Last weekend, I did another Templestay. Having done one out in the middle of nowhere, I was curious to try a slightly more urban setting. According to Templestay.com there was an English program at a temple right in the heart of Seoul. It doesn’t get more urban than that!
After spending a ridiculous amount of time lost in the subway, my friend and I emerged out of Dongmyo subway station. We followed the signs to Myogaksa Temple, and found ourselves walking up a hill that could have been anywhere in Korea. There were motorcycle delivery men roaring past, buses and cars honking, children playing, people arguing and spitting, and the occasional feral cat yowling. Not a bit like the long walk through the forest at the last Templestay.
The small temple was squeezed in between apartment buildings, and seemed to be built into the side of the hill. The second we passed through the temple gates, I felt as though someone had given me earplugs; Seoul faded to a dull roar.
Our extended tour of the subway had made us a little late, so we rushed to put on our temple clothes and join the group.
Yeoyeo had excellent English, and her explanations were clear and concise. She also had a deep love of Lord of the Rings and would often use it to illustrate her points. My favourite moment came when she was explaining that inside each of us resides a ‘greedy heart’. To clarify, she suddenly hunched over in a disconcertingly accurate impression of Gollum clutching The Ring, muttering ‘my precious.’ Obviously she didn’t spend all of her time meditating.
As the sun went down, we went outside to ring the large bell. Apparently, most temples ring the bell 33 times but Myogaksa’s neighbours complained, so we rang the bell only a few times.
After bell ringing, we returned to the main hall to perform 108 prostrations and make prayer beads. When I signed up for the Templestay, I had every intention of preparing for the 108 prostrations (I could hardly walk after the last Templestay) but somehow, I didn’t.
This time was slightly different. Last time, we performed all 108 prostrations in a sleepy haze at 4 a.m. This time, we were going to make prayer beads at the same time. One prostration, one bead.
The prostrations began blurring together, and the pile of beads was not growing smaller. I began to wonder if anyone would notice if I cheated. Surely I could string 2 or 3 beads on with each prostration? I thought about it for a few prostrations then decided that I just couldn’t do it. Karma.
Finally, lungs heaving, knees aching and legs burning, I was done. I collapsed onto my mat, every atom in my being grateful to be still. The nun’s young helper came to attach a gold medallion bearing the symbol ‘Om’ to my beads, and I tried my best not to sweat on her.
Yeoyeo told us that Korean Buddhists believe that humans have 6 bodily pathways that can lead us to sin and suffering – eyes, ears, nose, mouth, skin and mind. Those 6 pathways have 6 ways to experience suffering and sin – seeing, hearing, tasting, feeling, smelling and thinking. And we can experience sin and suffering in the past, the present and the future – 6x6x3=108.
Prostrating 108 times is a way to clean the slate. I gather it differs from temple to temple, but most Buddhists prefer to do their daily 108 prostrations first thing in the morning so they can face the day free from sin and suffering.
Last on our Templestay program was meditation. Yeoyeo showed us how to sit properly, and we began. Yeoyeo seemed like a lovely woman but she had a big stick to hit you with should you fall asleep during meditation.
And then you had to thank her for hitting you. My friend claimed it didn’t hurt but I was in no hurry to try.
Myogaksa was fabulous. We only did the day-long program but they do offer an overnight program as well. eng.templestay.com