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Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Another cycle begins at Naksansa

Sad news that the important Buddhist temple of Naksansa on the west coast of Korea was razed to the ground in a forest fire yesterday. The temple dates back to the Silla dynasty (?-935AD) and the greatest loss seems to have been its fifteenth century bronze bell. The BBC has a good picture gallery. The story has also been well blogged (Oranckay, Hunjangûi Karûch'im) particularly by Gangwon Notes, which has an excellent eyewitness report with lots of pictures. Oh My News is, of course, also on the case with good reportage and pictures.

The bell pavilion (?) at Naksansa burns

A monk stands beside the remains of the ritual hall

The irony of this story is that the fire occurred on Korea's annual Tree-planting Day (식목날) or Arbor Day if you want to Americanise. Hankyoreh even has an editorial on the subject, suggesting that perhaps the day should be changed to a time of year when the risk of fire is not so great - people have suggested that it's currently possible that more trees are lost on April 5 than are actually planted.

From an historical point of view I find our reactions to this sort of disaster interesting. The BBC notes that the temple was 1,300 years old and I've mentioned above that it dated from the Silla period. Of course, this is all true in one sense, but I doubt there was anything at the site that actually dated from 1,300 years ago apart from the stone pagoda, which funnily enough, is still standing. As this article in the Korea Times points out, the current Naksan Temple was in fact built in the 1950s after it was destroyed in the Korean War (along with much of Korea's physical heritage). The fact is that the repeated razing of buildings was a feature of all societies before the modern era and this was particularly true of East Asia, where wooden buildings predominated. Look at the record of Naksansa outlined in the KT:

The temple was earlier destroyed by fire during the Mongolian invasion of the 13th century.

During the Choson period (1392-1910) the temple was repeatedly reconstructed and expanded by royal order in 1467, 1469, 1631 and 1643.

The present facilities were constructed in 1953 after the buildings were again destroyed during the 1950-53 Korean War.
So the temple has burned down at least twice before and had been reconstructed on numerous occasions. We also know from historical records that the centre of Seoul burned down every few decades during the Chosôn dynasty and the history of Edo (premodern Tokyo) is no different. My experience of visiting Buddhist temples around Korea is that you soon have to discard the conception that the absolute age of the buildings standing in front of you is what matters - a great many have been reconstructed in the last 50 years, or at most in the last couple of hundred years. Rather, the important thing is the (still living) tradition that they represent and the fact that their repeated destruction and reconstruction is an integral part of their history.


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