Seoul, what a Great Surprise!

“One who lives in accordance with nature does not go against the way of things. He moves in harmony with the present moment always knowing the truth of just what to do”

-From the Tao Te Ching (the Book of the Way) by Lao Tzu 600-531 B.C.

This trip to Seoul, South Korea, was particularly special. Although it was just a business trip, a long time ago I learned the lesson of always carrying a camera with me. I knew that I would have at least a couple of hours to go around the city.

Because of the very limited time available on those trips, I would normally read about my destination in advance and learn where to go and what to do. Well, in this case, I really did not know what to expect. It was late November; the last trip of many that literally took me around the world that year. I was exhausted and didn’t have any time to read in advance. Regardless, I took my camera.

Bongeunsa was made one of Korea’s 14 major temples in 1902. During the Japanese occupation the temple became the headquarters of 80 smaller Buddhist temples around Seoul. This is Bukguk-bojeon, renovated in 1942 this is the place for paying respect to traditional Korean folk-religions. While transmitted from China, Buddhism successfully harmonized with folk-religions in Korea.

I was in for a great surprise! Arriving in Seoul the first thing that caught my attention was the beautiful traditional Korean architecture, where we can clearly see represented the principles of the Korean culture. So what are those?

Korea was an agricultural society where its people developed a close relationship with nature. The natural environment was, and still is regarded, as an element of extreme importance in Korean architecture. So instead of resisting the magnificence of nature or competing with it, traditional architectural design tried to achieve the perfect harmony between their structures and their natural surroundings. It’s important to note that this ecological concept and environmental awareness goes back a few thousand of years to the traditional Taoist thinking of living in harmony with nature.

This very old building houses a bronze bell that is rung twice everyday-28 times in the morning and 33 times in the evening representing the realms Buddhism.

Today we can say that traditional Korean architecture developed through the assimilation of various cultural elements learned from other civilizations, particularly China and Japan. While Chinese decorations tended to be extremely elaborate and excessively preoccupied with strict symmetry, the Japanese were simpler but still extremely concerned with small details. It’s not surprising then that the characteristics of decoration in Korean architecture are somewhat in the middle. Maintaining the beauty of moderation in the use of color and ornament, Korean architects hoped to present a more comprehensive order and harmony with nature for both interior and exterior spaces. The moderate use of color might have been inspired by the country’s serene landscape, whereas the quality of humble openness must have grown out of people’s traditional tendency to adapt to nature. Of course, if you see the amount and variety of color on this post pictures of the very ancient Bongeun-sa temple, you will say what is she talking about! But remember everything is a matter of comparison and opposed to decorations in both Chinese and Japanese architecture, these colors can be found in nature and when you have the opportunity to be there and see everything in context you feel like that temple actually belongs there, and that it is just an extension of its surroundings. As a matter of fact, if you don’t know that it is there, you might totally miss it. The only reason I knew it was there is because I could see the giant Buddha from my 19th-floor room at the hotel.

Panjeon hall, from 1856. Is a storage house for sutras which are carved on wood-blocks. There are 3,438 wood-blocks on which 15 sutras are carved including the Flower-Garland sutra and the Diamond sutra.

It is worth mentioning that besides Taoism, Korean architecture was also influenced by other Oriental conceptual thoughts: yin and yang, interpretation of the five elements (metal, wood, water, fire and earth), geomancy, and Confucianism. But probably the most prominent influence has been Buddhism, which was introduced in Korean around the fourth century. In fact, during the Three Kingdoms period -Goguryeo, Baekje, and Shilla, which lasted approximately 1000 years from the first century B.C- a great number of Buddhist temples, were built. Unfortunately, most of them were burned to ashes in a series of wars and invasions.

These pictures are of one of the few surviving temples of this period. Bongeun-sa, a traditional Korean-style Buddhist temple founded in 794 C.E. by Ven. Yeon-hoe, then the National Master Monk of the Unified Shilla Dynasty. This temple is located at the base of Sudo Mountain, now in the middle and ultra-modern Samseong-dong (dong means ward in Korean) of the Gangnam-gu District in Southern Seoul. For me conveniently located right across the street from the COEX Convention Center in Seoul.

Yeongsan-jeon, architectural detail of the roof. This building renovated in 1942 was built to commemorate Sakyamuni Buddha’s famous sermon on the Eagle Peak. This sermon is known today as the “Lotus Sutra”.

These pictures are also special because they were among the first ones I took with a digital camera, and since I was still not very on digital technology we are talking about a point and shoot camera, a very good one, but still a total departure from my SLR Canon V1. It is worth mentioning that the photographic results of this trip initiated my complete conversion to digital photography which until that point was limited to scanning and photoshop for small quality adjustments.

This statue of Maitreya Buddha (the future Buddha) is a very recent addition to Bongeun-sa and is the tallest stone statue of Maitreya Buddha in Korea. People come to meditate at different times of the day.

On my next post I’ll share pictures of the Gyeongbokgung Palace, another example of wonderful Korean architecture.

More Pictures of Bongeun-sa at Perla Copernik Photography Fan Page

This statue of Maitreya Buddha (the future Buddha) is a very recent addition to Bongeun-sa and is the tallest stone statue of Maitreya Buddha in Korea.
Daewung-jeon is the main building of Bongeun-sa. Three Buddha statues are enshrined inside; Sakyamuni Buddha (the awakened) in the center, Bhaisajya Buddha (the healing) on his left and Amitabha (the pure land) Buddha on his right.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: