Experience Buddhist monk life through templestay

By John Scott Marchant, The Korea Herald, Oct 22, 2004

Seoul, South Korea  -- It's 5 a.m. and the world is filled with the divine voice of Buddha as the deep resonating tones of the Jagwang Temple bell rings out 28 times across the darkened Yuseong countryside. Ready or not, it's time for the morning ceremony; it's time to start living like a monk.

Unfortunately, reaching out and punching the snooze button on this spiritual early morning wake up call just isn't an option. Not only are there issues of guilt to deal with (should you ignore Buddha's voice in a Buddhist temple?), but there are practical ones as well: How do you silence a massive bell that is rung using a log suspended by ropes from the rafters of its very own rooftop platform without getting out of bed?

Perhaps some questions are never meant to be answered. Regardless, whether you're searching for spiritual enlightenment, or simply hankering to know just what does go on inside a Buddhist temple, then an overnight stay at the Jogye order of Korean Buddhism's Jagwang Temple could be for you. Established to coincide with the finals of the 2002 World Cup, the temple stay program saw temples across the country throw open their doors, allowing non-Buddhists (especially foreigners) to stay in a temple while experiencing Buddhist thought and culture.

"Korean Buddhism is a unique part of Korean culture," said Hae Il-shim, temple stay coordinator at the Jagwang Temple. "This program is for those who are interested in Buddhism. Here you can experience temple life, meditate, talk with monks and try to solve your problems."

A typical weekend visit to the Jagwang Temple runs for 24 hours, starting on Saturday around 3 p.m. and finishing at the same time Sunday afternoon. It's an introspective experience, giving the visitor a glimpse of the solitary lives of Buddhist monks and nuns, while allowing them to participate in regular temple activities.

With flexibility being the name of the game, a visit schedule includes a diverse range of activities including: a temple tour, Zen meditation, lotus lantern making, a visit to a local spa, an introduction to Buddhist instruments, learning how to bow, a walking tour of the picturesque Yuseong countryside and the all-important tea ceremony.

The Buddhist tea ceremony - a crucial part of being able to able to free your mind and focus on reflecting upon the world and yourself - involves learning the meaning of the complex tea preparation rituals and drinking etiquette. But for Hae Il-shim, what seems like a painstaking process of carefully washing the teacups and pot before brewing the tea is actually a highly pleasurable part of her day.

"The tea ceremony helps me to erase myself," she said slowly sipping tea from a delicate looking kiln-fired green teacup. "The discipline of the ceremony allows me to find Buddha in my mind and reminds me that I'm not special. This is a way of remembering to respect and treat everyone evenly."

Following afternoon tea, it's time for an introduction to the four Buddhist instruments used to awaken the enlightenment of all beings in the universe: a massive resonant bell, a large drum, a cloud-shaped copper plate and a wooden gong in the shape of a fish. Once this session is finished, the knocking of a wooden hand drum signals that the "temple dinner" is ready. Temple meals, served three times a day in the "Empty Mind House," include rice, soup and a selection of unseasoned vegetarian dishes. Sitting on the floor at low tables, everyone eats together in relative silence. While unique in taste and appetizing enough, those used to viewing meals as a celebration of food should be sure to bring "private snacks" for later in the evening, you'll probably need them.

And a word for the wise, if you enjoy a drink with dinner, not unlike the monks of the Tae Go Chon sect at the Bong Won temple in western Seoul (who reportedly drink alcohol and do almost anything normal monks cannot do), then you're out of luck. The consumption of alcohol on the grounds of this temple (and every other) is forbidden, so keep your thirst in check for at least 24 hours.

After dinner, lotus lantern making classes and Zen meditation lessons await.

Lotus lantern making is a thoroughly enjoyable craft making experience that helps to relax your mind and empty it of worldly thoughts while leaving you with red dye-stained fingers from the tissue paper.

Surprisingly, this delicate creative process is an excellent warm up for Zen meditation - which involves sitting for an hour in the lotus position with your eyes open and back ramrod straight - the goal to empty your mind of thoughts while finding yourself and being enlightened to the meaning of life.

After meditation is finished, it's time for a Q and A meeting with the temple "seunim" (a respectful way to address a Buddhist monk or nun in Korea) before heading off to bed at 10 p.m. During this time, visitors are encouraged to ask questions or seek advice on Buddhism, personal problems or even the meaning of life. According to Chong Ah seunim, the abbot of Jagwang Temple, most foreigners enroll in the temple stay program because they want to see and experience the reality of Korean Buddhism.

"I am asked all kinds of questions," he laughed. "But discussing problems with monks and finding solutions for individual problems is another reason why foreigners visit a temple. Buddhism teaches you to see what you are and how to answer questions, this is how you can relieve stress from the outside," the seunim said.

A point that Frans Muller, 38, a tourist from South Africa who has stayed at several temples in Korea agrees with. "Ya, the monks gave me good advice about my problems. I've also learnt a lot about Korean culture and Buddhism," he added.

Spiritually fulfilled and all meditated out, the call of the "One Mind House" sleeping room is irresistible. A no-frills guesthouse for foreigners, the mats, pillows and quilts are extremely comfortable with falling asleep the least of your concerns. But then again, after an hour of Zen meditation, most people could probably doze off next the to the temple's fishpond without any complaints.

With the 5 a.m. ceremony coming all too quickly, pondering the wisdom of the seunim's advice from the evening before doesn't seem all that important as you begin the first of the108 bows - one for each of the anguishes or sufferings encountered throughout life's stages. Prostrating yourself on the ground 108 times to show respect to Buddha and your Buddhist self is an agonizing experience, but provides an interesting insight into what it takes to lead a monk's life.

The best way to get to the Jagwang Temple from Seoul is by car or bus. The journey from the Seoul Express Bus Terminal to Yuseong takes about two hours, with buses departing every 30 to 40 minutes. And if you ask nicely when making your reservation, a van from the Jagwang Temple will collect you upon arrival. Alternatively, you can catch the KTX or Saemaeul train from Seoul for Daejeon, followed by 40-minute taxi ride.