Sunday, September 08, 2013

a stroll over to Hyangrim-sa

I haven't checked the hanja, so for the moment I'm going to assume that the Chinese characters for Hyangrim-sa mean "fragrant forest temple" (hyang + rim + sa). I could be wrong. I had seen a sign, on Hayang's main drag, for this temple, with the subtitle seon-weon beneath the temple's name. I normally think of a seon-weon as a meditation hall; the character seon is the Korean pronunciation of the character most Americans know as Zen. (See my essay on Zen meditation here.) With that thought in mind, I walked down the side street, which began to rise uphill, until I reached the temple. Once there, I met a nun and quickly discovered that this was a nun-run holy place: no male monks. I also found out that the temple didn't host formal ch'am-seon (zazen, seated meditation) sessions; ritual effort was devoted mostly to kido (i.e., prayer, chanting, and bowing). However, the nun was very accommodating, and said that I could come to the temple and do my own ch'am-seon, if I wanted, during the non-kido periods, when things would be quieter. I thought this was mighty generous, but I told her in all honesty that I probably wouldn't be up at 3AM, as the nuns would be. I joked that I'm usually going to sleep at that time. She smiled and took my slovenly habits in stride, telling me that I could come anytime during the day. She also pointed out the actual seon-weon, which turned out to be a building where the nuns all slept and did their own private meditation, away from the general public.

An older nun, who told me she'd been at Hyangrim-sa for forty years, also greeted me after she had done a bit of weed-pulling. The temple, I noticed, was very scrupulously maintained. The older nun told the younger nun to go get me something refreshing to drink; the younger nun returned with an icy glass of omija-cha, a Korean tea made from Schisandra chinensis and, according to tradition, offering the drinker five distinct flavors (o-mi, 오미, 五味 = five flavors). I sat down on a bench that was up against one of the temple structures and drank quietly for a few minutes before I became curious to see more of the temple grounds. The younger nun offered to guide me around, and we visited the main beop-dang (dharma hall). I had been taking pictures of the grounds, but I knew that many monks and nuns normally take a dim view of photography in their sanctum sanctorum, so I explicitly told this nun that I wouldn't take any pictures inside the dharma hall. She seemed mollified.

We took off our footwear and went into the quiet, cozy dharma hall; this was obviously a small temple, probably catering to a modest-sized parish. I immediately enjoyed the smell of the wood and the echoes of long-faded incense; the nun told me that some people described that as "the noise of the smell." She gave me a tour of the statues of the main altar: Sakyamuni Buddha occupied the center; to his left (my right) was Kwansaeum-bosal, a.k.a. Avalokitshevara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion; to the Buddha's right was Munsu-bosal, a.k.a. Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom; way off to the Buddha's left, off the main altar but on a ledge close to the altar, was a much smaller statue, which turned out to be a statue of Jijang-bosal, a.k.a. Ksitigarbha, the Bodhisattva of transition—and thus, among other things, a guardian and guide of the dead (including the denizens of hell). Imagine a combination of Charon and Hades, but with a teacherly bent, since Jijang-bosal's job is, like that of all bodhisattvas, instruction in the dharma.

The nun then explained the taeng-hwa on the walls—the paintings of various beings, some of which were cosmic entities, others of which were the Buddha's disciples (the 16 Nahan, known in China as the 18 Lohan). We went outside the dharma hall, walking around its exterior, and the nun explained how each outdoor painting represented a scene from the Buddha's life: his mother's encounter with the white elephant that led to the Buddha's birth from her side, the Four Passing Sights, the teacher's temptations by the devil (Mara) just before his enlightenment, all the way up to the Buddha's death, and the various reactions of his disciples to his passing into parinirvana. Some of the paintings were left unexplained, but I recognized scenes from the famous Ten Ox-Herding Pictures, and thought I recognized a character or two from the Jataka Tales. Next to the dharma hall was a Medicine Buddha statue, and behind the Medicine Buddha, up on a hill, was a samseong-gak, a shrine for the native powers in Korea that were incorporated into the local Buddhist belief-system: mountain spirits (sanshin), cosmic spirits like Chilseong (Seven Stars, i.e., Big Dipper), and others.

And then it was time to go. I thanked my guide sincerely, touched by the temple's hospitality, and wandered slowly down the path toward the temple's exit. I caught the eye of the older nun, who was talking to a male visitor while once again pulling weeds. "Seongbul-hashipshiyo!" I said to both nuns: May you attain Buddhahood.

And here's the photographic version of the above narrative:



hahnak said...

thank you, kevin, for posting this! i love visits to temples. glad you were also able to take some snapshots as well.

Bratfink said...

Thanks for that! I love visiting holy sites, no matter the religion, so this was great.

I love the rosary bracelet! How beautiful!