19 November 2008

Three Buddhist Temples

With my Gyeongju itinerary over, I spent today driving back to Seoul. While a direct drive back to Seoul takes only four hours, one of the reasons for my car rental was to enable me to make some intermediate stops, and that's just what I did today. I visited three Buddhist temples during my drive, which ended up stretching to about 13 hours including sightseeing and rest stops.

The temples visited today are:
  • Haeinsa, Hapcheon County, South Gyeongsang Province, home of Tripitaka Koreana
  • Jikjisa, City of Gimcheon, North Gyeongsang Province
  • Beopjusa, Songrisan Mountain National Park, Boeun County, North Chungcheong Province
Weather was extremely brutal today. Even Gyeongju froze this morning, and temperatures all day, according to the thermometer in my rental car, ranged from -4C to 4C (25F to 39F). It'll be even worse tomorrow, as Seoul stays subzero all day and snow is expected. Time to brush up on my winter driving skills - though I won't be driving in the morning.

The route to Haeinsa took me west out of Gyeongju on northbound Expressway 1, switching in northwestern Daegu for a short hop south on Expressway 451 (a very messy construction site at that), before taking Expressway 12 westbound. The 12 is an interesting route; built in 1984 and named the "88 Olympic Expressway" (not to be confused with Seoul's own Olympic Expressway, which is a city-owned freeway but not part of the national expressway system), it was South Korea's first expressway to be paved with concrete, and is currently the last one to still feature sections with only two lanes and no center dividers. It's still a nice road with speed limit at 80 km/h, but I felt quite cheated to be forced to pay tolls to drive on it, when there are plenty of better, free national roads elsewhere in the nation.

I arrived at Haeinsa, where temperature was -4C, frost covered the ground, and the breeze really made my exposed hands and ears hurt. And I had to hike a mile from my parking space to get to the temple entrance - no easy feat in the cold.

This plain building is the temple's Gwaneumjeon (Hall of Kwan Yin), though it's not open to the public at all.

Here is the entrance to Tripitaka Koreana, after several very steep flights of stairs. No photos are allowed inside, and there isn't all that much to see. It's a sleepy, boring sight for those who do not know Korean history. But for those who know of this relic, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, as a very divine attempt to keep the Mongol invaders out, it's a priceless experience just to be there.

There are other similar wood blocks of Buddhist scriptures around the world. But Tripitaka Koreana is considered the most accurate and the most complete of them all. It also showcases the advanced wood block printing technology of 13th Century Korea.

It's possible to buy an epoxy replica of one of the wood blocks in the temple gift shop, but due to the size and the cost (150,000 won), I decided against it. And with the bitter cold and the long drive still ahead, I needed to get moving.

Just like other Korean Buddhist temples, Haeinsa has a bell pavilion. There is also a large drum, which a monk is playing in this photo.

Next to the bell is this Vairocana Maze. I didn't bother walking it due to the cold air. But both visitors and the faithful are encouraged to walk it, in order to experience the enlightenment and the mercy of Buddha.

I also found out that Haeinsa is not part of the Jogye Order, which controls 90% of South Korea's Buddhism. Haeinsa is part of the Beopbo Order, and is the only non-Jogye temple that I recall visiting in my past few months in South Korea.

I got back east on the 12, but instead of re-entering Daegu, took a brand-new expressway, the 45, northbound, before returning to the 1 and exiting at Gimcheon, in order to visit Jikjisa. I saw and appreciated Gimcheon's excellent transportation links; in addition to Expressways 1 and 45, it also lies on two Seoul-Busan rail lines, conventional and high-speed.

I had one, and only one, reason for visiting Jikjisa. Back in 1980, when I was only a few years old, my father, his siblings, and all their extended families took a group trip to Jikjisa, taking a local train there from Seoul. For me, it was my only train trip (other than those on subway trains, anyway) for a long time; my next train trip wouldn't come until an Amtrak run between New York and Philadelphia in 1993, and my next Korean train trip wouldn't happen until 2005 - a full quarter-century later - on the KTX bullet train to Busan. Moreover, this was also a reminder that while my paternal grandmother was an early convert to Christianity, she continued to hold other religions, especially Buddhism, in high esteem, even going as far as getting Confucian tablets made for her entire family, having them interred at a neighborhood Buddhist temple, and keeping good relations with the temple's head monk. Elaborate ancestral ceremonies continue to be held for her - normally something unthinkable for a Christian.

Jikjisa also required me to walk half a mile, but the temperature had by now risen to 4C and it was tolerable. Here's the temple's main gate, Cheonwangmun (Gate of Heavenly Kings), housing the Four Devas, the wooden statues that always guard the entrance to any Korean Buddhist temple.

Here is Daeungjeon (Hall of Great Hero), with twin 3-story stone pagodas in front. Originally, the pagodas were built by Silla in 9th Century, for a temple to the north that lies in ruins. The pagodas had collapsed there before being brought here and rebuilt in 1974. They are certainly skinnier than other Silla 3-story stone pagodas that I've seen in the past few days.

Here's a bronze Happy Buddha. May he keep me happy and bring me lots of luck and money. I could certainly use some number 8's when I get to Hong Kong; while the number 8 is not quite meaningful in Korean, it sounds like luck in Mandarin and Cantonese, so it'll help to carry lots of number 8's in my mind as I get down to balmy Hong Kong. And with the nippy air today, I was certainly thinking a lot about, and looking forward to, Hong Kong's warmth!

Here is Jikjisa's Gwaneumjeon. Here, Kwan Yin wears a robe with a very plunging neckline, revealing a lot of her upper body, including her masculine breasts (again). But fortunately, unlike back at Bulguksa, I was spared the sight of her nipples. She also has a lovely necklace.

Jikjisa's Birojeon (Hall of Vairocana) also has a 3-story stone pagoda. It is identical to the two in front of Daeungjeon, and in fact it came from the same temple site. It's extremely rare for a Korean temple to have three identical pagodas.

Birojeon itself is quite noteworthy; its nickname is "Hall of Thousand Buddhas," and sure enough, there are hundreds of white Buddhas sitting in bleachers. I was tempted to take a photo of the interior (as nobody was watching anyway), but decided against it, out of respect for the temple and its members. I'm not a Buddhist, never was, and never will be, but for today, I was an honorary Buddhist, and I was showing my own devotion by making all these pilgrimages through the Arctic cold air.

A worn-out seated stone Buddha in front. In the back is Seolbeopjeon, or Sermon Hall.

I continued to think about my grandmother and her spirituality. She had converted to Christianity, only because she thought it was a progressive religion doing lots of good and spreading many modern ideas during her time. Unlike other Korean women of the era, she had studied in China, supposedly spoke good Mandarin and English, and had very forward-thinking ideas; Christianity was simply an extension of that. I don't think she'd approve of Christianity turning itself into the extremist cult as practiced today by 2MB, the Korean-Americans, and the US Religious Right. While my family continues to nag me about me ending the proud Christian tradition started by my grandmother, I think I am honoring it even more strongly with my own spirituality.

My grandmother passed away shortly before my birth. If reincarnation exists, I might as well be her new existence, though I had to come to the world with male biology. Heck, I even look like her (not all that pretty, and certainly not sexy, but I can live with that). The only difference is that my grandmother was never known for wearing miniskirts, but today, between the cold air and the temple visits, minis were out of the question for me as well.

I returned to Expressway 1, via National Highway 4, to continue my journey, re-joining it at one interchange north of where I had exited. As I entered - only after traveling through a narrower, older spur of Highway 4 and passing through a rest stop - I was able to spot a 1970-vintage monument marking the halfway point between Seoul and Busan. At that point, I was leaving the Gyeongsang Provinces and entering the Chungcheongs.

I proceeded through a very scenic (if difficult to construct) stretch of Expressway 1, arriving at Okcheon, just east of Daejeon, for a lunch and a refueling stop. The rest area had this poster, showing a report from the right-wing mouthpiece newspaper, Chosun Ilbo. This past July, it had picked 60 major events that had taken place since South Korea was founded 60 years ago, and one of them was Expressway 1, stretching 428 kilometers and opening on July 7, 1970 after only 29 months of construction. The lower right is the front page of the July 8, 1970 issue of the paper, announcing the completion of the expressway. The 2008 report praises the expressway obsession of military dictator Park Chung-hee in very glowing terms, though it does remark that national highways and railroads suffered by comparison.

I noted that there were three types of sections on Expressway 1, as I drove on it today.
  • Some low-volume sections, consisting of four lanes, look just as they did when first completed in 1970. The upgrades consist of thick concrete roadbed instead of the original flimsy asphalt pavement, as well as crash-proof center dividers, but nothing more.
  • Most sections follow the original route, but they have been completely rebuilt into six- and eight-lane expressways. There also are many other upgrades, especially in regards to rest stops, truck lanes, and entrances and exits.
  • A few sections, especially those involving narrow tunnels and sharp curves, have been completely abandoned; I could see one such abandoned section just before Okcheon. They were replaced by straighter, wider brand-new sections. Due to this straightening, plus the transfer of the northernmost several kilometers to the city of Seoul, Expressway 1 now measures only 416 kilometers.
Some more South Korean expressway facts:
  • All expressways are tollways. There are freeways in South Korea, but they are owned by local jurisdictions, not the national government, and therefore not part of the expressway system.
  • Most long-distance expressways use the thruway model, where I must take a ticket at entry, and pay toll at exit. If I lose the ticket or stay in the system over 24 hours, I must pay the maximum possible toll for my vehicle type.
  • Most metropolitan expressways use the turnpike model, where there are toll plazas at intervals, and I pay a fixed price for my vehicle type as posted at each toll plaza.
  • Exits are numbered from south to north, and from west to east. They are sequentially numbered, however; unlike US interstates, exits are not numbered by kilometer posts. At least this still beats California, an exemption to the US interstate exit numbering rule, where exit numbers are still difficult to find in many places.
  • On maps and signs, "IC" means interchange, and indicates an entry/exit from/to a non-expressway. "JC" means junction, and indicates transfer from/to another expressway. "TG" means tollgate, or toll plaza.
  • The Korea Expressway Corporation (formerly the Korea Highway Corporation, website at ex.co.kr, and identified by a stylized red/orange "EX" logo), a government-owned company, designs, funds, and maintains the expressway network, though private contractors carry out the construction. In recent years, private investors have been invited to come up with the construction funding as well, in exchange for the right to operate, maintain, and collect tolls on the involved expressway routes for the first 30 years of operation. Expressway 130 to Incheon Airport is one example of such a privately funded expressway.
  • Thruway tolls are calculated based on distance, on the shortest possible kilometers between entrance and exit points. Privately funded expressways charge more for the same distance traveled than government-owned ones.
  • Frequent travelers should consider buying the remote transmitter named Hi-Pass, similar to EZPass used around New York and FasTrak used in California. Hi-Pass tolls are discounted 5%, and they eliminate need to count cash at every exit. Hi-Pass users can use dedicated toll plaza lanes, and may breeze through them at 30 km/h without stopping. Hi-Pass needs to be purchased at rest stops.
And on the subject of even more automotive stuff, self-service fueling is very rare in South Korea. Just stop at the pump for the appropriate fuel (the attendant will guide you in), pop open the fuel door, and the attendant will do the work. He (always a he, never a she), if asked to top off the tank, will fuel to the automatic cutoff, then continue fueling to round up to the next 1,000 won. This makes paying easy, even when paying in cash (as 1-won and 5-won coins don't even circulate anymore these days, and higher-value coins are bulky too). Some South Koreans have affinity credit cards that allow discounts (maybe up to 15%) for certain gasoline brands. And speaking of brands, all fuel brands are local, and none are evil multinational a-holes like Exxon, Chevron, and such. Major fuel brands include GS Caltex, S-Oil, SK, and Hyundai Oilbank. Buying over a certain amount, probably 50,000 or 60,000 won, can also mean a free car wash, or at least two packets of napkins. Be careful if you drive a BMW, a Lexus, or some other obscenely expensive import; premium gasoline is difficult to find in rural areas. Diesel is always available, however, and slightly cheaper than gasoline. LPG, even cheaper but very inefficient, is available at specially designated (often dedicated) charging stations, clearly labeled as such.

Getting off at Okcheon, I headed north on National Highway 37 to arrive at Songnisan National Park, with Beopjusa as its star attraction. With only one hour of daylight left, and given my more northerly latitude, temperature was dipping again, to the freezing point.

After another kilometer of walking from my car, I am entering Beopjusa. The front gate is the main gate while the gate in the distance is the Cheonwangmun with the Four Devas.

Beopjusa is most famous for this gold-plated bronze Maitreya statue, 100 feet tall and the tallest statue on the Korean peninsula. Wikipedia tells me that it dwarfs the next tallest, Kim Il-sung in Pyongyang, by about 60%.

The stone pedestal has a praying room inside, which can be entered only by the faithful and pre-reserved student groups. There is also an altar at the top of the stone pedestal. Both zones prohibit photography.

Here is the story of the statue. It was first built in 776, but melted down in 1872 when the government confiscated it to pay for palace expansions in Seoul. In 1939, a concrete statue was started, but was stopped at 80% progress during the Korean War. Work resumed in 1963 with support from General/President Park Chung-hee (despite his support of the Moonies, he was a Buddhist himself), finishing in the following year. In 1986, the crumbling concrete statue was demolished, and replaced with the current bronze statue, completed in 1990. In 2000, renovation of the statue took place, in order to unite the Korean people, to celebrate the hosting of FIFA World Cup 2002, and to pray for world peace; the renovation involved removal of rust and plating with 80 kilograms of gold (3 microns thick), and was completed on June 7, 2002, finally restoring the longtime presence of a gold-plated bronze Maitreya to Beopjusa.

Beopjusa also has this five-story wooden pagoda, the tallest Buddhist pagoda in Korea, and also the only remaining wooden pagoda since 1984. Its name is Palsangjeon, it was originally built in 553, rebuilt in 1626 after being burned by the Japanese, and dismantled and refurbished in 1968.

Wontongbojeon, like the pagoda above, dates from 551, and was rebuilt in 1624. This is where Beopjusa houses Kwan Yin.

A banner above the doors announces the celebration of the finishing of the new gold plating on the Kwan Yin statue inside. Unfortunately, all the doors were closed, and I couldn't take a look.

I guess this is what I'll settle for. This banner on the side shows the image of the Kwan Yin statue.

Beopjusa's Daeungjeon is actually a two-story structure, and is called Daeungbojeon, gaining an extra character, 寶 (treasure). I couldn't peek in either, but caption boards nearby say that there are three sitting Buddhas inside, the largest of their kind in Korea. In the middle is Vairocana, who stands for the soul. Amitabha is on the left, standing for the virtue. Sakyamuni is on the right, standing for the body.

As all these three separate elements are necessary for a human being to live a fulfilling life, the Buddha was installed here in three different forms; this reminded me of the concept of Holy Trinity in Christianity, which splits the one and only God into three different forms and mixes elements of polytheism and monotheism.

An overview of the Beopjusa grounds. I really liked this temple; it was certainly the most unique that I've visited anywhere so far.

Behind the giant Maitreya, one of the peaks of Songnisan Mountain rises. This particular peak is 985 meters above sea level, and is known as Gwaneumbong (Kwan Yin Peak).

I continue to give myself as many reminders of my favorite transgender matron saint as I can. I really need to make sure that she lives on in me, even well after I return to the US for good.

Yaksajeon houses the Yaksabul (Medicine Buddha), who stands for good health.

A look into the interior of the wooden pagoda. I can't get any closer, as interior photos are strictly prohibited. Here, I can see dozens of white seated Buddhas on bleachers; back at Jikjisa, the arrangement was similar, but grander.

Time to wrap it all up and drive to Seoul. Here is one of the Four Devas, playing a guitar.

This Kwan Yin has mustache, and rides an elephant. Both are things I strongly detest - the latter, primarily due to the elephant being the symbol of a certain political party in the US.

These posters from the Jogye Order and Beopjusa show how 2MB is favoring Christians in South Korea's government and politics, at the expense of Buddhists and other non-Christians. The center right poster has a list of ten things that 2MB did wrong in the several months that he's been in power, starting with shredding Article 1 of South Korea's Constitution, which states that "The Republic of Korea is a free, democratic society."

However, the fact remains that 2MB and his cronies are very powerful. As I started driving away from the temple, I was able to see a fairly official-looking sign that said "Defeat the violent leftist thugs, preserve freedom and democracy." And as I later arrived in Seoul, I was able to listen to some radio programs that detailed 2MB's proposals to ramp up his intelligence operations; the rationale is that a better-informed government is a more responsive government, but opposition is very heavy, because the surveillance can happen against anyone for any reason, and the days of Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA), really a thought police cracking down on dissidents in the 1960s and the 1970s (as well as masterminding the Moonie expansion to the US) are coming back.

Actually, it'll be even worse, because of the information technology infrastructure in South Korea. People must use their National ID numbers to sign up for many online services, and using those numbers and current resident registry information, any dissident can expect to have the authorities break in at 4 AM to have him/her taken away for questioning (which will most likely once again include secret detentions, tortures, and worse).

The question now is: will Barack Obama kick 2MB's ass hard, or will he cower before the powerful Moonie influence, simply because Moon has a few token Democrats under his belt?

Here is a Buddha carved into a boulder at a remote corner of the temple grounds, right at the foot of Kwan Yin Peak. Can't tell who this Buddha is, however.

The parting shot: an altar under Kwan Yin Peak, whose purpose I can't tell either.

I negotiated some very narrow streets of Boeun Township, before getting on Expressway 30, another brand-new route, westbound, to pick up northbound Expressway 1 once again just north of Daejeon. Though there was considerable traffic congestion between Osan and Suwon, I stayed on the 1 all the way into Seoul, with the intention of taking it to the end at the Han River. But severe traffic jam just inside the city limits forced me to abandon that plan; I took a detour, paid 2,000 won to use a lengthy tunnel, then proceeded to Express Bus Terminal/Central City before returning to Banpo Bridge, the starting point of my road trip.

The road trip is over, but its memories will live on for a long time. I certainly look forward to my next return to the US next month more than ever, as I'll certainly be able to retire my BMW, get a Hyundai Genesis, name it after Kwan Yin, and take her spirit (and the memories of this road trip) onto the US interstates. In the meantime, I will keep the rental car for several more days, making a number of day trips out of Seoul. And this won't be my last South Korean road trip either; in the future, I will have to return to Hwajinpo and Andong, as well as extending my travel to the Jeolla Provinces and the city of Gwangju in the southwest, themselves a cradle of ancient culture (and today a hotbed of liberal politics). I will also look forward to future road trips in other nations, particularly in Continental Europe.