Just before I split from bustling Haeundae Beach (barely a minute after arriving), an older guy approached, asked if I was a photographer, smiled with compassion worthy of the Buddha himself when I confessed my true calling, and proceeded to list all the other westerners he’d befriended. Then he commenced a detailed discourse on the history of Yonggung Temple.
My heart sank — I had some walking to do — but he would not be stopped, so I made myself comfortable while his wife waited silently a few metres back, smiling awkwardly.
The lecture began with a question.
“Do you know why this temple is very unusual?”
“Yes. It’s the only one in the country built on the rocks at the water’s edge, and not on flat land or a mountainside.”
“Very good! I see you are a very intelligent man with an excellent knowledge of Korean history. And do you know why it was built there?”
I’d read the story — but I’ve read dozens of temple information boards, each offering their own cocktail of outlandish myths, each inevitably containing the words destroyed during the 1592-1598 Japanese invasions and rebuilt in... Seeing me falter, he pounced.
“As you know,” (a favourite Korean expression) “the temple’s name is Yong-gung-sa. Yong means dragon. Gung means palace. At that time, our ancestors believed that a great dragon lived at the bottom of the sea in his wonderful palace. So, in order to keep the dragon happy, the people gave him a beautiful young woman…”
So: a human sacrifice. A giant marine reptile, a drowned woman: it could never have worked. The lecture concluded at last, with Mr Cho handing me his card, declaring “I want to build a good relationship with you,” and then shuffling up the seafront, followed a few metres behind by his awkwardly smiling wife.
Now I was nearing the dragon’s majestic lair, or at least the temple erected in his name, part of a great serpentine line descending the entrance steps in fits and starts as the overstuffed temple disgorged earlier visitors:
We cleared the cave-like gateway to drop further, the ocean coming into view…
..as we reached the walkway that arches over a narrow and rugged cove…
..and then the temple courtyard, jammed with thousands of guests for the Buddha’s Birthday lantern festival.
I knew what to expect, having come here on the Buddha’s last birthday, and although crowds and lines are two of the main reasons I seldom go out, the atmosphere and the spectacle of thousands of beautiful lanterns, not to mention the dramatic setting, made the return visit — my third or fourth all up — worth the effort.
In the main hall, guests paid their respects to the birthday boy…
..while most seemed to be there for the same reasons I was: the colour, the joyous atmosphere.
Those who claim Buddhism is not a religion would have a hard time accounting for the some of its Japanese and Korean permutations. In both countries, Buddhism has been intertwined with local folk traditions, shamanism, and nature worship. There are gods — in all but name, perhaps — for just about everything, lucky charms and amulets for sale, elaborate rituals, temples dedicated to specific human desires (traffic safety and academic success may be prayed for at Yonggungsa) — and there certainly seems to be a distinctly religious element to proceedings at events like this one.
“Wishing lanterns” are a uniquely Korean flourish:
According to this source,
This tradition is also a big business for Korean temples… Insiders say that the income from the wishing lanterns around Buddha’s Birthday make up the budget for the temples for a year, at least.
This little nook on the cliffside above and behind the temple and the gold Buddha is one of my favourite parts, and is particularly peaceful on a quiet morning just after dawn:
The sea breeze was soothing after the walk in the hot sun:
The true believers did a lot of praying — and a lot of repeated prostrations — beneath the lanterns…
..but for the great majority of the visitors the day was all about fun.
There was no shame in pointing cameras anywhere you wanted, lots of laughter and family portraits, eating, enjoyment of the majestic views and the timeless rhythm of the waves lapping at the rocks below.
This outcrop, with its view of the temple and its amazing backdrop, is the coveted place for photographers as sunset approaches. I’ve been here for dawn a couple of times as well, and had the place to myself. You can easily imagine the awe and reverence it attracted in centuries past — particularly with that fearsome dragon lurking somewhere just offshore:
There was lots of prayer and prostration out here at this Buddha, too…
..but rituals took various forms:
Around 7:00 the sun dipped behind the headland, the temperature dropped, and the sky glowed in subtle pinks and oranges:
Photographers — myself included — went into combat mode…
..and the lantern lights came on:
It was fantastic. I ran around excitedly with the other hopeless lantern groupies until it got too dark. Up on the road, the hordes were retreating to their traffic jams and overcrowded buses. I strolled back on the coast road, enjoying the solitude and the salty breeze, until Home, Sweet Home for the night came into view:
It was the second great light show of the evening.
~ And that’s all the Goat wrote