Today is the third day of our field trip part of the trip outside of Seoul, taking a bus ride down through the South to visit some sights of historical and cultural importance. It has been a jammed packed three days, I can write about the last two right now. The first sight we visited was King Segong’s Tomb, a Unesco World Heritage site located at the middle point of the peninsula in Yeoju. One of the first things I noticed inside the little museum that sits at the entrance to the grounds that lead to the Tomb (Yeongneung Royal Tombs ) was the display of musical instruments. As mentioned in an earlier post, King Sedong is credited with introducing many things to Korea society such as music, literature, scholarship, and science. By the way, UNESCO status is big in Korea. Because they were not officially members of the UN until 1991, they were never able to get this status, so it means a great deal to them. It is also a way that the two Koreas compete with each other in terms of credibility and legitimacy.
The tomb itself is impressive. The fourth monarch of the Joseon Dynasty, King Sedong’s death marked an end to the golden era of the Joseon dynasty. His son then took the thrown, but died two years later of “natural causes” which probably means, when one is speaking of monarchs, he died of poison. As our professor stated, “some men just can’t handle their arson.” Interestingly, after Sedong introduced the script (not the language) of Hanguel, his son banned it because he saw it as subversive. It wasn’t introduced again until 1897.
The tomb is protected by tomb guardians who are both civilian and military generals. It sits upon a natural hill, as most Korean tombs do, and there is a temple that one approaches leading up to the tomb where ancestral ceremonies take places. The sight is so impressive and important that even the Japanese didn’t burn it down, desecrate or destroy it.
Afterwards, we were treated to another traditional Korean lunch, where the food just kept coming and coming. We were instructed to “eat until you see rice”, which I thought would be a good slogan to put on a t-shirt because the amount of food they are giving us can be classified somewhere under the category of ridiculous.
After lunch we were taken to the Early Printing Museum in Cheongju. The museum is located at Heungdeok Temple site where the oldest metal type printing, Bae-kun-Hwa-sang-Cho-rock-Bul-jo-Sim-che-Yo-jol, was made. While the claim to be the first to discover movable type is often mistakenly attributed to Europe or China, the claim for the first metal type belongs to Korea. Europe (Guttenberg) and China can legitimately claim the first movable wood type and first movable ceramic type. The monk Baekun Hwasang invented the movable metal type in 1377, 78 years before the Gutenberg Bible was printed.
The museum is housed at the sight of the Heungdeok Temple because it is believed that the Buddhist monks who lived at this temple thousands of years ago were the first to develop this way of printing. The oldest known book of movable metal print in the world is the Jikji, which of course is in the National Museum of France in Paris. But the French are willing to “lend” it to Korea whenever they want. Anyway, when the Koreans realized that this book was first printed in Korea, salvage archeologists found words that were written on it, on different pottery pieces they dug up in the city of Cheongju and realized they had discovered the ancient Buddhist temple of Heungdeok. Eventually a museum was built near the site showcasing the process of printing with movable metal type.
After a brief tour of the museum and a demonstration of how print is used, we were all shuffled into a workshop room where we had the opportunity to print and bind our own books. It was rather frustrating for someone like me (failed art class), but it was an interesting experience to truly understand how labor intensive it must have been to print books with this method.
The next day was a good day which involved visits to a few Buddhist temples and a brief overview of religion in Korea. The first religion in Korea was Shamanism, and even though nobody says today that they practice Shamanism if you ask them, many Koreans still engage in Shamanistic activities, particularly though Buddhism which kind of absorbed it. In Korea, if someone has a problem, you go to a Shaman who will try to get rid of what are called “Shaman spirits”; usually people who have died “unhappily” which means early in life or far away from home. The goal is to help that spirit get into the next life through a Shaman ceremony. After Shamanism came Buddhism and Confucianism, both of which appeared in Korea around roughly the same time (during the Silla Dynasty), but Buddhism was predominant until later, when Confucians became stronger and started to outlaw Buddhist activities. Today, Confucianism isn’t a religion per say, but it is a way of life; a set of principles everyone lives by no matter what your religion. Then, during the late Joseon Dynasty, Catholicism appeared on the scene. Today, Koreans are about a third Buddhist, a third Christian, and third no religion.
Though we visited two ancient tombs in the morning, the most significant thing for me was the visit to the Seokguram Grotto which lies inside Bulguk-sa-Temple on Mount Tohamsan. Said to have been built by Kim Daeseong in 751, it was virtually unknown for many years. It was discovered in the early 20th century when the Japanese occupying government ordered it restored. After World War II the site was neglected until a restoration project in the 1960s. It is a granite sanctualy with a Buddha statue seated in the main chamber. The statue is of Bodhisattva and his disciples and is now encased behind glass because of humidity problems. The temple is located high on the mountain and the statue faces the East Sea in order to protect Korea. So standing up there looking out on the East Sea, our professor pointed out that this site was the end of the Silk Road. It did not end in China, or in Japan even, but in Korea. Interesting.
After the visit to the Grotto, we were herded down the mountain to Bul-Guk Temple, which literally means “Buddha Land”. This temple was a working temple for over 1000 years until it was destroyed by the Japanese in 1593. By 1970, the entire structure has been rebuilt. The temples and courts are laid out to highlight the surrounding beauty. It was rather difficult for me to walk through these courts and into the temples with 40 other people trying to do the same thing so when we had a moment of down time at the gift shop, I snuck back up to two of the temples. It was after 5pm and there was no one in the complex so it was moving. The first temple I went into there were 4 women sitting in the corner; the temple keepers, drinking tea and playing on their cell phones. I asked if I could come in and they smiled and motioned yes. I gave an offering and they showed me how to pray and gave me prayer beads for my wrist. A much better souvenir than one could get at the gift shop. Then I moved onto the next hall which is where I wanted to go. I communicated (rather poorly) that I wanted to give an offering for a person to be prayed for 100 years. Basically you are “buying” a paper lantern where you write the name of the person and they hang it above in the temple for 100 days and so when the Buddhists are praying they are also praying for these people’s names listed above. It is very similar to Catholics praying for people’s names in the Book of Intentions. I wrote the name of my mom’s best friend who had passed away a few days before I left. Unlike many Americans, Koreans do not put boundaries on their religions and many Christians here are free to dabble in Buddhist practices and vice versa. I am particularly impressed with that aspect of Korean society. The world can learn a great deal from Korea in terms of religious tolerance.