Confucius Says, 'In Calm Is Truth'

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Confucius Says, 'In Calm Is Truth'

ANDONG - Tourists may scoff at the government's "Land of the Morning Calm" pitch when they get their first look at Seoul's daybreak rush hour. To see the tranquil side of traditional Korea, you have to head to a place like Andong, a city in the southeast that is steeped in long-enduring culture. It was no surprise that Queen Elizabeth was advised to go there during her visit to Korea two years ago. For a quick glance of that spirit, just look at a 1,000 won note. On the back you'll see a former Confucian academy, Dosan Seowon, built in 1574. The founder of the complex was a highly esteemed scholar of the Joseon Dynasty, Yi Hwang, whose sagacious image graces the front of the note.

Korea National Railroad offers a package tour of the most interesting sites in and around Andong. The two-day, one-night trips leave Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. This reporter left Seoul's Cheongnyangni Station at 9 a.m. last Saturday and arrived at Andong's Punggi Station after a comfortable enough three-and-a-half-hour ride. The first item on the loosely guided tour is a five-minute stop at a ginseng market next to the station. Then the real journey begins from Buseoksa Temple, or the Temple of the Floating Stone.

Buseoksa Temple

Here you'll find the country's oldest wooden building, Muryangsujeon, which means everlasting life and wisdom, showcased inside Buseoksa Temple.

Behind the name of the temple is a legend. A Buddhist monk, Euisang, went to China during the Tang dynasty (608-907), where a maiden, Seonmyo, fell in love with him. But the monk decided to remain chaste. Seonmyo's devotion was so great that she became a dragon to help Euisang whenever he was in need. After he chose the site for Buseoksa, she drove out bandits that menaced the area. She then transformed herself again into a huge rock around which Euisang could build a temple. The boulder, the story goes, hovers just above the ground, hence the name. Indeed, to the suspicious looks of tourists, the guide claimed that scientists have passed a silk thread under the rock to prove that it floats.

The temple complex is divided into two parts, which signify the Buddhist versions of heaven and hell. In between are 108 stairs symbolizing the 108 worldly desires that monks must expunge from their minds.

The scenic walk from "hell" to the main building housing the stone, Muryangsujeon, which is "heaven," is ornamented with stone lanterns and pagodas. The Buddha in the main building sits facing east, instead of south, as is usual, to deter the Japanese from invading. The chiming of wind-bells on the eaves will sway an outsider to be a monk for a spell, bathed in serenity.

Sosu Seowon

After experiencing Buddhism from the Goryeo Dynasty, I was bused to a Confucian academy established in 1542, the middle of the Joseon Dynasty, called Sosu Seowon. The academy is visually unremarkable. But it has the oldest extant school signboard commissioned by a king. "This institution was built 93 years before Harvard," the guide pointed out. Just beside the school flows a river, the Nakdong, with a rock inscribed with the Chinese character gyeong, which means respect, on its shore. According to legend, after many Buddhist statues were destroyed and discarded near the river by Confucian scholars, spirits from those idols appeared at night. A scholar then crafted the rock with the message to pacify the ghosts.

At about 5 p.m., the first day's sightseeing is over. The bus then drove us halfway up nearby Mount Hakga to our spartan inn, where a dinner of mushroom stew awaited. The first stop the next day is Dosan Academy, after breakfast at the inn.

Dosan Seowon

If Sosu Academy is modest, Dosan Academy, established in 1561 by Yi Hwang, of 1,000 won note fame, is big and reveals a more productive history. The entrance, formed by a promenade alongside the Nakdong River, is graced by a 600-year-old willow. Highlights of the academy include the classroom, dormitory, publishing room and a shrine with a memorial tablet for Yi Hwang. The dormitory was built in the shape of the Chinese character gong which means study,and is a distance from Yi Hwang's quarters, in accord with the Confucian tenet that students should not even step in the shadows of their teachers.

For lunch, we got heot jesatbap, which is typically served during ancestor-worship ceremonies and consists of cooked and seasoned vegetables, soup, shark meat and fish.

Hahoe Folk Village

Touted as the highlight of the trip is the last stop, Hahoe Folk Village. The village housed the Ryu, Heo and Gwon clans, which were the local yangban, or aristocrats, during the Joseon Dynasty. The village is nestled by a river that winds around it, rendering it propitious according to feng shui.

The village takes pride in its traditional mask dances, called Hahoe Byeolsingut Talnori, accompanied by traditional folk music, which have been performed regularly by commoners to please the gods since the 12th century. Queen Elizabeth is said to have tapped her feet to the tunes when she was there. The 11 carved wooden masks in the show depict both the aristocrats and the peasants. The custom is seen as a cathartic experience for the oppressed, who lampoon corrupt aristocrats and monks. Foreigners should beware, though, that they'll probably be requested to join the dance. The performances are given every weekend through November, after which a visit to a local distillery is substituted for it on the tour.

Some of the Ryus still live in the village and run shops there. The village seemed to me a little run down, in contrast to what the Queen wrote in its guest book: "As I visit the Hahoe Folk Village, where Korean culture is always alive, I feel the beauty of a Korean spring day."

Overall, the trip was a pleasant and enlightening way to spend a weekend - where the mornings really are calm.

The tour, which includes a flight back to Seoul, costs 151,000 per person ($120) on weekdays and 158,000 won Saturdays. For more information, call the Korea National Railroad at 1544-7788.

by Chun Su-jin

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