Here is an interesting first-hand account from a person who visited a sacred Seon temple. In this article the author nicely outlines some of the history and practices of Seon.
Sudeok Temple Offers Soul-Searching Experience
By Roger Shepherd
In the small pocket of beauty that is Deoksan Provincial Park, crimson azaleas blossom on the awkward-shaped rock mounds in the spring and a ghost-like sea mist creeps through the mountain top where Sudeok Temple stands.
The park itself, which is in South Chungcheong Province on the west coast, is divided into Mt. Deoksung that enshrouds Sudeok temple and Mt. Gaya its highest peak is 678 meters. The greater area, known as Yesan-gun, is steeped in Baekje (18 B.C. - A.D. 660) history, supporting numerous cultural relics from that period. This sets forth for the visitor, a unique temple stay at Sudeok Temple ― the head temple of the Jogye Order's 7th district and headquarters of monastic training for Zen Buddhism in Korea.
Sudeok Temple was founded during the late Baekje Kingdom period in the 7th century. There are two separate claims on who was responsible. The first, being Master Chim Yong in 599, and then Master Sung Je under the reign of King Uija in 647. There is even a record of it being founded in 384 A.D. during the 4th century when Buddhism was first introduced to Korea.
However there is an interesting story that relates to the creation of the temple; a story orated in splendid style by Ven. Jung Hyun on my autumnal visit for a temple stay. From behind one of the temple dorms, next to a small flat cliff-face of rock, Ven. Jung Hyun described how about 1,400 years ago, there was once a beautiful young woman from this area called Su-deok.
She would come to this very rock and sit on it praying for the construction of a temple here. In the same area lived a wealthy young man, Deok-seon, who had been seeking her hand in marriage.
One day she suggested to Deok-seon that if he built her a temple here, then she would marry him. Eager, he began construction, but upon completion the temple was burnt to the ground.
Rumour sufficed that the temple was destroyed because Deok-seon's intentions were tarnished by his attraction for Su-deok. He tried again, and during his second construction attempt it was once again razed to the ground.
Realizing his ulterior intentions, he solemnly prayed for the safe construction of the temple, and on his third attempt it was successfully constructed and named Sudeok Temple. Deok-seon proposed to Su-deok and she accepted his hand in marriage.
Their first night of wedlock was to be spent at the new temple, but when he tried to kiss her, she refused him. Angry he tried to force the issue further, but Su-deok fled.
Pursued by Deok-seon, she ran towards the very rock that she used to pray on, and desperate in flight, she ran straight into the rock, vanishing into its surface, never to be seen again. All that remained were one of her shoes, and the hallowed impression of a flower embossed onto the surface of the rock.
It was a great story and a great introduction to the temple that captivated the 50 odd visiting overseas and local students from OISTAT (International Organization of Scenographers, Theatre Architects and Technicians). They were taking part in the temple stay program as part of an international workshop for ritual inspiration sponsored by their host Sangmyung University Seoul Campus.
Upon completion of the story, Ven. Jung Hyun told the group to look into the rock and asked, ``Can you see the flower, where is the flower?'' His request was met by reflections of approval. Indeed, because our thoughts were now embossed by this image of Su-deok, you could see her flower.
On that introspective note, it is important to perhaps understand what the temple represents to the Jogye Order.
Designated in 1984, as the main center for Seon (Zen) studies, the temple accommodates about 200, with half that population being female nuns living on a separate site.
So, what is Seon Buddhism? Seon, meaning ``meditation,'' is translated from the Chinese word ``Chan,'' which in turn is derived from the word ``Dhyana'' that comes from the ancient classical literary language of Sanskrit in India. ``Zen'' as it is more commonly known in the West is the Japanese translation of the Korean word Seon. Its practice in Korean Buddhism is a highly important aspect of study towards seeking the truth.
It comes as a result of one of the two major schools of Buddhism, Mahayana and Theravada. Both are different expressions of the same teachings of Buddha.
Theravada, the more orthodox and theoretical approach to Buddhism emphasizes the belief of ethical conduct, meditation and wisdom as its base to accumulate goodness and purity.
Mahayana, which is practiced in Korea and Northeast Asia, expresses the use of meditation as a way to look inward and not outwards when trying to reach enlightenment. It focuses on enlightenment as being more of a ``sudden awakening,'' but even if a person achieves that state, they must continue with the gradual practice of Seon, the practice of enlightenment, or of being awakened.
Seon Buddhism was brought to Korea from China by Master Beom Nang sometime between 632 and 646. Later, during the 8th and 9th century, the famous Nine Mountain schools (``Gu-san'') were built to become the initial monasteries of Korean Seon Buddhism, which is now the most prominent style of Buddhism in Korea. Perhaps, the most notarized cultivator of Seon Buddhism in Korea was Master Chi Nul during the 12th century.
Retreating to the mountains, he founded the current day Songgwang Temple in South Jeolla Province, which supports a thriving Seon community. Seon remained a significant part of Korean Buddhism up to the Joseon Kingdom in the 14th century which then saw it ushered to a side by Confucianism.
More recently, Sudeok Temple helped the revival of Seon tradition by producing many great monks, Venerable Master's Gyeong Ho (1849-1912), Man Gong (1872-1946) and Won Dam (1926-2008), which in turn helped it to become established as the headquarters for Korean Seon tradition.
The importance of meditation is one that is regularly emphasized on temple stay visits.
Ven. Jung Hyun at Sudeok Temple re-emphasized that notion to us participants. He introduced two sessions of Seon practice, and once again in his dynamic style he led us all, at night, to the ``Tabijang''… the temple-grounds graveyard, where monks are cremated.
There, as we sat under the starlit night he talked to us about ``causation'' and the cause of suffering. Birth is suffering yet we celebrate it. Death is suffering, yet through a strong desire to live, we mourn it, and that this desire for things that we have no control over is what causes human suffering. If we can control or remove that desire, we will in turn end suffering; this is called the Truth of the Cessation of Suffering.
Ven. Jung Hyun believed that Seon meditation was a vital tool towards reaching that understanding. He asked us to look up at the stars and ask ourselves, ``What am I? Where is your star?'' On that note he slapped his ``jukbi'' (bamboo stick) and summoned us to meditate.
He concluded that we should listen to the insects and become one with nature. As we did this, not a breath could be heard; everyone was captivated by his way of teaching.
The power of Sudeok Temple was re-enforced at the early morning prayer session the next day. At 3:30 a.m. we went into the 700-year-old ``Daewoongjeon,'' built in 1308, making it the oldest wooden building in Korea, and participated in the ``yebool,'' or chanting service.
There a group of 12 monks chanted the sutras. In the early morning light, we sat enchanted by their chorus of undulating voices that completely filled the interior and acoustics of this ancient hall.
Under the spell of the monks, the silent 50 strong group of visiting overseas students, were vanished by the spirit of the beautiful maiden named Sudeok.
If you desire a rich cultivating meditative experience, Sudeok Temple under the auspice of Deoksan Provincial Park is definitely worth a soul-searching visit.