Adventure Korea – Temple Stay

November 9, 2008 at 12:20 pm (Uncategorized)

During the weekend of October 11th and 12th we took an amazing trip with a group called Adventure Korea (www.adventurekorea.com).  Their website provides fantastic opportunities to partake in loads of cultural and historical experiences all over the country, and the one we chose was to stay at a 1,400 year old Buddhist temple.  This was something I’d been dreaming about ever since we decided to make the journey over to Korea, so I was very excited to experience a real Buddhist temple up close and personal. Our good friend, Jocelyne, signed up for the trip with us, and we soon joined forces with another Canadian named Simon.  Our little Canadian foursome has stuck together since that weekend, and we generally hang out at least once a week.  Unfortunately Jocelyne is only here for a semester abroad, and is heading back to Vancouver in December, so our clique will be down to three, but we’re enjoying our time while she’s here.  Simon here for a year, and is exactly like Dave – goofy and hilarious at the same time – so I’m sure there will be many mentions of him throughout this blog.

We got up nice and early on Saturday morning and headed into Seoul to meet up with the group.  After about a three hour bus ride, we were deep into the country side, surrounded by mountains showing autumn colours and rice paddies that Koreans call “fields of gold” because of their colour just before harvesting.  We stopped at about noon and did a little hiking up a path where we saw our first glimpse of traditional Buddhist architecture. A small temple decorated in the typical bright turquoise, red, yellow and blue colours was sitting at the top of the hill, and the view from the edge gave us a fantastic perspective of the valley below.  We trekked back down and were able to climb amongst the smooth rocks along the river’s edge, where we all relaxed and took great pictures of the truly serene surroundings.  (Pictures will be posted before we arrive back in Canada, I promise.)  After a relaxing hour or so by the river we headed back to the bus and continued up to the temple. 

We arrived at Bubheungsa temple (http://www.bubheungsa.or.kr – yes, they have their own website)  at about 3:00pm, and were greeted by the sight of a bulldozer and a backhoe….apparently the temple was undergoing a few minor renovations.  Not exactly the image we’d expected to see upon arrival at a 1,400 year old Buddhist temple!  We were instructed to remove our shoes and change into traditional robes – a pair of super comfy pajama-like bottoms and a button front shirt with a mandarin collar.  We stored our belongings in lockers and lined up outside for our introductions to the monks.  We were introduced to the head monk at the temple, named Sunim, and he led us into the nearby woods for our first initiation into Buddhist culture.  We were all given a pair of rubber shoes to wear, which proved extremely uncomfortable while walking over rocks and uneven ground in the forest. 

Our Korean interpreter explained that the first step of our temple stay would be to experience walking meditation, or Haengsoen – a very slow, purposeful walk through the forest where a person’s thoughts are completely focused solely on lifting one foot up, moving it forward, and lowering it to the ground.  All other emotions and thoughts were to be experienced like clouds floating across the sky.  We were lined up into two columns and were instructed to walk behind Sunim at the slowest pace we could possibly maintain.  Hands were to be kept in front of the chakra centre near the pelvis, with the right hand on top of the left, and eyes were focused on the movements of the feet.  We moved slowly, very slowly up a path through the forest, and I found my mind really did empty of all other thoughts and I was able to truly focus on completing one single task in a way I’d never done before.  We traveled about 350 meters in just over 45 minutes – a new record, according to Sunim.  Once we’d arrived at the top of the path we lined up for a lecture from Sunim on releasing anger.  We were standing at the foot of a mountain they called “The Sleeping Buddha”, and he instructed us to channel all our anger and yell at the mountain to awaken Buddha.  We were all a little timid at first, so our yelling was pretty quiet.  Sunim laughed and asked us to do it again, this time abandoning our fears and completely letting go.  We all closed our eyes and yelled as loud as we possibly could at the mountain, and heard the sound echo through the valleys around us – it felt wonderful!  After lots of picture taking of the beautiful scenery, we headed back down the path to the temple, where a long-awaited dinner was being prepared.

As Buddhists are vegetarian I think Dave was a little concerned by what kind of dinner we would be served, but I think he was sufficiently impressed and satisfied.  One of the biggest updates to the temple was a full cafeteria-style lunch room complete with a huge serving centre in the middle.  We were given rice, seaweed, bean sprouts, kimchi, vegetables and soup, but were given strict instructions that whatever we take from the serving centre was not to be wasted.  After dinner we had a bit of free time to explore the grounds, so we took lots of pictures of the temples, shrines and statues, although we had to remember to keep our hands in the proper position at all times and to bow to any monk that crossed our path.  We returned to the Main Buddha hall at 6:30pm for the evening yebul, where we learned how to complete the seven step Buddhist prostration: 1. bring the hands into prayer formation in front of the chest chakra  2. kneel on the ground  3. set the hands shoulder-width apart on the ground, lower the upper body and the head to the floor and cross the right foot over the left  4.  turn the hands over and raise them to the ears, keeping fingers together  5. lower the hands, turn them over onto the floor and remove right foot from left  6. return to kneeling position with hands in prayer formation  7. move back into standing pose.  We practiced this about 20 times, then were given a printed sheet with the Prajna Paramita Sutra, a ritual chant completed each evening, which translates to “the Perfection of Wisdom” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prajnaparamita).  It was really beautiful listening to the monks chant – I was in awe the whole time. 

After the evening service we sat down and were invited to share in a tea drinking ceremony with Sunim, where he spoke to us about the power of dreams.  We were all asked to tell about our greatest aspirations for our life, most of which involved being happy and fulfilled, and Sunim discussed how to realize these dreams.  We sat cross-legged for about an hour and a half (a more difficult task than I had assumed) listening to this wise, incredibly serene monk tell us how important it was to realize our purpose in life and pursue it with intent.  It felt a little like a dream (ironic, considering the evening’s discussion).  He opened the floor to questions, and people asked about Buddhist culture and especially about the prostrations.  Someone asked how many a monk is required to do, and Sunim replied that, depending on the situation, a monk can be asked to do 1,000, 2,000 or up to 10,000 bows, which takes approximately 20 hours to complete.  While in training, a monk is required to meditate for up to 18 hours a day, taking breaks only to eat and go to the washroom.  This is definitely not a lifestyle for the weak and lazy (i.e. most Westerners!).  The dedication and conviction with which they lead their lives is truly inspirational.  Our final task with Sunim was to create a wish pouch, where we wrote down our life’s dream and sealed it in a small fabric pouch, which we were instructed to keep underneath our pillows as we slept.

After completing the wish pouches, we moved out into the centre of the grounds where we watched the monks perform a drum ceremony, and then we all took turns ringing a huge cast iron bell.  Then we moved up to the Jeokmyulbogung temple at the top of a long, winding hill, where we were to partake in the most strenuous part of our trip – 108 prostrations in a row, without breaks.  We all entered the sacred temple from the sides, as only monks can enter from the centre doorway, and lined up in rows.  A female monk was seated in the centre of the temple directly in front of a beautifully carved altar and a large shrine to Buddha.  She began to chant and hit a gourd with a bamboo stick each time we were to complete a prostration.  The first 20 or so were fairly easy, but then it became increasingly difficult as her relentless pace continued.  We were all sweating and breathing hard by the time we reached 50, and by 75 my knees were aching.  The only sound besides the monk chanting were the sounds of heavy breathing as us out-of-shape Westerners huffed and puffed through our bows.  

Although it was only 10:00pm, we were all extremely tired, so were grateful for a very early bedtime.  We were divided into a girls’ and boys’ dormitory, so I said goodnight to Dave and headed off to my sleeping quarters with our good friend, Jocelyne.  Our dorm was just a big open room, and we laid blankets and comforters on the ground for beds.  The common way to warm a building in Korea is through “ondol” heating (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ondol), which heats the room through the floor.  Having our beds directly on the ondol floor was nice and toasty, at least for the first little bit.  It soon became swelteringly hot, and because we were lying on the floor there was no escaping the sauna-like heat.  I woke up several times during the night literally drenched in sweat.  I also found out that Jocelyne is a sleep talker – she woke me up several times with incoherent conversations and random laughing fits, and even bolted upright at one point and yelled “Oh snap!”, which was hilarious. 

Our wake-up call came at the ridiculous hour of 4:00am; we quickly got changed and met up with the boys outside, where I found out that Dave and Simon had had quite the night listening to a room full of guys simultaneously sawing enormous logs and farting.  I’ll take Jocelyne talking in her sleep any day over that – I get enough snoring and farting at home with Dave 🙂  We traipsed back up to the Jeokmyulbogung temple for early, early morning prayer, complete with another 108 prostrations (oh god, my legs and knees were so sore at that point), plus half an hour of sitting meditation.  We were warned by the Korean interpreter that anyone who fell asleep during the sitting meditation would receive a nice whack on the head with the monk’s bamboo stick.  The focus of the sitting meditation was on the contents of our dream pouch, but after getting up at 4:00am, completing another 108 bows, then sitting in the lotus position for half an hour the best I could do was not to let myself drift off to sleep.

Next we moved down to the dining hall for a formal monastic meal ceremony called Balwoo gongyang.  We were each given a set of four bowls wrapped in a piece of cloth, plus a small pouch containing a spoon and chopsticks.  We all sat, lotus position, on the floor and were instructed how to lay the bowls on the floor.  Each bowl was for a very specific purpose – rice, side dishes, soup and cleaning water – and we were taught how to serve our portions properly without wasting even a grain of rice.   At the end of the meal we used the cleaning water and one piece of radish to clean all of the bowls, and then we ate the radish and drank the water.  The monks circulated around the room with a large canister that they dumped any dregs from our bowls and then showed it to Sunim – they wanted to ensure that no one wasted any food or water, and they meant business!  Sunim explained that this style of eating serves a very specific purpose – it brings the monks from all levels into the same place at the same time to eat the exact same food, and therefore instills a sense of harmony and peace. 

After breakfast we had the opportunity to make lotus lanterns – we were each given a wire ball covered in white paper, and a large box full of coloured tissue paper.  It was a little like arts and crafts in kindergarten – we used a cup full of home-made glue and our fingers to apply the strips of paper around the ball and made some brightly coloured lanterns.  Fun!

Next we trekked back up the hill (which felt about twice as long after all those prostrations) and entered the Yaksajeon temple where we made our prayer beads.  We were told that we had to do one bow for each bead after threading it onto the string.  I’ll give you one guess as to how many beads there were….that’s right, 108!  So it was time for yet another round of 108 bows, and this time it was soooooo, so hard.  My knees were actually bruised from the last two rounds.  Anyway, we were to focus on the dream we had written down in our wish pouch, and repeat it with each bead.   Dave and I still wear our prayer beads every day as a little reminder to pursue our dream.  We finished off the morning by hanging our dream pouches inside the temple, where they would remain as our guardian Bodhisattvas at Bubheungsa for the next six months.  What a fantastic weekend!

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2 Comments

  1. erinatruba said,

    Hi! I’m the Community Manager of Ruba.com. We’re building a website to highlight some of the most interesting places travelers around the world have discovered. We’ve read hundreds of blogs about Korea, and we think that yours is awesome! We’d love to highlight excerpts from blogs like yours (assuming it’s OK with you of course) and to discuss other ways of tapping into your expertise if you are interested. I’m at erin@ruba.com.
    Thanks! 🙂

  2. Erin said,

    Hi there! Thanks for your response!

    If you choose to participate, an excerpt from your blog will be included on our site with your name listed as author and a link back to your original post. Check out http://www.ruba.com to see the Guides and blogs we have up already for examples! Feel free to email me at erin[at]ruba[dot]com with any feedback!

    Thanks!
    Erin

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