A Beautiful Temple in Korea Beomeo-sa,‘Great Headquarters Temple of Seon Buddhism’__ Jang In-seok

Beomeo-sa, ‘Great Headquarters Temple of Seon Buddhism’;
A Leader in Propagating and Teaching Buddhism in Korea

Evening Buddhist service at Boje-ru (“Universal Salvation Pavilion”)

Beomeo-sa Temple is located on Mt. Geumjeong-san in Busan, and was established in 678 as one of the ten major temples of the Avatamsaka School. According to the Sinjeung dongguk yeoji seungnam (新增東國輿地勝覽; Revised Academic Geography for the Eastern Country), a golden fish descended from heaven to frolic in a well on this mountaintop. Thus, the mountain was named Geumjeong-san (金井山; literally “Golden Well Mountain”), and the temple built here was named Beomeo-sa (梵魚寺; “Spiritual Fish Temple”).

To see how spectacular Beomeo-sa Temple’s location is, all you have to do is climb up to Gyemyeong-am Hermitage (“Rooster’s Crow Hermitage”), which is located on the ridge across from Mt. Geumjeong-san. It is only about a 10-minute climb, but it is not easy. Gyemyeong-am Hermitage takes its name from a nearby rock formation that resembles a rooster. It began as a simple shelter built by the greatest Seon Master of modern Korea, Ven. Gyeongheo (1849-1912), who lived here as a hermit. He is well known as the reviver of modern Korean Seon  Buddhism.

Beomeo-sa Temple (Temple of the Nirvana Fish) is the head temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism in Geumjeong-gu, Busan, South Korea. Built on the slopes of Mt. Geumjeong-san, it is one of the country’s best known urban temples and one of three major temples in southeastern Korea, along with Haein-sa and Tongdo-sa Temples. It’s strong Seon Buddhist spirit has earned it the title “Great Headquarters Temple of Seon Buddhism.” Seon Master Gyeongheo, an eminent monk of modern times, opened a Seon center at Beomeo-sa in 1900. Inspired by Ven. Gyeongheo, Ven. Seongwol, then abbot of Beomeo-sa, spread the Seon tradition by establishing many Seon centers in and around the temple. Eminent monks who have resided here include Great Masters Uisang, Yongseong, Manhae and Dongsan. In 2012, the temple was designated a Geumjeong Chongrim (“full monastic practice center”). The term “chongrim” indicates a comprehensive training monastery complex which includes a doctrinal seminary, Seon monastery and precepts center. 

The superb scenery around Mt. Geumjeong-san is known collectively as the “eight scenic wonders of Mt. Geumjeong-san” and around Beomeo-sa as the “three extraordinary sites of Beomeo-sa Temple,” the latter being: the rock peak behind Wonhyo-am Hermitage, two rocks that form the shape of a rooster at Gyemyeong-am Hermitage and the legendary “golden well” on top of Mt. Geumjeong-san. The “eight scenic wonders” refer to: the pine forest around Eosan Bridge at the temple’s entrance; moonlit autumn nights at Gyemyeong-am Hermitage; rain at night at Cheongnyeon-am Hermitage; the sound of the temple bell heard from Naewon-am Hermitage; the murmuring of the mountain stream at Daeseong-am Hermitage; late autumn foliage at Geumgang-am Hermitage; the view of the sea from Uisang Peak; and the clouds encircling Godang Peak, the summit of Mt. Geumjeong-san.

The provost monk of Gyemyeong-am Hermitage, Ven. Seonjae, welcomed our party. He looks young even though his Buddhist “Dharma age” (the age he became a monk) is almost 40. He entered the temple as a young boy, so his actual age is mid-40s. Ven. Seonjae said this about Ven. Yonghak, our guide to Gyemyeong-am Hermitage:

“Head lecturer Ven, Yonghak teaches difficult Buddhism to teach the way of being a monk, but I teach easy Buddhism to pass on the wisdom required to live a good life.”

“The duty of a monk is to sever all worldly and mundane relationships. We are not free because there are many complicated, complex and tangled relationships in this world. That is life. To make life easier, we need to be free from these complicated and intricate relationships.”

The Buddhist College of Liberal Arts, run by Gyemyeong-am Hermitage, recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. Full enrollment is 100 students, and it has already graduated 1,200. Why do so many students come to such a hard-to-reach place as Gyemyeong-am Hermitage? As I looked into Ven. Seonjae’s kind eyes and listened to him speak, I thought I might know part of the reason.

The Roles of Ven. Seongwol and Ven. Dongsan

Legend says the mountain where Beomeo-sa is located has a huge rock at the summit where there is a golden well that never dries up. The water of this well is believed to have special magical properties because ages ago, a golden fish came down from heaven to play in it, and he still lives there. Thus the name of the temple came to be Heavenly Fish Temple. It is also claimed that the fish came from Nirvana, the Buddhist state of perfect enlightenment. Therefore,
the temple is also known as “the temple where fish from nirvana play.

A panoramic view of Beomeo-sa Temple as seen from Gyemyeong-am Hermitage.

Head of Geumeo Seon Monastery, Ven. Ingak ponders the life of Master Dongsan who attained enlightenment in a bamboo grove.

During the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592, Master Seosan, a title of honor given to the Joseon Seon monk Hyujeong, is known to have commanded a militia of Buddhist monks from his headquarters at Beomeo-sa Temple. And in 1919 during Korea’s “March First Independence Movement,” the students studying here also participated in that movement. In addition, the students spearheaded the spread of Buddhism and modern education campaigns by setting up a Buddhist missionary center in Seoul. At the end of the Joseon Dyansty, Ven. Seongwol established a Seon monastery at Geumgang-am Hermitage, later opening Seon monasteries at Anyang-am Hermitage, Gyemeung-am Hermitage and Daesung-am Hermitage, in that order. He then designated Beomeo-sa Temple to be the “Great Headquarters Temple of Seon” and invited Seon Master Gyeongheo.

In the 1950s, Ven. Dongsan (1890­1965) stayed at Beomeo-sa Temple and led the Buddhist purification movement. During the Korean War, more than 500 Buddhist monks here devoted themselves only to meditation.

Ven. Dongsan was born in Danyang County, North Chungcheong-do Province. As a medical
student at Gyeongseong Medical College in 1910, his interest in Buddhism was stimulated by a question from Master Yongseong (1864­1940) who asked him:

“You may treat the physical diseases of human beings through medicine, but how can you control the diseases of the mind?” Upon graduating from medical college in 1912, he renounced the world to become a monk at Beomeo-sa. The next year he was ordained as a Buddhist monk by his teacher Yongseong and his preceptor Seongwol. Dongsan practiced meditation at Jikji-sa Temple for three years and returned to Beomeo-sa in 1927. While he continued meditation practice, he attained ultimate enlightenment suddenly one day upon simply hearing the sound of bamboo rattling in the wind.  Afterward, he studied Buddhist doctrine under Master Han-am (1876­1951), practiced Seon meditation continuously at Beomeo-sa, and in 1929, eventually became the spiritual leader of Beomeo-sa. In March 1941, he lectured at the “Dharma Assembly for Transmission of the Teachings,” which was held for the purpose of spreading traditional Korean Seon, protecting the precepts, and carrying on the traditional Seon lineage. This assembly, which helped form the basis for the revival of Korean Buddhism, was held over a period of ten days (beginning Feb 26, 1941) and was led by over thirty eminent monks at the Seonhag-won Foundation. Ven. Dongsan emphasized that Korean Buddhism had been tainted by Japanese influence during the occupation and should be purified by re-establishing the tradition of Korean Seon. In May 1953, he issued a manifesto to all temples nationwide to demand that they cease all practices and policies instituted by the Japanese. In November 1954, he was selected as head of the Central Council of Buddhist Reform. After the reform movement was successfully concluded, he resigned all offices and returned to Beomeo-sa in August 1955. On March 23, 1965, he passed away at age 76. Ven. Dongsan left a significant legacy in modern Korean Buddhism by enacting reforms to revive the spirit of Seon and for striving to restore the purity and independence of Korean Buddhism.

Boje-ru Pavilion after the evening Buddhist service.
Seeing three acolytes staring at a wall in silence until
the monk-lecturers leave may seem odd to outsiders.
That is exactly what Bodhidharma did for nine years.

Self-study time in the sutra school. We can see the
fierce determination of practitioners through the
figure of this monk hanging monks’ robes in a row.

Ven. Ingak, head of the Geumeo Seon Monastery, says, “A Seon monastery is something like a remote island.” Whenever a 3-month meditation retreat (“angeo”) starts, participating monks from all over the country unite in oneness and remember Master Dongsan’s song of enlightenment.   

Strive for ‘the Salvation of Sentient Beings’, not ‘Control over It’

The One Pillar Gate (“Ilju-mun”) is usually the first gate one sees when entering a temple. Generally, a temple’s One Pillar Gate consists of a roof supported at four corners by four pillars. However, Beomeo-sa’s is unique in that its roof rests on four pillars arranged in a straight line.  That means that, when viewed from the side, only one pillar is visible. This symbolizes the beginning of one’s journey toward the “One Mind” or the first step toward Buddhism’s “Pure Land.” The One Pillar Gate also symbolizes “absolute, immutable truth.” It is the first door that leads to the sacred world of the Buddha. Because the world of truth has no discrimination, it is said that people entering this gate must leave their discriminatory ideas behind. Our original nature is as clear and pure as the blue sky, but it becomes contaminated by the mundane world. The name plaque on Beomeo-sa’s One Pillar Gate reads “Seonchal Daebonsan Beomeo-sa” (“Great Headquarters Temple of Seon, Beomeo-sa).” It is said to be one of the finest gates of its kind in Korea, and plans are underway to have it and the temple’s Daeung-jeon designated as official national treasures.

On every column of the lecture hall is written: “Watch your step” (照顧脚下, Jogogakha: “Watch carefully beneath where you step”). It’s actual message is that we should be very careful of our practice at this very moment. The head lecturer, Yonghak, says this promotes “enlightenment here and now.”

Beomeo-sa Temple is actively working to make Buddhism more accessible to modern society by attempting to modernize Buddhism to make it relevant in today’s world. Being located in a port city, more and more foreigners are participating in Beomeo-sa’s Templestay program, and the temple encourages their participation in various programs. In addition, they are active in social welfare, having established a  nursing home for the elderly, a youth training center and a social welfare center.

“To first attain enlightenment through self-cultivation, then work to save all beings.” That is the sacred duty of a bodhisattva. To attain enlightenment, Bodhisattvas must elevate themselves on the one hand, but on the other, they must also descend to the level of sentient beings to liberate them from the suffering of this world. In this respect, Beomeo-sa’s policy of “emancipating sentient beings from suffering” has much to offer. We can see the new vitality of modern Buddhism in action as Beomeo-sa’s leadership concentrates a major part of its efforts on social welfare. At the same time, Vens. Mubi and Seonjae keep busy with various educational projects. 

Jang In-seok | Columnist 
Photos by Lee Jong-seung | Dong-a Ilbo (Photo Journalist)

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