After my first week of teaching, Lanny took me on a surprise trip to Tongdosa (Tongdo temple). It happened like this: on the way back from school (she drove me, because she’s an angel), Lanny casually asked me if I had ever been to Tongdosa. Being a newbie, I of course did not even know what or who Tongdosa was; when she heard me say no, Lanny very promptly drove the car past the turn off for my apartment, and announced that we would go there now. When you already have evening plans with some native English teachers, and you aren’t sure what you’re getting into, and just want to go home to change out of your dress shoes and pants, you ignore all of that and smile and nod while your co-teacer drives 40 in an 80 zone, stops randomly in the road to look around, and quietly cruises through red lights. If you do all of this, you’ll end up seeing one of the most beautiful temples you’ll ever experience.
Tongdosa is the largest temple complex in South Korea, repute to house many relics of the Sakyamuni Budda. In fact, part of Tongdosa’s unique appeal is the fact that it has no exterior statues of the Buddha; this is because the relics (a robe, begging bowl, and a bone from his skull) are housed in the Geumgang Gyedan (Diamond Altar); a scared platform where the ceremony for Buddhist precepts takes places. One of the other drawing factors of Tongdosa is one of my favourites, and those of you who know my love for fantasy books (or dragon books as my Kingston housemates like to call it), will understand why it’s one of my favourites. Part of the lore of South Korea says that there were once 9 evil dragons living in a pond in the Tongdosa complex, and that one day they were enticed to leave by Jajang, who read a magic, Buddhist scripture to the fierce creatures. When the dragons refused to leave their sacred pond, the heroic Jajang used the Chinese symbol for fire to drive the animals away; it is said that one of the dragons was blinded by the fire Jajang created, and was unable to leave the pond. Hoping to spare his life, the dragon made a deal with Jajang that stipulated that for as long as the dragon was allowed to remain in the pond, he would also remain the guardian of Tongdosa. The pond in question, then called 9 Dragons Pond, is a beautiful asset to the Tongodosa courtyard, and draws many a wandering foot and questing camera lens. With a view of the lush hills, and flanked by Daeungjeon, the main temple hall, it is no wonder that Guryongji is (as the pond is now called) is a special place for the monks who live at Tongdosa, and the folk who visit.
As if this weren’t enough, Tongdosa is such a large complex that Lanny and I were able to drive the car a few more kilometres into the complex (and up the mountain) to visit the sky temple, a sole temple reached by a footpath flanked by orchards, pots full of monk-harvested soybeans, and a gaggle of geese. There are many other temples dotted along the mountainside on which Tongdosa rests, and I can’t wait to go back ad explore the area further. That being said, there was something incredibly awe-inspiring about climbing the small hill toward the sky temple, and looking back out on the valley, the rising smoke from a lower down temple a speck in the distance. Incredibly enough, Lanny and I were the only visitors at the sky temple, which meant we had the maze-like hall full of the 60 000 stone tablets of Buddhist scripture all to ourselves to wander. Literally built like a maze, the shelves that hold the tablets take a few minutes to walk through, which meant that when we left the hall, we were just in time to catch the tail end of a monk’s prayer ceremony. The monk also thought he was alone, and apologised profusely for the fact that he wasn’t wearing socks when we joined him in the prayer hall! Apparently, it’s a big nono to go barefoot in temple.
This beautiful trip, done all in my dress shoes from school, was completed by a surprisingly yummy dinner made by the monks themselves. The monks provide 3, free meals a day for anybody who wants to come by, wash their own bowls, and enjoy a conversation or two with their table neighbour. For myself and Lanny, our dinner was the best bipbimbap I’ve had since I’ve been in Korea, and a wonderful Korean gentleman who spoke English almost better than I do, and certainly knew our slangs better than me! I can’t wait to teach my kids “the whole shebang” of the English language, as he so put it. I, for one, know that I’m going to absolutely love “the whole shebang” that Korea has to offer.
Categories: Stories from Korea