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[EYE] A Buddhist temple where animal spirits find peace

Venerable Hyunjong performs funeral rites for animals, guided by Buddhist beliefs to care for oneself, other living beings

March 2, 2024 - 15:59 By No Kyung-min
Venerable Hyunjong pets Huindung, a 21-year-old dog who lives at Hyundeoksa, Feb. 1. (No Kyung-min/The Korea Herald)

GANGNEUNG, Gangwon Province -- At a secluded temple tucked away on a snow-covered mountain, a Buddhist monk stood before a wooden altar, praying for a departed soul.

On the altar, next to a spirit table, there was a framed photo of the deceased: a dog named after the temple itself, Hyundeok.

“Hyundeok passed away recently,” said Venerable Hyunjong, the temple's founder and chief monk. “He was 8 years old.”

In honor of the departed pup, which was one of two who lived at the temple, he had conducted a Buddhist funeral rite called a "cheondojae," and accordingly is currently observing 49 days of mourning.

The cheondojae, a ceremony following a death, is intended to guide wandering souls to the afterlife and wish them peace and eternal rest. It is typically conducted for a Buddhist believer who has passed away recently, upon the bereaved family’s request.

Venerable Hyundeok conducted the rite for Hyundeok not only because the dog had been like family to him.

He has previously done the same for numerous pigs, cows, chickens and lab mice that were killed to serve human needs, practicing a Buddhist ethics of compassion toward all living beings, including animals and plants.

A memorial tablet for the deceased dog named Hyundeok, Feb. 1 (No Kyung-min/The Korea Herald)

Grieving for animals

Hyundeoksa is located in Manwol Mountain in Gangwon Province. "Manwol" means when the moon is full and at its brightest. The head monk said his life philosophy is based on this principle of respecting all living beings, embracing them like the moonlight.

“No one despises the moonlight,” mused the monk. “It symbolizes longing while enveloping everyone in its warm glow.”

Akin to a moonbeam that illuminates the darkness, he sheds light on lost lives and prays for both the deceased and the bereaved. Every living being possesses inherent value and a soul, deserving of compassion and respect, Hyunjong said.

The very first cheondojae performed at Hyundeoksa, affiliated with the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, dates back over two decades.

"I felt a persistent sense of guilt since the age of 8 or 9 when I killed a swallow while playing," he explained. "This guilt prompted me to perform a funeral ritual for animals 24 years ago when the temple was founded."

At that time, people didn't take his initiative seriously.

“They thought I was out of my mind," he remarked. "However, nowadays, many other temples follow suit and conduct similar rites for animals."

Recently, Hyundeok's death caused the head monk to experience a profound sense of loss.

"I cried a lot after the death of Hyundeok," the monk said.

In consideration of Huindung, the temple’s other dog who is now alone, the monk intends to welcome another canine companion.

“But, we will delay doing so until the completion of Hyundeok's 49-day mourning period."

In the type of cheondojae the monk practices, a total of seven rituals are held over the 49-day mourning period to pray for the rebirth of the departed in paradise.

Renowned for its animal funeral rites, Hyundeoksa has welcomed a diverse array of visitors burdened by animal-related guilt lingering in the recesses of their minds.

In October last year, the temple hosted a collective funeral rite, attended by numerous people, to offer posthumous peace for a diverse range of animals, including chickens, snakes, squirrels and cows.

He also recalled a ritual held for lab mice a few years ago.

“A group of six individuals in midlife came here to pray for the laboratory mice used in experiments in their pharmacy school," he said. "They had harbored a sense of guilt, and the ritual alleviated their emotional burden."

The head monk continued to stress that while funeral rituals may appear to be conducted for the deceased, they primarily ease the minds of the living, as they are the ones grappling with the pain of loss.

Venerable Hyunjong poses for a photo at Hyundeoksa, Feb. 1. (No Kyung-min/The Korea Herald)

Know yourself first

For those facing emotional hardship while acknowledging the challenges of life, Venerable Hyunjong introduced the Buddhist concept of "musang," meaning "nothing lasts forever," as per his interpretation.

"Everything will change, and your pain will eventually fade away. It is crucial to remember that you are in control of your life and should take charge of leading it,” he advised.

He advocated a quote that now serves as the title of his book, "Force yourself to rest." Encountering this phrase in his 20s at Haeinsa, a temple in Hapcheon, South Gyeongsang Province, laid the groundwork for his convictions about the importance of caring for oneself.

“In contemporary times, people are often consumed by busy life and neglect resting for their own health," he remarked. "Relentlessly pursuing the ideal of being the best will ultimately lead to exhaustion, adversely impacting people's mental health.”

People often conform to external standards, lacking the ability to think independently and live according to their own values. Since everything begins from within, they should not be overly concerned about others' opinions of them, he said.

"Just as giant waves originate from a single small wave, you have the potential to create an impact on the world that revolves around you."

He shared that individuals in their 20s and 30s are the main guests in the temple's temple stay program, seeking comfort and calmness, during which they attempt to free their minds of worldly concerns and society's obsession with materialism.

Hyundeoksa is a temple located in Gangneung, Gangwon Province. (No Kyung-min/The Korea Herald)


Yet simultaneously, no one can exist completely independently, as everyone, everything is interconnected -- a concept closely tied to the notion of oneness, according to the head monk. "We are not two but one," he said, implying that "we" should be understood as a term encompassing all beings, including humans, animals and every being in the universe.

“Humans, for instance, must understand the art of harmonious coexistence with nature and every living being. We cannot overlook the importance of nature and expect to survive,” he said.

The notion of oneness, therefore, extends from care of oneself to caring for everything in the universe, to realize true coexistence.

“The source of our happiness lies in doing good for others. Bringing happiness to others ultimately translates into personal benefits for ourselves,” he advised.

This grateful attitude towards everything around oneself is well exemplified in the way he brews and drinks coffee. He serves coffee not in typical cups or mugs, but in bowls.

While pouring the coffee, Venerable Hyunjong took a moment to reflect deeply on the origin of water and the considerable effort invested in preparing a single bowl of coffee. As if making an offering, he delicately held the bowl with great reverence in both hands.

“In the end, everything depends on your mind, your heart. The universe exists even in a speck of dust, and it remains constant, neither expanding nor shrinking, and always remains the same, and is neither dirty nor clean," he said after taking a sip.

The quote "force yourself to rest" is written on a hanging scroll. (No Kyung-min/The Korea Herald)