Bongeunsa Temple: In The Light Of The Night
As luck would have it, I ended up at Coex 45 minutes early for a dinner date this week and decided it was an opportune time to make my way across the street to enjoy the night views of Bongeunsa Temple (봉은사).
The popular temple sits in the ritzy Gangnam-gu area and tourists from near and far stop by as it’s an easy temple to find while out and about.
While most of Korea’s Buddhist temples are set up in mountains entailing at least a short walk or hike into a forest, Bongeunsa is one of a few temples in Seoul that sprawls over an expanse that sits just beyond a major thoroughfare, though of course it wasn’t planned to be that way. While I would direct tourists to take the time to hike up to enjoy the zen of a temple in the nearby mountains, if short on time, Bongeunsa is a fair stop to make.
Though often packed with people walking this way and that on the weekends, I found the temple virtually devoid of people at 6:30pm on a Saturday. Eerie in the dark with the temple buildings lit from the inside, I felt as though I was trespassing until a nearby guard passed and I confirmed it was definitely okay that I meander around and enjoy the serene nature of the temple made even more serene and calming by the drums and percussion sounds beaten by the monks at 6:40pm to start evening prayers. (If you want to catch the morning ritual, you’ll have to get there by 4:10am.)
While I usually quite enjoy the colorful facades of temple buildings and the intricate paintings that take over the sides, there was something extremely appealing about seeing this temple by only the lights from within the buildings and the moonlight from above. I likely felt this way because I find the location of Bongeunsa extremely unappealing in such a central city location but seen in the night, the quiet and depths of darkness make it feel isolated and calming as most Buddhist temples that are actually isolated tend to make me feel.
Bongeunsa Temple is believed to have been built in 794CE during the reign of King Wonseong and was once known as Gyeonseongsa Temple. In 1498, the temple was re-established at the east of King Seongjong’s mausoleum by Queen Jeonghyeon and was renamed Bongeunsa. This temple became the head temple for the Seon (Zen) sect during the Joseon Dynasty with the support of Queen Munjeong when Buddhism was severely oppressed in the country and it was also during this time that it was moved to its current location. It was the main Seon temple from 1551 to 1936 though not everyone was happy and Monk Bo-wu who was appointed the head of the temple in 1548 was killed soon after appointment by anti-Buddhist factions who had regained dominance. While the temple saw many ups and down including being burnt down in 1939 and severely damaged during the Korean War, one hall, Panjeon, managed to survive and with it the Flower Garland (Avatamsaka) Sutra woodblock carvings from 1855 escaped the destruction and are still housed there today.
What draws many to this temple though is the tall stone statue of Maitreya Buddha which stands 23 meters tall and is the tallest statue of Maitreya in Korea. While not exactly that old, having just been built from 1986 and completed in 1996, the statue is impressive in stature and worth a view during the day or night when lit from all angles.
If you’re in the area, stop by Bongeunsa especially if it’s just for a 30 minute peaceful meditation before fun or shopping at nearby Coex.
Bongeunsa Temple (봉은사)
서울특별시 강남구 봉은사로 531 (삼성동)
531, Bongeunsa-ro, Gangnam-gu, Seoul
Directions: Bongeunsa Subway Station, take exit 1 and walk straight. The temple will appear on your right.
Hours: 3:00am – 10:00pm
Days: Open all year round
Amenities: Temple Stay program, parking, English & Japanese interpretation services offered
-Weekly 2 hour programs are available to foreigners for W10,000 no reservation required on Thursdays from 2:00pm – 4:00pm. A temple tour, meditation and conversation with monks over a traditional tea ceremony are all included.
-Jeongdaebulsa is held each September 9th on the lunar calendar. Monks march around carrying the scriptures and recite the Buddhist rites.