Situated on Mount Taejosa and surrounded by trees, Gakwonsa is a Buddhist temple in Cheonan, South Korea. It has beautiful grounds and it is known for its enormous Buddha stature. On the day we visited, there were many people touring the site, including a charter bus of American military families.
As we made the short hike up to explore the grounds and came close to the Buddha stature, I noticed people on a platform with mats, where people appeared to be worshiping. I didn’t photograph that area because I didn’t want to go near it and be intrusive.
While I knew I was visiting a temple, I was taken aback to literally see people falling prostrate at something man-made. At the sight of seeing this, it made me feel some kind of way, including out of place. Realizing my own personal bias, I tried to dismiss my feelings for the sake of observing what was actually happening without judgment.
Then, my fiancé said to me:
I will not be visiting another temple. These people are worshiping an idol. I feel like I’ve greatly sin by being here…This is an abomination to God.
Considering my own personal belief system, which is there is only one God—the Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer of all and there is nothing that can be liken to him—I sincerely apologized, understood, and could relate to his feelings.
But, the social scientist in me began to wonder about the things people deem as sacred and how it comes to be. Specifically, is it that these people were in fact worshiping the Buddha stature as it appeared from my western socialization and religious background? Or culture wise, were they bowing out of respect for Buddha as a teacher?
I didn’t want to be quick to judge what I perceived because having lived in Korea for several years now, I know that bowing to people for greetings, farewells, and/or for someone you esteem is very normal within Korean culture.
Going back to my initial questions. What and when does something become sacred?
Let’s say that the people bowing were just in fact showing a sign of respect for the deceased teacher. By doing so, have they bestowed sacredness and consequently, has it become an idol they’re worshiping?
*Originally published on April 5, 2015