Thursday, August 29, 2013

Gaeunsa Temple in Anam-dong, Jogyesa Temple, National Museum of Korea, Cross-cultural Perspectives

Hello, readers!
In this post I'm first going to tell you about and show you photos of the Gaeunsa Temple in Anam-dong right down the hill from where I was staying.

As you may be able to tell from these photos and my description, this temple is right smack in the middle of an urban, university-centered neighborhood, namely Anam-dong. The only separation between this temple and my own dorm, in fact, is a small hill and a flight of steps. That is it. As you will see soon, compared to other, "grander" Buddhist temples in Seoul, Gaeunsa does not seem to be much to look it, but for me, it has a simple beauty, serving as a beacon of spirituality for the Buddhist inhabitants of Anam-dong. This actually brings me to my next point, which is that Gaeunsa is not a tourist destination whatsoever; in fact, the only other people I saw there (aside from my friend Kyra and myself) were locals (mostly middle-aged and older women), going about their daily business of praying and meditating. This was not Buddhism on a pedestal as a show for foreigners, this was Buddhism as it is still practiced in the urban landscape of 21st century Seoul. In a way, I felt like I was intruding on something private and sacred, perhaps precisely because I was.

In these next three photographs, you can see Jogyesa temple, the central building and authority over the
Korean Jogye sect of Buddhism. Jogyesa lies in the cultural tourism hub of Insa-dong, where the famous Joseon Dynasty castle-palaces stand. I visited Jogyesa on a Sunday evening and there was still a fair amount of visitors, practicing Buddhists and tourists alike, a testament to this sites importance and popularity. The actual temple part of Jogyesa consists of three large buildings, two of which are shown above. My roommate, Taewon, accompanied me, and using his body as a reference, you can really see the great size of the temple building in the second photo. Yet, despite its status as a tourist magnet, Jogyesa still remains a vital aspect of Buddhist life within Seoul, as well, as can be seen from the bottom two pictures. There we see first  an intricately sculpted column on whose bottom rim were hung prayers for ancestors and deceased relatives. Most of these prayers and messages were written in Korean, but some were also in Japanese, Chinese, even Thai. In the bottom picture, I have captured the image of a woman light a ritual candle in prayer. Based on the number of lit candles at the site, there must be people just like this woman lighting ritual candles rather frequently. All in all, it was touching and humbling to see how Buddhism influences not only the community of Anam-dong but also Seoul and beyond.

Before, I left you go, I'd also like to take the time to show you the celadon pottery pieces found in the National Museum of Korea. The first picture is actually the museum's beautiful exterior, complete with its glass windows and glinting gold finish. The building's facade alone was breathtaking, but it contrasted deeply with the simple elegance found in the traditional art and pottery housed within its walls. For me, the most striking example of this sort of subdued beauty was the celadon pottery. My HTC Rezound's camera hardly does it justice, but the nuanced blue-green coloring of the celadon was particularly poignant, to my mind speaking volumes on sadness, perseverance, even life and love (in Korean, this concept is called Han "한"). Korean celadon was actually renowned within Asia as the finest sort of porcelain pottery for centuries; in modern times, unfortunately, the method to make this beautiful and enigmatic celadon color has been lost. However, the process behind the pottery itself was actually revealed step-by-step on the museum wall! This was very cool to read (I forwent a picture of it because it was essentially a wall of text with tiny pictures.) I purposefully included the last picture to show that the key feature of celadon pottery that accentuates its beauty is its simplicity, which I felt was undermined by the overly bombastic design of the piece in the last photo. If you compare this to the smooth curves, slight floral pattern, and, of course, classic celadon blue-green tint of the pieces in the second photo, it simply doesn't compare at all.

Overall, I hope that this psots leaves you, my precious readers, with a sense of what traditional Korean culture is like and how it has been carried over into the modern city of Seoul.

As ever, thank you so much for reading!

Andrew Frenkel, B.A. Asian Studies 2015, Japanese and Korean Language and Literature Minor
Sigur Center 2013 Korean Language Fellow,
Korea University, South Korea

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