I’ve started serious preparations to leave Korea: packing, cleaning, paperwork, etc. I feel like I’ve done a lot here and I’ve learned a lot about Korean culture. Still, there are some things about which I know embarrassingly little. Like religion.
About 23 per cent of Korea’s population is Buddhist. Unfortunately, I know very little about Buddhism and even less about Korean Buddhism. Luckily for me, Korea knows that this is the situation for a lot of Westerners.
During the 2002 world cup some Korean temples started hosting a TempleStay program. The program is exactly what is sounds: an opportunity for foreigners to stay at a temple and experience the lifestyle of a Buddhist monk for a brief time.
I signed up for a TempleStay at Geumsansa Temple, in the southern province of Jeollabuk-do. After the 4-hour bus ride, we were greeted by English-speaking volunteers, who gave us our outfits to be worn during our stay. They are loose fitting pants and shirts. We changed into our temple clothing, but thankfully we were allowed to wear extra clothing underneath and even jackets on top to keep warm.
Once we were in our Temple-appropriate garb, we met the monk who would be our guide for the stay, “Stone Head.” He was one of the most charming people I have ever met and he instantly managed to put us at ease, even though he was working through a translator. Stone Head welcomed us and explained the temple rules and etiquette. He taught us how to walk, bow, and greet others in the temple grounds.
After we met the monk we made lotus lanterns. They were really easy to make (at least, our dumbed-down version was easy to make) but I had some challenges. My fingers became so sticky that by the end I could no longer make the paper leaves stick to the lantern. Thankfully, Stone Head came and helped me. Actually, he took pictures of me struggling and then he hijacked my glue stick and started laughing at me while he helped me fix my mucked-up lantern. When we posed for a picture together he said “new friend.” I think that’s one of only a few English phrases he knows. It has since occurred to me that it’s a good phrase to learn in any language.
After we made the lotus lanterns we went to dinner. Meals are eaten in complete silence and there is zero food waste. You have to eat every last grain of rice. The food was delicious. It was standard Korean food: kimchi, soup, and rice, but with LOTS of vegetables, which is not always the case in Korean cuisine.
After we finished washing our bowls, we participated in the evening service. This mostly consisted of bows and chanting. Or, for most of us, bows and watching the monks chant. We had booklets with the chants printed in roman letters, but it was really difficult to bow and keep up with the chanting.
The ceremony was also an opportunity to ask Stone Head any questions about his life or about Buddhism. It was during the tea ceremony that we learned the importance of the number 108 and the significance of the lotus flower.
The thing that stuck with me most, however, had nothing to do with Buddhism itself. Someone asked the monk what he had been like as a child and he laughed. He said that he was notorious in his neighborhood. Everyone knew him because he was such a troublemaker. I thought of a few of my students, the ones who are responsible for my few grey hairs, and imagined them as future monks. It’s a thought that still makes me wonder and laugh.
After the tea ceremony was complete we had a bit of free time before lights out at 9:30. Wake up the next morning was at 3:00. We awoke and prepared for the pre-dawn morning service. This time there was more chanting (or listening to the chanting) and then we did 108 bows.
A note on the bows: these are not simple “standing and bending your waist” bows. They are “get down on your knees and put your forehead to the ground before you stand up” bows. They are exhausting, particularly at 3:00 am. The bows were followed by a quick 10 minutes of meditation and then a bit of rest time before breakfast.
At 5:30 we reconvened ate a formal Buddhist breakfast. I don’t have any pictures of this part of the day because I left my camera in our room. However, the breakfast ceremony consisted placing four bowls of different sizes on the corners of the placemat. Then we poured water from one bowl to the next, in a particular order. Once all of the bowls were clean, we were served rice, soup and side dishes. When we ate we held the bowl very close to our faces, so that the others could not see our mouths. When we finished eating once again poured the water from bowl to bowl, cleaning them with water and a yellow radish slice. Then we drank the water.
After breakfast we participated in community work, which was just raking some leaves for about 30 minutes. After our “work” we went for a “walking meditation.” It was really more of a walk in the woods while we chatted with one another. I should mention that the monk was one of the chattiest, so we didn’t feel like we were breaking any rules.
Step 1: Bow.
Step 2: String one bead.
Step 3: Stand up.
Repeat 108 times.
Once we had our instructions we were on our own. We went to the prayer hall of our choosing and made our beads. If your keeping count, this brings us to 216 formal bows so far. (This does not count the 3 bows taken upon entering and exiting the hall.)
After finishing our beads, we walked back to the meal hall and had one last lunch before it was time to change back into our everyday clothes and go home. It was not a particularly restful weekend. My legs are still a little sore from the bowing and I was a bit tired while teaching Monday’s classes. Regardless, it was one of the best experiences of my year in Korea. I highly recommend the TempleStay program in general and I especially recommend the program at Geumsansa, where the monks and volunteers are absolutely lovely.