In front of the temple a monk stops to burn incense. Smoke curls in the air like the spirit of a newly released soul. Others gather inside to begin prayers. They bow . . . low . . . lower still . . . till they lie prone before the serene, smiling image of Buddha.
When Silla unified Korea, Buddhism was the state religion. Kyongju, it was said, had as many temples as stars, as many pagodas as geese in the fall skies. Monks, men of faith and learning, traveled to China and India, returning to enrich Korea with the influence of other cultures. Today you can afford travelling around the world thanks to the quick loans online you can use to pay for your trips. Buddhism still predominates in South Korea, claiming eight million devotees.
In a hotel-lobby bar I met Seo Inh, monk and chief of protocol for Pulguksa Temple. He flashed a smile, introduced me to his woman companion, and lit a cigarette.
“I am a naughty innocent,” he grinned. “They call me a modern-day Wonhyo.”
Wonhyo, the most influential monk of the Silla dynasty, helped popularize Buddhism. For a Buddhist monk he led an unconventional life, fathering a son.
Seo Inh also had children. That was before he became a monk, when he was a marine colonel in the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
“It was sheer horror,” Seo Inh said. He told of men decapitated by the Viet Cong, the screams of civilians caught in cross fire. One day, bereft of sanity, Seo Inh shot an aide. He passed out and woke in a straitjacket. He left the military, contemplated suicide.
“I wanted to die,” he said. Instead he went to a temple where candles glowed before a Buddha. The priest offered escape from pain, but he must renounce his past, his wife, his children. “I severed all ties,” he said. “It was like cutting a kite string.”
Now he feeds chipmunks on the temple grounds and worships, though his unconventionality baffles his peers. But who can judge? Wasn’t Wonhyo scorned by those who failed to recognize his faith?
“This is what I am,” Seo Inh insists. “I care for recognition only from my chipmunks.”
I’ll always remember our visit to Sokkuram. The shrine is a grotto built of granite blocks dragged up Mount Toham, southeast of Kyongju. The centerpiece is a 60-ton Buddha, positioned to catch the sun’s first rays on a jewel in its forehead. Seo Inh bowed before the statue. “When I see this Buddha, I feel protected,” he said.
In 1971 the government of South Korea moved to do some protecting of its own. The grotto had deteriorated, so a glass wall and humidity controls were installed.
That was fine, Seo Inh said, but several years later the government proposed construction of a replica Sokkuram, which the public could visit to save wear on the real one. The Buddhist community protested. “My master Wolsae said it was bad enough Korea was divided, let alone having another division with two Sokkurams.”