I’m not a religious person. My friends are very clear about that. They do, however, lead me through magnificent churches when we travel abroadeverything from St. Paul’s Cathedral in London to Notre Dame in Paris. I’ve stood outside many a smaller church waiting for my friends to have a look or to say their prayers.
My view of churches or abbeys or minsters or cathedrals does not get tied to emotion or a feeling of transcendence. I am interested in the magnificent structure, the glorious stained-glass windows, and the history emanating from every corner. I’ve loved every moment of church viewing from the cathedral with scintillating organ piping in Brazil to the largest wooden church in North America (400 years old) along the French Coast in Nova Scotia.
I view myself as a person who can make strong connections to aspects of spiritual culture. I may not be part of that spiritual aura surrounding certain places, but I can appreciate the essence of sites we visit. Recently, we were in South Korea and Japan and had a chance to visit their equivalents of churches and cathedrals—shrines, temples, and pagodas.
The fact is we’ve managed to visit quite a number of shrines and temples and pagodas around the world. There were several pagodas, for example, in key locations along the Yangtze River in China. My wife climbed to the top of most of them, but I spent time looking at the carved Buddhas and the murals and the way the buildings blended with the landscape. It was easy to imagine an array of monks wandering the grounds and completing their daily rituals.
In South Korea, it is a traveling tradition to drive to the tourist site first, and then later check into hotels as dark descends. While driving through the heavily-populated city of Pusan on the southeast coast of Korea, my son kept going until we finally came to a temple ground. This was the Haedong Youngkung Temple, an astonishing group of buildings built in 1376 and set in a rocky cove where a creek runs down the middle to the Eastern Sea.
I could sense that this would be a desirable place to live or to visit to come to terms with an external power or one’s role in a limited world. I sat on a rock and meditated a bit. I found the entire visit peaceful as I listened to the drumming of a bell and a heavy-voiced chant from the main building. It was a long way down to the temple on stone stairways, and it was a longer trek upward, and I felt drawn to simply staying there.
I was quite fascinated as well by the sight of swastikas emblazoned on several of the edifices and on the main shrine centre. My youngest son, a history teacher, told me the swastikas had nothing to do with the Nazis. He explained that the Buddha swastika shape has been part of the Buddhist culture for aeons. It’s an extremely powerful symbol for Buddhists and is associated with good fortune. So naturally Hitler and the Nazis stole it—as they did so many other items and gestures to consolidate their power.
In Japan, we immediately took the Japan Rail train to Kyoto, city of shrines and temples. Apparently, there are over 100 temples to visit if one has the requisite patience. We managed to visit two of them in the towns of Irani and Uji on the edge of Kyoto. We enjoyed the visits, but because it was unbearably hot, I skipped the meditation. I decided one spiritual session was enough for any trip.