Jogyesa Temple, Seoul

Great Hall

monksJogyesa Temple

The temple complex is busy, teeming with people, noise and chatting, but green with lovely lotus leaves and colorful with flowers, and still somehow peaceful too, so one gets the feeling of a special place. It felt like a bright and cheerful place to us, and people were very relaxed about being there, bowing, chatting, chanting. We saw a couple of monks, with cell phones and taking photos of the lotus flowers—modern technology is everywhere!

We’ve been here twice, once on our own when we just wandered around, and once with a Korean friend and her young daughter. I’d love to go again and spend a bit more time, just sitting and absorbing the atmosphere.



lotusUnlike most Buddhist temples in Korea that are nestled in the mountains, Jogyesa is located in the city center, not too far from Insadong or the Gyeongbokgung Palace complex. It is one of Korea’s most famous temples, Seoul’s most prominent temple and the headquarters of the Jogye order, Korea’s primary Buddhist sect.

The temple compound is surrounded by modern buildings, some fairly high-rise, and traffic noise is never far away. There is no garden per se as the surrounds of the Great Hall are concrete. But, they have managed to create the feeling of a garden with a couple of big trees; multiple flower pots, mainly with lotus plants, grouped together creating a sea of green; a number of small bricked ponds with lotus plants; and many smaller flower pots. When we were there the lotus plants were flowering profusely, and the flowers were gorgeous.



hallbannersIn the grounds of this temple compound is Daeungjeon, the largest Buddhist shrine in Seoul. It was built in 1938 but the design followed the late-Joseon-dynasty style. The main hall is a fantastic example of the country’s colorful and immaculately patterned temple decorations. Typical Buddhist banners are strung outside, creating a kind of canopy-roof. When we were there, lots were decorated with colorful fish, large and small, plus a shoal of tiny white fish. The grounds also have a stone pagoda, and other stone sculptures, including some lions and elephants on the verandah surrounding the main hall. Our friend’s daughter climbed on one of these and no-one was worried or upset at all!



3BuddhasMurals of scenes from Buddha’s life, and the carved floral lattice-work doors are two of the attractive features. Inside are three giant Buddha statues. On the left is Amitabha, Buddha of the Western Paradise; in the center is the historical Buddha who lived in India and achieved enlightenment; on the right is the Bhaisaiya or Medicine Buddha with a bowl in his hand. There’s a small 15th century Buddha in a glass case that was the main Buddha statue before it was replaced by the larger ones in 2006. On the right-hand side is a guardian altar with lots of fierce-looking guardians in the painting behind; on the left is the altar used for memorial services (white is the funeral color).



forkidsBelievers who enter the temple bow three times, touching their forehead to the ground—once for the Buddha, once for the dharma (teacher) and once for the sangha (monks), 20 of whom serve in this temple. Outside there are candles (like Buddha, they light up the world, dispelling darkness and ignorance) and incense sticks (the smoke sends wishes up to heaven). We are not Buddhist, so we just looked at what we could from the outside—which is quite a lot, as the big doors are open.


A temple guardian

pagodaBehind the main shrine is the modern Amitabha Buddha Hall, where funeral services are held. The statues are the 10 judges who pass judgement, 49 days after someone’s death, to decide if they go to heaven or hell. The belfry houses a drum to summon earthbound animals, a wooden fish-shaped gong to call aquatic beings, a metal cloud-shaped gong to call birds, and a large bronze bell to summon underground creatures. They are banged 28 times at 4am and 33 times at 6pm.

The new Central Buddhist Museum has three galleries of antique woodblocks, symbol-filled paintings and other Buddhist artefacts. In one corner is a tearoom, and in another corner the Information Center for Foreigners, open 1am-5pm and staffed by English-speaking Buddhist guides. You can try making lanterns and prayer beads, doing woodblock printing, painting, and drinking green tea. It’s free but donations are welcome. You can also ask about having a meditation lesson and a four-bowl Buddhist monk meal. We didn’t actually have time to go in there, so we never did any of this.

Viv and Rod with Sophia
The hooked cross, a sacred symbol for Buddhism and other Asian religions, means good fortune or well-being (later taken by the Nazis and called a swastika)

On Buddha’s birthday, the Lotus Lantern festival is held in the Jongno and Insadong areas and the temple is the starting point of the parade.

Jogyesa offers temple life and temple stay programs to foreigners, but we don’t know anyone who has done that, so am not sure how it would work out.

The best way to get here is on Metro Line 3, Anguk station or Gyeongbokgung station, and walk 10-15 minutes.



Gwanghwamun Square on a Saturday

Gyeongbokgung Main Gate
Start of the square, looking back at Main Gate and pagoda
Top of square and World Book Day

A Happening Place: Gwanghwamun Square on a Saturday

***Please note: This has a lot of pictures—very nice ones, I think!

This 555-meter-long and 34-meter-wide square is in front of Gwanghwamun, the main gate of Gyeongbokgung Palace, and one of Seoul’s main landmarks. Behind the palace compound is the Bukhansan Mountain to the north. Statues of Admiral Yi Sun-shin (who repelled the Japanese invasions of the 1590s) and King Sejong (who created the Korean alphabet), the historical figures most respected by Koreans, are on the square.

Walking south, the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History is on your left, then the Embassy of the USA and embassies of Austria, Australia and Finland. On the right, the main feature is the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts.

World Book Day

This square is often a rallying point for different demonstrations and protests, so you’ll always see a large police presence—also because of the embassies along here. It’s a perfect place for shows and expos as well, as so many people pass by here.

We spent many hours wandering around here last Saturday and were fascinated to get a sample of the kinds of events that take place here. In spite of the poor air quality (the yellow dust was rated at an emergency level) there were still many activities happening on the square.



First, at the north end, we found an exhibition for World Book Day 2016. What a fun and important thing, to encourage reading. Kids were reading in an open tent; people could borrow books from a small library; various artists were decorating or illustrating large “books”; huge mock-ups of famous titles, a book ‘tower’ and a large blue elephant illustrated the theme. A young lady invited passers-by to write on a large board, so I added to the messages—some about books and reading, many about Seoul and experiences in Seoul.



Next we saw a lovely 3-storied pagoda with lions as corner pillars and fanciful creatures at the base. It’s not marked in our guidebooks, so we wondered if it was new. It looks real enough. But, turns out it’s a paper pagoda lantern, copied from Hwaeum-sa Temple’s stone pagoda (National Treasure no 35), made on a wire frame and filled in with Korean traditional papers. It took about 4 months to manufacture the lantern using traditional methods of Korean lantern-making. It emphasizes a traditional image and colors of an ancient relic, rather than splendid colors. The 4 lions playing the role of pillar symbolize the lion’s courage in protecting Buddhist doctrines. At each of the 4 edges of the lantern are fairies playing music as an offering to Buddha. It will be here and lit up from April 20-May 15, 2016, as part of the general festivities for Buddha’s Birthday this year—on May 14, and a pubic holiday in Korea. It’s an amazing structure and we never guessed at first that it wasn’t solid!

Rod M and Viv M by King Sejong

A little beyond that is the statue of King Sejong, and we discovered that below that is an underground Exhibition Hall, half devoted to King Sejong, his life and accomplishments, and the other half to Admiral Yi. We explored both of them and they are well worth an hour or so. There’s a small café down there too.





Next we came across a lot of white tent-stalls, and discovered they are part of an Integrative Medicine and Healthy Lifestyle Fair, which was on for the Friday and Saturday. It was fun to breeze through that, looking at some of the goods and ideas on offer (what we could understand anyway!).



Markt tents, looking towards gate and mountain



The statue of Admiral Yi towers above the wide metro entrance ramp to Gwanghwamun Station, Line 5. That morning as we walked towards the statue we were very lucky to happen on some traditional Korean dancing near the metro entrance. A group of women dressed in white hanboks with either green or orange trimmings were performing a Ganggang Suwollae. This is a traditional round dance, performed at the time of a full moon, and is to bring hope for a good agricultural year. Three leaders sang as the only form of musical accompaniment and also guided some of the dancers. It was wonderful to watch the group circling, dividing into lines, flowing into an “S” shape, or forming a human arch.


Note the beautiful reflections in the marble wall!



Statue of Admiral Yi

At the southern tip, just beyond the statue of Admiral Yi on a tall pedestal with fountain jets at its base, is the tented Gwanghwamun Family Memorial Altar to commemorate the Sewol Ferry Disaster on April 16, 2014. Tragically, 304 people died, most of them school children on a field trip. Sadly, 9 have yet to be found. This Memorial has been here a while, and many people come to pay respects or add a yellow ribbon.

Who would have thought that in such a


relatively short distance we could experience so many different things and learn so much abut Korea!







Giant Golden Buddha in Suwon

Buddha in the Landscape

Setting for the Suwon Buddha
A small temple is in the base of the huge Suwon Buddha

Strikingly Beautiful Giant Golden Buddha in Suwon

It’s estimated that these days Buddhists account for about 23% of the population in Korea, way less than many years ago. For a brief history of Buddhism in Korea see here:

Although large statues of Buddha are no different in meaning from other smaller representations of the Enlightened One, there are certain distinctions. Buddha images in the open are usually striking simply for their size. But, the location is also an important factor. In addition to a prominent and usually elevated site, as respect for the Buddha demands, the natural beauty of a setting and the sense of calm and serenity coming from physical isolation are often part of the overall design and function of the statue.

Buddha images are made from all kinds of material—bronze, stone, wood, crystal, brick or stucco, or cast in gold, silver or other metal. But the most common for most large Buddha statues in the landscape these days is reinforced concrete.

Suwon Buddha

Buddha images can be found in many countries, notably Thailand, Burma, China, Korea and Japan. But, they all need to be the same in certain ways and have certain characteristics, the three essential ones being kindness, tranquility and enlightenment. People should also note the hands: palms turned upright signify charity, and palms forward mean reasoning.

New outdoor Buddhas continue to be built, especially in Thailand. Many art historians believe that this is an ancient tradition and that many of the huge statues now in temples in these countries were originally in the open.

Small temple below the Buddha statue
Lanterns in small courtyard approaching the temple below the Buddha

We didn’t see many huge outdoor Buddhas in Korea on our last visit, but we did note one very beautiful one in Suwon, on the mountainside next to Hwaseong Fortress, overlooking the city.

This giant golden Buddha stands about 2 storeys tall. Its right hand forms the Jnana Mudra (meaning teaching), and its left hand forms the Vitarka Mudra (meaning intellectual argument/discussion). You approach the statue from the bottom, through a small quiet shaded courtyard bedecked with prayer flags and pretty paper lanterns, and get to a small temple in the base of the statue.

Beautiful lanterns

Very impressive. Even if you’re not religious, you do get a sense of the special serenity here.