WARNING: I just had one of the most interesting experiences of my life. Thus, this post is epically long. Feel free to skim.
Sometimes I just have to laugh at the random places I find myself. I’ve been constantly laughing to myself the last few days. I’ve been trying to be as respectful as possible but after the 52nd bow at 4:30 this morning, I just couldn’t help myself. Its not particularly funny and its definitely not meant to be funny but I just had to laugh at the fact that I was standing up and kneeling down, barefoot, dressed in a robe, on a cushion that smelled like feet, 108 times in the name of Buddhism. I keep thinking of flashbacks from Eat, Pray, Love.
I’ll back up to the last few days. Middle school camp has come and gone. We had skits, a talent show, and Golden Bell, oh my! We were all sad to goodbye to the 8th graders we had gotten used to seeing everyday. We heard about love triangles and broken hearts, star students and class clowns. My girls cried on my shoulder after the closing ceremony as they took pictures with me on their cell phones. Some of the kids were just amazing, I wished so much that I could speak Korean or they could speak more English. We got around the language barrier while playing games and laughing, the universal language.
As sad as we were to bid farewell as they drove away in busses, we were more than thrilled to get a break from the 17-18 hour days. So away we went into the unknown. I knew I had signed up for a temple stay but what that entailed was totally unknown to me. We arrived at Seonamsa Temple after a fabulous lunch of roast duck (my new fave meat…amazing!) at the bottom of a hill. We trekked up with our luggage silently as we felt drips of sweat rolling down our backs. We were immediately divided into males and females and sent to our various temples to change into our robes. I had joked earlier about getting robes so I wouldn’t have to sweat in my own clothes. They’re more like a prison outfits actually. The girls (about 20) have one big room to sleep in. We were told to change into the robes hanging from bamboo rods in the corner and walk to the temple for our first session. We all changed in the open, the first of many bonding experiences.
We spent hours sitting cross-legged on cushions on the floor, learning how to bow to Buddha, how to bow to monks, and eating dinner where we sat in silence on the floor. I know now I could never be a monk, let alone a Buddhist monk. I do admire their discipline and I’ve learned more about Buddhism in the last few days then I’ve ever learned.
Shower time came after dinner, a time for more bonding. I survived my first communal shower experience surprisingly unscathed. I was a little nervous at the beginning, especially since I had just purchased a towel about the size of a hand towel (standard size here in SK). I’m sure the female monk wanted to roll her eyes at all the Americans who couldn’t help but giggle as we tiptoed around. I realized a successful communal bather just has to get over it so that’s what I did. It wasn’t that bad.
We turned in early (9pm) so we could arise at 3:30am for morning prayers. I slept outside on a wooden porch-like platform. It was surprisingly comfortable. Our wake-up call was a monk standing over us playing some soothing tunes on his phone loud enough for everyone to hear…interesting.
Where I slept
It was a very surreal feeling to be up while everything was completely dark except for the glow of the prayer lanterns and their reflections on the Buddha statues. We silently walked to the temple listening to the monks chant and ring bells. We all arranged ourselves cross-legged on our prayer mats waiting for the magical minute when the monks passed by in single file lines dressed in bright red robes and did the 3 ritual bows in front of the ever-peaceful Buddha. We waited for our monk to arrive so we could play ‘follow the leader.’ Chants ensued as we concentrated on each step of the proper bow before Buddha…1) hapjong 2) kneel 3) right hand, left hand, forehead to the ground and then the opposite to stand up…repeat 10+ times. A few times I got lazy and used my hands to get up and down. It was good that I was out of sight of the monks.
We’d heard rumors of this ‘108 bow thing.’ After prayers, we got the full deal. 108 Prostrations before Buddha for things like not being mindful of the makers of your food, shelter, clothing and being selfish and egotistical. 108 full bows, that’s kneel, hands, knees, forehead to the ground, and back up 108 times for all you readers not following. Needless to say it’s a full on workout. Each time I knelt down, I smelled the odor left behind by the previous person’s feet. I tried not to concentrate on this pungent scent and be mindful of what I was doing just like a good little Buddhist.
Meditation followed the Prostrations. P.S. I SUCK AT MEDITATION! The monk had mercy on us and only made us fidget for 20 minutes instead of the standard 45- minute meditation. I think I could get into it if I gave it enough time. Maybe I should work on my patience first.
After meditation, I experienced the MOST intense meal of my life! Breakfast in a Buddhist Temple is not to be taken lightly. It is a serious matter that requires meticulous attention to detail and at least 45 minutes of ceremonious bowl setting and washing before food is even placed in front of you. We all sat silently on mats in the dining room and attempted not to commit too many faux pas. Each person had 4 bowls, chopsticks, and various cloths for use throughout the meal. Each setting looks like a present wrapped in pretty fabric waiting to be unwrapped ever so carefully. The bowls are placed on your placemat. Hot water is poured in one bowl and then is poured from that bowl into each bowl to rinse them. Finally, rice is served followed by soup and then side dishes of pickled radish, kimchi, and mushrooms. However, the trick is to consume absolutely every speck of food you are given, down to the last soup bean and miniscule rice grain. When finished eating, you pour water into each bowl and clean it using the pickled radish. Then more water is poured for a final rinse. After making sure not to leave any particle remaining, you either drink the rinsing water or pour it into a bucket. If any piece of food, however small is left in your row’s bucket, everyone must drink from the community water…DISGUSTING. I decided to suck it up and drink all of my rinsing water so as not to ruin it for everyone in my row. Once you drink the water, you dry your bowl with a white cloth and do about 10 more steps to wrap your place setting back up. Each person is assigned a number on a shelf for your bowl so you can use it throughout your stay at the temple. I’ve never felt so much pressure at a meal.
The rest of the day consisted of weed pulling, cloth dying, a hike through the woods and swimming in the stream with the monks. The hike was amazing and we stopped in the most beautiful forest to eat kimbap rolls (sushi rolls). It was so peaceful and picturesque.
After dinner we had a traditional tea ceremony and time to ask the monks about any curiosities we had about Buddhism, etc. Someone asked if human happiness was possible during our time on Earth. I thought the monk’s answer was so interesting. He said that while each of us is on Earth, we are constantly in a state between birth and death and happiness is meant to be reached during this time. He also said each time we breathe in, we are alive and each time we breathe out, we are dead so we are reminded of this between state every minute of every day. He reminded each of us to be mindful of the moment we are in. As he was saying this, I looked beyond his shaved head outside and saw a gorgeous view out the temple door. The epitome of what peacefulness is in my mind, a seated Buddhist monk in front of a tiled temple roof slightly obscured by a blossom tree and mountain with the sun setting behind it in the background. I couldn’t capture it on film, but it is something I hope I always remember.
Bedtime followed about 9pm. I decided to brave the crowds and shower at 2:30am before everyone else got up. I guess I wasn’t so into the communal shower thing after all.
Today we followed the same morning routine; 3:30am wake up, 4am prayers, 108 Prostrations, meditation, and an insane breakfast. We also got to sew handkerchiefs from the cloth we dyed yesterday…a nice little keepsake to take with us. At the temple today was some sort of ceremony, the purpose of which we could never quite figure out. I think it was a ceremony to pray to and celebrate the ancestors. There were probably 75 people gathered around an alter-type thing and a large mat outside. All the monks were in ornate robes, much detailed then the daily prayer robes. Singing, dancing, cymbals, gongs, incense, chanting…the whole bit was involved. This was followed by a procession to the main temple where towers of fruit and banners were hung in offering to the souls of the ancestors.
After lunch, we changed out of our robes for the final time, cleaned our sleeping area and bid farewell to the monks. They were so patient and hospitable towards us even though most of us knew little to nothing about Buddhism. I suppose that’s why they open their temple up to others, so that they may learn and go share their experiences.
We all agreed the whole experience was one of those things that is amazing but sucks when you’re living it. It does make for a great story though. When else will I be able to swim with Buddhist monks, ring a 600-year-old bell, and sleep on the floor of an ancient temple in the secluded mountains of South Korea? Probably never again.