One of the great things about running a website about Korean Buddhist temples is that you get to meet a lot of amazing people. And a lot of these amazing people have varying backgrounds, interests, and insights. Rather amazingly, some of these people first visited Korea in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Here are their stories!
Q1: Where are you originally from? Introduce yourself a little.
A: I was born in Brooklyn, NY, but my family is from Korea, my father born in Seoul, my mother born in Pyongyang. The Underwoods have lived in Seoul since 1885 and family members of three generations are buried at Yanghwajin cemetery [Yanghwajin Foreign Missionary Cemetery]. I spent my career advocating for civil rights, particularly in housing. I first learned community organizing in Chicago, then gradually focused on race relations then fair housing. I spent most of my career building diversity within the real estate profession and its major organization, the National Association of REALTORS®. I met my wife, Katie, at graduate school and we raised two daughters in Alexandria, VA. I attended graduate school because a professor at Yonsei [University] inspired me to get a masters related to urban planning so I could teach elements of local leadership development in Korea in the late 1980’s, however, meeting Katie changed those plans as she and I decided to build our life together in the US.
Q2: When and why did you first come to Korea?
A: I first came to Korea involuntarily as a three year old in 1957. My father had a job with the America Korea Foundation. Since both my parents had been raised in Korea, I never asked why they settled in Korea, thinking it was only natural. My mother’s parents were also in Korea in the late 1950s and through the 1960s. My grandfather Lutz worked for USOM (later US AID), while my grandmother supported and encouraged many local institutions including those which educated blind children.
Q3: When you first came to Korea what city did you live? Did you subsequently move around?
A: I first lived in Seoul, not far from the west gate intersection. In 1961, we moved to Yeonhui-dong near Yonsei [University] to a house my parents built on the Underwood family land. We did spend summers at Taechon [Daecheon] beach (pre-mudfest) but our residence was in Seoul. The house we lived in was demolished by Yonsei [University] about twenty years ago to make room for a new classroom building.
Q4: What was the first temple you visited in Korea?
A: The first temple I remember visiting was Bongwonsa [Temple – 봉원사] at the foot of Ansan in Seoul. Our fifth grade class took advantage of a field day and walked from Seoul Foreign School over to the temple. I also remember that the bus I would regularly take downtown from the Yonsei gate was the bus from Bongwonsa [Temple]. It is the temple I most often visit, at least once on each trip to Korea. I like that it is an active temple set in a beautiful location with a rich history. The second temple I remember visiting is Chundungsa [Jeondungsa Temple – 전둥사] on Gangwha Island. I liked that it was fortified. When I visited the fortifications were in dismal shape and I decided on that trip that the only think worthwhile was climbing around the dolmen on the north side of the island.
Q5: What drew your interest to Korean Buddhist temples? (Buddhism, architecture, art, history, etc)
A: My interest in Korean Buddhist temples really started in my senior year in high school, though I remember being fascinated with Buddhist architecture while doing research in earlier school projects. In addition, while still quite young, we stopped at Zozayong’s early museum near Cheonan [Chungcheongnam-do].
At Seoul Foreign School there was a tradition for the Senior Class to take a weeklong trip through Korea to be introduced to Korean history and Buddhist temples. We were fortunate in our year to have Kem and Vonita Spencer, Presbyterian missionaries to Cheongju and Seoul, be our chaperones. They shared many stories and historical references to the temples we visited, Gwanchoksa [Temple – 관촉사], Bopjusa [Beopjusa Temple – 법주사], Haeinsa [Temple – 해인사], and Bulguksa [Temple – 불국사]. My favorite on that trip was Bobjusa [Beopjusa Temple], in part due to the long twisted road we had to take in our bus to get there, but also the multistoried building with the Nahan [Palsang-jeon Hall]. The monstrous concrete statue has now been replaced by an even larger gilt one. Following that trip I organized family outings to Tongdosa [Temple – 통도사] and Sudoksa [Sudeoksa Temple – 수덕사], as well as some of the remains of temples on the Sosan [Seosan] Peninsula. The early guidebook, Inns of Korea, provided a little of their history and detailed directions to find these places.
In college, I took a course on East Asian literature (in those days having a course on East Asia was a miracle) and started reading about Korean temples and Buddhist influence, including in “Gale’s History of the Korean People.”
Q6: What is your favourite temple? Why?
A: Defining a favorite is difficult due to the uniqueness of each one. I have visited many on my trips back to Korea and one that I visited just last year Seonamsa [Temple – 선암사] is perhaps my favorite because of the peaceful quiet I enjoyed late on a fall afternoon. But that is not fair to all the others that have equally intrigued me. For me it is a toss-up between Ssanggyesa [Temple – 쌍계사] and Busoksa [Buseoksa Temple – 부석사]. Ssanggyesa [Temple] because I like the gate that is a bridge as you enter. The Dragon inside that gate is fantastic, but the setting along the stream is beautiful. Busoksa [Buseoksa Temple] because it has such an old building at its core and natural features figure so prominently in its design. When I brought my adult daughters to Korea, we happened upon Unjusa [Temple – 운주사] and thoroughly enjoyed the multitude of sculptures throughout the site. Based on the uniqueness of that temple, I found it my favorite on that trip, so much so that we did not make it to Ssanggyesa [Temple]. Lastly, I cannot leave out Yongmunsa [Temple – 용문사] from my recent trip for two reasons: the brilliant yellows of the mighty ginkgo tree and the unique and fascinating tour provided by David Mason. It is at Yongmunsa [Temple] that Korean scholars studied the Christian Bible before missionaries actively worked in Korea. Their study was purely academic. Additionally, my Underwood ancestors used to hike and hunt in the Dragon Gate Mountains.
Q7: What temple or hermitage has changed the most from when you were first got here? What has changed about it?
A: The biggest change is Bulguksa [Temple]. When I visited it was in the middle stages of its restoration. The early 20th century work was still what we saw in 1972 and going back in 2017, seeing all the restored buildings almost made it seem a different place. In 1972, we saw old school carpenters carving out the joints for the pillars and beams that became the long corridors defining the spaces within the temple grounds. In the 1970s, I saw many temples undergoing restoration. The other change is with all the temples, they are much more widely visited by tourists, both domestic and international, than before.
Q8: What was the most difficult temple to get to? How did you get there?
When I was young and we visited Gangwha Island and Chundungsa [Jeondungsa Temple], it was an all day excursion requiring a Landrover. First we had to cross over to the island. The bridge was on the north side of the island, and we were going to the temple which is on the southern side, so we had to cross by ferry. Once across we drove up to the temple and had a good look around. On the way down, the Landrover got stuck and my father had to negotiate with a farmer for the use of his ox to pull us out. We made it back to the coast and explored the old fortifications and gradually made our way back to the north side of the island.
Visiting Ssanggyesa [Temple] in 1987 during rainy season was a mistake. The road was being rebuilt and muddy, and the Hyundai Excel was barely up to the task. My trip to Busoksa [Buseoksa Temple] in 1985 involved a train to Yongju [Yeongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do] and bus to the temple. Of course the bus had a flat tire which required seven passengers to advise the bus driver on how to change the tire. After visiting the temple, I was treated to an impromptu concert by several women who had visited, playing their janggu [slim waist drum] and dancing to old folk songs.
My trip to Yonghwasa [Temple – 영화사] on Miruk Island [Mireuk-do] in Chungmu (now Tongyeong, Gyeongsangnam-do) started in Pusan [Busan] taking the hydrofoil to Chungmu and finding a yeogwan [inn] for the night. After finding a bus that took me to the island via an old one lane tunnel and relatively narrow road or wide path, I walked along the road to find the temple. I was treated with wonderful views across the bay to Kojedo [Geoje-do] and enjoyed the small temple as well.
Q9: Did you remain in Korea or did you return home?
A: I left Korea in 1972 for college and except for one trip home during college did not return until 1985. Several trips in the late 1980s were followed by another long drought, with more frequent trips the past fifteen years. I see many Korean American’s in my work and in my daily life, there is even a Korean bell pavilion in a local county park. I ran into the Jangsung master from Hahoe – 하회 [Folk Village] there as he was restoring the Jansung at the park. My next Korean temple I would like to see is Taegosa [Temple – 태고사]. I’ll leave it to you to find out where it is.