▲ Daniel McNamee takes in the morning calm of Jeju's Yakcheon Temple. Photo by The author
Jeju Island, full of surprises, is the home to the largest Buddha hall in Korea. Defined as a prayer room containing a Buddha statue, the Buddha hall at Yakcheon Temple in Jungmun is the largest of its kind in East Asia..
When approaching the massive temple with its beautiful lawns, large bell towers and main rooms, one gets the impression that the temple might be hundreds or perhaps thousands of years old. However, the modern temple was built in its present form in the 1990s. The site of the temple is the location of a medicinal stream after which the temple was named. Healings have been reported by people who drank the water at the temple, and there is an older, smaller, Buddha hall at the site where another temple once was.
Yakcheon Temple is a work of art, with every square inch having been painted with colorful designs. There are paintings of ancient followers of Buddha and of Buddhist fables. The three large golden Buddha statues within the four-story hall are literally awe-inspiring. The central Buddha is five meters tall and sits on top of a four-meter platform, bringing it to quite some height.
The hall’s pillars are wrapped in magnificent carved dragons. These are a real visual delight, not just because of their size, but also because of the attention to detail that went into their construction.
Aside from the main hall there are many other things to see on the temple grounds including the cave at the site of the original temple. Another notable sight is the Hall of 500 Arhats. Arhats were the first 500 followers of Buddha. They decided which teachings of the Buddha would be preserved and taught as Buddhism. Such halls are supposedly more common in China than Korea, so it is rather unique that one be found here.
The temple offers a convenient temple stay program which does not require much advance notice and can accommodate large groups.
During my stay there was a very helpful English-speaking guide who was able to translate and explain a great deal. Yakcheon Temple is indeed a very foreigner and tourist-friendly temple, which makes it convenient to visit.
Personally I was a little worried that it would be too commercial and that I might have a better experience elsewhere. However, I left fulfilled and would definitely recommend a visit to others.
Some commercial aspects of the temple did not escape my eye. There were vending machines on the periphery of the temple and a couple of pay phones near the main hall. A large gift shop is also on location. The biggest laugh I had at the temple was upon arrival. I heard monks chanting and expected to see monks around the corner until I realized the sound of chanting was being projected to nearly all of the temple grounds by assorted speakers. I thought that unnecessary frill took away from the temple experience.
The positives do outweigh the few negatives, however. During a temple stay there are several programs one can choose to follow including activities such as a tea ceremony with a monk, making prayer beads, the 108 prostrations, making an offering to Buddha, walking meditation, carving calligraphy, and making a stone rubbing. During each activity one has the opportunity to learn about Buddhism and local culture.
▲ Photo by Daniel McNamee
Your experience and learning begin upon arrival when you are given robes to wear and a room, in which you leave your ordinary clothes, where you’ll sleep at night. If you arrive in the early afternoon, you will be given an extended guided tour of the temple and grounds as well as a briefing on temple etiquette and procedures. You are, for instance, advised to attend the prayer ceremonies.
You will also be required to attend mealtimes and eat all the food that you take, as leftovers are not allowed. After you finish eating you must wash you own dish. Meals are served at 6:30 a.m., 12 p.m., and 5 p.m. It is advised not to be late for these because the food is put away after 20 minutes or so. Of course, meat is not served at the temple. You should therefore fill up before you visit, especially if you are a borderline carnivore.
For many, the 4 a.m. wake-up for prayer may be a little off-putting, but as long as you don’t sleep a lot the night before and you get to sleep by eight or nine, the wake up time shouldn’t be a big problem. The early morning prayer ceremony can be a very enjoyable experience. I particularly enjoyed the meditations and the insight I received into a monk’s life.
During my stay, the monk who founded the temple was in town and he spoke to a morning crowd at the temple. He was really glad to see foreigners up for morning service and he dedicated 10-15 minutes of his talk to discussing how happy he was and how he wanted everyone to treat us well. I felt very welcome while staying at the temple, both before and after his talk. All the people were very nice, and one of the monks spoke a reasonable amount of English.
If you are visiting Jeju as a resident or a tourist, a trip to Yakcheon Temple is a great way to experience some local culture. The temple is located near the shore, and Olle walking routes 7 and 8 offer a hiking route for before, during or after your stay.
If, as a foreigner, you feel a serious lack of “Buddha” in your life, a trip to Yakcheon Temple might be just the ticket.
Yakcheon Temple is located east of Jungmun near Wolpyeong harbor and can be reached from Jeju City by taking intercity bus #600 (3,900 won) from the airport or the main bus terminal. From Seogwipo City take a bus heading in the direction of Jeju World Cup Stadium.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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