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.
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.
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.
We woke to snow this morning; a light rain had started to fall late last evening, but I didn’t expect it to become the thick layer of white that it did. By noon, however, it was gone, and the release of the fish–and the ceremony for the Dragon King–went on as intended.
The frozen estuary of the Geum River is a seasonal home for a great variety of migratory birds. The Abbess of our temple drove us out to see them; but they were, I’m afraid, nothing more than black specks from where we stood. “Use your camera! Take a picture of the birds!” she insisted; and it was then I had to own to her my zoom only goes up to 55 mm. “I’ll take your picture instead,” I offered, and after several bashful false tries, she finally stood still and smiled.
Dawn was misted, subdued, so that the sky seemed to glow strangely in the dark; when the sun rose, it rose diffused into shades of gray, and the mist and fog defied an entire day to linger, then thicken. In the afternoon, the roof of the church below us, with its eternal line of forlorn pigeons, was barely visible. Only the trees directly along the temple’s wall were sharp and clear. The rest of the world beyond the gate existed indistinct, as if it were already beginning to fade as it emerged, receeding even as it came forth from the gray envelop on which the date was written.
“The church below us” is, in the dark and fog, only a neon-red cross hanging in the dark; warning or guide, it’s hard to tell. I’ve re-arranged the text, taking it from yesterday’s post and (re)placing is here.
Night-scene from the home temple’s third-floor Dharma Hall.
The largest snowfall we’ve had in years left the temple courtyards covered in late December. In America, I’ve never seen anyone use an umbrella in snowy weather, but in Korea they’re par for the course.