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On the Buddhist trail of Malananda

by Atul Aneja, The Hindu, Dec 17, 2017

Seoul, South Korea -- In the depth of Korean winter, snow flurries along the southwest coastline are common. On the nearby slopes along the coast, Buddhist temples — solid wooden structures that stand in harmony with their green surroundings — are quickly layered in white. From their perch atop rolling hills, the fringes of the Yellow Sea can be spotted turning into powdery ice.

It was at the port of Beopseongpo along the southwestern coast where centuries ago, an Indian Buddhist monk by the name of Malananda set foot on Korean soil. The journey of Malananda or Marananta in Korean parlance, is the stuff of legends. He belonged to Gandhara, now in northern Pakistan — one of the major fulcrums in South Asia, from where Buddhism spread its wings across the vast Asian continent. After breaching the lofty Karakoram mountains through the Gilgit valley, Malananda headed for Hunza — the picturesque town on the edge of the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan and the Xinjiang region of China. It was along this northern branch of the ancient Silk Road that he entered China.

With the backing of the East Jin dynasty, he began his voyage to Korea. In 384 AD, he landed at the port of Beopseongpo. It is widely believed that the monk was an emissary from East Jin to King Chimnyu of Baekje, one of the three major kingdoms of Korea. Consequently, royal patronage allowed him to channel Mahayana Buddhism in southwest Korea. Being a major maritime power, the Baekje Kingdom became a springboard for the spread of Buddhism further into East Asia and Japan.

“Malananda hand-picked 10 Buddhist monks to spread the word about Mahayana Buddhism,” Master Manndang, the abbot of the famous Bulgapsa temple in Yeonggwang, told The Hindu . The Bulgapsa temple, founded by Malananda, was the first Buddhist temple in Korea. Over centuries, it has evolved into a cluster of 40 buildings and 500 rooms, spread along stepped terraces, cut out of the verdant Moaksan mountain.

Visitors to the temple can stay in clean rooms, which have no furniture, but whose floors are heated to counter the extreme cold. Guests can savour a simple dinner of rice, seasonal vegetables and soup, which is served at 6 p.m. The amiable Abbot Manndang is known for his post-dinner habit of serving several rounds of Puer tea to his floor-seated guests. The entire temple wakes up at 4 a.m., with a call for prayer.

Gandhara roots

Over centuries, the temple has also mutated to pursue the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. This is a fusion of Zen Buddhism brought from China, sutra -based teachings of Buddhist schools and Korean Pure Land Buddhism. Yet the Koreans have not forgotten their Gandhara Buddhist roots. A sprawling complex in the Yeonggwang general area, where Malanada first set foot in Korea, evokes the memories of Gandhara. The Koreans reverentially call the site Sacred Memorial Ground of the Birthplace of Korean Buddhism. Large Stone Buddha Statues, built in Gandhara style flank all four directions. Ornate sculptures narrate the pivotal episodes in Buddha’s life — his birth, renunciation, enlightenment, entering monkhood and attainment of Nirvana.

On the spot, Professor Moon Myung Dae of Dongguk University grabs the attention of his largely Korean audience, during an elaborate powerpoint presentation, on Buddhism’s roots in India. He weaves into his narrative episodic events in Bodhgaya, Rajgir, Sarnath and the cave art of Ajanta and Ellora to explain the early evolution of the faith.

The Bulgapsa temple, founded by Indian Buddhist Malananda, pursues the Jogye Order, which is a fusion of Zen Buddhism, sutra -based teachings and Korean Pure Land Buddhism

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