KOREA: The Inner Lives of Korean Monks

Almost entirely cut off from the world, enclosed by mountains that resemble the petals of a lotus flower, lies one of the jewels of Korean Buddhism. As winter melted into spring, Alexandre Sattler lived alongside the monks, privileged to witness their daily lives and rituals.


Looked upon as one of the Three Jewel Temples of Korea and renowned for its teaching of dharma — the eternal law of the cosmos, inherent in the very nature of things — today Songgwangsa is one of the foremost temples in the world for practising Korean Buddhism. In search of spiritual awakening, monks, pilgrims, believers and tourists all find their way here, to learn, meditate and exchange ideas.

Around 1190, Jinul, who was a master of seon, the Korean variant of Zen, stopped in front of an abandoned temple at the centre of a mountainous valley, where an abundant stream was flowing. He planted his stick in the ground and announced to his followers that in this place — from then on known as Gilsangsa — they were going to build a new temple.

According to legend, the stick took root, and is still waiting for Venerable Jinul to be reincarnate before flowering. This is how, at the very heart of what has become Jogyesan Provincial Park, a few tens of kilometres away from the sea, the prestigious temple of Songgwangsa — or “the Spreading Pine,” in keeping with one of its etymologies — now stands. Held to be one of Korea’s greatest national treasures, it currently falls under the jurisdiction of the Jogye Order, one of the branches of Korean Buddhism.

Almost entirely cut off from the outside world, Songgwangsa is enclosed by mountains, and wooden edifices occupy both sides of the stream which flows through the site. None of the spaces between the buildings is linear, as is often the case with traditional Japanese temples. Here, it seems as if man has reconciled himself to nature without attempting to impose upon it. Snakelike pathways move from one temple to another according to the whims of the contours.

To erect the temple, the monks-turned-builders depended on feng shui doctrine, favouring the feminine energies, or yin, of the place. It is said that the surrounding mountains resemble the leaves of an enormous lotus flower, whose stamens are represented the temple buildings. So as not to impede the flow of energies, the monks chose not to draw upon dome-like stûpa — synonymous with yang, or masculine energy — unlike the custom in other Korean temples.

I came to Songgwangsa in February, at the tail end of winter. It seemed as if Nature was still asleep. The sky was grey, the temperature barely more than five degrees. When the bus stopped at the terminal, the other travellers and I found ourselves standing at the foot of Mount Jogye. The climb up to the temple is magnificent. As you follow the banks of a waterway, slumbering pines appear out of the fog and the wind whistles softly in the bamboo plants. It takes around twenty minutes of quiet, contemplative walking to reach your destination.

Initially, I had thought that I would only spend four or five days at Songgwangsa, but the monks made me see that time should not be rushed, and that new things tend to come to us when we are prepared to receive them. On entering the reception room, I discovered first of all that I had been admitted on the basis of a misunderstanding. Journalists and photographers are usually sent to a different temple.

Despite this, I was granted an unadorned room with a mattress, blanket and pillow, which I would learn to fold carefully and tidy away in a little cupboard each morning. I came to realise that to write and take photographs, it would be necessary to be truly met with approval by the whole community. More than anything, I would need to commit myself to the daily rhythm of the monks, their rites and ceremonies.

After a time, I was accepted by the sangha. The monks became fond of coming to say hello and talk to me, and some of them regularly invited me to take tea in their cells. I formed a friendship with Dokejo Sunim, the senior monk in charge of instruction in dharma and also a photographer.

During my first week I learned to live as the monks do, following their teachings and taking part in their prayers, meals or daily tasks. But I was not yet allowed to capture the slightest image. It was actually only because every member of the assembled community gave their consent that I became the first photographer permitted to take shots of their ceremonial spaces, or of the incredibly intimate tonsure.

In fact, Dokejo Sunim told me that previously, no other professional had been trusted to take these kinds of photos, and that in all likelihood it would never happen again. For this reason, the photos I publish here are an exception of sorts. At the end of my stay, Dokejo Sunim even requested that each and every one of my shots be sent to him.

Upon my arrival at Songgwangsa, the monks had explained that the winter retreat was nearing its end, but invited me to stay until the first full moon of the new season. If I prolonged my stay, they suggested, I would be able to meet Venerable Hyon Gak Sunim, a monk well versed in English who would be able to have a more in-depth conversation with me. In the following weeks, although I became used to crossing paths with Venerable Hyon Gak Sunim, it was impossible for him to speak to me, as he had made a vow of silence for three months. So I decided to extend my stay and wait until the very end of his winter retreat.

“Buddhism is a science whose proposed theories are only proven after they have been experienced.”

I like this idea. They say that the Buddha used to end his addresses with the following, “Don’t believe what I tell you, experience it for yourselves.”

As spring took her first breath, so Venerable Hyon Gak Sunim emerged at last from his weeks of silence. He seemed happy about our encounter, which he led with incredible energy and presence. His voice often broke the room’s silence, and his words deeply affected me.

One day, I made the point that life in the temple felt distant from the material world lived in by much of humankind. I asked him my questions about meditation and the search for release which seems to be too inward-looking, while all around me I sense the urgency for change, to ensure a sustainable future for everyone. Why choose to pray here, I wondered, far from all of us, while we are in desperate need of spiritual light to make sense of our everyday actions and our place in the world?

“Prayers are like carbon reservoirs”

Venerable Hyon Gak Sunim explained to me that prayers are like trees, silently maintaining the vital balance of man and life on Earth. Each tree, no matter how large or small, acts as a “reservoir,” soaking up atmospheric carbon, unobtrusively helping to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and lessening global warming as a result. Skimming over a forest, you see only the trees and their impact remains invisible. It is the same with prayer.

Coming to Korea, I could not help but compare this country to Japan, where I had lived previously. Knowing that Hyon Gak Sunim had also lived in Japan, I asked if he could explain the difference between Japanese and Korean Buddhism. He told me, “In Japan, people eat with chopsticks. In India, with their hands. In Europe, with a knife and fork. In Korea, people eat with a spoon and chopsticks… but at the end of the meal, they all have a full stomach! Whatever the technique, the result is the same, Buddhism simply offers different routes into enlightenment.”

This story has only become a reality through the involvement of all the monks at Songgwangsa and the help of Yong Joo An and Jieun Lee. All my thanks go to them. Original text translated from French by Zoë Sanders, Maptia.





Alexandre Sattler is a photographer, traveler, and producer of audio documentaries on our planet's diverse cultures. With an aim to showcase our shared humanity and the environment, more of his work is available on through gaia-images.