Singye Temple Restoration Project in 2004
On Buddha’s Birthday earlier this year on May 22nd, groups in South and North Korea participated in a joint-prayer ceremony marking the religious celebration. The event had been canceled the past three years due to worsening relations between the two Koreas, having originally started in 1997. The Buddhist community in South Korea has long made efforts to restore religious harmony between the two Koreas. As part of those efforts, the South and the North began to restore Singye Temple at Mt. Geumgang in 2004. Today, we’ll look back on the temple restoration project that many regard as one of the first examples of successful inter-Korean exchanges. Let’s hear from Ven. Beopta of the Jogye Order, who led the project.
On March 24, 1998, the Korean Asia-Pacific Peace Committee in North Korea, led by Kim Yong-sun(김용순), and a South Korean pro-unification group called One Korea Buddhist Movement, signed a 30-year agreement to restore cultural relics at Mt. Geumgang. I served as the head of the South Korean organization at the time. Singye Temple was our first assignment.
Ven. Beopta began to engage in pro-unification activities in earnest after he participated in the World Festival of Youth and Students in Pyongyang in 1989. He organized One Korea Buddhist Movement in 1992 and dedicated himself to improving the lives of the North Korean people. For instance, in 1997 the Buddhist monk set up a noodle factory in Sariwon in North Korea to feed starving residents. The following year, he stepped up efforts to promote Buddhist exchanges between South and North Korea. The inter-Korean agreement to reconstruct Singye Temple was one such example.
It is said that Mt. Geumgang has 12-thousand picturesque peaks and 80,000 beautiful temples. Buddhists call the area the Land of Happiness. Many reputable Buddhist priests studied at Singye Temple there on the mountain. Unfortunately, the temple was destroyed during the Korean War. We decided to restore the burnt-down temple in the hopes of healing the scars of the war. We Buddhists believe strongly that the project would promote peace and unification between the two Koreas.
Singye Temple was built in the year 519, the sixth year of King Beopheung’s (법흥) reign during the Silla Dynasty. Singye was cited as one of the four most celebrated temples at Mt. Geumgang, along with Jangan(장안), Yujeom(유점), and Pyohun(표훈). During the Japanese invasion of Korea in the late 16th century, venerable Buddhist priests Seosan(서산) and Samyeong(사명) mobilized monk soldiers at this sacred temple. But all of it, except a single stone pagoda, was destroyed by bombing during the Korean War.
And so the temple remained in ashes. But on April 6, 2004, the two Koreas broke ground and began to rebuild the temple, with Buddhists on both sides of the border cherishing hope that the restoration would advance the unification of Korea. South Korea paid construction expenses of about 6.3 million US dollars, while North Korea provided the labor. The first-ever inter-Korean project to jointly explore and restore a cultural heritage site proceeded smoothly, with the main hall of the temple completed in November 2004. Here’s Ven. Beopjang describing his thoughts.
I’m sure that the restoration of Singye Temple will heal the scars from the past and lay the foundation for national harmony and unification.
After the reconstruction of the main hall, which was the first of 15 structures to be restored, Ven. Jejeong stayed at Mt. Geumgang for three years to oversee additional restoration work there.
Staying here, I hope to help enable the two Koreas to move toward unification, step by step.
The South Korean monk had some difficulty communicating with North Korean workers in the initial stages, but he came to feel gradually closer to them while working together and even shared meals with them. The South and the North were able to narrow the gap between their differing views on construction work overall, including how to work on traditional patterns and designs for wooden buildings and how to interpret the artifacts excavated. Three structures as well as a stone pagoda were completed in 2005, and renovation of seven more buildings proceeded in 2006. Ven. Beopta witnessed this whole process, shuttling back and forth between the South and the North.
The restoration work was definitely worth being proud of. Carpenters in South Korea first cut timber, which was delivered to Singye Temple. There, the timber was trimmed and assembled. As you know, Korean traditional construction work requires complex technical skills to interlock separate wooden pieces without using nails. We tried our best to restore every single piece of the buildings, including a floorboard and the wall, to its original form, with authentic construction techniques.
South and North Korea worked in cooperation, bringing their timber, stones, and soil together. Scholars and technical staff from both sides referred to old documents and finally rebuilt all parts of the temple, including pillars, crossbeams, rafters and traditional patterns, so they looked just the way they had been in the old days. On October 13, 2007, a ceremony was held to celebrate the completion of the work. After three and a half years of construction, Singye Temple was finally rebuilt, regaining the glory and splendor of centuries past. It started raining at the completion ceremony, but the 400 participants were all filled with admiration for the magnificent temple. Ven. Beopta felt tears stream down his face.
Tears flowed down from my eyes in spite of myself. I was thrilled, and could hardly believe the results. Buddhist monks from both South and North Korea had been working together for years, so in a sense, they had already achieved unification. The temple restoration was the first and only example that South Korea helped recover from the pain of war by restoring a cultural asset. In this respect, the project was highly significant.
Singye Temple was recast as a symbol of inter-Korean reconciliation and a great example of overcoming cultural differences from decades-long national division. It is worth mentioning that the restoration work proceeded without interruption even amidst ever-changing political dynamics in the region and North Korea’s increasingly bold nuclear provocations. Indeed, the project delivered a message of peace and harmony to both Koreas. The two sides moved further and promised to discuss restoration of other cultural relics on Mt. Geumgang and promote bilateral Buddhist exchanges and cooperation. However, things didn’t turn out well afterwards.
On October 15, 2015, the sound of moktak, a wooden gong used by Korean monks, resounded through Mt. Geumgang. Some 100 Buddhists from South and North Korea congregated at Singye Temple to hold a ceremony marking the eighth anniversary of the temple’s restoration. It was a rare, large-scale private event between the South and the North. In fact, cross-border religious exchanges had been reduced due to deteriorating inter-Korean relations following the shooting death of a South Korean tourist at the mountain in 2008.
Buddhist monks and believers got together at the temple in 2015 to celebrate the eighth anniversary of the restoration of the temple and pledge to contribute to inter-Korean harmony and the peaceful unification of Korea. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to keep the promise since then, as inter-Korean ties were deadlocked for ten years under the previous South Korean governments. It is a shame that we couldn’t commemorate the 10th and 11th anniversaries of the temple’s restoration. I do hope that non-political events, especially religious ones, will not be influenced by political or military issues.
Singye Temple briefly emerged as a symbol of inter-Korean harmony in 2015, but there have been very few inter-Korean Buddhist events since then, due to tension on the Korean Peninsula. Fortunately, peace efforts are well under way this year. The temple, the first cultural asset jointly restored by the two Koreas, will hopefully once again be visited by many people wishing for Korea’s unification, like it was in the past.