[FOUNTAIN]Naksansa: Fire has risen to heaven

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[FOUNTAIN]Naksansa: Fire has risen to heaven

The head monk at Naksansa, a temple that ranks among Korea’s most dazzling Buddhist landmarks, was dressed in a UCLA Bruins warm-up jacket when I went to say good-bye to him 10 days ago.
The Venerable Dae-geong had shown me, a companion and her young son Nicholas enormous courtesy in inviting us to stay at the temple overhanging the East Sea.
The complex is vast, serene and a great playground for a four-year-old. Brightly painted hanok-style buildings, a 700-year-old stone pagoda, a large carp pool and bell and drum pavillions are scattered along a sharply sloping hillside leading to the shoreline. There, fish mongers offer visitors fresh grilled clams, sashimi and soju. A few meters away, the sea crashes against the cliffs on which the temple is perched. On a promontory not far from the prayer hall, a massive 16-meter-high (50-foot) stone Buddha surveys the coastline. In crowded, overly commercialized Korea, Naksansa is heaven ― or was until yesterday.
On our arrival, Dae-geong ushered us into what were described as the VIP quarters: three spare rooms, including a library of Buddhist religious texts in Chinese and a private bathroom. The only furniture was a small table for, oddly, a phone and a DVD player. Windows in the main room opened toward the stone gate and walls of the compound.
The setting was fairy tale-like. A heavy snow had fallen the day before, and was still on the ground, though the temperature had risen. A light sweater was plenty to enjoy the day.
Dae-geong made sure we were comfortable and that we knew where the temple canteen was. He handed us a schedule for meals and prayers, and encouraged us to get up for the rituals at 3 a.m. We inspected the glittering main temple and wandered the forested footpaths to the giant Buddha. From an adjacent curio shop, recorded chants provided a peaceful solemnity as evening came and the last tourists headed back down to look for a place to have dinner in the town below.
Soon, the slow tolling of the giant bell was heard. The next day, Dae-geong would invite us to ring the bronze bell by thrusting a large log on a sling against it, on a slow, rhythmic count of seven. The gazebo that sheltered the bell and a mighty drum also housed relics symbolizing sky, land and sea. With thick wooden sticks, Dae-geong furiously pounded the drum as evening fell. It was loud enough to wake any spirit.
When we said good-bye, the monk with whom I had shared tea told me to come back anytime. This was in small part the magic of Naksansa, something that I hope can one day be restored.


by Charles D. Sherman

The writer is the editor of the JoongAng Daily.
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