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Saturday, 11 January 2014

Namo Palbeon Daebosal, Part XI: Bongeunsa, Seoul Gangnam-gu


Bongeunsa (Hanja: 奉恩寺) is a Buddhist temple located in Samseong-dong, Seoul Gangnam-gu, South Korea. It was founded in 794 during the reign of King Wonseong of Silla by the monk Yeonhee (Hangul: 연희), then the highest ranking monk of Silla, and originally named Gyeonseongsa (Hangul: 견성사; hanja: 見性寺). It is located on the slope of Mount Sudo, across the street from the COEX Mall.

During the Joseon Dynasty, Buddhism in Korea was severely repressed. However, Bongeunsa was reconstructed in 1498 under the patronage of a Joseon Queen. With the support of Queen Munjeong, who revived Buddhism in Korea for a short time in the mid-16th century, it became the main temple of the Korean Seon (Zen) sect of Buddhism from 1551 through 1936. Monk Bo-wu was appointed head of the temple in 1548 by Queen Munjeong but was killed soon afterwards as the anti-Buddhist factions regained dominance in Korea towards the end of Queen Munjeong's rule. From 1552-1564 it was the center of the Buddhist National Exam.

A fire in 1939 destroyed most of the buildings, and other parts of the temple were destroyed during the Korean War. Fortunately, one of the very few halls which escaped destruction during the Korean War continues to hold the woodblock carvings of the Flower Garland Sutra, completed in 1855 by monk Young-ki The temple has undergone many repairs and renovations, and is now once again a large, thriving complex. The reconstruction efforts are being waged even today.

Bongeunsa was made one of Korea's 14 major temples in 1902. During the Japanese occupation the temple became the headquarters of 80 smaller Buddhist temples around Seoul. In 1922 and 1929, the head monk Cheong-ho saved over 700 people from drowning in the Han river, an act that inspired a monument of recognition. After colonial rule Bongeunsa became subordinate to the Jogye order, the largest Buddhist sect in Korea.

The temple is a notable tourist destination, offering "Temple Stay Program" in which visitors can lead the life of a monk for a few hours. The area on the main street from the Temple to Park Hyatt Hotel, has a large concentration of vegetarian and other upscale restaurants that serve Korean cuisine with a modern twist.