A Temple By The Sea: Haedong Yonggungsa

This post originally appeared at the very cool chrisinsouthkorea.com. Special thanks to Chris Backe for the opportunity to provide a guest post!

Life in Korea is a high-octane rush of work and play, late nights and early mornings, and routine adventure. It’s exciting – and frequently exhausting. No wonder caffeine is a staple of most diets here.

But there’s only so much coffee and green tea a person can drink. At some point you have to slow down, breathe, and take a few minutes to just chill out and recharge. Where to go?

One of the most peaceful experiences you can have in Korea is visiting a Buddhist temple. Imagine: Beautiful, natural scenery; the air sweet with the smell of incense; the rhythmic chanting of monks. It’s the perfect antidote to a hectic weekend in Seoul.

Ready to plan a relaxing trip? Read on to learn about one of the more unique temples Korea has to offer.

A Temple By The Sea

Situated on the outskirts of Busan in Gyeongsangnam Province, Haedong Yonggung Temple (해동용궁사) is notable for its unusual location. Unlike most Korean temples, Haedong Yonggung Temple wasn’t built in the mountains but next to the sea.

Avalokitesvara

In real estate they say only three things are important: Location, location, location. At a time when Buddhism in Korea faced serious persecution from Confucian authorities it made sense for monks to build their temples in the mountains. These locations were remote, naturally fortified, and, if worse came to worse, easy to defend. For this and more complex religious reasons, most Buddhist temples in Korea can be found on or around mountains.

Why did Haedong Yonggung Temple buck this trend?

A stone engraving near the temple entrance explains that Haedong Yonggung Temple was built in honor of Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Within Mahayana Buddhism (the Buddhist tradition practiced in Korea) Avalokitesvara is associated strongly with healing. As water is a nearly universal symbol of healing and purification this might help to explain the temple’s seaside locale.

Or maybe the original builders of Haedong Yonggung Temple just liked the view?

Whatever the reason, there’s no doubt the location sets this temple apart from the rest.

Touring The Temple Grounds

Like most temples in Korea, the road leading to Haedong Yonggung Temple is lined with stalls selling everything from junk food to reliquary beads. Yeah it’s a little tacky, but it’s also a good place to grab a snack.

You can get a decently large seafood pancake (해물파전) for 8,000 won at any one of the many eateries available. A glass of makkoli (막걸리) or dongdongju (동동주) to wash it down will run you 2,000 won.

Figures of the Chinese Zodiac

Life-sized statues of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac stand at attention near the entrance to the temple. Apparently this is a photo-op waiting to happen. On the day we visited people were waiting in line to snap a photo with their birth year animal.

Once you’ve run this gauntlet of makeshift malls and frenzied photography a thicket of bamboo stands between you and the temple proper. This bamboo thicket does a nice job of separating the noisy, busy workaday world from that of the quiet, contemplative world of a Buddhist temple.

Emerging from the bamboo thicket you’ll find 108 steps leading down to a stone bridge. The number 108 is significant. As you go down one step after another you supposedly free yourself of the 108 torments plaguing this mortal coil and get that much closer to enlightenment.

Maybe so.

This pagoda stands at the head of the 108 stairs.

But let me tell you that going back up those 108 steps with a 20kg rucksack strapped to your shoulders will return all 108 torments with interest. If that’s the price you pay for enlightenment, I’ll need mine served with a side order of sports massage.

Irreverence aside, trudging down those 108 steps is absolutely worth it. Even with the knowledge that you’ll have to trudge back up them in due time.

There are a number of unique things to check out on a visit to Haedong Yonggung Temple: An underground grotto where you can offer water to Avalokitesvara. A massive, gilded statue of the Buddha. Impressively large and meticulously arranged cairns. A collection of artifacts and temple decorations dating from the Joseon Dynasty.

Each one is worth checking out.

But what I loved the most about this temple was a simple patio overlooking the sea. A slab of concrete, a few chairs of rough-hewn wood, and a tattered canopy for shade. That’s it. And, folks, it’s wonderful.

The sea breeze, the crashing of the waves, monks chanting their prayers – it doesn’t get much more relaxing than this.

Getting There

Haedong Yonggung Temple is a bit out of the way, but not too difficult to find.

Take Line 2 (green line) of the Busan Subway to Haeundae Station (해은대역 no. 203). Use Exit 7 and catch Bus 181 from the bus stop just outside of the station exit. The bus runs every thirty minutes. Fare is 1,000 won.

From Haeundae Station it’s a twenty-five minute bus ride to the entrance of Haedong Yonggung Temple. It’s a 1km walk from the bus stop to the temple proper. You’ll see a sign pointing the way. Admission to the temple is free.

Travelling to Busan? Know someone who will visit there soon? If you think this article is helpful, please pass it on!