It’s 4:15 AM. I enter a building within the temple complex for morning chanting, carefully removing my shoes and leaving them at the foot of the entryway. The entire room is silent and illuminated with a warm golden glow cast by the adorned Buddha and Bodhisattvas in the front. Monks with shaved heads in flowing maroon robes are seated on cushions before us, contrasting with the glow of the room. Bowing towards Buddha, we settle on simpler cushions in the back, accompanied by local Buddhist citizens who have journeyed to the temple for worship on this early Sunday. The monks begin the procession by chanting in deep tones, filling the room with sacred sounds. The local Buddhists join in, hardly glancing at their books of mantras. I’m content to merely listen.
While hiking one day, I spotted a sign advertising a Buddhist temple stay, with an arrow pointing in the direction of a small structure in the distance. I learned that Templestay was born in 2002 when Seoul hosted the World Cup, providing a place for foreigners to stay and a chance to experience Korean Buddhist practices. I was intrigued.
As an atheist, I have no desire to become Buddhist, or to adopt any religion for that matter. My memories of sporadic visits to church in my youth consist of boredom and restlessness, staring off into space instead of praying to an abstract idea. Yet, many times, my innate curiosity and interest in cultural traditions, have led me to investigate my spirituality. In junior high, my friends and I would huddle around an Ouija board, asking questions to unknown spirits and denying that unconscious vibrations from our hands were actually moving the wooden piece. In high school, I decided to read the Bible in order to strengthen my arguments for why I didn’t believe. After reading a few scriptures in Genesis, I fell asleep and have not continued since. However, six months ago, I spent a week watching BBC’s documentary series “Around the World in Eighty Faiths” during my afternoon desk-warming hours at work. Since I’m currently living in Seoul, I sought to glimpse how devout Buddhist Korean monks live. Stopping in front of the sign, I jotted down the information.
A week later, I researched the program through a quick Google search. After carefully reading about the various temples throughout Korea, I decided to partake in the program at Hwagyesa, based on the short distance from my home and hiking in the itinerary.
On arrival at the temple, I was greeted by several Korean monks, practicing teenage monks from Burma and a Polish Buddhist nun, bald, wearing loose, gray robes. Initially, I was shocked to see foreign monks and nuns at a Korean temple, especially a white female nun. She seemed out of place with her big blue eyes and prominent nose. She led our group, twelve people from diverse countries, through the temple grounds.
“I’ve been at this temple for 22 years,” she stated. She stopped in front of a painting of a solitary rabbit, cracked and peeling on the side of a building. “I used to stare at this painting for hours when I first arrived at Hwagyesa. It helped me understand my reasons for being here.” Why did she come here? I wanted to know her story, but I remained silent, afraid to ask. I’m sure that her English skills are an asset to the Templestay program– but the program began ten years ago, and she arrived twenty-two years ago. Maybe she came to study at the International Zen Center, an institution associated with Hwagyesa for foreigners to become immersed in Buddhism. The thought of remaining in one place for twenty-two years, in a culture so starkly different than my own, provoked the feeling of isolation, both physically and mentally. I wondered, did she originally come here with the same intentions I did?
As we walked, she explained how Buddhism was introduced to Korea from China in 372 AD, and currently 300 Buddhist temples remain in the country. During the Joseon Dynasty, 1392-1897, Buddhism was repressed by Neo-Confucianism, and the Buddhist temples were forced out of the cities into the mountains. Since Seoul has grown extensively, Hwagyesa remains on the edge of the city.
We walked into another building and followed the basic code of conduct, bowing and removing our shoes. We each grabbed two square cushions, and arranged them on the floor in a circle for meditation. My temple uniform, constructed of stiff maroon material, tightened around my thighs as I sat Japanese-style on the floor. “You must leave your eyes open and try to stare at one spot on the floor,” the nun began. “Focus on your breathing.”
I stared at the grains of wood until they appeared to move around on the floor. My mind wandered. I wonder what we’ll eat for dinner. How long has it been? One, two, three, four… Stop. Are my group members thinking too? Are their minds empty? My foot fell asleep, and later both my legs. Finally, the nun rang the bell. Ding…ding… I slowly stood up as pins and needles raced through my legs. I attempted to join the group as they walked in slow circles around the room. We continued with another thirty minute seated session, where, yet again, I failed to reach a Zen-like state. I reminded myself that meditating is like anything, you get better with practice.
After meditation, we regained our energy by consuming a vegan dinner, consisting of rice, vegetables from the temple’s garden, fermented bean paste soup, lotus roots, and kimchi without garlic. As Buddhist tradition, our group was told not to waste food. In silence, I carefully ate every last scrap left in my bowl. Upon finishing, we used the traditional method to clean our dishes, swirling a tiny amount of water in each of the bowls, and soaking it up with a piece of radish kimchi, which we proceeded to eat afterwards. As I placed each dish on a drying rack outside, I wondered how much water I use each day washing my own dishes.
This morning, it’s dark and the air is damp. I stir next to my Israeli roommate on a thick floor mat in the temple’s sleeping quarters. The moon is merely a sliver, refusing to disappear. From the window, my eyes are transfixed on the monks, beating the Dharma drum with such precision and grace; they cast peace through the temple and mountains.
We attempt to recreate this state of mind by bowing 108 times, each signifying a prayer for all beings to live harmoniously and in good health. Each bow begins standing, until one is kneeling on the floor with their hands on the ground. I bow in earnest for peace, for good health, for good relationships with family and friends. I bow when the voice from the speaker tells me to devote my life to Buddha, but I don’t mean it.
We end the day with a traditional tea ceremony. A Korean-American group member translates as the head monk, our sunnim, answers our questions about Buddhism and temple life. “Why did you decide to become a monk?” a Canadian group member asks. The sunnim throws his hands in the air, sighing. Everyone asks him that, but he doesn’t have a clear answer. Perhaps Templestay is a spiritual search and learning experience for everyone.
The Hwagyesa Templestay program costs 40,000 won (approximately $40). You must reserve your place at least two weeks in advance.
Directions: On the Seoul subway, take (light blue) line No. 4, get off at Suyu Station and go out through exit No. 3. Then transfer to the local bus No. 2, and it will take about 15 minutes to get to Hwagyesa.
-Text and photography by Sarah Shaw @ www.mappingwords.com. All rights reserved.