Temple ferments

I’ve been in Korea for one month already, but boy was it a quiet month. The last few weeks were spent on licking wounds and reshuffling all the notes and jpegs amassed during the previous few months of fanatically intense Eurasian travels. I did some thorough sightseeing in Seoul, but I calmed down after arriving to Busan. It might be hard to believe but I barely have taken any photograph here. Until today. Busan is to change from hideout to operational base!

A place enticed me with a sweet and spicy mix of mountains, history and food – all that’s what Kaspers like best. I persuaded one of my roommates, Mike, to go to Tongdosa (통도사; 通度寺), a renowned Buddhists monastery not far from Busan. Tongdosa is said to house some relics of the Buddha himself and Koreans list it as one of their “Three Jewels Temples.” It is also included in the UNESCO „Mountain Monasteries in Korea” World Heritage Site, jointly with seven other locations.

Tongdosa belongs to Jogye (조계, 曹溪), the leading Korean monastic order. Developed from Seon (선, 禪, Zen), a form of Buddhism that came from China to Korea in the 9th century, by the 11th century Jogye was already a school of thought in its own right. The temple itself is earlier however, having been established in 646 CE by monk Jajang who obtained fragments of Buddha’s bones and a robe during his pilgrimages in China. The relics are purported to be enshrined under the stone stupas that stand in the temple’s courtyards.

Tongosa participates in the Temple Stay program that allows visitors to experience the monastery life for a day or more. When I told Mike about it, he came with a spontaneous but enthusiastic decision to give it a shot. We went to some offices to discuss if he can join today. He was almost wearing a monastic robe but eventually decided to opt out, mainly because the application turned out to be quite expensive.

We then left the main complex to explore the area further afield. Tongdosa is sometimes said to be the largest or one of the largest temples in Korea. It doesn’t appear as such when you look at the main compound itself, but there are 13 hermitages (or branch temples, 말사, 末寺) that are scattered throughout the nearby mountains and contribute to its overal size.

One of them is Seounam (서운암, 瑞雲庵). I wanted to visit it as much as the principal temple. Why? Several thousand of onggi (옹기, 甕器, earthenware containers) stand here, and in them ferment traditional Korean bean pastes and sauces! Jangdokdae (장독대, space where jars are gathered) are omnipresent throughout the country, but the sheer amount of jars here, as well as the bucolic surroundings, simply made it irresistible to see.

The onsite shop offers several specialties, including

  • doenjang (된장, soybean paste),
  • gochujang (고추장, sweet+salty+spicy chili paste),
  • sesame oil (참기름),
  • soy sauce (ganjang 간장)
  • and cheonggukjang (청국장, a fermented soybean product with characteristic smell).

Continuing up the hill there is a building called Seoeunam Janggyeonggak (서운암 장경각). It houses a maze-like library of 163 thousand earthen tiles on which the full Tripitaka Koreana has been copied and glazed. That incredible feat was done in the 1990s. Each tablet is 52×26 cm. The right temperature is kept inside to keep them safe. The original of Tripitaka Koreana, the Buddhist scripture canon written in impeccable Hanja script on printing blocks in the 13th century, is kept in Haeinsa, a diffrent temple located in the same province of South Korea. I visited it on another occasion and I will probably also write about it on this blog one day.

We came down back to the crocks and we bought a large box of gochujang. We later kept it in our hostel-cum-cafe-cum-school’s shared kitchen, where it lasted for many weeks and proved to be a delectable addition to everyday meals.

While we arrived to Tongdosa by bus, we decided to come back home by hitchhiking. That was the first time for my friend Mike to try it; for me – first time in Korea. It went swell. Henceforth, I will hitchhike in this country a lot (including with Mike also!). It’s a material for many stories, so brace yourself for new articles. Tongdosa was to become the first of my many jaunts from Busan, a new – equally fanatically intense as always – series of travels. Korea, here I come.