Korean temple bell tolls for meditation

by Barbara Bunce Desmeules, CanWest News Service, July 11, 2006

'Templestay' program popular with people who want to delve into Buddhism

Daejeon, South Korea -- It was a cold December afternoon on the roof of the administration building of the Jagwang-Sa temple compound in Daejeon, South Korea. The monk stood to one side, meditating, with his arms tucked in his robe. It was time to beat the Beomjong temple bell. In Korean Buddhism, the ceremony rids a person of earthly desires and helps prepare for meditation.

The huge bronze bell has rung every morning and evening for hundreds of years. Weighing several tons and adorned with floral and celestial motifs, bells like this one are found in all temples. Cho Seong Ran, the temple guide, took hold of the suspended log, about a metre long and 24 centimetres in diameter, and slammed it into the huge bell. Then she motioned for the guests to follow her, and we slowly walked around the bell, hands together in prayer.

The bell's deep sound reverberated through our bodies. It was a moving and emotional experience. When we arrived back at our starting point, she indicated that it was my turn. The log was heavier than I thought, and it took a good push to make a loud and resounding echo. We repeated this 33 times, meditating as we circled the bell.

It was cold on the exposed roof, but the thrill of participating in this ancient ceremony warmed me. It was part of a South Korean program that allows anyone to stay in a Buddhist temple for a day, week or more. Begun in 2002, when South Korea (with Japan) hosted soccer's World Cup, the "Templestay" initiative proved popular with Koreans and foreigners, and the number of participating temples has doubled to 44. Many are in the countryside, others are on the outskirts of small towns.

Temples are considered cultural treasures, so an overnight stay is an opportunity to experience the ancient traditions of monks and nuns (yes, there are Buddhist nuns, called Biguni in Korea).

Buddhism remains the largest religion of South Korea. While at the temple, you are free to ask questions about Buddhism or just enjoy the peace and quiet. "This is a unique experience for people who want to truly relax or delve into the culture," said Frank Creasey, of South Korea's National Tourism Organization.

If you are touring South Korea, the calm and tranquil atmosphere is a welcome relief after the hustle and bustle of Seoul, the capital and largest city just an hour by bus from the Jagwang-Sa temple compound.

There is no charge for a stay, which includes lodging in a dorm, three meals and activities, but a $60 donation is suggested for each day you are there. The temples are clean but spartan, and the size and style of the accommodation varies. Rooms are usually shared. At times Western-style beds are provided, but sleeping with a mat and comforter on the heated Korean floor can be cozy.

Meals are eaten together, at long, low tables. Be forewarned: The entire group will wait until everyone is seated before beginning the meal, no matter how late the guest arrives.

Men and women have separate residences. The women's residence at the Jagwang-Sa temple is called the "Empty mind house." When we saw the sign, the Western women in the group felt miffed until we were told that an empty mind is a good thing in Buddhism. To empty one's mind is a prelude to meditation.

After morning prayers and breakfast, a visitor's day begins with a tour of the compound, which typically includes the temple, an administration building and a lodging building with dorms and dining hall. Temples are always open for individual worshippers and are used four or five times a day for group worship.

During the day you can roam the countryside or take part in such activities as hiking, calligraphy, forest meditation, sutra printing, Buddhist dance, tea ceremony and traditional crafts, such as making lotus lanterns.

Meals are simple, vegetarian and presented in a serve-yourself style.

Food is an important element in temple life -- eating is seen as a way to discipline the mind, to know your limits and to teach self-control.

You must eat what you take; waste is not an option. When the monks have finished eating what is on their plate, they add a little water, scrape up the remaining morsels and drink the water with the tidbits of food.

This simple ceremony is all part of getting to know a country, and a stay in a temple is an exceptional opportunity to glimpse into the soul of South Korea.

For more information on the Templestay program, go to www.templestaykorea.net. Toureast holidays, 1-(877)-578-8888 or www.toureast.com, specializes in temple tours.