Buddhist temples might seem at first sight to be far removed from Catholic churches but closer inspection reveals a surprising amount of similarities.I’ve always loved visiting the Korean temples. They’re usually found on wooded hillsides or even remote mountain tops, and they are a feast for the senses. If you read my last blog you’ll know how my taste buds were excited by my recent trip to Korea. My visits to temples were a banquet for the eyes, the ears and the nose. The bright, vivid colours that the exterior wood is painted are especially striking, yet they give a calming effect, as do the gently sloping rooftops. You take off your shoes at the door (as indeed you do when going into any Korean dwelling) and you enter into a darkened space with a lush polished floor. As someone brought up in the Roman Catholic faith I am immediately at home with the massed ranks of candles (and also in common with Catholicism, in order to light a candle you are invited to make a little donation!). And then there are the statues, always a central one of the Buddha, and sometimes a smaller Buddha on each side. The statues show the Buddha in various guises, and the most impressive I saw was on the way up a mountain. My wife and I almost missed it. We had been into lots of temples by that point and there didn’t appear to be anything special about this one at the side of the trail. A monk appeared and, perhaps because I was foreigner, suggested that we go through a certain door into one of the buildings. We did as instructed and found in the middle of the temple an enormous Buddha carved out of the cliff-face of the mountain.
On approaching a temple you will often hear the sound of chanting (another similarity with traditional Catholic liturgy) and there will often be incense sticks burning. And each temple has its bell, which will be rung at certain times of the day.
At one temple we were invited by one of the sisters (again possibly because of me being a foreigner) to come into the reception area for a coffee and a chat. The sister then gave us the pieces to make prayer beads. They’re very much like rosary beads, except that instead of the cross there is the name of the temple where the beads were made. She also gave us each a (Korean-style) dish cloth that had been made at the temple. One of these now has pride of place at our kitchen sink (no more disposable green scourers for us!). Finally the sister showed us how to bow properly. In the same way that the standing, sitting, kneeling during the Catholic mass was supposed (I think) to be a way of using the whole body during the liturgy (and not just the head: after all, the Christian faith celebrates a God that was made flesh), so the Buddhist liturgy has lots of bowing. You have to be in pretty good shape physically to bow properly. Starting from standing and bringing the hands together you crouch right down so that your head touches the floor, do certain things with your hands and feet and then stand up again. Yim Soon and I got into the routine of doing that three times in the temples we went into. Some people do a series of three thousand ‘chols’ (bows) which last the whole night! (all night vigil: very Catholic!). Many years ago I found a temple that was full one day of women (there are normally only one or two people there) doing the chol over and over again. It turned out that it was the day the High School students were doing their University entrance exam. Their mothers were doing a certain amount of chols and praying for success for their offspring (and making a little ‘offering’ to the temple besides). Again, nothing too different from what my mum always did (plenty of novenas to St Anthony; without the bowing mind!).
Just as I like to find beauty in a church so too I relish the beauty of the temples, and I’m reminded that it’s so important for us to find beauty in our lives. Dostoevsky went as far as to say that “beauty will save the world”. There has always been debate and controversy in the Church about spending money on ‘externals’, like decoration and ornamention. I remember as a child our priest inviting the congregation to donate money to an appeal to have some stained glass windows put in the church. He said “make the church as nice as you want your own home to be”. He got the money; the beautiful, coloured windows were installed, and they continue to being me pleasure whenever I go into that church.
One of my favourite holy places is the chapel at Wormwood Scrubs prison. You go through a series of locked gates in tall steel fences topped with barbed wire and then suddenly find yourself in a large and lofty chapel, at one end of which is a truly beautiful sanctuary in a kind of Eastern Orthodox style with icons around the walls. The chapel has a palpable sense of calm and prayerfulness. It’s where we hold our Traveller events at the prison and we’ll be back there at the end of June to celebrate Traveller History Month with musicians and a meal.
Whether it’s on a remote mountain-side in Korea or in the middle of a London prison, beauty and sanctity can be found in surprising places.