This year Buddha’s Birthday fell on April 30th. In Korea, Buddha’s Birthday is a public holiday for many, myself included. I thought it would be a perfect day to pay my respects to the former Prince Siddhartha by visiting an abandoned Buddhist temple I discovered just two weeks ago. The temple is located in a redevelopment zone I’ve often been visiting, yet it seems this particular section of the neighborhood had been abandoned years before the rest. While most of the buildings have months or years of discarded possessions rotting away in front of them, the Great Buddha Hall (대웅전, 大雄殿) of this abandoned temple appears in decent shape. In fact, the courtyard is neat and tidy, though plants are starting to pop up through the cement cracks. It’s certainly doing better than the caved-in, adjoining house, and the weather-beaten shell of a storage shed. As I approached, I caught a glimpse of the current caretaker of the place. He/she seemed unfazed by my arrival. I choose to interpret the feline wishing me a good time on this special day.
Two weeks ago, when I first discovered an access point, I noticed these shoes from afar. These probably belonged to the former monk/nun(s) that ran the temple. This must have been the residential portion of the temple. I freaked out, seeing the shoes, despite seeing the collapsed roof from a higher vantage point. I’ve seen people squat in grimy, seemingly uninhabitable locations, so I didn’t rule out squatters until I saw the inside of the Buddha Hall.
Those first moments were nerve-wracking. thoughts arose like, “I might have just invaded someone’s makeshift living quarters.”, or “Maybe a modern-day Bodhidharma is tending to the temple?” My worries were unfounded as it slowly became apparent that nobody has stepped foot in the place, let alone practiced Buddhism in this ha in a very long time.
My mask did the bare minimum of blocking out the dust of the place. After ten minutes, I could begin to taste and smell the mildew. With my film cameras and iPhone, I anxiously tried to capture as many clear images of the place before I needed to flee for fresh air. The Buddha himself said that we shouldn’t get attached to our bodies, the content of our thoughts, or get lost in the distractions of the material world. He even discouraged followers from being attached to his teaching words. The former Prince Siddhartha said each person needs to experience Truth for themselves and wake up from suffering caused by ignorance and delusion.
It’s sad to see this place of brilliant Buddha statues and paintings gather dust in seclusion. Some people would love to have these put to good use at an active temple, using them as reminders to stay on the path. At the same time, this place offers insightful teaching into the world of impermanence. Even Buddhist temples must succumb. I hope to visit this place many more times before it disappears.