Winter Olympics 2018 Series #6 of 6: Zen

Weoljeong Temple

The principle of yin and yang teaches us to recognize and appreciate the ebb and flow of contrasting emotions – happiness changes to sadness, excitement to ennui, bravery to cowardice. If one does not experience the disappointment of defeat, then one cannot fully appreciate the pride of winning. The aim in Buddhism is to understand the cycle of emotions, recognize them as temporary, and strive for balance.  With all the excitement of the Olympic games, perhaps it’s time to find a little tranquility at Woljeongsa Temple to restore your emotional equilibrium.

The entrance to Woljeongsa Temple in Odaesan National Park is a lone weathered gate dwarfed by swaying pine trees. For over 1300 years, generations of peace seekers have traversed the path through the multicolored arch, progressively unloading their worldly cares enroute to the temple. As you walk beside the rushing stream, allow it to carry away those aggressive, competition-fueled emotions you’ve held onto this week. They have served their purpose in the sports arena, but now it’s time to let them go.

As you approach the second gate, fierce looking guards judge your worthiness as you pass; have you conquered ignorance through wisdom?  This week’s Olympic Games have been focused on physical superiority – speed, power, agility. This second gate reminds you that a gold medal or patriotic pride is a fleeting vanity; greater effort and reward come from serving others, without attachment to the results.

A third and final gate into Buddha’s courtyard requires stepping up and over a threshold, an act that signals you are no longer an individual, but one with Buddha and one with the universe. This seems fitting after a week of winners and losers, us against them. Enter this spiritual place as a member of the human community.

Almost all Korean temples follow a similar entrance pattern, with a path winding along a stream and progressing through the three purposeful gates designed to shift your awareness. By the time you enter Buddha’s sanctuary, you should be out of your own head and prepared to accept peace and quiet within yourself.

Woljeongsa Temple’s distinctive features are the nine-story octagonal pagoda and the seated medicine Buddha statue. A temple’s prominent pagoda is often a somewhat lifeless construct; a cold stone monument. At Woljeongsa, however, a bodhisattva (saint) sits in prayer near the base of the pagoda. The pairing creates a connection between the observer and the observed, a reverent energy.

Temples have intricately painted buildings, with bright colors and designs intended to ward off evil spirits. Inside the main hall in front of the pagoda at Woljeongsa, notice the dragons painted on the pillars flanking the seated golden Buddha. The smaller buildings are shrines dedicated to various saints, such as Gwan Seom Bosal (Avalokitesvara, in Sanskrit), the saint of compassion. Remove your shoes and enter a shrine, perhaps taking a moment to have compassion for athletes going home empty-handed in 2018.

Across the courtyard is the bell pavilion; the second floor houses the drums and gong involved in the daily “awakening call” aimed at all sentient beings in the hopes of inspiring compassion for all beings and subsequent enlightenment. If you visit just before sunset, you may be lucky to hear the performance.  The simple, unadorned buildings toward the rear of the complex are residential and administrative, where shorn monks and temple stay visitors eat, sleep, and perform other daily tasks.

When you have satiated your quest for peace, allow the rhythmic tap of the wooden moktak and the gentle chanting of monks in prayer escort you back across the temple grounds. As you retreat through each gate and back into the more chaotic world beyond the temple, expect the calm you have cultivated today to morph once again into something more agitated. And that’s ok; yin turns to yang and maybe this time, you are more aware of it.

Getting Here: From any PyeongChang Olympic venue, take the KTX shuttle or Express inter-city bus to Jinbu. At Jinbu, take a city bus to Woljeongsa Temple stop.