Buddhism meets capitalismGANGHWA ISLAND
An hour’s drive to the west from Seoul, an enterprising businessman talks about plans for his homegrown businesses. In 1997, he opened up a steam bathhouse, and in his restaurant, he uses the plants from a nearby lotus field for tea and for naengmyeon, or cold noodles. He’s even thinking of creating a lotus patty and brewing lotus makgeolli, the traditional rice wine.
This entrepreneur doesn’t sport a dark suit or a tie, or even hair. Instead, the Venerable Seongwon wears gray robes as the head monk at Seonwon Temple on Ganghwa island.
Although Buddhism emphasizes spiritual enlightenment and avoiding worldly pursuits, the monk hopes to make 50 billion won ($43.5 million) ― not for himself, but for his dream of re-creating the original Seonwon Temple, whose history dates back to the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392).
Although the Jogye order, to which the monk belongs, supports his efforts, other Buddhists look on skeptically.
During a recent visit, one Buddhist follower said, “It doesn’t make sense that a Buddhist temple should brew liquor that’s made from lotus, much less sell it.”
But that does not discourage the Venerable Seongwon. “Such objections are not of any help when you’re determined to do something,” said the monk.
The original Seonwon Temple once produced and stored 80,000 wooden plates containing Buddhist sacred writings, called palman daejanggyeong, now designated as a World Cultural Heritage item by Unesco. The plates were engraved by thousands of Buddhist monks from the year 1236 for 15 years, as a prayer to Buddha to save the country from a Mongolian invasion.
After the Goryeo Dynasty moved its capital to Ganghwa island to avoid foreign attacks, Seonwon Temple, which wielded much influence then, was assigned to keep watch over the plates. The plates, also partly produced on Geoje island in the South Sea, were moved later to Hae-in Temple in Hapcheon, North Gyeongsang province, where they are kept today.
Seongwon Temple fell upon hard times later on. During the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), historians say the temple was used as a royal horse pasture and was burned down soon after the dynasty came into power.
Chung Man-jo, a professor of Korean history at Kookmin University who had met the Venerable Seongwan at another temple in the early 1990s, was the one who first told the monk about the old Seongwan edifice and the need for restoration.
The monk knew very well how historically significant the 80,000 plates were, having spent years at Hae-in Temple. After seeing the temple in his dreams, the Venerable Seongwan told the professor he would take on the project.
The head monk and Mr. Chung, however, are two of the few who remember Seonwon Temple’s glorious past. In the early 1970s, then-President Park Chung Hee ordered the temple to be rebuilt, as part of his traditional culture restoration policy, but work was canceled after the president was assassinated in 1979.
Since then, all that alerts visitors to the historical significance of the ancient temple is a sign placed by a Dongguk University research team. Traffic signs on the island also point to “Seonwonsa-ji,” meaning “the remains of the Seonwon Temple.”
When the Venerable Seongwon first arrived at the site in 1996, it was just a piece of barren land. He first bought a couple of run-down houses from residents near the site and built a main shrine first because construction on government-designated historic sites was forbidden.
Now the shrine sits with a small exhibition hall that houses the remains of the original temple. Inside the shrine, portraits of former President Park Chung Hee and first lady Yuk Yeong-su sit next to the Buddha on a small separate altar.
“The former President Park was among the very few that reached out to help the temple,” says the monk, who gets hardly any support from the government, which has denied him permission to build on the site.
The current temple has more than 30 employees as well as monks. The Venerable Seongwon came up with the idea of the steam bathhouse from the fact that temples are the second-biggest owner of the land in the country, next to the government, he says.
“Temples can make the most of the land by using the trees for the bathhouse, and in turn, the bathhouses can support the budget for a temple’s management,” he says.
Running the temple has never been easy, and now the monk is 500 million won in debt. Last year, the main shrine underwent major, costly repairs after a big crack appeared in the crossbeam.
But he’s not ready to give in, he said. If anything, the Venerable Seongwon seems even more determined to see the old temple rise again. One of his philosophies is that temples need to stand on their own, being independent from followers’ donations, which make up most of the budget now.
“My goal was to make every single temple in the country a condominium so that all can have a regular income,” the monk said proudly.
He also likes to talk about how he helped Hae-in Temple become self-sufficient by setting up a stall selling snacks and souvenirs.
“Every monk at the temple back then put on a serious face and objected to the idea,” the monk recalled, “but now, the store is a crucial part of the temple.”
As important as financial independence is to the monk, what he wants the most is to educate people about the importance of Seonwon Temple to Korean history, which is slowly obscuring a major part of its Buddhist past.
Despite what appears to be sky-high goals, the monk-turned-businessman is optimistic. After all, he said, his Buddhist name in Chinese characters means “true wishes,” and he’s determined to make those wishes come true.
by Chun Su-jin