I am not Buddhist. I probably won’t ever be Buddhist. But when you’re in Korea, experiencing Buddhism first-hand is one of the many perks. So on my Korea check-list was a Temple Stay. This is basically moving into a buddhist temple for a couple days and living and doing as the monks and nuns. My chance to do this came unexpectedly when our education group organized a tour for 50 teachers. I signed up and was lucky enough to get one of the spots. I just wish I was more prepared…
We started off at Hwaseong Fortress with a tour and history lesson about King Jeongjo of the Joseon Period. The Hwaseong Fortress was actually listed with UNESCO so it was quite the opportunity to visit.
A portion of the wall.
After the tour we had lunch nearby and then headed to Yongjusa Temple in Suwon. By this time we were all pretty anxious about this temple stay. I hadn’t had a chance to do much research except that temples are places of peace and very little talking is encouraged.
The first surprise was the temple uniforms. At first sight I thought, “you have got to be kidding me.” But they turned out to be pretty comfy.
Just before we went to change into our new clothes we had to hand over our cellphones. I was caught off guard with this one and had a little trouble giving my fingers the much needed rest. But rule are rules.
We were then given a tour of the temple, which turned out to look like most of the temples I’d visited on regular touristy days. I suppose I should have been more interested in Korean history.
Eventually the tour ended and the must anticipated monastic meal was upon us. We entered into a room with warm floors and several bowls neatly lined up in 4 rows. Before diving into the meal, several rules were explained. This is what we were told:
1. The lid for the bowls goes to your left, with your white little towel, and utensil holder.
2. There are 4 bowls in each other. One is for cleaning water, one is for soup, one is for rice, and one is for the side dishes.
3. When you are given water in one bowl, rinse each bowl with the water and finally pour it back into the water bowl.
4. When you receive your rice, place one yellow radish slice in that bowl and do not eat it until you are told to do so.
5. While you are eating, raise the bowl to your face so that your mouth is covered.
6. Nothing may be left in your bowls. Not a grain of rice, not a speck of kimchi, not a drop of soup. Finish everything.
7. Absolute silence while eating. Not even utensils touching your bowls. No loud chewing. No talking.
8. The cleaning will take place as follows:
8.1. Each person will get a bit of water in their rice bowl. Use the radish to clean that bowl and pour over to the soup bowl to clean and then finally the side dish bowl.
8.2. Once you’ve cleaned those three bowls with the radish and water, eat the radish and drink the water.
8.3. Then take the water from the water bowl and use your fingers to make sure your bowls are all clean.
8.4. Then pour the water into the bucket that will be brought around to each person. Pour silently.
8.5. If there is still a single bit of food in that water, you have to drink the water. Nothing may be left. (We were given an explanation about hungry ghosts who will drink this water and may choke because they have narrown throats.)
So that was dinner. Wow right? Don’t worry, we did go downstairs and wash our bowls with proper soap and water.
Following dinner, we had a ceremony which was related to making bead bracelets and 108 prostrations. Each person had 27 beads and for each bead to be threaded, we had to do 4 prostrations. By the end of the ceremony we had completed 108 prostrations and each had a bracelet. What if the 27 beads made a bracelet that was too big for your wrist? Well, get rid of the excess beads. We bowed for nothing right?? The lesson to be learnt here was that we need to let go of the things we think we need in life and just keep the things we really need. Keep enough and don’t be eager for more than you need. Everything we did had a life lesson. That’s Buddhism.
Bed time was 9pm, which, let’s face it, was not a regular occurence in Korea. Hell, on a Saturday night that’s when the fun only starts! But the early bed time had to do with the face that we had a morning that started at 3am. Yes ladies and gentlemen, 3am.
At 3am the head monk sounds a drum and at 3:30am everyone is in the main hall for the chanting ceremony. We were given the chant so we could follow the ritual, but I honestly got lost half way through. And I was feeling slightly uneasy about chanting things I had no understanding of. We did several bows with the chants and my toes were ready to give in. But it was definitely fascinating. Up to this point we had no interaction with the monks, only the head nun of the temple. She had shaven her head so we only realised she was a woman when she spoke.
For the ceremony we were separated from the monks, but we could hear the chanting via a loud speaker. This was the start of their day. This happens every single day, regardless of the weather. That’s dedication!
The other hightlight of the day was the tea ceremony. Also several rules were given, but this was more enjoyable because the head monk came to join us and answer any questions. Hearing him speak, even with the translator, was great. Although I must admit, I found it very philosophical. And I was still tired from the 3am wake-up call to be ready for philosophy.
All-in-all, it was a rather fascinating experience. I met some fantastic people, learnt more about the monk and nun lifestyle, and I made peace with some inner demons. Perhaps I wasn’t open-minded enough, but I definitely did take some wise words from the monk and nun we interacted with. Plus the nun knows my name now and liked saying it. She has a sense of humour too.
Temple Stay in Korea. Check.
Peace, love and hugs 🙂
PS. If you’re interested, here is a list of Temples in Korea that do the Temple Stay program, thanks to a friend of mine on Facebook:
Temple stays in Korea
- Templestay Information center- http://www.templestay.com71
- Bongeunsa- www.bongeunsa.org
- Hwagyesa- www.hwagyesa.org
- Jinkwansa – www.Jinkwansa.org
- Jogyesa- www.jogyesa.net
- Myogaksa- www.myogaksa.kr
- Lotus lantern International Meditation Center