If you’re looking for the serenity and calm surroundings of most Buddhist temples set high up in the mountains outside of Seoul, Jogyesa Temple is not for you. Right down in the center of the city where all of the daily hustle and bustle that makes Seoul famous occurs, sits a temple with more than 100 years of history. The commotion of the nearby streets doesn’t end where the temple begins and this certainly makes it a different experience inside from most temples in the country. A religion where meditation is extremely important, with a temple in one of the busiest areas of the city either means not much meditation gets done here, or the Buddhists that frequent this site are masters of meditation.
Built in 1910 and named Gakhwangsa Temple originally, it has been the site of quite a few major ordeals for the Korean Buddhists, most recently a scandal involving temple funds, gambling and prostitution. All that aside, it is the ending site of the Lotus Lantern Parade. Celebrating Buddha’s birthday in the Insa-dong area at the Lotus Lantern Festival would not be complete without a visit to this temple.
As the chief temple of the Jogye order in Korea, it is a great starting point in the city to learn about Korean Buddhism. Some 1600 years ago, during the Unified Silla kingdom in Korea, National Master Doui brought the ideas of Seon(Zen) taught by the sixth patriarch, Huineng, from China to Korea. Korean Buddhism would become the official state religion in the Goguryeo, Silla, Baekje and Goreo dynasties. Buddhism flourished during this time, and though Buddhism would experience a 500 year repression during the Joseon Dynasty when the ideas of Confucianism would reign, it would come back with a fighting force, literally. In the 16th century National Masters Seosan and Samyeong raised armies to protect the nation against Hideyoshi invasions and subsequently enjoyed a time of milder oppression. It wasn’t until 1895, however, enabled by Japanese Buddhism, that monks were finally permitted to enter the city again. During this time, aided by Japanese Buddhism, Korean Buddhism started to be established once again. The Japanese changed the name of the temple to Taegosa and it became the headquarters of the Jogye sect in 1936. The name was ultimately changed to Jogyesa after the Japanese were kicked out and Koreans were getting rid of all reminders of the Japanese occupation. Today, they have over 10 million followers in Korea.
The main hall on the grounds is open 24 hours a day and visitors are welcome at any time. Entrance is free and if you’re there in the spring you’re sure to see the amazing number of lotus lanterns that seemingly make a sky of lanterns at the temple. It’s not to be missed. Beautiful during the day and at night.