Invitation into the inner sanctum

Samgwangsa Ceremony

Yesterday I decided to visit a new temple Samgwangsa, a temple that is not only new to me, but also a fairly new temple community that was established in 1986; in Korean Buddhism this is very young in comparison to most temples that date back to the 14th or 15th century with many being established long before then.

I spent a good proportion of my time exploring and lurking, penetrating most of the temple buildings and enjoying the solitude often found within these sacred complexes. During my meanderings I kept hearing snippets of music, well not exactly music per say but drumming, chiming and constant chanting. Slowly heading in the direction of this sound I uncovered some kind of ritual or maybe an initiation ceremony, but whatever it was I felt compelled to linger and watch. After some time one of the monks approached me and suspecting to be turned away because of my camera I was surprised to be invited to spectate from within the room and after removing my shoes (a custom when entering a temple building) was shown to a comfortable cushion towards the back with an unobstructed view of the unfolding proceedings.

It is difficult to put into words the atmosphere within the building; first there was the heady aroma of incense that seemed to heighten my senses. The monks, seven in total, then took turns to chant, beat drums, play a type of flute and clash cymbals, there was also some dancing involved; this may sound a little strange but the music (if that is what it was) they made was very emotive, reaching peaks and troughs that took me on an emotional journey. All I wanted to do was photograph this event, however being mindful that this was a religious ceremony and that I had been invited to participate I was careful with my camera, after all I did not want to upset anyone or get kicked out for being disrespectful. Therefore I carefully selected some semi automatic settings and as the music became louder I pressed my shutter release again and again and again.

A good proportion of my images were unusable, however I did find a few to be pleased with. As I began processing the work I decided to convert my images to monochrome and there were a few reasons for this decision; first my ISO was very high making the images grainy and the colours dirty; yes I could have reduced the noise in post, but doing this had a detrimental effect on the look of the image and as I feel that black and white is more forgiving than colour when it comes to noise it is my opinion that the images look better converted. Also the room was very colourful, in fact too colourful thus making the frame seem busy and uncontrollable with the monks lost within it; by using the shapes, tones and textures contained within the room the monks have become more prominent and easier to find within the images. You may not agree with this, but a comparison is below, what do you think?

Whilst enjoying the ceremony I noticed another person in the room; sat in the corner oblivious to the noise around her, this young trainee continued her daily exercises and I could not resist capturing this moment of true devotion, in fact I think this is my favourite photograph of the day.

Samgwangsa Ceremony

Experiencing something like this is not a regular occurrence; gaining a small insight into a world I do not understand was truly enlightening. Buddhism is something that continues to fascinate me and a religion I strive to understand and it is moments like the one I experienced at Samgwangsa that keep me interested in this intriguing faith.

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