I’ve been in and out of Buddhist temples more times than I care to count since my first visit to Asia
five years ago. I’ve climbed mountains to get to them, wondered into them by accident, taken guided tours round them, and even lived right next door to them, but there’s one thing I hadn’t ever tried before this weekend: staying at one overnight. Despite having spent so much time in temples, I know an embarrassingly small amount about Buddhism, and the lives lead by the monks who dedicate their lives to it. So when I discovered that I could stay overnight at a temple in Korea to learn more this ancient religion, I was more than keen. A tour group called Adventure Korea were organising trips to the temple for just $89, with a bus pick up from Seoul, so bright and early on Saturday morning I headed off on my new adventure with a group of other soul-searching foreigners. The temple we were visiting was called Sudeoksa, a rather famous temple located up in the mountains in Chungcheongnamdo province. We were told that this temple was special because the majority of monks there were in fact women, something which is apparently unusual in Korea.
It took two hours to reach Sudeoksa, and we were dropped off in a bustling little village, filled to the brim with gift stores offering various Buddhist talismans and trinkets. The temple was right up in the mountains, surrounded by lush green forest, but despite the highland breeze the weather was searing hot, and by the time we had climbed all the stairs up to the temple we were already dripping with sweat. We were shown to our rooms, which had on-the-floor style sleeping arrangements, and we were given temple clothes to be worn for the duration of our stay. The temple clothes consisted of some baggy trousers, a waistcoat, and a straw hat, all of which were fantastically comfy. Once we had gotten changed we went to meet one of the monks who would be our 선생님 (teacher) for the duration of our stay. It’s safe to say that we liked her almost instantly. She was charismatically funny, kind, sweet and intelligent, and she put us all at ease straight away.
We began the day by learning how to pray in a room that encapsulated my visions of what East Asian culture should be like. The room was long with wooden floors and paper sliding doors, and on one side of the room the doors were opened up to reveal a sheer drop straight down the mountain, with nothing but emerald green forest to stare at. The prayers were fairly simple. You basically just had to stand and do half a bow with your hands pressed together, then kneel down and press your palms flat on the floor in front of you until your head is also touching the floor, then you simply rock backwards to get back up again, and bring your hands back together. Once we had mastered this bowing technique, we were told that we would make prayer beads. We were given a string and 108 beads, and told that each time we completed one bow, we could add a bead to the string. Easy right? Wrong. Half-way in it began to feel like the beads would never end. We were drenched in sweat, and all that getting up and down was beginning to play havoc with our legs and backs. Despite this, the focus that it took to do the bowing allowed my mind to wonder off to unusual places. We were that we could wish for something before we started praying, and I wished that Sri Lanka would find peace.
For the hour that we prayed I allowed myself to think of all the things I know about Sri Lanka and the problems there, and found that with each bead I put onto the string I felt myself becoming more confident in my beliefs that I would like to somehow do something to help. It might not have been the empty-mindedness of meditation, but I certainly felt a type of clarity in my thoughts, that was unclouded with more selfish and mindless thoughts of myself and my own personal problems. I could perhaps compare it to reading a book, where you get so washed away in the story that for a brief time your own life is forgotten. Even after we had finished ,as I struggled to catch my breath again and cool down, I felt somehow calmer.
After making the prayer beads we had some time to talk to the monk and ask questions. Sadly our translator was otherwise engaged at this point, and so the Korean girls were able to ask questions but I was not. One Korean girl gave me the gist of some of what was being said. She told me that the monk was telling them that even when bad things happen around you, you must be like a rock in a stream – remain firm in your beliefs and let bad situations wash by you. I would have liked to hear more about this theory, but the girl who was interpreting for me had rather broken English and was unable to explain more. After this we went to have dinner in the monk’s cafeteria. The food was all vegetarian and was actually pretty tasty – the usual Korean fare of rice, soup, and lots of 반찬 (side dishes).
In the evening we went into the main temple courtyard to watch three monks play drums on a ginormous gong. The views from the courtyard were amazing as cerulean sky fazed out into a deep blue, and mist collected around the dark green peaks of the mountains in spectral clumps. Standing there looking out over this with the heavy sound of the drums echoing around us was literally enchanting. After the drumming had finished we went into another temple room that was darkly lit with candles, and did more prayer bows, this time accompanied by chanting monks. Then we were lead into another room to make lotus flowers. At this point the atmosphere became something more similar to an arts and crafts class in school. Colourful paper lotus petals were strewn out in front of us, and the monk taught us about the importance of the lotus flower in Buddhist culture. She said
that lotus flowers grow out of the mud but rise up and become a beautiful flower. She said that people are also like this. After that we were allowed to make our own lotus flowers, and our monk came round and told us about what our flowers meant about us. She told me that mine was full of colour and was beautiful on both the inside and out. When we had finished making the flowers we were given a candle to put underneath it to light it up, and then we were lead outside. We slowly circled a Buddhist stupor – which strangely enough was given as a gift to the temple from Sri Lanka! – in the courtyard three times, and were told that if we could listen to nature and feel a part of it that we would wake up feeling good in the morning. The mountains were well alive with the nightly sound of nature, and with an orchestra of crickets surrounding us and the warmth of the monks praise still fresh inside of us, it was not hard to feel at peace with this. The monk told us that the temple we were in was over a thousand years old, and if we could connect with it, we could gain some of its ancient energy. Surrounded by nature and with just the light of our lotus candles guiding us, I certainly felt like time became timeless. After this we sat in a circle outside, still holding the glowing
lotuses in front of us. The monk told us to look at our lotus flowers and then she told us that they represented us – different in shape and size, but equal in beauty, and shining out into the night like stars.
We finished the day at 9.30, and had an early bed as we were told we would be getting up at 3am for prayers the next day. I slept well and felt good, albeit slightly exhausted, when I woke up the next morning. After having just enough time to brush our teeth and wash our faces, we walked through the early morning dark to watch the drummers again, and then once again went to the candlelit prayer room to repeat our bows as the monks chanted. After that we went to another room to learn how to meditate. We were taught how to sit in the lotus position, with our legs crossed one over the other and our eyes half closed, concentrating on the space in front of our nose. The monk told us that before we were born we breathed with our stomachs, and to get into a meditative state, we must breathe like this again. She showed us how to take deep breaths that made our stomachs rather than chest rise up, and told us that with each deep breath in we must think this thought: ‘who am I?’
I think that the meditation was probably the hardest part of the whole stay. My legs hurt from sitting
in the lotus position and my stomach seemed to rumble with hunger every time I did the stomach breathing, reminding me that we hadn’t eaten breakfast yet. Even though I tried to think of answers to the question, I couldn’t seem to sum it all up in the time that it took me to inhale, and I found my mind wondering off in confused loops and circles, unable to relax. We ‘meditated’ for an hour, and then eventually we were allowed to finish, and I found myself wondering if I would ever have the strength of mind to master something that takes so much concentration. But I suppose that it takes years of practice – and besides, I was hardly expecting to achieve enlightenment in one weekend!
One we had finished meditating we finally got our breakfast. This time the meal was not in the cafeteria, but in our own special room, and with a special monk’s ritual to go through. We all sat in a line facing one another, with four bowls, chopsticks, and a spoon in front of each of us. In the centre of the room were bowls and jugs with soup, side dishes, and fresh water. The monk picked some volunteers to serve us. The first thing that was served was the water, which was to be served into the largest bowl (meant for rice), swilled around, then poured into the second largest bowl (meant for soup), again swilled, then poured into the third largest bowl (meant for side dishes), swilled, and then finally poured into the smallest bowl. After that we were served the food, and told that we must eat in silence, and eat everything in our dishes, apart from one slice of pickled radish, which we were told would be used as a sponge to clean our bowls at the end. When we had finished the meal someone came round with rice water, and we repeated the swilling around that we had done with the water, except that this time we used the radish to clean all the food from each bowl before pouring it into the next one. When we reached the side dishes bowl, we then had to drink the rice water and eat the radish so that there wasn’t a single scrap of food left in the bowls. This might sound a little disgusting, but actually the taste was not too bad. After that we had to repeat the
washing with the bowl of freshwater, and then the freshwater was collected again by our volunteers. The monk sat at the front of the room with the bowl of freshwater, and we sat in front of our surprisingly spotlessly clean bowls. She told us that Buddhists do not believe in waste, and as she pointed at the small bowl of freshwater, she informed us that it only takes that little amount of water to clean the bowls of 40 people and that there is no need to waste more water than this. She also told us that most people do not think that in Buddhism there are hells, but in fact there are. She said that Buddhists believe that those who are very greedy in life go to a hell where their throats are as small as needles but their stomachs are as big as mountains. She said that can’t swallow anything except the freshwater we washed our bowls with, which makes them feel good and full again. She said that because of this we must eat all of our food, so that when we wash the bowls with the freshwater the greedy ghosts can drink it. Whilst I certainly don’t believe in hell or fables, I thought it was a cute story, and I found the idea that just a bowl of water was enough to clean so many plates was totally amazing, and it made me think about how much water I normally waste just washing my own dishes at home.
We were given some free time to relax before the final event of the day, which was a tea ceramony and one final chat with our monk. The tea was made from random dead leaves collected in the forest, and the monk told us that nature gives us many wonderful things and we should appreciate
them all. After this we had lunch in the cafeteria again, before saying our goodbyes. I was honestly sad to leave. I saw a beautiful side of the Korean culture and environment that I just hadn’t noticed before. Living in Seoul, it is so easy to get caught up in the widespread capitalism and materialism of the capital. Being out in the mountains, breathing in fresh air and being taught to appreciate nature was definitely a welcome break. The temple stay was easily the best experience I’ve had in Korea so far, and although I went alone, I came back with new friends and a clear head, feeling more prepared than ever to face the next five months in Korea.
Here are some more pictures…
Would you ever try an overnight temple stay?