Leading up to Buddha’s birthday, the streets of Korea exploded with lanterns. Approximately 20 000 Buddhist temples around the country were elaborately adorned and frequented by Buddhists and tourists alike. Caught up in the festivities, I made a trip to Donghwasa temple in Daegu. Standing in front of a 33 metre tall statue of Buddha, something occurred to me: I am not a Buddhist.
What am I doing here?
It seemed important to answer the question. When travelling in Italy and Spain, I visited many Catholic Basilicas and, now in Asia, I intend to visit Buddhist and Hindu temples. I am what you would call a secular tourist of religious sites.
Secular tourists visit religious places for the same reason that they visit other notable landmarks – to engage in an act of cultural consumption. Since it is a partially a quest for recreation and entertainment, tourism is understandably associated with hedonism. Tourists often visit religious sites with the hope enjoying themselves in a beautiful and interesting place. However, tourism is also a potential search for knowledge and understanding – which is perhaps only a different sort of pleasure. Undoubtedly, exploring places of worship in any country will give you a glimpse of the region’s culture and a better understanding of their social values.
Like those who visit Ashrams in India, many travelers embark on temple stays in South Korea. (Haeinsa, in the Gaya mountains, is a popular choice.) Often, romanticised ideas of spiritual adventures lure tourists to temples for a night or two, where some find enlightenment and most find that a monk’s life is tough on the knees. While many places of worship tap into the tourism market and commodify many aspects of their rituals and objects, Donghwasa has thankfully retained a sense of authenticity despite opening its doors to tourists.
I go for the beauty
For me, these places of worship are not sacred in themselves, but sacred because devotees make them so and continue to nurture the sanctuary they have built. Their sanctity lies in their architectural, artistic and natural beauty, particularly if they are located outside of urban areas. In South Korea, many temples are nestled in mountain ranges, and are surrounded by forests and streams, which significantly add to the peaceful atmospheres they tend to exude.
While I do not subscribe to religious beliefs, I appreciate places of worship because they are quiet and beautiful, and remind visitors of the ancient and fundamental aspects of the world. This is a most welcome break from a focus on the transient and superficial that is characteristic of day to day life in South Korea. I often feel as though each day is a scramble to complete tasks such as eating, shopping and consuming media as quickly and cheaply as possible.
I left Donghwasa with a sense of wonder, some great photographs and a Mala – a string of prayer beads that I wear decoratively rather than religiously. While I did not gain a better understanding of Buddhist theology or reach enlightenment, I found an appreciation of the emphasis on the sacred and ancient in South Korean culture – a healthy contrast to the country’s contemporary counterpart.