Great local getaway: Unsusa Temple in the mountains of Busan

by Hal Swindall
Busan Haps Magazine

Marked on Busan’s standard tourist map, this small and quiet Buddhist temple is a perfect half-day trip within city limits. Since most cabbies have an idea of its location, getting there requires a 10-minute ride up a steep and narrow lane on Baekyangsan’s southwest slope. Visitors who have lived in Busan for awhile without knowing about this temple will be surprised at how distant from the hustle and bustle of the city’s main arteries Unsusa is. Being there gives one the eerie feeling of having traveled a much further distance.

The Jogye Buddhist temple’s name literally means “cloud water temple.” Founded in the early ninth century by Master Doui, who brought seon (zen) Buddhism back from China, Jogye’s nine-plus million members make it the largest Buddhist sect in Korea. No one knows when Unsusa was founded, but roof tiles discovered in its vicinity indicate that it was once larger than it now is. Its English-speaking abbot, Lee Yu-jung, claims it is even older than Beomeosa, Busan’s largest Buddhist temple.

According to legend, in old times its evening bell ringing was audible from as far away as Gimhae, and provided soothing spiritual relief to all who heard it. Given how far up Baekyangsan it lies, it’s difficult to believe that the ringing was heard even at the foot of the mountain, but the legend makes for a charming story. Lee says the bell was lost in the Imjin War circa 1592, and notes plans to acquire a new one in 2015.

First-time visitors might be disappointed by Unsusa’s exterior plainness, but inside the courtyard is a little-known architectural treasure: the daeungjeon, or Hall of Great Enlightenment, the temple’s main hall and one of the very few ancient Korean buildings to have escaped destruction in 1592.

Or so says an English sign in the complex. Unusa’s history is indeterminable: Sasang-gu’s website claims the whole temple was burned by the Japanese in 1592; Lee, who probably knows better than anyone else, claims the hall was built only 366 years ago, which would make it constructed in the century following the temple’s sacking by the Japanese.

Whenever it was built, Daeungjeon used to sit in the center of Unsusa’s courtyard, with a small stupa before it. By the end of April, it had been completely dismantled for renovation and reconstruction. Much of the original wood is too rotten to be reused, but Lee is hoping to retain as much of the ancient timber as possible in the reconstruction. He plans to have the new hall completed in 2014.

Like all main halls, Daeungjeon is the focal point of the mandala, a geometrically arranged image of the cosmos that Buddhist temples are constructed to form when seen from above. Also in keeping with standard Buddhist practice, it is constructed entirely of wood, and apparently without any use of nails. The interlocking of pieces of wood were made such that buildings could be dismantled and relocated, but mainly symbolizes interdependence in which each part depends upon the whole and vice-versa.

Wood has always been especially valued in Korean Buddhism, and was traditionally used for all parts of temple buildings; although concrete is often used in contemporary urban temples, it is still painted to look like wood. The glory of any temple building is its roof, and this daeungjeon’s is no exception: its’ is multi-tiered and ornately gabled.

As for the man behind the hall, Lee is a 50-something Busan native. He did not come from a religious family, but met the influential zen master Sung Oh as a freshman at Seoul’s Dongguk University. Sung Ho advised Lee to “Follow me!,” which the young Lee did, immediately giving everything up to become a novice at Beomeosa.

Now that he is himself a master, Lee is extremely busy supervising his six monks and 400 volunteers who help out part-time, as well as dealing with visitors from across East Asia. This level of activity, he claims, is businessman-style, not monk-style.

Even though Unsusa’s environs seem terribly tranquil compared to Seomyeon or Haeundae, the abbot insists on spending three days of every month at a solitary retreat in Jeollanam Province’s Wolchulsan National Park. There, he can meditate by himself and feel very happy.

Lee hopes that more westerners will visit this hidden gem of a temple, and made a note to invite all foreigners to the celebrations for the restoration of the daeungjeon next year and the new bell the year after.

Getting there: Take subway line 2 to Mora station and hail a taxi outside of exit 3. Finding the way to Unsusa on foot would be practically impossible. The ride will be 10 minutes and cost around 5,000 won. Once you have seen the temple, you will have to walk back all the way to the foot of the mountain, which takes at least 30 minutes. 

Unsusa’s land line is 051-313-3300, and Lee Yujung’s email is happy-zen@hanmail.net.  Shanti, shanti, shanti.

Busan Haps Magazine website

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