Buddhist temples are everywhere in Korea. They are beautiful, colourful and utterly mysterious. I thought a Templestay might give me a bit more insight into another part of Korean culture. Templestays offer the chance to be a Buddhist monk for the weekend.
Two friends and I decided to go to Haeinsa Temple, near Daegu for our Templestay experience. There are only a few temples across Korea that offer English templestays (www.templestay.com), Haeinsa was the closest one to Ulsan.
We set off, not knowing what to expect. After a 90 minute bus ride from downtown Daegu, we were dropped off halfway up a mountain, in the middle of nowhere. It was beautiful but there was no sign of a temple.
Thankfully we spotted a sign with an arrow. We following the signs, for the next 40 minutes until we arrived, hot and sweaty at Haeinsa Temple.
We checked in, and were given the uniforms we were to wear for the duration of the Templestay. I’m not sure what the designer was thinking; the uniforms are neither attractive nor comfortable. They are certainly not for the long of leg or the large of bust.
After changing, we were taken to a large hall dominated by three large golden statues, presumably statues of Buddha although why they would need three was unclear. First order of the day was temple etiquette.
For the duration of the Templestay, we would be escorted by a guide/translator, a young woman with a deep love of Buddhism. She told us that during our stay, we should be mindful at all times. We shouldn’t do anything simply for the sake of doing it, we should think about it as we do it; doing things mindfully was a form of meditation. To help us in our quest to do things mindfully, we should talk less, or if possible not talk at all.
Oh boy. I was in trouble. I could talk the hind leg off a mule. I just had so many questions! I wanted to know if all 3 of the golden statues were Buddha; why the uniforms were gray; were the uniforms uncomfortable to encourage mindfulness?; why they had 3 buttons; why we had to wear socks; why those of us wearing sandals were told to change to sneakers; why the cushions were rectangular instead of square like at other temples; why the Buddha statues all had funny, squiggly facial hair… Perhaps there would be a Q&A session later.
Other temple etiquette included:
Before dinner, we practiced full bowing and meditation. According to the schedule, at some point in the very early hours of the next morning we would be doing the full bow 108 times. Our guide was very concerned that we do it properly.
To bow fully you should:
-stand straight, hands held palms together at chest height
– stand straight, hands still at chest height
– slowly sink to your knees (keeping hands at chest height)
– put your hands palm down on the cushion and touch your forehead to the ground
– turn hands so your palms face the ceiling and raise them about 3 inches off the ground
– come back to your knees, hands back at chest level
– rise to your feet without using your hands
I was not looking forward to doing that 108 times.
Next we practiced meditation. Our guide showed us how to sit in the half-lotus position and gave us a question to ponder during meditation: Who am I?
If we found that difficult, she said we should count our breaths: In 1, Out 1, In 2, Out 2 etc. If another thought intruded, we should start again at 1. I thought I’d try counting- I never made it past 2. Clearly I have the attention span of a flea.
Nevermind, I told myself. It would be easier the next morning when it was dark and there weren’t so many interesting things to look at. (It wasn’t.)
We had to walk everywhere quietly, and in lines.
Dinner was eaten in silence. It was very difficult. I think I was in very real danger of exploding.
After dinner, we went to the main temple for evening service. It was beautiful. We sat behind the monks and did what they did. We stood when they stood, bowed when they bowed, and sat when they sat. And listened while they chanted. Gorgeous.
Was singing ability a prerequisite to becoming a monk? Or did it come with practice?
Bedtime was 9p.m, and bed was the floor. Our dormitories were pretty on the outside
but not so delightful on the inside….
I hate sleeping on the floor but I reminded myself that I had signed up for whole monk experience; I needed to stop being a baby. I had nearly managed to convince myself that the floor was comfortable when a large cricket skittered across my forehead. I was still awake when the 3 am wake up call came.
I put my uniform back on, splashed some water on my face and headed out. First up, a drum ceremony.
This was followed by another lovely chanting ceremony in the main temple. However, the chanting that had seemed so peaceful the previous evening now threatened to put me to sleep. Why did all this have to be done at 3 a.m??
Next it was time for the 108 bows. At first, the mindless repetition of the bowing was strangely soothing. But then my legs began to ache, and I began to run out of steam. Rather than lowering myself gracefully to the ground, I collapsed in a heap then heaved myself back to my feet. Over and over again. Had I actually paid to do this to myself? And why 108? Wouldn’t 3 have been enough?
The bowing and the following meditation sessions were led by a young monk. As we lay on our cushions panting, he motioned for us to sit in the half-lotus position, and then showed us a large stick. Apparently if you were nodding off, he would wake you up. Or if you felt yourself falling asleep, you could ask for a beating. He had a few people volunteer to prove that it didn’t hurt but I still didn’t want to try it.
We all assumed the proper meditation position and then he turned the lights off. I did try to concentrate but it was lovely to simply sit and listen to the world wake up around me. As the night gradually lightened into day, birds began to chirp, frogs began to croak, and insects began … making whatever noise insects make.
Interestingly, while the young monk didn’t have a watch, he did have a smart phone to check the time on…
Breakfast was next and looked quite similar to dinner.
As the temple is a community, we were all expected to do our bit. Here’s me sweeping the stairs:
At about 7 a.m, we went on a tour of the temple. Haeinsa Temple is home to the Triptaka Koreana. The Triptaka Koreana are 81,258 wooden printing blocks onto which are carved Buddhist sutra. The blocks were carved in the 13th century, and are part of the UNESCO Memory of the World program. We weren’t allowed to take pictures.
I will leave you with a few more pictures. I’m sorry this blog is so long! The Templestay was just so amazing. I highly recommend it to anyone visiting Korea! It is ironic (as my clever friend Katie pointed out) that I should have SO much to say about an experience during which I spent most of the time saying nothing. 😀