images of the crossing over

tongdo-sa 1.2.2012

Dok Sang (德上) Sunim, originally from Seattle, WA and currently a first-year student at Tongdo Monastic College

Despite the first snow of the year—which closed Unmun Pass, between Cheong-do and Ulsan—I made it “over the mountain” today to visit Tongdo-sa. Tongdo-sa is not only one the Three Jewel temples in Korea, known as the “Buddha Jewel Temple” because it houses Sakyamuni Buddha’s relics, it is not merely one of the largest temple complexes in the country, it is not simply a well-known full-training temple for monks: it also has four of our novice monks from the international sangha. I met up with two of them today before having tea with the Head of Lecturers of their seminary. Unfortunately, I could only talk Dok Sang Sunim, above, into a picture. His older brother, Dok Jang Sunim, firmly refused to have his portrait taken, alas.

Tongdo-sa is what’s known as a “full training monastery,” or cheong-lim. For those who read Chinese, the characters are below as inscribed on the stone pillar marking one of the boundaries of the temple complex. Chinese readers will also notice the formal name for the temple in its function as a training monastery, Yeong Chuk Full Training Monastery (yeong-chuk cheong-lim). Yeong-chuk is both the name of the mountain on which Tongdo-sa is located as well as the Sino-Korean for Vulture Peak Mountain (Rajgir). In order to qualify as a cheong-lim, a temple complex must have a seminary; a graduate seminary; and a seon bang or Zen hall associated with it. In addition to having all of these, Tongdo-sa is also a large, bustling complex with a labyrinthine layout of side-altars arranged around the temple’s central focus: the bell-shaped stupa housing the Buddha’s relics.

Tongdo-sa is one of my favorite temples in Korea. I first visited Tongdo-sa nearly 8 years ago, when I was a lay-woman and traveling around Korea visiting temples; I spent the night at Naewon-sa, a bhikkuni seon bang, and caught a ride to Tongdo-sa the next morning with two of the Naewon-sa nuns heading there on business. It was spring. The currently naked cherry blossom trees lining the long main avenue leading up from the lower entrance gate were then in their full glory. Today, sunlight filtering through the pines and glinting on the ice clinging to the edges of the stream flowing down from the mountain caught my attention. And instead of the anticipatory trepidation of entering an unknown temple complex, wondering what it might be like, feel like, today I felt the easy anticipation of walking toward a friend’s house.

Stone pillar inscribed with the full training monastery’s name

I met all the international monks enrolled Tongdo-sa this past summer, when we gathered for the annual foreign monastics’ forum. I was amazed by their diversity: one Czech, one Nepali, one Chinese, one American. A Japanese monk graduated several years earlier. Of course, I always appreciate meeting other Western monastics, because I get to experience the rare feeling of blending in.

The front gate of Unmun-sa at 7:20 a.m. Cold. Very cold.

Compared to the chill winter landscape I slipped and slid over to get to Unmun-sa Bus Station (and it was due to slick roads that the buses weren’t going over the pass this morning, waiting for the thin sheen of ice to melt), the early afternoon was warm. Cups and cups of tea with Tongdo-sa’s Head of Lecturers along with what was, for me, great conversation about the process of seminary life and the education system for the sangha, followed by a little time with two doban before heading over the now-thawed mountain road: a good day.

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5 responses

  1. Bill Young

    Your post about Tongdo-sa and picture of Dok Sang Sunim bring back pleasant memories of our time in Korea this fall. I thought the Tongdo-sa complex was beautiful, and I remember well the winding road over Unmun Pass.

    January 2, 2012 at 10:50 pm

  2. Gosh, we fellows from Seatte are REALLY handsome, aren’t we?

    I was so glad to visit Tongdosa (and the two sunims) in October . . . and very disappointed that we couldn’t get to Unmunsa to visit with you. Next trip!

    I remember the remarkable pine trees at Tongdosa and the bright faces of the training monks – what a treat!

    January 3, 2012 at 12:34 am

    • Barry, I was disappointed you all couldn’t make it, too! Unfortunately, it was this year or never: I graduate in three days. But next time you come, perhaps I could go *with* you to Unmunsa to show you around. All the fun of knowing a place, none of the hassle of having to help run it. *grin*

      January 3, 2012 at 7:50 pm

  3. Mom

    I hope that Dok Sang Sunim’s mom sees this post as he looks very happy and healthy – two (of the many!) things a mother looks for. Tongdo-sa was very beautiful, I’m glad we got to see it with you!

    January 3, 2012 at 3:37 am

    • Mom, I’ll pass along your hopes (and greetings) to the Tongdo-sa brothers.

      January 3, 2012 at 7:50 pm

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