With a jolt I hit the stop button on the number 34 bus and ran down the back steps. This was the place, wasn’t it? With my amazing ability to completely screw up any sort of public transportation system, I’ve realized that just because this place looks like a temple doesn’t necessarily mean that it is. With a quick look around I decided that I had arrived at Yongju Temple just outside of Suwon and walked up the cobble stone steps to the entryway.
After I paid the small donation fee, I finally let out the air in my lungs I had seemingly been holding since I got on the first bus a half hour ago in Dongtan. I have no idea why or how I mange to end up lost every time I try to use public transportation, and I had been nervous leaving my apartment that morning; however, I was determined to see more of my surroundings and do something cultural that Sunday afternoon.
With the bus system out of my mind for now, I had made it to Yongju Temple and it was beautiful. I walked through the stone archway into the courtyard and took in my surroundings. Being early November, the colors of the leaves were at their most intense. Shocks of yellow, green, orange and red surrounded the different shrines and statues that were scattered throughout the courtyard. I made my way up the stone pathway to a building and removed my shoes on the steps outside. I slipped into the provided rubber sandals and walked into a dimly lit museum with soft traditional Korean music playing overhead. I took a look around at the ancient scrolls and works of art hanging on the walls or in enclosed cases, taking the time to read the short note in English explaining what each piece was.
I headed back outside, replaced my shoes and continued down the stone walkway. Just off the pathway I saw an open structure with an intricately painted roof and a large iron bell cast from 854 A.D. I stood there for a moment taking in the fact that this piece of iron was one of the oldest things I have probably ever seen, and I tried to imagine what life would have been like back then. Someone’s hands had worked with this iron and fire to create something so massive and beautiful, all for it to eventually be put on display at Yongju Temple in Suwon. I noticed coins scattered at the bottom, this space apparently used as a type of wishing well. I took out some change, made a wish/said a little prayer and tossed it under the massive piece of iron with all the others.
As I walked away from the bell cast I came on a smaller building with shoes left outside on the top step, and I poked my head in the open doorway. All of a sudden the scent of burning incense hit my nose, and my eyes took in the sight of a woman putting a bag of rice on the alter where three Buddha statues sat. An older man placed money in the collection box, and two women knelt on folded mats in the corner, touching their head to the floor and then coming back up with their palms pressed together against their chests.
My breath was taken away. I had forgotten.
Sudden memories of temple visits in India, Malaysia, Vietnam and China came flooding back to me from when I was on Semester at Sea. The thick perfume of incense that burned for days, even weeks at a time, permeated the air, taking over my senses. The sight of rice and money laid out on alters, offerings to Buddha and ancestors that were accompanied with prayers of good luck and good health for the future seemed to transport me back in time. The two women in the corner folded their mats and placed them on the pile next to the offerings, then stood in front of the alter and bowed deeply once again.
A sob rose in my chest. How could I have forgotten how beautiful this feeling was? Seeing people in their place of worship, their devotion and faith so clearly displayed, but not for the sake of showing off or making a big deal of their sacrifices and gifts. Just a simple, genuine time for paying their respects and offering prayers to the ones who have passed on before them. This was not the first time I had seen this, but I had forgotten. Time does that, though. You remember places that have touched your heart, you remember that you felt this sense of awe and peace, and you remember that it was beautiful. But you can never actually feel it again until you’ve gone back.
I stood in the doorway, unable to move inside because it would have felt like an invasion of something sacred and private. This was not a time or space to snap pictures of or to take part in, so I simply stood outside and watched, offering up my own thanks and prayers to God.
Eventually I moved on to another building just to come across another alter with more offerings and people praying. Red and pink lanterns hung from the ceiling and white lotus flower lanterns covered every other available inch of space. Family names written in Korean characters were attached to each lantern, hanging there for those whose family names rested there could come pay their respects. I left there and came on another alter. And then another. I stood in the doorways of each one, taking in the beautiful scene and allowed myself to be enveloped in the sense of peace that was thick in the air, as permeable as the endless smoke from the incense and candles.
After a while I backtracked down the stone walkway and through the little kiosk area and saw a woman purchasing a japa mala, traditional prayer beads for Hindus and Buddhists. The smiling older woman behind the counter handed me a deep, rich brown set of wooden beads that smelled like cinnamon and reminded me of the japa malas I had purchased at different temples throughout my travels. I handed her the little Korean won that it cost and made my way out.
I stopped by a vendor selling sticky rice cakes filled with raisin jelly covered in powdered sugar, and before I crossed the street to catch the bus a monk crossed my path. Those around me bowed deeply, so I did the same. He smiled and nodded then continued on his way. Japa mala in hand I crossed the street with a renewed “can do” attitude about the bus system and my life here in Korea.