catch a glimpse of something worthy of telling their friends and family. Sometimes they’ll remove their shoes and enter the temple, but an immediate retreat is usually imminent. I have certainly been one of those tourists. Not today though.
In Korea at least, most of the practicing Buddhists tend to be older women –many of them praying that their child/ren do well on an upcoming test. I hate when people use religion like that. It makes it seem like a deity should be doing personal favors for you. Deities do not work for you. That’s not how this works and it irks me when I see it. It’s the same thing when people pray before sporting events; I just don’t get it.
So, this temple was filled with 100+ practitioners. Honestly, I didn’t see anyone in their teens through thirties. There were a few kids with parents and even fewer forty-somethings worshiping. I was obviously the only foreigner in there, but I’m used to it. I got the typical prolonged stares. My wife was in there with me. She was watching with a cautious smile the whole time. She was raised a Protestant like me, but has since fallen away from the church. Not for any reason, though. She just hasn't been to church in ages and has forgotten the connection she once had with it. She was as impressed as I was. It’s a fantastic sight to see. My words would fail to convey the splendor of the temple, so a picture would be better.
This is not my picture though. You're not really allowed to take pictures in the temple. I won't post any pictures of my experiences until the end of the month.
Once inside the temple, I had to fight the masses to get a sitting pad and floor space for the both of us. I found a nice place right next to the window and directly in front of the three large sitting Buddhas that you see above. A monk was already in the middle of chanting when we took our seat.
When I first got settled, I felt uncomfortable. That old fear of self-expression came out and again I felt isolated around the faithful. Luckily, the feeling waned and after a few minutes I started my bows. I wanted to complete all 108 in the temple before the service was over. The temple doesn't close during the day, but after that initial service, the tour groups would come in and then it would turn back into a destination rather than a place of worship.
When I was at about 50 or so, a choir of mixed-aged women appeared to the left of the Buddhas and started singing. They songs and style sounded just like Christian hymns. I was surprised. So was my wife. It was nice though and pretty familiar. Here's the interesting part though: While doing my bowing and listening to the Christian-sounding choir, I felt more of a spiritual connection than when I was listening to the monks chanting. I guess it's from my years in a Protestant setting that has conditioned my mind to trigger to the sound of hymns rather than chanting.
The rest of the day was very pleasant and, as odd as it may sound, spending Easter Sunday in this wonderful temple was easily the most religious and spiritual I have ever felt on this earth.