Jogyesa: A Buddhist Temple in the Heart of Seoul

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Jogyesa is a Buddhist Temple right next to Insadong, between Jongmyo and Gyeongbokgung, in other words, it’s exactly where the tourists are.

Jogyesa is in Seoul's Jongno district.

Jogyesa is in Seoul’s Jongno district.

I’ve said before a few times that Buddhism was banned in Seoul during the Joseon dynasty. So how did a Buddhist temple end up in the historic heart of Seoul? Simple – it was established in 1910, the year Japan annexed Korea.

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I talked to a lot of Korean Buddhists while I was in South Korea, and I mentioned my experiences with Buddhists in Taiwan. Korean Buddhists generally recognize Taiwanese Buddhists as their co-religionists, and don’t consider their religion to be different from the religion of the Taiwanese. But then I would mention my experiences with Buddhists in Japan, and then – well, they claimed that Japan has its own ‘weird’ form of Buddhism which isn’t like Korean Buddhism (which they implied is more authentic than Japanese Buddhism).

Granted, I am not an expert on Buddhism, but based on my observations of how Buddhism is practiced in Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea, I wouldn’t say that Taiwanese Buddhism and Korean Buddhism are in one category, and Japanese Buddhism is in a separate category. Sure, there are things which Korean and Taiwanese Buddhism have in common with each other but not Japanese Buddhism … but there are also things which Korean + Japanese Buddhism have in common but not with Taiwanese Buddhism, but I can’t think of anything which Taiwanese + Japanese Buddhism have in common with each other, but not with Korean Buddhism (then again, I am not an expert).

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The Japanese empire, of course, imposed its own form on Buddhism on Korea. In Japan, Buddhist monks can marry, and many Korean monks were forced to marry in order to assimilate into a Japanese version of Buddhism.

In 1954, after South Korea was free from Japanese control, the Buddhist Purification Movement was started, led by the Jogye Order. That’s when Jogyesa, as the head of this movement, got its current name. Their goal was to purge Korean Buddhism of all Japanese influence and to restore ‘pure’ Korean Buddhism. There were a lot of conflicts within Korean Buddhism for decades – I’ve read that married monks sometimes got into violent fights with monks who insisted that all Buddhist monks should be celibate.

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I could feel a bit of that past when I interacted with Korean Buddhism. Korean Buddhism – at least as I experienced it – seems more disciplined and conservative than Taiwanese or Japanese Buddhism – which is what you would expect from a successful movement to restore and maintain the old ways.

In particular, it feels very different from Taiwanese Buddhism, which is generally more concerned with the future and improvement than preserving old traditions. I suspect this might be because Buddhism was established in Taiwan about a thousand years after it was established in Korea, so the Taiwanese Buddhists did not feel so much that they had lost their heritage during Japanese rule. Then again, it might simply be a reflection of how Taiwan is arguably the most liberal society in East Asia, and South Korea is arguably the most conservative.

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As you can see in the photos, I happened to visit Jogyesa when it was decked out with flowers – which it usually is not. As usual, you can learn more about Jogyesa at Dale’s Korean Temple Adventures.

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An old man had made a lotus lantern at the temple, like the one I made at Guinsa. It is a really beautiful lantern – he’s good at this. And then he insists on giving it to me. I tried to decline, but he doesn’t understand English, so I ended up taking it. I wondered how I would manage to get the delicate lantern back to North America intact.

Well, I did bring it back to North America…

The lantern the old man gave me

The lantern the old man gave me

That was a sweet touch. It is a lovely lantern, and receiving a gift from an old man is more meaningful to me than any of the buildings at Jogyesa.

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6 Responses to Jogyesa: A Buddhist Temple in the Heart of Seoul

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