Can You Smell a Thousand Years?


IMG_3129.jpg(Beopjusa temple)

We remove our shoes at the door, stepping over the threshold onto the worn wood floors. I can feel the smooth and worn boards as I trod were many have before. Inside the temple the sound is soft, as if it too is hushed at the doors. The outside world paused while inside the colorful ancient walls. The older man beside me, takes a deep breath and exhales. “Can you smell a thousand years?”

IMG_3181This is 법주사 Beopjusa temple in 속리산 Songnisan Mountain.  It was Built in the 14th year of Silla King Jin-Heung’s reign. Destroyed and rebuilt many times in its long life the temple is a standing testament to Buddhism and strength of  Korea.

IMG_3325(Beopjusa temple) 

Although only roughly 15% of the population of South Korea identify as Buddhist, a 40% some precent identifying as unaffiliated. Buddhism is very much ingrained within the culture and history of Korea and its people.

IMG_3172(Lanterns hung for Buddha’s Birthday. From each lantern hangs a wish.)  

I stare up at the ceiling, my eyes lost in the weaving patterns and colors that adorn the wood above me. Just above that stacked tiles run up to the heavens, each on sitting higher then the next. Most traditional buildings are build of wood without nails, therefore each pieces of the temple needs the other pieces to stand, relying on unity and harmony.IMG_3105(The colorful paintings that adorn the the temples. )

IMG_3622(Out front of Jogyesa Temple in Seoul during the Lotus Lantern Festival)

The ceilings are made of layers upon layers of interlocking wood, in order to keep the heavy tile roofs up. The end result is a cloud like imagery. Within the wood structures the mokt’ak, a wooden percussion instrument, hit during ceremonies, echoes through the walls of the temples.

IMG_5266.JPG(Maguksa Temple in Gongju. This fish imagery hangs by the temple bell.) 

IMG_3716(One of the four gate guardians at the entryways to temples) 

They are painted in the style called “tanch’ong”. It means red and blue. Not only are the vibrant colors beautiful and rich to look at it preserve the wood from weather and insects. Images of sprits and monk are interlaced with the artwork, reminding people they are on a spiritual journey. Fish are seen as a reminder of the hard work as they never close their eyes.

IMG_7900(Golden Buddha Statue outside of Beopjusa Temple)


One cannot help but feel the hallow ground of the temples. Buddhism came to Korea around 800 years after Buddha’s death in 372. As it did not discredit or try to overhaul the shamanism that was practiced in the land it blended, the homes of the mountain spirits becoming homes of the temples. Most temples are located deep within the mountains and have shrines to the local mountain spirits.

IMG_3347(Carving of Buddha at Beopjusa Temple) 



Buddhism become the state religion during the Goryeo period. However it  was repressed during the Joseon era when Neo-Confusionism grew. Persecution of Buddishm grew less a few centuries later after the after Buddhist monks helped repel the Japanese invasions of Korea (1592–98). After the occupation period of Korea and WWII Buddism again grew acceptance, though not with out a few splits in the order and suppression and arguments with the growing Christian population.

IMG_3649(Jogyesa Temple – Buddha’s Birthday Celebration) 

IMG_3990.jpg(Temple at Donghaksa. This symbol predates the Nazi and is a symbol of  peace and harmony in Buddhism. )

May 3rd this year was the day that Buddha’s birthday was

celebrated. This day is called 석가탄신일 (Seokga tansinil), meaning “Buddha’s birthday” or 부처님 오신 날 (Bucheonim osin nal) meaning “the day when the Buddha came”. I went to Seoul the weekend before to attend the Yeon Deung Hoe, Lotus Lantern Festival. 연둥회. There were lights, music, performances and a parade of lanterns. It was simply beautiful. People came from all over the world and many different kinds of Buddhism was exhibited.

IMG_8280(Dragon head lantern and the operators.) 


IMG_3932(Dressed in traditional hanbok, woman carry moon lanterns in the parade.) 

3:00am. February. I am outside, the dawn light barely a whisper, a promise to come. dank dank dank sounds the mokt’ak. We follow slowly behind the monk bundled in his grey robes, circling. During our temple stay we were invited to awaken at 3 and join the ceremony of the morning. After the monks have risen they meditate together in the temple, chanting, the eternal sound of the mokt’ak beating with each breath.  It is beautiful, it is peaceful.

IMG_3964.jpg(A wish hanging from a lantern) 

IMG_5187(Maguksa at 3 am) 


My exploration of Buddhism in Korea has left me wanting more. As I dip my toes into the vast world I am apart of I am finding I wish to swim deeper. There is so much diverse beauty and knowledge, small pieces to the large picture.


I believe that by being fully present in my life with those around me and seeking out people, cultures and ideas different from me,  I can really come to understand the story of life. As my world becomes  more diverse  the more hope for peace I see. I am learning to smell 1000 years.





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