Happiness is a few subway stops away

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Happiness is a few subway stops away

A year lasts 12 months, a week lasts seven days, and a weekend lasts... not nearly long enough.
We look forward to it all week, and by the time we start enjoying it, it’s practically over. We can’t afford to waste such precious time in transit. Much better to retreat to someplace close by.
One might ask, “Where?” Surely there’s someplace that’s close to the heart of the city, but quiet, restorative and inexpensive.
With a eye toward making a map full of such places, I recently took a very short trip to a small piece of happiness: Gilsangsa temple, an oasis in the mountains.
Gilsangsa, in Seongbuk-dong, northern Seoul, is unlike many temples. Coming in through the gate, you see neither the freezing stares of sacheonwangsang, the guardian gods, nor an endless stairway leading up to the Buddha.
Here in Gilsangsa temple, Buddha is not high up, but close at hand ― just past the old zelkova trees.
Non-Buddhists will feel comfortable here. A Bodhisattva statue in the temple, in fact, seems to have the Virgin Mary’s brows, cheeks and body (a Catholic professor sculpted it). This Bodhisattva’s peaceful smile seems to meekly suggest that names are only names.
There’s a reason Gilsangsa temple has such an unusual air about it. The temple was once an upscale gisaeng establishment, a place not unlike a geisha house in Japan. The owner, a woman named Gil Sang-hwa, donated this house to the Venerable Beopjeong, and it became a temple.
Unlike other Buddhist temples, Gilsangsa’s pillars and rafters are not particularly colorful. This contributes to an aura of calm. Paintings, created only with black ink and gold powder, seem to breathe quietly on the walls.
Next to Geungnakjeon, the main hall, there is a small bridge that leads to a monument to Gil Sang-hwa, the woman who donated the building. Gil believed that money is earned to be spent properly, and that to give is actually to gain.
You may run into Abbot Deokjo and have a chance to talk over a cup of tea. Or you might go to the “House of Silence,” which is open to anyone. There, you can listen to calm music without being obliged to sit in a lotus posture, as in most temples. Just being in this room and facing a wall in silence for 10 minutes can be enlightening enough.
Abbot Deokjo planted many wildflowers on the temple grounds, as if he’d read a poem that Gil’s lover once wrote, in which he said that she had the scent of wildflowers. The mountain air here is fresh and cool. As long as you speak softly, Gilsangsa temple is the perfect place to rest for a day.
If you continue past the temple, over the hill you will find the house of the novelist Yi Tae-jun, who went to North Korea before the Korean War and never returned. His house, called Suyeonsanbang, is now a teahouse. It is a small, cozy, traditional hanok, built 100 years ago. His garden has a quiet charm in the wintertime, and the lilac trees are prettiest in May, but during the summer, the annex is a good place for a cool rest.


by Kim Seo-ryeong

To get to Gilsangsa temple, take subway line No. 4 to Hansungdae Station and take exit 6. From there, a maeul (village) bus will take you to the temple in seven minutes. For a group, taking a taxi is probably a smarter idea. Parking spaces are available for those who choose to drive.
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