Spiritual Adventures in Gwangju, Part 2

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I think I’m most intrigued when I stumble upon abandoned places of worship or when I come across people’s discarded spiritual aids. I am drawn to the art, especially the full range of colors used in depictions of Taoist, Buddhist, and indigenous Korean spirits in devotional works. The Shaman Hoarder’s house takes the cake in spiritual eye candy.  Even when I’m on vacation in other Asian countries, I’m attracted to and taking pictures of temples or mosques. For instances when visiting Chinese temples, my eyes are captivated by the reds and yellow decor. They harmonize with the gleaming bronze statues. When I was in Singapore, one of my personal highlights was Haw Par Villa, a Chinese spiritual and mythological theme park that had some colorful depictions of the hell realms.  On a recent trip to Hong Kong, I was captivated by a hillside decorated in forsaken porcelain deities. I had never encountered this much Orphaned Art in one place before. It’s a place that deserves a future blog post.

As for today’s offering, I will continue to showcase a weekend adventure in Gwangju. Last week I wrote about our experiences in a long-abandoned Seventh Day Adventist Church. On that same day, we found two different places where (we think) shamans or fortune tellers resided and practiced. From what I have seen, fortune teller/ shamans freely mix Buddhism, Taoism, and spiritual traditions unique to Korea into the services they sell. The neighborhood we explored is one that been left to decay for a significant amount of time. On a street that cuts through the heart of the community, glass box establishments for prostitution straddle one side and shaman/fortune tellers the other. When I walk on this particular street, I get the feeling that customers of the glass boxes the night before, seeking to fill the emotional void, sheepishly cross the road to shaman/ fortune tellers the next day to fill the spiritual void.

011The neighborhood is gradually being torn down to be redeveloped. The picture above offers a view of the area we explored that weekend in early Fall.  It was taken from the top floor of Dae Heung Sa, our first shamanistic discovery in that area. Dae Heung Sa is a relatively common name of temples in Korea. Dae Heung Sa translated in English as Great Prosperity Temple, which is ironic given its current state.  Let’s take a look inside!

On the second floor, a guardian of wisdom. He protects of the dharma from ignorance.


For lack of better words, I call this doll Hanbok Barbie.
Hanbok Barbie and her eternally fresh bouquets of flowers.

Ascending the stairs, we come across the living quarters of the fortune teller/shaman and a spare room for a possible protege. The protege’s room was decorated in the style of a young women’s room. Could it be a mother/daughter fortune teller duo? An aunt passing on the tricks of the trade to her niece?  In the main space display cases, unsold pictures of benevolent deities lay in neat stacks, which my cohort and I rummaged through and posed for photos. 010014016017018

It’s always a joy to come across Bodhidharma and his infamous scowl.


Also discovered were skeletal remains of Lotus lanterns and copious amounts of incense sticks from Inda. It seems that the third floor was also connected to the first-floor business. Maybe the second floor was where the spiritual ceremonies were conducted?


From the first floor, boxes of unsold merchandise gather dust and mold.

015  The Great Prosperity Temple is worth multiple visits. It could linger for years like the Seventh Day Adventist Church or it could be gone next week.  When you see the large patches of brown space and towering metal fences a few hundred meters away, you realize it’s going to be rubble sooner rather than later. However, every time my cohort and I return there is always something that has survived the demolition, postponing it another week. This other fortune teller/shaman space does not have such a vast array of artifacts, only one room in a house where someone must have done religious services from the confines of their home.

I can’t but help think the Buddha left his shadow in this room.
The colorful shapes attract even in a dirty, neglected room. 
Buddha shaped mold. 

No matter how dingy, moldy, and downtrodden a former spiritual space may be, it still attracts me. The colors and motifs are a big reason. But I also have a spiritual connection with some of the deities, particularly Kwan Seum Bosal (a.k.a Kwan Yin, a.k.a Avalokitesvara), the bodhisattva of compassion. Kwan Seum Bosal listens and cries to all the sufferings of the world, refusing to enter Nirvana until all sentient beings have crossed the river from Samsara. Pretty inspiring stuff, right? There is also Ji Jang Bosal (a.k.a Ksitigarba, a.k.a Jizo Bosatsu), the bodhisattva of that mercifully ushers people around the hell realms. Again another dude that won’t give up on helping all beings until they have crossed Samsara! Ji Jang Bosal in Japan is known as the deity that will protect all children, living and dead. Finally, I smile and feel motivated to try my best as a human when I see the artwork of the bearded Indian monk Bodhidharma. Bodhidharma, known as Dalma in Korea, is known as the monk who brought Buddhism to China, which in turn was transmitted to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. The story goes is he meditated in a cave for nine years before he found a study worthy of the teaching. Said student cut off an arm to prove his sincerity and determination to get enlightened. It’s been said that inspiration for walking along the spiritual path takes many shapes and forms. I practice meditation, go to retreats when I can, but I also oddly find inspiration for my practice when I come across orphaned art in the streets or buildings slated for destruction. First and foremost, encountering these famous spiritual roadsigns remind me of the impermanence of life. It helps me take account of what is most important in this short time on the planet and to let go of hinderances.







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