THREE DAYS AT A TEMPLE – a visit to Yuongpyeongsa

 [The first in a series of three postings]

I have days that I’d put on  a pedestal.  Years on they shine in my head.  Among such days I have the three that I spent at the temple of Yuongpyongsa in South Korea.

The arrangement is called “Temple-Stay” which takes places throughout South Korea.  You don’t have to be Buddhist to do it.  In fact, they are surprised if you are.

                               Far from all things

                                    The temple

Yuongpyeongsa (yes, say it: yoo-ong-pee-ong sah where “sa” indicates temple) is even further from anything than is the Magoksa temple and for the same reason:  the Confucian authorities persecuted Buddhists in the Middle Ages.  The inheritance is the silence in the verdant green hills, so characteristic of Korea.

                            In a post-chant state

On arrival I received a monk’s robe which I wore for three days.  There were six of us, amongst whom a mother and her teenage daughter, Catholic and living in Minnesota, stayed at a temple once a year to honour their ancestors.

                            The cell

The cell where I slept was more of a passage, though the futon I slept on was remarkably comfortable.

At four o’clock in the morning I was called and we made our way through darkness in the warm glow of lamps to the main temple.  Here I experienced two hours of chanting, an unusual experience.  Language-wise, I couldn’t participate and my initial reaction was resistance.  Gradually the resistance eroded until I couldn’t hear the chanting anymore;  I became it.

Glass sphere reflecting the temple

As the sun came over the hills it was time for purifying exercises – stand; down on the knee; forehead on the ground; sit back on knee; stand.  Do this one hundred and eight times.  I cracked at  thirty.

Then I limped to breakfast.


© Will van der Walt

Les Semboules, Antibes

May, 2017


My photographs  







THREE DAYS AT A TEMPLE – a visit to Yuongpyeongsa

 [The second in a series of three postings]

To get used to Korean cuisine is to risk addiction.  It is the subtle herbal taste that they achieve with the traditional use of fermentation pots.  This is especially true for ghimchi, cabbage, which may be prepared in literally hundreds of ways.  As cabbage was my least favourite vegetable this was a small revolution in my dietary history.  Pork is popular but in the monastery where I was, the food was vegetarian, and not less tasty.  Years later when I ate Korean food in Cape Town again, I was catapulted into the aromas and the tastes of that remarkable food.

Canteen verandah

Fermentation pots

In the course of the day we met a nun, a sinewy woman with a natural radiance.  She took us for a walk in the forests, pointing out the small wild flowers by the path.  These, she told us, are not indigenous to the Korean peninsula.  They were sown by the hands of American soldiers during the civil war of the early 1950s.  Would that that had been all they left behind.

I took the opportunity to photograph the extensive paintings on the walls of the temple.  I was especially charmed by the series portraying Buddha and the cow.  There was one of a dragon which, I discovered to my surprise, is much loved in the East as a symbol of just kingship.

Temple art

Temple art: the dragon as just king

Buddha and the cow

The Buddhism of South Korea is mainly Zen and this would take much to explain.  The ideal, as I understand it, is to diminish resistance within oneself and to contemplate the Great Nothing.  I can’t expect a non-Buddhist to grasp this.  On the wall was the Zen symbol.

The Great Nothingness

On Sunday morning we were invited to the head monk for tea, far more than a social event.  He spoke to us through a translator about the ritual of tea drinking, which I found fascinating, but, I confess, that for me the green tea they drink is tasteless.  In turn, they hate Western tea.  He also spoke about the lotus flower, also a revelation for me.  The lotus is a symbol throughout Asia, for Hindus, Buddhists and some Muslims.


He himself, a thick-set man, winked at us:  on scattered occasions he takes a slice of pork and even a tot of whisky.  On a shelf in his study there was a figure of the Emaciated Buddha before the revelation he had under the Bo-Tree:  there needs to be balance between flesh and soul; you are not more spiritual if you disregard the body.  Yet, the Emaciated Buddha, he said, has a message for humankind.  Something to ponder.

Emaciated Buddha under the Bo-Tree


© Will van der Walt

Les Semboules, Antibes

May, 2017


My photographs





THREE DAYS AT A TEMPLE – a visit to Yuongpyeongsa

[The third in a series of three postings]

The last morning I photographed the gardens, the temple, the main figure of the Buddha.

Buddha in leaves

The nun came to chat again and pointed out an old monk engrossed in a meditation on the periphery of the temple grounds.  He’s over ninety, she said.  I watched him and felt the centuries of Buddhism in the course of his meditation, a history from 300 a.d. when Buddhism was initially brought from India.

Meditation course for an old monk

Walking centuries

I came upon a Tao rock which belongs to a spiritual belief far older than Buddhism or Confucianism.  This kind of rock is a symbol of Chaos Becoming and is central to Taoism practised in China, probably from prehistoric times.

Chaos Becomes

My visit to Yuongpyeongsa was a kind of farewell to my stay and teaching in South Korea.  This visit was in May when spring is rising and nature is at its most beautiful.  For Buddhists, nature is at the heart of their spirituality, the reconciliation of Earth and Spirit, of soul and body.  They see the world in a grain of sand and the universe in a drop of dew.  For this reason everything is sacred and part of the spirit, of healing and growth.

These days burgeon in me.  Years later.

The universe in a drop of dew


© Will van der Walt

Les Semboules, Antibes

May, 2017


My photographs







SAMSUNG – light and shadow

My Samsung camera, my Samsung app, my Samsung laptop, my … the list goes on.  An enterprising company with creative energy bristling, but behind the bustling surface, there is a history of light and shadow.

A Samsung customer with his camera

A Samsung customer with his camera

Samsung as a company was founded in the late-1930s with  Korea different to what it is today.  The Japanese had back in 1905 begun negotiations with the Korean government and by 1910 the Korean authorities signed away their independence – an industrialized nation had come to “help” an agrarian nation, one known in its isolation as “The Hermit Kingdom”.

Within the first decade, resistance to the occupation began and with it, the first martyrs.  The resistance went underground, increasingly influenced by the rising ideology of communism.

Samsung was established by Korean enterprise and money, supported by the Japanese.  The Koreans involved were considered by the resistance as collaborationist and denounced as capitalists, to be overthrown.  The resistance was inspired by Mao Tse Tung’s march to power, as well as the apparent successes in Stalinist Russia.

Propaganda painting of the new world icon

Propaganda painting of the new world icon

The Second World War intensified the resistance to the Japanese, especially too, after thousands of Korean women were taken to be “comfort women” for the Japanese soldiers.  In August, 1945, the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought unconditional surrender from the Japanese, and Korea’s colonial masters were banished.

The division in the society, however, had solidified, and the resistance derived impetus from the victory of Mao Tse Tung in 1949.  In 1950, with military support from China and Russia, the communists declared war on the Korean government and invaded from the northern territory.

Montage of Korean War

Montage of Korean War

A Country Divided

A Country Divided

The Korean civil war was one of the worst of its kind.  One million two hundred thousand lives were lost within three years. (Compare Iraq war: 500,000 deaths from 2003 – 2011).  Twenty-four nations, including South Africa, supported the Korean government in pushing back the communists who had taken the entire peninsula with the exception of Pusan, the coastal city in the south.  The Americans would play the biggest role. In 1953, a ceasefire was agreed upon between the two regions, north and south, but a formal peace treaty has never been brokered.

War Memorial, Ichon, West Seoul: the names, the names

War Memorial, Ichon, West Seoul: the names, the names …

Samsung survived.  In the south, that is.  In the West we know that.  Many of us have had a Samsung product.  The Japanese know it – the drop in their profits might well reek of a distant  revenge, ironically.   This company, the biggest of its kind in the country, is one of the main reasons why South Korea has been so successful in the world, placing them, in 2010, 13th amongst wealthy nations.

Samsung Town, Seoul

Samsung Town, Seoul

The Chinese and Russians have now developed Samsungs of their own, so to speak, and abandoned North Korea, the new “Hermit Kingdom”, a medieval serfdom, the most closed society on earth.

When does healing come?

                       When does healing come?

How inanimate objects – a fridge, a microwave oven, a cell phone – have grown out of a history of light and shadow!

© Will van der Walt

Les Semboules, France  

November, 2016


Andrew C. Nahm:  Tradition and Transformation. A History of the Korean People.

Wikipedia:  History of the Korean civil war (1950 – 1953)  

Statistics on deaths in Iraq war:  PLOS Medicine Survey, quoted by Wikipedia.  The reader is cautioned that such statistics come amidst controversy.


Samsung customer wcamera and Will  –  Will

War Memorial, Ichon, Seoul – Will

Mao  –  source lost

War montage  –  Wikiwand

Map  –

Samsung Town –

Dangerous Border –

Churches in South Korea

If one knows that Korea was once called “The Hermit Kingdom”, seeing the number of churches comes as a surprise.  Almost 27% of South Korea’s population belongs to a church.  Protestants are estimated at 8.1 million, while Catholics, with a history of 350 years, are estimated at 5.6 million.  Buddhism, still numerically stronger, has a history of 1,700 years.

What struck me in the various regions was the contrasting styles in the architecture of the churches, most of which are creatively modernist.

An a-shaped church, West Seoul

A Presbyterian church, Insa-Dong area, Seoul

A cathedral, central Seoul

An Evangelistic church, Jongno-gu, Seoul

With the churches, there is art, always memorable and moving.

A Christ figure, Chinese Presbyterian Church

A stained-glass window, Presbyterian Church, Samseong, South Seoul

A station of the cross, Cathedral, Myung-Dong

Food for thought … In my stroll through Samseong, I saw the reflection of the church first …

A reflection, Presbyterian Church, Samseong, South Seoul

© Will v.d.Walt

July, 2007 – June 2008.

Images: Will

Temples of South Korea

What has art to do with the soul?  My upbringing would have said nothing.  The Buddhist and Catholic child would have marveled at a different world and different set of values. My year in South Korea brought this home to me.

Yuongpyeongsa and Buddha

Yuongpyeongsa and Buddha


It is colours that struck me first –  the roof beams a palette of primaries, lovingly, painstakingly, applied.

Bongeunsa portal roof

Bongeunsa portal roof

Inside, as always, the Buddha figure is central, in bright gold overlay, often with two bodisattvas, flanking. Westerners need perhaps to be told that the genuflections of Buddhists do not imply worship, but respect and honour.

Gyeongju interior

Gyeongju interior

Temples are almost all built in the curled roof tradition, iconic for the East. Inside there are tapestries, sculpture and paintings that illustrate the life of Buddha or parables, together with sacred paraphernalia like the mutak, a wooden instrument that is struck to structure services.

Magoksa portal roof

Magoksa portal roof

Approaching the temples the pilgrims go through portals, also beautifully decorated.  At some temples there are protective structures that shelter Silla bells.  The Silla bells, about a head taller than a person, were cast in the Three Kingdoms period (circa 500 – 1000  c.e.)  It is a special moment to hear the bell being struck by the wooden beam made for the purpose.  On one such bell, were engraved the words To be heard at the ends of the earth.   And it’s true – years later I still hear it here in South Africa.

  A Silla bell at Bisan-ri

A Silla bell at Bisan-ri


© Will v.d.Walt

July, 2007 – June 2008






Snow in Daeso

I come from a country where snow is a rare commodity, thus the snowfall in Daeso where I was living was magical.  Daeso is a small town (its name even means that!) south of Eumseung, the city where BanKi-moon, UN Secretary-General, was born.   That morning early I hurried through the snow-laden streets, photographing everything I saw.  I share some images here.

In the garden of the Catholic Church – dreamy, otherworldly
Yi Sung-sin, great admiral, looking over the primary school playground
Civil War monument

This is the monument to those from Daeso who died in the Civil War (1950-1953).  Below the tall black monolith there is a relief of heroic figures.  On top of the apartment building in the background there are sirens which may be used in the event of an attack from North Korea.  A formal peace between the two countries was never brokered.  They are still in a state of ceasefire.

This figure of Yi Sung-sin you see in a number of places.  He is the great historic admiral who is credited with inventing, in the East, the modern battleship.  In the early 1590s a handful of such battleships routed the entire Japanese navy and delivered Korea from yet another invasion of the peninsula by the Japanese.  On that snow-filled morning he presided over a playground of frolicking children, a generation that has not known war.

Winter lion

I found it fascinating that the Lion is a  figure you find all over Korea, the “intrepid spirit”, a schoolboy explained to me with the help of a computer dictionary.  Here this African icon is covered with snow as it keeps guard over the primary school children throwing snowballs,  close to Yi Sung-sin.


This kind of shelter, decorative and slight, you see all over the East.  The Koreans, if I understand correctly, call it a jonya.   It struck me the more with its snow cap.

Daeso snow tree
Snow branches

I couldn’t stop staring at this tree, feeling somehow that I was hallucinating.

Will van der Walt ©

February, 2008

Image Source: Photographs by Will

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