Nestled behind the massive COEX Mall in Gangnam is a Buddhist temple founded in 794 by Yeonhoei, head of the Seon (Zen) Buddhist sect. The temple’s history, like many in South Korea, is blighted by the Joseon Dynasty’s attempts to eradicate Buddhism altogether. Originally named Gyeonseongsa, it was renamed and moved during King Myeongjong’s reign, whereupon Yeonggi built the Tripitaka Hall and enshrined 81 volumes of the woodblock Flower Garland Sutra.
The temple isn’t without controversy: at present, the Seoul City Government has Bongeunsa designated as an Urban Park, which prevents the temple receiving benefits associated with religious sites. In true Korean style the temple isn’t shy about making this very clear to all visitors.
During my visit the temple was hosting a traditional Korean Crafts fair, and tourists were encouraged to participate in all manner of crafty goings-on, from colouring for the younger visitors, to assembling these cute little paper lanterns:
This was far more fun than it seemed it should have been, and both Mr. Troo and I created remarkably acceptable-looking lanterns thanks to the friendly guidance of a lovely volunteer lady.
We picked out our own paper colours: I was lured in by all the pink, and Mr. Troo felt the urge for orange.
Further into the temple grounds, there are stone pagodas, which are are shaded beneath a ceiling of white lanterns, representing the dead.
Continue onward and you will reach Bongeunsa’s massive Maitreya Buddha: 23 metres tall, it stands in a large open space which is startlingly peaceful and smells delicately of incense.
During our visit there was also an open-air art exhibition taking place, featuring Buddhist photography and paintings from the temple itself. And if you take the time to dawdle by the pond on your way out, there is another Maitreya Buddha on a small island in the centre of it, which is reachable by a small, sturdy bridge.
All in all, a great temple, well worth stopping off to visit if you find yourself in Gangnam.
Take Subway Line 2 to Samseung Station and use Exit 6. Walk toward the Asem Tower, then turn left after about a hundred metres along the Bongeungsa Temple Trail. The temple is on the right.
Alternatively leave the COEX Mall via Gate 07, labeled Asem Plaza on the mall’s map, and take the plaza stairs on your left up to street level. The temple is across the street.