Sangwon-sa Temple (May 2000)
(Please read this before you copy our photos or text.)

You don't have to be a Buddhist to appreciate Korea's temples. Besides being handsome buildings, they're often located on stunning mountain sites. But this isn't just because of the scenery. In the late 14th century, the Confucians of the Choson Dynasty (1392-1910) tried to stamp out Korean Buddhism. Today, being in the mountains makes for peaceful meditation. Six hundred years ago, it was more a matter of survival.

Maybe to the consternation of former president and Seoul mayor Lee Myung-bak, today Korea's constitution now guarantees freedom of religion. Good thing, because Buddhism has competition. Its followers are 23% of the population, but Christianity has about 30%. And in first place: NOTA -- "none of the above." Forty-seven percent of Koreans say they have no religion at all.

Buddhism came to Korea from China in 372. Sangwon-sa Temple, in Odaesan National Park in Kangwon Do (Gangwon Province), was begun about 3 centuries later, in 662. Fire has destroyed it several times since then. Each time it's been rebuilt, most recently in 1949.

Even for non-Buddhists, temples are worth a visit. Just remember to mind your manners.

  1. It's best to wear modest clothing. No shorts. (You hardly ever see Koreans wear shorts anywhere.)
  2. Don't enter by the front door, use the side entrance only. Step over the doorsill, not on it.
  3. Leave your shoes at the door, toes pointing away from the temple.
  4. Don't walk in front of someone who's praying.
  5. Don't point the soles of your feet at the Buddha.
  6. Don't let your kids climb on the Buddha. (You wouldn't think I'd have to mention this, but ...)
  7. For goodness' sake, turn off your mobile phone! (Ditto.)
If you want to do a bow inside the temple, you should use the Buddhist triple bow. Here's how.
  1. Press your palms together in front of your heart.
  2. Bow halfway, then stand.
  3. With the hands still together, kneel. Cross your feet, left over right.
  4. Touch the floor with your right hand, then with your left, then with your head.
  5. Repeat step 4.
  6. Repeat step 4 again, but this time, touch your head to the floor twice instead of once.
  7. Stand and bow halfway one more time.

Sounds of a Buddhist Temple

Moktak (wood gong) & chanting [Download]
The first sound of the day at 3 AM. One monk rises first and walks about the monastery, beating the moktak and chanting a prayer. He is praying for dark to give way to light, and for the suffering of all people to be relieved.

Medium bell & chanting

[Download]

After the monks have had time to wash and dress, this bell is rung in a ritual which also includes the drum, the gong, and the wooden fish. It calls to those who have "become decadent."

Large temple bell

[Download]

This temple bell announces the times for chanting. It's rung 28 times in the morning, 36 times at evening, and 3 times in our recording.

If you don't see an audio player on the page above, just click on the download links and use whatever player you have on your computer.

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