The Merciful Buddhas
The banker and his plump wife staggered up the path and I let them pass me. They had more valid reason to visit the temple than I, though I doubted their reward would be any different. She was not so old as he but if her clock had not run down it was surely past the point of rewinding. Still, they had hope and sometimes thats enough.
I let them pass. Their goal was a child while mine was mere curiosity.
Their ruddy round perspiring faces and gimlet eyes lit with smiles, his displaying a gold tooth that twinkled in a beam of sunlight as they went around me, climbing on toward their goal.
We had come up together by taxi from Seoul. Though our purpose was not the same I was caught up in their enthusiasm and, so, when we came in sight of Mount Chang-ji it was I who ran ahead up the steep slope to catch the first glimpse of the Kwangtan Miruk. It was selfish as I soon realized and I halted, climbing onto a boulder by the path to await them.
They went by, apologizing as these polite people are wont to do, and I remained upon my boulder which was warm in the sun, dappled with the shadow of the leaves it broke through beneath a brilliant cerulean sky. Others passed along the path, some couples but more often women in their middle years who had yet to bear a son. A breeze rustled the leaves overhead and, as it descended through the trees, I felt its cool lap against my sweat-dampened brow and smelled the pleasant scent of warm leaves and running sap. Hidden in the brush but near by, a magpie chattered. All around, the earth was fresh, pregnant with life.
There are places on earth the imagination endows with magical powers. This Korean hillside was one of them.
So long as the weather was good and the place accessible a steady throng of supplicants would ascend the steep path from the village below and seek favor at the shrine.
It was a mudang, a traditional sorceress, who first told me of the place. "Go there and pray," she said, "and your wife will give you a son." I think she was not so good a fortune teller since I had yet to take a wife. But, she did arouse my interest in seeing this temple erected because of a dream.
Below, through the curtain of trees, I could see here and there a plaster wall, smell the cooking fires which sent wisps of smoke curling above the pines, and hear the muted chatter of children at play.
Now I turn my back on that reality and follow the track of the other pilgrims up to the place of dreams.
Nearly a thousand years ago, Won Shin dreamed two monks who dwelt in the gap at the foot of Mount Chang-ji were hungry and thirsty. Her husband, Sun Jong, thirteenth king (1084-1094) of the Koryo Dynasty, growing old and without heir, had married her in hope she would give him a son. Disappointed with the passage of time and fearful she might be as barren as her predecessor, Sun Jong was open to any possible sign.
The king sent forth emissaries to find and feed the monks. The servants found nothing but two gigantic blocks of granite on the hillside.
Undeterred, convinced the dream was a divine message of the need for more devotion to religion, Sun Jong ordered erection of a temple and had the stones carved into statues depicting monks. When all this was accomplished, his prayers were rewarded with a son.
Since the birth of Hansan Humul, the Merciful Buddhas have been a shrine for Koreans desiring a son.
Around a curve in the path and coming over a ridge I came face to face with the two giant monk statues erected by Sun Jong's order. Solemn, brooding, the great heads looked down on those approaching the holy place as they had for centuries. Through the overhanging limbs, just behind them, I could see the smaller "baby Buddha" which commemorates the visit of a more famous pilgrim.
At the top of the hill I squatted to rest in the shadow of the statues which were even more imposing in proximity. Even as my eyes scanned the far off hills which were transformed from muted shades of blue to purple as the sun turned from them and threw its golden skein farther west, I felt their presence. I cannot say I heard their ancient voices but I was attuned to the passage of time.
The Merciful Buddhas are an excellent example of early Korean sculpture. The art developed to such a fine degree in this period and in later dynasties that the Japanese imported Korean sculptors to work on their temples.
The images stare off across the valley, immutable; their visages pocked and creased by eons of driving rain and ravaging wind, cracked and heaved by freeze and thaw, the crevices sutured with second skins of moss that invite ant and other inspect pilgrims. In the brush around them birds flit and rodents scurry while hawks soar and dive overhead. No words are spoken but, clearly, there is a message. Actually, more than one for he who is willing to heed.
Acknowledging the passage of time is to recognize the immutability of man's desires and the futility of his achievements.
Yet, people are impelled to continue striving. This is evidenced by the number of pilgrims who continue coming here in the vain hope the Merciful Buddhas will reward them with a desired son. In 1953, former president Syngman Rhee and his wife came, apparently for the same purpose as others. Villagers commemorated this famous visit by adding a small baby Buddha and a seven-tiered memorial pagoda to the complex.
Eventually my solitude was interrupted by other visitors who informed me the temple proper was higher up the hill. Politely, they insisted on waiting until I was ready to clamber with them up the path to the temple.
This edifice was no different than others I had visited at other sites and I was soon able to evade my new friends while they prayed and make my way back to the monuments. Alas, a new group of pilgrims climbing the hill informed me the temple was farther along and offered to escort me there.