Mitasa Temple

In Korea, mistakes might even turn into little miracle events.  Certainly it felt like that today when, at the (wrong) advice of others I boarded a ‘bus in search of a local temple and ended up in a strange town (sporting the name of Muguk) and with people frowning strangely when I showed them the name of the temple written in Korean.  But, to my rescue, came an elderly man who took me in his car all the way to Mitasa, the temple itself.  Turns out he’s a retired bank manager with a daughter in Tennessee.

And Mitasa is the temple we didn’t see when we went to Bisan-Ri earlier this year.

I walked up the winding road through the forest, now brilliantly green and verdant, in contrast to the wintery grey of early February.  Past the stone Buddha (1200 years old) under an elaborate and characteristically decorated shelter, until the curved rooves of the temple buildings could be seen through the forest.


An eighth-century Buddha on the way to Mitasa Temple

I took a few pics and then my attention was caught by a woman and her son.  The woman beckoned and offered me tea.  I accepted and we entered a subsidiary building where I was also met by a su-nyo, a nun.  We sat down crosslegged at a low table and I partook again of a tradition thousands of years coming. They asked where I was from. The su-nyo, I gleaned, is 31 years old and decided on a monastic life at 24.  She told me that Mitasa was run by ten su-nyo.  I have since heard that this is the case for about 30% of the temples in Korea.


Mitasa Temple

Her English was limited and we did a dance with the computer where the 11-year-old boy would research via some online dictionary what was being asked or said.

Above us on the wall was a large portrait of a monk, a su-neem, who, the su-nyo said, died two years ago.  This, she indicated, had been her mentor.  What struck me about this woman with her smooth shaven head and regulation green and white smock was her radiance. I think I can spot a mask, but the being of this woman simply shone, through the skin, through the eyes.  I have met very few people like this.


Su-nyo, a person of radiance with her mentor

To add joy to joy, I was invited to go into the refectory and have lunch with them.  If 11:30 was early, I realized that these people get up at 3:30 in the morning.  The place seats about 120 but there was only one other su-nyo there.  At first I thought it was a man, but came to see that it wasn’t.  As always, the offering was the tastiest Korean food, all vegetarian, and the best mandu I’ve had.  In the background there was a speaker and through it came a soft chanting carried by a texture of bells.  I paused.  Is this a defining moment in the experience of a culture? I wondered.

When we returned to the office, they showered me with gifts, the mother giving me a wrist trinket and the boy put together a little bracelet for me.  The su-nyo gave me a keyholder and a Mitasa calender.

I went into the main temple which might accommodate 50 people and saw that there had been a funeral.  Bisan-Ri, much further down the hill, is an upmarket graveyard. The plain unsmiling woman in the photo near the altar was wreathed in incense.  There was another su-nyo sweeping and she cheerfully asked me where I was from. I don’t think she understood when I told her. With a wistful smile she said No photos.

Having taken a number more pics of the buildings from the outside, I walked down the hill, totally elated.  I passed Bisan-Ri where the standing Buddha figure in shimmering gold must be at least five storeys tall.  In the right hand there is an orb which, I was told, indicates salvation for human kind.


The Buddha of Busan-ri

 Beyond the immense graveyard itself is the Bell shelter with a large Silla-type bell.  On it, I learnt, are the words Let the sounds of this bell be heard at the ends of the earth.    


The Silla bell of Busan-ri

I saw a little shop and as I approached, a woman came out and asked where I was from.  I ended up drinking tea with her and her friend for the next hour at a table that must rank as the Most Interesting Table in the World.  It was a solid piece of oak tree, spanning a little over two metres.  Beautifully planed and varnished, it had chasms of hollows, like the deep weathering of rocks, a landscape in itself. It hardly looked like a table at all.  I thought, How can a day like this end at an ordinary table?


A most fascinating table

Will van derWalt ©

6 June 2008

Image Sources: Photographs by Will 


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