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Review: 'Temple Meets Temple' offers mindful dancing in the heart of Seoul

A Buddhist temple-slash-youth hostel in Hongdae is hoping to create a new spiritually-minded dance music community in Seoul through its premiere event

  • Words: John R. Eperjesi | Images: Joonryul Choi & John R. Eperjesi | Art Direction: Devi Nurgaha
  • 13 October 2023

If there is a religious figure associated with Hongdae, the wild frontier of nightlife in Seoul, it is probably the Greek god Dionysus and not a teacher from Nepal named Siddhartha Gautama. But on September 22, a dharma-drenched dancefloor emerged in Hongdae through a collaboration between JustBe Temple and Club Temple.

The event, 'Temple Meets Temple', brought together Buddhist monks, DJs, and underground electronic music lovers who came together to form a spiritual dance music community.

JustBe Temple, which recently celebrated their one-year anniversary, is a Buddhist temple and youth hostel that offers visitors a range of programs that include Tai Chi, free dance, yoga, and sound meditation. This “Zen meditation playground” was founded by two Buddhist monks, June Han Sunim and Baek Dham Sunim (Sunim is a term of respect for a monk), who were students and roommates at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri back in 2003. While roommates, June and Baek turned their apartment into a meditation room and invited friends and students and professors over to chant, eat, drink tea, and discuss Buddhist philosophy.

“Temple Meets Temple” is an extension of the two monks’ desire to create an open, friendly, joyful environment in which young people can casually explore an interest in Buddhism and its relevance to their everyday lives.

As JustBe wrote on their social media page: “Even a club can be a place of practice. Wherever we stand, we find a sanctuary, a place of inner peace, and a canvas for mindful engagement. To just listen, to just dance, in dedicating ourselves wholly to one pursuit, we merge with the rhythm of music and dance.”

To encourage mindful dancing and deep listening, no alcohol was served at “Temple Meets Temple.” The drink menu featured iced Pu’er, a fermented tea that was handmade by one of the monks. It would be great to see more booze-free dance music events in Seoul, but considering alcohol sales help pay the rent, and this is a hard-drinking city, it might be a hard sell.

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The evening started out with a special ceremony performed by June Han Sunim and Baek Dam Sunim along with seven other monks and nuns who are friends of JustBe. Several monks played a large dharma drum, or Beopgo, which they struck with thick wooden sticks. Rhythmic pounding at the centre of the drum produces a stormy, low-pitched rumbling which contrasts with hard, high-pitched clacks on the rim.

Buddhist monks have been making minimal, Photek-style percussion for a long time. As one monk was finishing, the next would begin striking the drum, creating a continuous beat similar to the way a DJ beatmatches records. I asked June Han Sunim about the drumming, and he said that its purpose “is to wake us up from the dream of suffering, to become one with the meaning of sound.”

The monks then chanted the heart sutra, which they recite every morning and evening, and is considered to be the essence of Mahayana Buddhism. After the opening ceremony, the monks left the venue and local DJs from the underground scene – Kayon, Kugel, Konrad, R2MP, and Psytonic – moved the practice to the dancefloor. Kayon, who runs the underground music label MADi, set the tone, or tones, for the evening with a two-hour set of ambient music that was earthy and abstract, organic and machinic, calming and gently unsettling.

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It was cool to see people standing or sitting with their eyes closed while grooving to beatless soundscapes. One of the goals of sound meditation is to turn your head into a chillout room, and Kayon took us there, both individually and as a group.

Tunnel resident Kugel kept up the ambient vibe for the first part of her set, dropping The Orb’s “Dilimun” into the mix, then very gradually introducing an eclectic mix of psychedelic downtempo, broken beat jazz, drum and bass, and dubby house that floated between 90 and 115 beats per minute. I could feel Andrew Weatherall smiling down on Kugel as she played.

Konrad, who can often be found behind the decks at Channel 1969, has gained a reputation in Seoul for juxtaposing ambient and psychedelic music in unconventional ways, so he was a perfect addition to the lineup. Konrad’s geographically expansive set moved from Germany and Spain to Morocco and Greece, and included everything from Popal Vuh and the KLF to John Talbot and the Far East Family Band.

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I asked Konrad about preparing for the night and he told me: “I tried to stay away from the stereotypical sound of Buddhism — and Hinduism — inspired electronic music which is often limited to superficial ethnic tropes. Rather I thought it would be appropriate to reflect on basic principles of Zen Buddhism with a sound that is universal and not tied to a specific culture.” In addition to the absence of alcohol, the absence of Orientalist, New Age clichés in the programming at ‘Temple Meets Temple’ was very refreshing. I think John Cage would have approved.

R2MP, who first started DJing in the US and Italy as an exchange student back in 2000, played a mix of minimal and deep, techy house, both classics and new stuff that included the mutant, experimental house sounds of Stimming. R2MP is the General Manager of JustBe and teaches sound meditation and drawing courses under the name RawRaw Project.

The night started out on the Yin side of things, so to balance bodies and minds and manifest some Yang energy in the room, psytrance legend and Club Temple owner DJ Psytonic, who is approaching thirty years behind the decks, brought the night to a close with an aggressive psytrance set that pushed things to 145 beats per minute.

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In the 1998 book Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture, Simon Reynolds wonders: “Can the oceanic, 'only connect!' feelings experienced on the dancefloor be integrated into everyday struggles to be 'better at being human'”?

At its core, Buddhism is about the slow, steady, joyful process of becoming better at being human. Mindful thinking, speaking, eating, looking, listening, walking, and dancing are all part of that process. Buddha taught the importance of following the Middle Way, the path between asceticism and hedonism. My first years in Seoul were spent stumbling along the path of Hongdae hedonism, so it was nice to discover this calm new path through a familiar place.

As an intentional community grounded in Buddhism and open to everyone, JustBe Temple aspires to become “global meditation playground where laypeople and Buddhist monks eat and live together and co-create the project as a collective.”

Through this collaboration with Club Temple, JustBe created the foundation for a Buddhist dance music collective that will hopefully continue to grow and unfold like the petals of the lotus.

[Images via Joonryul Choi & John R. Eperjesi]

[Art Direction by Devi Nurgaha]

John R. Eperjesi is a literature professor at Seoul’s Kyung Hee University. Follow him on Instagram here.

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