Beopjusa: Independence Day

Wednesday was Independence day so no school! Frank had no academy work so offered me a lift to Beopjusa Temple in Mt. Songnisan National Park. The weather forecast for Chungju was appalling and so I was grateful for the chance to make something of the holiday.  The drive through central Chungbuk was on winding roads through beautiful mountainous countryside. We passed through a number of nondescript towns on the way, the journey taking around two hours. Before reaching the temple we came across some people filming a historical re-enactment at the Jeongipumsong Pine Tree (정이품송) which is said to be about 600 years old.

The tree was granted a ministerial title, which means bugger all look at Osborne! This was because it reportedly lifted its branches (very Lord of the Rings) to let King Sejo’s Gama pass in the mid 15th century (a gama being a covered sedan chair carried on poles by four men). The tree cannot be that magical as in recent years several branches have been damaged by snow and ice, though what remains is still beautiful. Opposite the tree there are a number of beautiful lotus ponds. Mt. Songnisan (1,058m), located in Chungcheongbuk-do, is sometimes called Sogeumgangsan (소금강산) which means “Little Geumgang Mountain”.

As you approach Beopjusa Temple through lovely forested walkways and past numerous public lavatories you see the giant statue of the Buddha, the Golden Maitreya Statue of National Unification. In 1990, at a cost of $4 million, the 33-meter-high, 160-ton Buddha was erected. Covered in gold leaf, the Buddha was made possible by over 30,000 donations. Sitting at the site of the original temple’s main hall, it’s an impressive addition that complements the site. Whilst viewing the prayer room under the Buddha, the guardian passed us a piece of toffee that she said had been given as an offering to Buddha. I can now say I may not have ever been touched by the hand of God but I have been touched by Buddha and I am glad that he got there first!

Beopjusa is the head temple of the 5th district of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. Along with Geumsansa and Donghwasa Temple, Beopjusa is the “headquarters” for those that worship the tradition of the Maitreya. It must be noted that this particular branch of Buddhism must harbour worshippers with very weak bladders, never in all my travels have I seen so many public bogs in such a small area. The number of lavatories was matched by another army of bizarre sculptures that seem to have no particular style or relate to any particular art movement.

The temple was founded by the great monk Uishinjosa (의신조사) in 553 A.D. during the Silla period. Although the magnificent temple is dedicated to the worship of the Maitreya Buddha, it was built with the hope that ancient Korea’s Three Kingdoms would be reunified. Ironically 14 centuries later many Koreans are still hoping for a unified Korean peninsula. Beopjusa remains a stunning place to admire both nature and mans creative handywork. At Beopjusa Temple, awesome wooden structures dating from the early 1600s are located below dramatic, pine-covered peaks while ancient writings are etched into huge granite boulders.

As you enter the gate to your immediate left is an ancient iron flag pole and further to the left a Buddha carved from a huge boulder. The beautiful 5m tall rock carving of Yaksa-yeorae (the Medicine Buddha). It’s name is 마애여래의상, which is translated as Maaeyeoraeuisang in English. What a mouthful! Just carry on sucking that toffee touched by the hand of Buddha.

Returning back to the main compound after seeing the monks buriel ground Beopjusa’s grandest building comes into focus, this is Palsangjeon (팔상전), a five-story pagoda, it is the only one of its kind left in Korea. The 22.7-meter tall blue tower was originally built in 553 A.D. but rebuilt in 1624, after the entire temple compound was destroyed during the Japanese invasions of the late 16th century.

In 1990, the temple repaired the Bronze Seated Amitabha Buddha statue and built the Yonghwa Hall, the exhibition hall displaying sacred cultural assets.  The two storey hall is also an impressive sight.  To the right are dormitory style buildings where you can stay for a 2 night temple visit for around £33. We completed our tour of the site and as we retuned to the park entrance the heavens opened.

On the way we passed a fountain bridge whose primary function could not conceivably be met. The primary function is to allow commuters to pass over the stream without getting wet, it may be Korean humour, I don’t know, but the format of this crossing ensures that you get very wet indeed. We enjoyed our lunch of Bimimbap and one of those huge potato cake thingies.  After that we returned to Chungju on the motorway and the closer we got the heavier the rain fell. I think we got the best from what could have been a truly awful day.