08 November 2008

Seoul: Bongeunsa

A good but quite tiring day today.

My meditation this morning had me feel nauseated and fainting. It must've been due to my body trying to get rid of all the toxic stuff that I had built up during the past few weeks, over the mixed results of the US elections. I did my best to unwind afterwards, by talking my thoughts out. I did not bore everyone else with my political beliefs, but I did publicly announce that I will retire my BMW and get a Hyundai Genesis. My master then engaged me in some car talk - and he was impressed with my knowledge of both American and South Korean cars. (He personally prefers German cars, particularly Mercedes-Benz, however, and suggested that I look into the C-class, but I am not a fan of the C-class. Besides, here in South Korea, a Genesis is just too much of a car for someone of my age and standing, but back home, the fact that the Genesis is a Hyundai, a cheap econobox brand, will work out to my benefit.)

My return to my apartment took me through Yongsan Station, where I saw the following:

The Democratic Party (not the victors of the US election, but the center-left opposition here in South Korea) had a number of activists in front of this station, as well as this video truck. It was making claims that the 2MB government worked for only the richest 1%, and that the party will work for the other 99%. Normally, I would've offered a word or two of support, especially after 2MB funded McCain-Palin and Prop 8. But today, I was too tired for even that.

Word also has it that a few National Assembly members of the ruling right-wing Grand National Party has introduced a new bill designed to vastly expand the government's surveillance powers. The Democrats and other left-wing parties are unanimously opposed, and even some within the Grand Nationals are opposed as well. The proponents argue that better data-gathering leads to a more informed, more responsive government, but the opponents rightfully argue that the laws will be turned against domestic political opponents. In South Korea, online activities require submitting one's National ID number, which is linked to current registration and residence information, so it's easy for the authorities to tag someone undesirable and break down his/her door at 4 in the morning.

Later in the afternoon, I visited Bongeunsa, a temple between the COEX Mall and the Gyeonggi High School (considered the best public high school in the entire nation).

The entrance post is topped off by an elephant, which was sculpted by Markus Kuehn of Hildesheim, Germany.

Due to the temple's proximity to the COEX Mall, many foreigners - particularly Westerners - visit this place. I am pretty sure that many find the strong South Korean Buddhist tradition surprising - especially the Americans, who are used to seeing Korean-Americans lock themselves up in extremist Christian megachurches and campaigning on behalf of the Religious Right.

Every Korean Buddhist temple has a Daeungjeon (大雄殿), or Hall of Great Hero, as its main hall, and this is Bongeunsa's version.

The faithful are gathering here to pray for good scores for their children. In five days, high school seniors will take the college entrance examination; the score will be the overwhelmingly most important factor in determining whether one can go to a college or not - preferably one in Seoul, and even more preferably a top-tier school like Seoul National University, Korea University, or Yonsei University. Success is pretty much guaranteed for someone who makes it into those top three schools.

A close-up of the wishing area, with incenses and candles burning. Candles can be bought at the temple entrance.

The banner in the back identifies this year as the Year 2552 on the Buddhist calendar.

A headstone in front of a minor hall. It says that the building was dedicated in March, of the Year 1993 in the "Western" (Christian) calendar and Year 2537 in the Buddhist calendar.

While Sakyamuni and Kwan Yin tend to be the dominant statues in Buddhist temples of other Asian nations, Koreans tend to put Maitreya as their biggest statue. Here's one that is approximately 50 to 60 feet tall, toward the back of the temple. In front is a marble area for prayer; it's a must to take off one's shoes before stepping on the marble.

Once I hit the road, I will visit an even bigger Maitreya, a bronze example standing 100 feet tall; it is the largest statue in the entire Korean peninsula. (The second largest is one of Kim Il-sung in Pyongyang, and barely taller than this Maitreya.) In fact, my Bongeunsa visit today was intended to be a teaser as I prepare for my road trip.

A contrast of old and new. In front, there is an old bell pavilion for the temple. In the back can be seen the COEX Mall, the Inter-Continental Hotel, and other modern developments.

Two nice examples of Korean drums. The fish-shaped drum on the right is quite unusual.

The parting shot. Here's a Kwan Yin, guarding a water spring located in the dead center of a circular lake on an island. Even as California acts to take away my rights (with immense help from Korean-Americans, at that), South Korea's Buddhist tradition, and the very concept of Kwan Yin, continue to inspire me. Now that I have decided to buy a Hyundai and name it after Kwan Yin (the first time I am ever naming my car), every sight of Kwan Yin will have an even bigger significance.

I finished off at the temple's gift shop, initially looking for a Kwan Yin pendant for my car, but I ended up empty-handed. However, I bought a small wooden Happy Buddha for 4,000 won (USD $4), and will eventually send it to Christy Cole of Christy's Art Blog, who loves the Happy Buddha. I could've bought a slightly larger one for 10,000 won, but doubt that it would survive the mailing to Christy in Louisiana.

I walked through COEX Mall to take the subway and return to the apartment. The sights of young fashionistas in Ally McLesbian miniskirt suits and cute tunics with hosiery made me feel good; I look forward to making the exact same fashion statements when I return to the US, and my Kwan Yin-inspired Hyundai will prove to be a great fashion accessory too. And while most foreign women out and about sightseeing tend to dress down, I was able to spot a tall Western brunette in a flimsy floral minidress at the mall.

I am still feeling quite exhausted. I need to save my energy and take care of myself if I am to survive the road trip in a week. There will be a blizzard in the eastern mountains tonight - the first one of the season - and while it is unlikely that a blizzard next week (if it happens at all) is bad enough to derail my itinerary, it does remind me that I need to be careful.