One person I did not expect to meet in North Korea was a monk. In this famously atheist country, where tourists are forbidden to disseminate religious texts and the prevailing religion might be said to be belief in the supremacy of the Dear Leaders and the Juche idea, true religious conviction is hard to find. And I am still unsure whether or not I found it here.
Commentators on the Kim regime are split on the subject of religious faiths. Some say they were totally supressed under Kim Il Sung and that recent revivals are purely for show. But others say that religion did survive, despite persecutions, perhaps with worshippers also embracing Marxist–Leninist tenets and Kim Il Sung’s rule.
Whatever the truth, the Pohyon Temple was presented to us as an active community; and the monks as true Buddhist believers albeit within the framework of the regime. And thus I will present it to you.
The Pohyon Temple lies in the mountains north of Pyongyang, and is a Buddhist temple; home, we were told, to 20 monks. However, we only saw two monks during the course of our visit. I have seen low numbers also mentioned by some other tourists, leading to speculation that they are merely actors. If so, they are pretty convincing ones; and while it would be much easier to populate a temple with fake monks than do the same with commuters on the Pyongyang subway (as some commentators have alleged) I saw nothing to make me suspect that this was the case, other than seeing so few.
The temple is named after the Bodhisattva of Samantabhadra (known as Pohyon Posal in Korea). It was built in 1042 but has been repaired and reconstructed numerous times since. There were once 24 buildings and pagodas here; but unfortunately more than half were destroyed in 1951 during the Korean War, although some of these have since been reconstructed.
A guided tour
At the start of our tour with the inevitable local guide I felt we were being rushed; it was a lovely tranquil spot and I wanted to be able to take everything in, take lots of photos and appreciate the beautiful grounds and surroundings. It seemed that with so many groups visiting, the guides were working on a strict schedule to make sure each had its own space; and the pressure was on at the start to keep us moving. But after a bit the pace slowed, thankfully. I got the impression that not all the groups visited the entire site, only the part nearest the entrance. So we could take our time moving between the different buildings.
Unusually the layout of Pohyon isn’t linear, as is the norm for Buddhist temples. Instead the buildings are grouped around an attractive lawn dotted with trees. The setting is very attractive and the atmosphere was relatively peaceful once we got further into the complex. I loved it here!
The temple gates
Tours seem to skip the first gate, Jogye, which was built in 1644 – I have no idea why unless it is considered too frail? So we started at the middle gate, Haetal, the Gate of Nirvana, which contains statues of Buddhas riding a white elephant and a black and red lion dog.
The inner gate is Chonwang, the Gate of the Four Heavenly Kings.
Beyond Chonwang is the nine-storey stone Tabo Pagoda. The name means Pagoda of Many Treasures and it was erected in 1044. It stands in front of the Manse Pavilion, one of the buildings destroyed in 1951; this is a stone replica built in 1979. Another pagoda stands on the far side of the Manse Pavilion, the 13-storey Sokka Pagoda erected in the 14th century.
Meeting the monk
The main hall of the temple, Taeung, lies beyond the Manse Pavilion. It too was destroyed in the 1951 bombing but its 1976 replacement is a faithful replica of the 1765 original.
We were permitted to enter (with shoes removed) and to take photos of the several Buddhas here. It was here that we met the first of two monks I saw in the temple. He was happy to pose for us and our guide translated his greeting. Through her he told us that all the monks of Korea, North and South, pray for peace in the world and the reunification of their country; so that they will be able to travel freely across the whole land. They are praying for the realisation of the peace treaty which their Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un and President Moon Jae In of South Korea agreed to work on at their summit in 2018.
The other halls
On the right of Taeung Hall is one of the temple’s original structures, Kwanum Hall, which was built in 1449 and is the oldest building in the complex. It was here that we saw a second monk, although he wasn’t introduced to us as the first had been. Being so much older the paint colours here are more mellowed; I found it the most attractive of all the buildings we saw in the complex.
To the east of this is Ryongsan Hall, which also looked to me to be one of the original temple buildings, based on the paintwork, although I haven’t been able to find a date for its construction online. Inside was another golden Buddha.
A gate leads to the last building on this row, the walled Suchung Shrine or ‘Shrine of Rewarding Loyalty’. This was built in 1794. It honours the priests who led bands of warrior monks to repel the Japanese invasions of 1592-1598, including one of Pohyon’s own monks, Seosan.
The temple archive
To the south of the shrine is an attractive but relatively modern building, the Changgyong Pavilion, built in 1974 to house the temple archive. We couldn’t go in but could peer at some of the collection through a window; although when a couple of us raised our cameras to take photos we were told that wasn’t allowed.
The most significant item in the archive is a copy of the Tripitaka Koreana, a UNESCO-designated cultural relic printed on over 80,000 wooden tablets. Our guide talked proudly about this. But of course she didn’t mention that the original wooden printing blocks used in producing the Tripitaka Koreana are housed at Haeinsa in South Korea!
She also told us that the world’s first metal type was produced here in Korea, under the Koryo Dynasty in the 13th century. I’m sure I wasn’t the only person muttering ‘Gutenberg’ under my breath! But on returning home and digging around online I have found plenty of references to this.
A Buddhist website, Tricycle, explains that a Koryo minister, Choe Yun-ui, was commissioned to produce a Buddhist text so long that it would have required far more wooden tablets than he had available to carve. So he adapted a method used for minting bronze coins to cast individual characters in metal. These were arranged in a frame, coated with ink, and used to press many sheets of paper (or animal skin) in succession; like the woodblock process, but faster. By 1250, the project was completed. It was the first book ever printed in movable metal type; and it happened 200 years before Gutenberg.
Unfortunately, no copies of this work have survived; but a later one printed in 1377 using the same technique, ‘The Anthology of Great Buddhist Priests’ Zen Teachings’ or ‘Jikji’, does. It thus pre-dates the Gutenberg Bible by nearly a hundred years. That the Koryo methodology didn’t take off as Gutenberg’s did could be due to its slower speed of production. Unlike Gutenberg, who adapted wine or oil presses to lower his metal frame over the top of the paper, the Koryo printers laid the paper on to the typeface by hand. But it’s also the case that, as in China, the Korean language didn’t lend itself to speedy printing as thousands of pieces of movable type were necessary to produce each text. European languages, with their relatively few separate letters, were particularly well-suited to moveable type printing.
If you are as intrigued by this as I was you can read much more on the Tricycle website linked above; including a theory proposed by some scholars (but disputed by others) that the Mongols introduced the invention to the West.
I left Pohyon still unsure whether I had visited a cultural anachronism or a living temple; and whether I had met a man of faith or a puppet of the regime. His manner however would suggest the former. And perhaps the two are not incompatible. Perhaps here we see a man with a genuine belief in a divine power which could strengthen the already formidable ability of Kim Jong Un and assist him in achieving the ultimate goal of reunification with the South.
Believer or not, this monk struck me as Just One Person from Around the World who, like many others, wants a future for his country that is peaceful and secure. And who can argue with that?
I visited North Korea in 2019