My Paradise: Turning an eye toward temples in Korea

Gwaneumsa Temple. Photos by Sonmi Ko
Gwaneumsa Temple. Photos by Sonmi Ko

My Paradise: Turning an eye toward temples in Korea

by Sonmi Ko
Stripes Okinawa

My sister is a devout Christian and tithes every month.

My mother is a Buddhist and spends money on hanging lanterns at temples, buying Buddhist supplies and giving offerings to wish for the well-being of our family.

I am an atheist spending money on travel and beer.  

As an old but not married daughter, I thought I should play the role of a good daughter. I volunteered to be a personal driver for my mom on weekends.

We went to many Buddhist temples in Korea. They were always widely open to everyone, no matter if they believe in Buddhism or not.

I've come to like a temple’s peaceful atmosphere, mysterious scent of incense and tolerance to strangers.

While my mom was praying, I enjoyed hanging around the temples. 

Top temple
One of my favorite temples is called Jabisa and it’s located near Camp Humphreys.

This temple is believed to have been built around the 16th century by monks and generals. The group were cruising by boat and got marooned during a typhoon. So, they built a temple.

On Buddha's birthday, they make and provide Buddhist vegetarian dishes to visitors for free.

In the front yard, there are five-story stone pagodas and 12 zodiac sign structures carved in rock with the stories of the rat, cow, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, chicken, dog, and pig.

In the main temple you can see a big golden Buddha statue against hundreds of little Buddhas in the background. The big Buddha looks benevolent rather than solemn, and thousands of Lotus Lanterns are suspended from the ceiling.

My favorite part of the temple is the wooden floor in the Buddhist sanctum. It is always shiny and clean. Even in summer, the wood floor is pleasantly cool and the scent of wood through open doors gives tranquility. 

Prayer answered
On a Sunday afternoon in the summer of 2022, my mom and I went to Jabisa. After mom’s prayer, we walked around the cozy temple and ran into a monk. As my mom and the monk exchanged greetings, she suddenly talked to the monk about my situation.

My mom knew now badly I wanted a promotion and transfer to another office. I did not expect her to talk to the monk about this, so I tried to stop her. It was too late. 

The next thing I knew, we were in the temple office and the monk was typing my address on his computer. The monk suggested a 100-day prayer. It means the monks pray for my situation for 100 days and it costs $100.

My mom was pressuring me silently with her eyes to pay for it. I did not have cash, but an online payment option was also available at the temple. I was disappointed to find that the temple instituted such a secular system, but I reluctantly transferred the money as packs of Bud Light floated in my head.

Two weeks later, I was promoted and transferred to the other office. 

Gwaneumsa Temple
In the summer of 2023, my mom and I went to Jeju Island. She wanted to visit Gwaneumsa Temple, located at the foot of Mt. Halla. If my mom wasn’t there, I would have gone to the mountain, not the temple.  

The magnificent scale of the temple, combined with the beautiful natural scenery of Mt. Halla was very impressive, as the droves of foreign tourists there could attest.

There are two caves on the temple grounds. The one called Haewolgul is a cave where Haewol, the founder of Gwaneumsa Temple, trained and prayed for three years.

Inside the Haewol Cave, there were several candles that visitors had lit while making a wish or saying a prayer. The heat from the candles made the inside of the cave very warm.

It was a mysterious atmosphere in the narrow cave filled with the smell of burning candles. 

As I approached the entrance of Gwaneumgul, the other cave on the grounds, I could see my breath because it was quite chilly even though it was early summer. It was even colder inside cave. I thought it was the best place for a summer vacation spot.

The cave was made into a prayer room, and there was a fundraising box to pray for peace in Ukraine.

Stone cold
In front of Samseonggak, which enshrines the gods of wealth, longevity and fortune, there was a wishing stone.

I read the sign that says how to use the stone. First, compose yourself and lift the stone and feel the weight. 

Second, make a wish carefully and lift the stone again. If the stone is not lifted easily or if you feel that the stone is pulling from the bottom, it is a sign that the wish will come true. 

The round stone weighed quite a bit, but it was easy to lift. As instructed, I made a wish that I found deep in my heart this year and tried to lift the stone again.

I couldn’t move it a bit.

Speakin’ Korean

Hello: Annyeong-haseyo (안녕하세요) 
Thank you: Gamsa-hamnida (감사합니다) 
Are photos okay here?:
Yeogiseo sajin jjigeodo gwaenchanayo? (여기서 사진 찍어도 괜찮아요?) 
Where is the restroom?: 
Hwajangsil-eun eodie isseoyo? (화장실은 어디에 있어요?)

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