Why can’t Korea be more like its temples? Here at the base of Geumjeong Mountain sits a haven of peace and art, the air is sweet with burning incense, and birds rush through the trees with the wind. Cats wander the boulders and statues of roaring lions guard the paths between the temples, vegetable gardens, and makeshift ancestral shrines—the gate to one of them creaked with rust, but inside I found a cat-sized cave crowded with little Buddhas, as well as a candleflame melting down into a splattered puddle of white wax. But there are trees—the forest seemed to be lunging over the walls at the city, itching for a fight, ready to take a swipe—and paintings inside the temples and paintings outside the temples, history, memory, some measure of spirituality, time to think. A culture is lost without these spaces, which should not be tourist attractions shoved off to the side to make room for office towers and theme parks—they must be the centerpieces. A culture is lost without this. A culture is lost without culture!
Each dusty delicate wood panel painted with blue flowers is a declaration that there is far more to the world than buying and selling and working and running like rats through a maze, a fact lost on the rest of this city. You stand beneath an ornate roof of exquisite craftsmanship, you look up and see above this roof an immensely tall red crane hovering over yet another titanic apartment complex—all in the distance but all steadily encroaching on the temple precinct—and what, inevitably, do you think? What is more important to Busan? Is the city building any new temples? Are they hiring traditional painters for this distinctly non-commercial purpose? And do the inhabitants care?—I was the only person at this temple on a Saturday midafternoon on the most beautiful autumn day in the entire history of the city! How long must we wait before we realize the destitution and the emptiness of our pursuits?