Living History – Peggy McLeod (Peace Corps – 1971)

Peggy McLeod at Her School’s Surprise Good-Bye Party in 1973. (Picture Courtesy of Peggy McLeod).

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’m originally from Jacksonville, Florida, USA. I currently live outside of Asheville, North Carolina, where I settled after returning from Korea in 1973. I’m a retired teacher and school administrator in both the US and international school settings. I retired in 2016. I have two daughters and one grandson. Both of my daughters have visited Korea with me, my younger in 1999 and my older in 2013. 

Q2: When and why did you first come to Korea?

A: I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Korea from 1971 to 1973. I wanted to serve in the Peace Corps soon after President John F. Kennedy established the program because it promoted peace and mutual understanding among people of all cultures. My majors in college were sociology/anthropology, and the Peace Corps seemed to be the right fit for me after graduation.

While in Korea, I taught English as a Second Language to middle school students in all girls’ schools. I shared classroom instruction with a Korean co-teacher. I also led local and regional teacher workshops and special English clubs for students. 

With school faculty outside the Seokguram Grotto. (Picture courtesy of Peggy McLeod).
With students at Bulguksa Temple. (Picture courtesy of Peggy McLeod).

Q3: When you first came to Korea what city did you live in? Did you subsequently move around?

A: My first year in Korea, I served in Sangju, Gyeongsangbuk-do. It was a small town at the time, and there was another male volunteer who taught at Sangju Boys’ Middle School, while I taught at Sangju Girls’ Middle School. I lived with a Korean family in a very modest, old traditional Korean style house on the outskirts of town. The family consisted of a mother, a father and three young children. There was also an old grandfather who rented a room in the corner of the yard. I learned nearly everything I know about Korean culture, food, language, customs and family life from my time with this family in Sangju.

My second year in Korea, I served in Daegu at Won Wha Girls’ Middle School. During the summer, and after my first year, I suffered a back injury and was in traction in Severance Hospital in Seoul for two weeks. At that time, it was determined that I would be better off in Daegu, where medical care was more easily accessible, should I need it.

Placement in a rural setting was very isolating for many female volunteers in Korea, and although I maintained a good relationship with my Sangju family, I had more independence and social opportunities in Daegu. I rented a room and an outdoor kitchen there, and I cooked for myself. There was a Peace Corps office in Daegu, so there were opportunities to meet up with other volunteers and expats.

Q4: What was the first temple you visited in Korea?

A: The first temple I visited was Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju. It was on a school trip with dozens of middle school students and teachers, not the most ideal way to see my first temple. In addition, I had only been in Korea for a few weeks, and I was in the midst of serious culture shock! I was having difficulty with the food, the language, the rats in my living space, the outhouse and so many other experiences. The last thing I wanted to do was go on a long school trip by train and bus with the school for a week. But of course it was expected that I join the trip. We toured Gyeongju and Bulguksa Temple. I was even convinced to wake up before dawn and hike with all the students up the mountain to see the Seokguram Grotto, which was completely open to enter at that time. Needless to say, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss that experience!

Unfortunately, the new camera that I purchased in Japan on the way to Korea was left on a city bus in Seoul less than two weeks after I arrived. So I spent two years without a camera. What photos I have were copies given to me by generous friends and colleagues. I have very few photos of temples, but I still have my fading memories.

During that first year in Sangju, I also visited Namjangsa Temple near Sangju with my family.  We hiked to the temple together and I have photos of us on the trail, but not of the temple itself. I remember this being the first time I had an opportunity to truly appreciate the remote beauty of Korean temples.

While living in Daegu, I frequently visited Haeinsa Temple, and it became my favorite temple in Korea.

Peggy McLeod with her Korean mother and children on the walk to Namjangsa Temple. (Picture coutesy of Peggy McLeod).
Peggy with her Korean father on the walk to Namjangsa Temple. (Picture courtesy of Peggy McLeod).
Peggy McLeod with female faculty at Jeongnimsa-ji Temple Site in Buyeo, Chungcheongnam-do. (Picture courtesy of Peggy McLeod).

Q5: What drew your interest to Korean Buddhist temples? (Buddhism, architecture, art, history, etc)

A: I was most interested in the Korean Buddhist temples’ remote and beautiful settings, as well as the ornate and colorful architecture. I came to further appreciate their unique beauty after visiting the less colorful temples in Japan and the gilded temples of Thailand. I particularly appreciate the level of difficulty and commitment it took to reach many of the most remote temples in Korea. However, I also appreciate the somewhat easier access nowadays. 

Q6: What is your favourite temple? Why?

A: My favorite temple is Haeinsa Temple. There is a sense of serenity in the walk from the main road up to the impressive entry gate. The sound of the stream rushing along boulders and the fluttering leaves of the trees that line the entry make it a meditative experience as you approach the temple grounds. The temple grounds are at once impressive and intimate. All buildings are easily accessible and the sight of the Tripitaka Koreana Woodblocks left me speechless with each visit.

I visited Haeinsa Temple numerous times while living in Korea, and also with my younger daughter when I returned in 1999. Back in Peace Corps days a group of us often stayed overnight in the village near the entrance to the temple. We did the same when my daughter and I revisited. I always find great peace when I visit Haeinsa Temple.

Fellow Peace Corps volunteer, Dennis Callahan, at Haeinsa Temple. (Picture courtesy of Peggy McLeod).
Fellow pilgrims on the road to Haeinsa Temple. (Picture courtesy of Peggy McLeod).
Picnic with Peace Corps volunteers and fellow pilgrims on the road to Haeinsa Temple. (Picture courtesy of Peggy McLeod).

Q7: Did you remain in Korea or did you return home?

A: I returned home in 1973 after serving for two years in Peace Corps Korea. I revisited Korea for the first time with my younger daughter in 1999. At that time, she was the same age that I was when I first arrived in Korea, 21 years old. I had lost my Korean language skills over the years, and found it difficult to orient myself with all the changes in Korea from the fast trains, high rise buildings and big cities where villages used to be. I experienced culture shock of a different kind during that visit! When I was not able to find familiar sights in my home town of Sangju, I knew where I needed to go, the temples! So we headed to Gyeongju and then to Haeinsa Temple, where I found the true spirit of Korea, at least for me. It was a wonderful trip overall, but the changes were quite overwhelming.

I was fortunate to bring my older daughter with me on a Peace Corps Korea revisit in 2013. This was a trip arranged by the Korea Foundation and Friends of Korea, and it was a very different experience from my return in 1999. We had translators, and I was able to reconnect with my family and school in Sangju and with a teacher colleague from Daegu and so much more!  While we were not able to return to Haeinsa Temple, we enjoyed exploring Jogyesa Temple, which was a block away from our hotel. It was during their Chrysanthemum Festival, and the temple was highly decorated. It was my daughter’s first encounter with a Korean Buddhist temple and she was enthralled, as was I. 

I have so many fond memories of my time spent living in Korea, and I can say without hesitation that visiting these few Korean Buddhist temples made lasting impressions on me and deepened my appreciation of their cultural and historical influences in Korea. In my mind, they reflect the heart and soul of Korea.

Peggy McLeod’s daughter at Jogyesa Temple in Seoul at the Chrysanthemum Festival in 2013. (Picture courtesy of Peggy McLeod).