Posts filed under 'History'

Staying the Night at a Buddhist Temple

Golgulsa's 7th Century BuddhaWe are awoken at 4 am by the rhythmic striking of a wooden block (moktak), while a novice monk chants and then rattles our doors.  It is dark and cold as we hurriedly dress and head up the hill to morning prayer.  The stars are still visible, with Venus shining blue where Mars had shone reddish the evening before.  A seventh century carving of Buddha is lit high up on a cliff, facing out toward the still-far off dawn.

Sitting cross legged on the floor, we listen as the maroon and yellow-robed monks chant Buddhist sutras.  About 30 high school children surround us in the prayer room.  They are poking each other to stay upright and awake.  At 5 am we turn to sitting meditation, focusing on our breathing.  We try to ignore the novice monk walking the room with a bamboo stick, tapping those who slouch or who have been distracted by the cold.  Then it is walking meditation, which begins in agony as muscles that have cramped and feet that have fallen asleep try to carry us uphill.  At 6 am we file down to Buddhist breakfast (paru gongyang), a Sunday celebration of food and those who produce and prepare it.  We are taught to focus solely on our food, to eat quickly and thoughtfully, and to clean our bowls carefully, wasting neither a grain of rice nor a sesame seed.  That focus is a bit broken as we race to finish before the head monk does, since his timing determines when they come to check our bowls.

Amanda and my room at GolgulsaThese are a few scenes from our one night stay with the Buddhist monks of Golgul Temple in Gyeongju South Korea, near the western coast.   Many Buddhist communities welcome overnight visitors as a source of income and an opportunity to expose more people to the tenets of Buddhist practice.  This particular temple focuses on the preservation and transmission of sunmudo, a martial art originally developed among Buddhists in Korea.  It was used by “fighting monks” who were central in the defense of the nation from Japanese invasion in the 16th century. 

Our stay began with an explanation of what would occur.  Then we moved into our housing, dorm room like accommodations with Korean-style bedding in the middle of the temple grounds.  Tod has his own room on the men’s floor and a former Saint Anselm College student and I shared one on the women’s floor.  Then we wandered, checking out Golgulsa’s famous ”caves,” which are deep ledges on a weathered cliff side, where monks could sit and meditate for hours at a time. Buddhist shrines have been set up all over the cliffside.  Even with stairs, a handrail, and a rope, it was tough going - one could easily imagine the difficult time monks had in the 7th century, climbing up in the dark.  After breakfast on Sunday we climbed it in the dark and watched the sun rise over the distant mountains under the benevolent eyes of that 7th century Buddha.

Golsulsa's caves and BuddhaOur schedule said we were to spend part of the evening chanting and then participating in sunmudo training.  We had no idea how strenuous this would be. Buddhists bow before Buddha 3 times upon entering or leaving a room, multiple times during chanting, 108 times once a day in prayer and 3000 times in times of need.  Properly practicing Buddhists must have leg muscles of steel!  A bow in the Seoul style consists of the following:  Stand with feet together and hands palm to palm in front of your chest.  Squat and bring your knees to the floor.  Bring your hands to the floor, so you are kneeling and then bring your head to the floor.  Balancing on your elbows, bring your hands up and rotate them as if you were throwing something over your shoulders.  Return your hands to the floor, move your weight back onto your feet, put your hands palm to palm again, and stand.  After 30 bows we were moving slowly enough to skip every other one.  At 60 bows I lost count.  When we were finished, I was grateful.  Then we began stretching for sunmudo training!

Luckily training for us consisted of breathing exercises used to center the mind, and some basic sunmudo moves emphasizing balance and strength.  By the end, even bed on a thin mattress in a dorm room sounded absolutely heavenly.

Gameunsa PagodaWe ate three meals at the temple.  All were vegetarian, emphasizing the Buddhist belief in the sacredness of life.  They were also remarkably plain, as Korean Buddhists do not use garlic, onions or most spices.  Dinner and lunch were served cafeteria style and focused on really tasty bean sprouts, various greens, and soybean-paste soup.  We were warned not to take any more food than we could eat; our trays would not be accepted with any leftovers on them.   This was a marked contrast to traditional Korean eating patterns.  We wondered if it helped to mark how different Buddhist life was from the more modern, abundant world outside the temple.

We finished our visit with some side excursions to other Buddhist sites in the area.  Gameunsa’s stone pagodas were built in 682 AD by King Sinmun.  His father, King Munmu, had unified the Korean peninsula for the first time.  Munmu was buried in “the world’s only sea tomb” amid these off shore rocks, where he hoped to turn into a sea dragon to protect his people forever. We also saw Girimsa, a much larger, somehow more peacefully laid out temple.  Perhaps the focus on prayer rather than martial arts affected the feel of the temple, or perhaps it was simply we enjoyed its flatness, rather than hiking up a 20% grade before every meal.

King Munmu's Sea TombOne day and night barely introduced us to a religion that has been in Korea since the fourth century A.D.  But it was a fascinating start. 

For images from other Buddhist temples and gravesites I have visited during my stay here, please click on one of the pictures in this blog.  From there, click on the words “Buddhism set” on the right hand side of the flickr photo page.  The Buddhism set has 45 images from at least 10 temples.

Add comment January 20, 2008

The Western Coast

Birds on SticksI am not sure what news about Korea makes it into American newspapers.  Right now Korea is dealing with a terrible oil spill on its west coast.  10,500 tons of oil have leaked and are landing on some of the most pristine beaches in the country.  Abalone and oyster farms, raw seafood restaurants, little maritime communities and large tourist enclaves have all been equally damaged.  Thousands of people have already applied for economic relief since their livelihoods have been utterly destroyed.

After seeing pictures of blackened shores, birds dripping oil, and rafts of belly-up crabs, I realized I have actually been to that coast.  Of course I had no idea then that it would be my only chance to see one of the most beautiful parts of Korea.  Here is a description of my trip, with sights, tastes and smells.

Eunsook Lee Zeilfelder and meThree friends and I drove west and south from Pyeongtaek through miles and miles of rice fields.  After about 2 hours we reached the coast and began driving south.  In this area the road often becomes a very long bridge between peninsulas or even onto and off islands and the entire area is what I think of as a “beach town”.  There are lots of motels close to the shore and acres and acres of oyster “shacks” (inexpensive restaurants serving fresh oysters in a half dozen simple ways).

I am not sure at which beach we finally stopped, though I think we were on Anmyeondo Island.  This is the southern part of the Taean Haean National Marine Park which is the epicenter of the oil damage.  We were greeted by wooden and metal birds on sticks lining the shore, an art form I have seen in many places in Korea.  We arrived right around sunset and the islands off the shore already had a touch of red and gold behind them.  It was very windy!

Eating on the BeachAs we walked along the beach we passed dozens of older women with large bowls.  Peeking in I saw live baby octopi, fresh oysters, and a half dozen types of sea life I could not identify.  My companions stopped near a set of tables protected by umbrellas and ordered -  raw shelled oysters, sea “ginseng” (sea cucumber or sea slug), and a red, pulsing thing that looked like a human heart but was clearly some kind of sea urchin.

The oysters were great, the red thing was hard and salty, but the slug was slimy and cartilaginous at the same time and is the first food I have had I will definitely not repeat.  It is hard to believe it was a staple of the medieval East Asian trade routes!   It was clear why beer and soju (pine-needle vodka, with half the alcohol) were necessary accompaniments, along with hot peppers, hot pepper sauce and garlic.

fresh raw fishWe then drove briefly to a fresh fish warehouse, chose our dinner from the tanks, and walked it next door.  Butchers killed, cleaned and sliced our fish in front of us. (Koreans like to watch this process since it ensures that the fish they chose is the fish they actually eat, without substitution of lower quality fish).  Then we walked next door one more time to a restaurant, which gave us a place to eat our huge pile of fresh, raw fish.  The restaurant also cooked the heads, skin and bones into a rich stew with vegetables and spices (this is called maemultang).  The raw fish was just like sashimi, except in amazing quantity.

Afterward we went out for norebang and then back to the car, looking out over the ocean under the stars.  I wish I had inhaled deeply of the salty air, which is now thick with nausea- producing oil fumes. 

IslandsKnowing my time here is limited, I have tried to do as many things as I can, while at the same time remembering I am on sabbatical and sheer exhaustion defeats the point!  I had the tail end of a terrible cold when my friends decided to go to the coast, and I agreed to come reluctantly and a bit resentfully - I really just wanted to sleep.  Now I am, as I often am here in Korea, grateful I went and tried something new.  Sometimes events like the oil spill highlight how much can change in an instant and how precious time and place can be.  As the New Year approaches that seems like a good reminder for all of us.

1 comment December 12, 2007

History and Forgiveness

Korean Flags at KIHA few weeks ago, the student assistant in the American Studies Department asked if he could take me to a museum.  On a Saturday morning Ji Jae-yong showed up with two friends and a picnic lunch.  We drove about 40 minutes to the town of Cheonan, eating tangerines and sharing stories.   After a great lunch in a blustery wind, we headed into the museum complex, eventually seeing 6 buildings of out 10. 

In case you do not know (I did not before I came here), Japan ruled Korea from the mid-1890s until the end of World War II.  This is called the “colonial period” and it was filled with Japanese brutality and Korean independence movements.  The March 1 (1919) uprising is the most famous.  Japan required all Koreans to learn Japanese, to take Japanese names, and to serve the Japanese economy.  Korean resistance was physical as well as cultural, especially the teaching of hanguel (the Korean alphabet) and the sewing of national flags.

A Cold Day at the Korean Independence HallThe Independence Hall of Korea was created in the 1980s specifically to counter Japanese histories of this period.  Koreans firmly believe that Japan has still not fully understood or repented its colonial activities.  They point to Japan’s history books, which tend to gloss over any negative aspects of the period, as evidence.

While I could argue with a few signs in the museum which referred to “those wily Japanese imperialists,” one sign was absolutely perfect.  It came after an exhibit depicting Japanese soldiers inflicting horrible torture on members of the Korean Language Association (being a Korean language teacher was a revolutionary and deadly position under colonialism).  The Japanese appeared to be either enjoying their work, or bored by it.  I wondered what the point of this horror was (I would have skipped the exhibit, but the students were eager for me to see it).  Then I found the sign.  It said, more or less, “The actions shown in this exhibit can be forgiven, but should never be forgotten.  We did not create this exhibit to excite hatred or anger toward another nation, but to present the truth as reported in oral testimonies and historical documents.  Only when we understand and accept the truth of the past can we create a united future.”

We all paused and thought.  As an American I was particularly stunned. I fear some day I will read such a sign after an exhibit depicting American atrocities.  Whatever our political beliefs about the reasons such things happen, torture by Americans has and likely is still happening.  We will some day have to account for and perhaps apologize for it.  If we do not, I hope someone creates such a carefully worded exhibit.  We must understand and accept before we can move on.National Museum of Korea

A week later I went to the National Museum of Korea.  It used to be housed in a building built by the Japanese during the colonial period.  Late in the 1990s this was considered inappropriate for Korea’s national museum and it has been moved to a stunningly beautiful new building and park.  I wandered the grounds, deeply impressed with the economic investment Korea could make in protecting its heritage.  It has only been 50 years since colonization and a devastating civil war.  Living people still remember.

National Museum Pagoda GardenA colleague provided excellent explanations of the moveable type exhibit (Koreans invented moveable type 200 years before Gutenberg). She underscored the connections between patriotism and hanguel, language and resistance.  So you may understand why I was rocked a little off-balance when we next entered an entire exhibit devoted to Japanese art.  Not just Japanese art, but Japanese art in the 1930s, when Japan was using Korea’s economic and human resources to build an Asian empire.  The exhibit had delicately painted screens in gold and bright blue, modernist renderings of Mount Fuji, azure blue pottery, stunningly lacquered boxes, and intricately woven baskets.  The exhibit was mounted with care, thoughtfulness, and a clear love for the pieces.

Here was true forgiveness.  A curator at Korea’s National Museum installed an exhibit of Japanese beauty from a period of Japanese brutality.  There were no signs pointing this out, no hint of politics, just a quiet act of acceptance and generosity.  Here, in a sense, was also Korea’s self-confidence, the ability to showcase Japanese productions amid Korea’s own, knowing Korea’s art would not suffer by comparison. 

I am grateful to the students and the English colleague who made sure I got to see the museums.  And I am especially grateful to two museum curators for an unexpected vision of history and forgiveness. 

1 comment November 18, 2007

Visiting North Korea

Manmulsang Ocean ViewRecently I hiked the Geumgan Mountains, which are just *north* of the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea.  It was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been.  Even though I was limited in where I could visit, I could see why Buddhist monks, Confucian scholars, and Korean poets have written about the mountains for centuries.  I have uploaded 24 pictures to and you can see them by clicking on any photo in this blog entry and looking for the North Korea ”set”.

But beautiful as the mountains were, this blog entry is about visiting North Korea more generally.  I crossed what is still technically a war zone and entered what the United States considers a terrorist state.  I did not do it lightly and I learned a huge amount from doing it.  But I have few pictures of the North Korea I will write about, because taking them would have meant at a minimum having my camera confiscated.Fenced Beach

To get to the mountains, I took a bus to the South Korean city of Gosong and stayed overnight.  In the morning, I looked out over a beautiful beach.  Between me and the beach was an 8 foot tall iron fence.  South Korean soldiers patrolled the beach with machine guns to deter North Korean infiltrators.  Apparently South Korea suffered many of these incursions up through the 1960s, including an attack on the South Korean Presidential Residence (called the Blue House).  By 1998 the entire inter-Korean border and much of the northern coastline had been fenced off.

After going through South Korean emigration procedures, we drove through a green, rolling landscape.  There were tree-covered hills, with scattered farms, vineyards, and farmers.  There were also fences, barbed wire, and military observation posts.  Yet even after we passed the last South Korean soldier waving to us there continued to be farms and vineyards - on the very edge of the Demilitarized Zone!  There were also hundreds of white egrets on pristine lakes and other wildlife thriving in the deserted area (except for those which step on landmines, I assume). 

When we entered North Korea, the difference was stark.  There were no trees on the hillsides.  The land was much browner.  Farmers in the field plowed with oxen and pulled wooden carts by hand.  The entire road had electric fencing on both sides and the few openings in the fence were staffed with armed soldiers.  The soldiers did not wave.  We were warned not to speak to, speak about, or make eye contact with the soldiers, who were armed and serious.

North Korean Flag and Patriotic WritingAt the immigration processing office, my bag fell off the inspection conveyer belt. A North Korean soldier picked it up.  I automatically said, “Kamsa hamnida” (thank you) to the guard.  He barked something at me, which I realized was “You speak Korean?!”  I quietly muttered “Hangukmal chogum haeyo” (I have a little Korean) and he reached for my identification tag (we wore these around our necks the entire time we were in North Korea, with our nationality, profession, names and photos).  “You are an American?” he asked in Korean.  “Yes, I am an American person.  I arrived in August,” I replied in Korean.  Two other soldiers had walked over now and I thought, “Boy I’m in trouble.”  All three put their hands together in a brief moment of applause and dismissed me.  I hustled away, dumbfounded.

Line Up ManmulsangThis was the first sign that the Cold War is thawing on the inter-Korean border.  The second and third came at the end of my two hikes.  Because we had a bus accident on the way across the border (I’m fine, just a bruised knee), we arrived at the mountain late.  Since I was one of the last people up the mountain and a slow hiker, twice I found myself followed up by a South Korean guide and then followed down by North Korean officials.  The South Korean was making sure no stragglers missed the bus.  The North Koreans were likely making sure no stragglers intentionally missed the bus.  Both were willing to talk with me, and the North Koreans were very nice.  One gave me a Snickers bar as a reward for being the last one to the summit!  Others asked the standard Korean introduction questions - how old are you?  Are you married?  Do you have children?  Where are you from?  We did not discuss politics, and I did not ask about the bright red pins with pictures of the North Korean leader on their brown official jackets.  We were all cautious and civil and tentative, not really friendly, but not enemies either.  We were all curious, which overcomes many barriers.

The rest of the trip was like being in South Korea.  This is not surprising since all the tourist amenities (from restaurants to souvenir shops to the amazing outdoor hotspring spa) are all run by South Koreans and staffed by ethnic Koreans from China brought in to work for low wages.  In a sense, I was on North Korean land being rented by a South Korean company.  The few North Koreans in fields, on bicycles, or walking along the fence must have thought we had arrived from another planet - rich, well-fed, and thoroughly corrupted by capitalism.  I was sorry we were their only vision of the south and west.  But I was grateful to see them, to have a chance, however small, to put a face to people I usually only read about.  Everyone I saw looked old.

Those people could be the wives or brothers or children of people in South Korea.  The war is not yet over and neither is the grief.  Reunions between North and South Koreans happen more frequently than they used to, but thousands of people do not know what happened to their relatives after they separated, frightened but hopeful, on a night during or after the war. 

Two BrothersAm I sorry that some of the money I paid went to support the North Korean dictator?  Yes, of course.  But I saw it as an investment.  A few North Koreans met an American who speaks some Korean.  That briefly put Americans in a different light for them.  And one American now understands a little more about North Korea.  If the DMZ is a sign of failure - the failure of either side to win the war, the failure of politicians to find a way to reunite the divided nation - my bus ride across the border was a sign of hope.   

The South Korean War Museum has a statue called “Two Brothers”.  It shows a true story in which a South Korean soldier met his younger brother on a Korean War battlefield.  The younger brother was fighting for the North.  The two embraced, battle forgotten.  Perhaps one day all Koreans will be able to embrace their loved ones.  I have stood on the rubble that was the Berlin Wall.  I hope I have a chance some day to stand on the iron fencing that now bounds the DMZ. 

2 comments November 7, 2007

The Joseon Dynasty

DeoksugungThe written history of Korea goes back more than two millennia and their archaeological and mythical record goes back long before that.  But at the moment there is a nation-wide fascination with the Joseon (Chosun) dynasty.  This is understandable.  The Joseon Dynasty lasted from 1392 to 1910 and represents the last period during which Korea was a sovereign, united nation.

So far I have visited four main Joseon dynasty sites.  The second wedding I crashed was at Unhyong Palace (or Unhyonggung) where one of last Joseon kings was born.  He later lived (and I believe died) at Deoksugung, which is pictured above. 

 Gyeongbokgung island pavillionThe dynasty’s first palace was Gyeongbokgung, which was destroyed during a Japanese invasion in 1592.  It was reconstructed in 1868 and then dismantled when the Japanese occupied Korea during the first half of the twentieth century.  Since 1990, the Koreans have been restoring Gyeongbokgung building by building, and now have about 25 of the original 330 buildings completely restored with dozens of smaller walls, courtyards, outbuildings and chimneys.  At least another 15 are scheduled to open soon.  With two lakes, two mountains in the background, and thousands of yards of cool shaded walls, the Palace has a truly royal setting.

Gyeongbokgung Ceiling DetailWhat is amazing about these reconstructions is the level of detail. If you click on any of the pictures in this blog, you will be taken to a larger version of the picture in  Look on the right hand side of the flickr page.  You will see that each picture belongs to the “Joseon Dynasty set”.  If you click on those words you will see an additional 25 pictures; run them as a slide show to get a sense of being surrounded by Korean architecture.  Here you can see the symbolic 5 color painting of the ceilings and roofs (respresenting North, South, East, West and Center - and counting blue and green as the same color).  You can also see the careful detailing of the roof tiles, which are covered with imperial animals at Deoksugung (where the king was crowned as emperor) or with royal symbols at other palaces.  Even the chimneys were created to be beautiful - they are tiled in harmony with the buildings around them and often have animals or other decorative motifs carved into them or molded onto them.

Hwaseong Changing of Guard CeremonyAt both Gyeongbokgung and at a Fortress called Hwaseong in a town called Suwon, I have gotten to watch the changing of the guard at the front gate.  Dozens of men dressed as Joseon dynasty military men played instruments, shot arrows, fired guns, carried flags, and performed precision marching steps.  At Suwon, the king came out to greet his townspeople (we the audience) and was practically mobbed with enthusiasm - his royal guard had to fend off a number of time-traveling, camera-wielding ”fans”.

Hwaseong Fortress Walk in SuwonThe Hwaseong Fortress in Suwon was built between 1794 and 1796 when the king moved all the government offices and private houses near one mountain to another.  41 buildings were built including a fortress wall that completely surrounded the city.  The fortress was deliberately destroyed by the Japanese, who built a hospital and other service buildings on the grounds in the 1930s.  Then the North Koreans invaded and American bombers destroyed much of what was left.  But the people of Suwon have rebuilt over 30 of the buildings and one can now walk almost 2 hours around the rebuilt fortress walls on well-graded paths with the occasional water fountain and helpful tourist information stand.  Yet many sections have a wild, distant feel to them, where one can imagine spending long shifts watching for the enemy and being hot or cold or just far from home. 

I promise not to subject you to too many history lessons, but hey, teaching history is my job!  Thank you (kamsa hamnida or komap sumnida) for your many comments on the blog and e-mails about it.  Knowing there are people reading and enjoying makes it worth it.  Annyeongi kaseyo (good-bye) for now. 

1 comment September 28, 2007

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