It is always interesting to learn the stories behind historical sites. Whenever I have a chance, I go hiking in the mountains. Walking on and on, I like to read the stories explaining historical legends.
During my last vacation, I took a walk on one of the hiking trails at Mount Mudeung in Gwangju with my sister. On the way, what caught my attention most was a hall called Obaekjeon in Jeungsim Temple. Obaekjeon is Gwangju Tangible Cultural Heritage No. 13.
According to legend, there was a serious drought due to bad weather. As a minister of the local administrative unit, Kim Bang decided to build an embankment named Gyeongyangbangjuk to provide sufficient water for agriculture. Building the embankment took over three years from 1440 to 1443, during the reign of King Sejong in the Joseon Kingdom period.
At that time, Gyeongyangbangjuk was the Honam region's greatest artificial lake in half-moon shape, about 15 hectares with 10 meters deep, but two-thirds of it was reclaimed in 1940, and again the remaining area was reclaimed in 1968 to create a residential area. Because of this plan, the nearby Mount Taebang was removed to fill up the lake.
While building the bank, Kim Bang discovered anthills at the construction site, and kindly enough, he moved them to another safer place. Later on, those ants without forgetting their gratitude brought rice for people suffering from drought.
One day, Kim Bang prayed hard to Buddha to send the folk much rain. His desperate petition was heard in heaven, and he heard in his dream that he should expand Jeungsim Temple and build Obaekjeon to prevent drought. That is how Obaekjeon was created.
Obaekjeon means a hall with Buddha's 10 principal disciples and 500 arhats, which means noble persons who deserve an offering and respect as the perfected disciples of Buddha, who escaped from the chains of desires and the reincarnation of life and death and finally reached the level of never being born again.
Arhat was a nickname for Buddha, but later it implied the utmost state of enlightenment that Buddha's disciples achieve.
Obaekjeon is very historical in the sense that there is no other hall named Obaekjeon in Korea.
It is quite interesting to look around each feature with various gestures. Among the 500 disciples placed uniquely with their diverse positions in a small space, one figure drew my attention. He looked peaceful and calm while concentrating on reading the Script of sacred writings placed on his lap. Unlike other disciples, he was so skinny that even his ribs were visible. Probably meditating on the holy words of Buddha could have taken so much energy.
That skinny figure reminded me of John the Baptist, a saint who ate wild honey and locusts when he was converting himself in the desert, or Elijah, the prophet who drank water from the stream and ate what the eagle brought him in the high mountain before preaching, and thousands of other saints.
When we do our spiritual exercises, we are also advised to refrain from taking too much food and instead to fast with temperance. Self-control is necessary to be free from desire and ultimately to arrive at the level of merciful love which is regarded as the utmost goal of every religion.