Bong Won Sa
by Andy Jackson

"Ah, shut up and drink," said the holy man as he poured me another bowl of makkoli (a milky rice wine). "You foreigners talk too much anyway." I slammed my bowl down and poured another for him, as he pulled on his cigarette.

Here I was sitting with a group of Buddhist monks who drank, smoked, swore like troopers, ate meat, could get married and sometimes did far worse. What was more, the monk who was now plying me with cigarettes and alcohol had been my landlord for the past four years. Dazed with the alcohol, I had to think for a second where I was. Ah yes of course, I was in the only place in Korea where this could happen: Bong Won Sa- a small temple on a hillside in the west of Seoul.

And it was just a regular day in the neighbourhood. The monks who worshipped and lived here were allowed to do almost anything a 'holy' man was not supposed to do. They belong to a sect called the Tae Go Chong which was probably influenced by a Japanese branch of Buddhism at some time. No one has ever successfully explained to me why they can eat meat, drink alcohol, smoke, get married and just about anything else and I never dared ask one of the monks. Other Buddhist sects in Korea have ridiculed the monks at Bong Won Sa for their lack of sobriety, but to me their tolerance has always made this a special place. The tolerance afforded the monks in the practice of their faith is also shown to the foreigners- so many of whom have made Bong Won Sa their home.

Bong Won Sa has a curious 'cut off' feel to it. Although the hill is slap bang in the middle of Seoul, it feels like a different place- it seems to belong to an older, perhaps wilder Korea. Bong Won Sa retains a village atmosphere. Unlike the rest of Seoul, people know your face and your business. Letters sent to the wrong house are quickly passed by hand through the village back to the 'foreigner'. The temple grounds covering most of the mountain have protected the area from any encroachment of the concrete construction that so dominates Seoul. The only link to this outside world is via a 'ma-ul' or village bus. Hikers board the bus from the crack of dawn and then climb the hill above the temple or collect the spring waters for its supposed medicinal properties. Worshippers come by bus or car to pray to their ancestors or for their children's exam results. And all of them: worshippers, hikers and monks alike, come to drink makkoli or soju outside the village shop, on the way down from the temple.

The monks now remembering their principal duty in life, stagger off home to bed - ready to wake the village at 4 am with their chants and gongs. I sneak off back to my 'home': a small room in the annex of a monk's house to think about my English lessons for the next day. The students never believe me when I tell them where I live. "Why do you live there?" they always ask, "because it's Korea," I always reply.

Should any of you decide to visit the temple early in the morning to see the monks' ceremony (and I strongly recommend it), you may see a rather tipsy foreigner watching the monks light their coloured lanterns, bang their gongs and chant together. That will be me. When I first saw the anonymous concrete mess of Seoul, I wondered whether I was really in Asia at all. When I found Bong Won Sa, I knew I'd finally arrived.

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