Thursday, July 21, 2011

Getting my Zen on: Life as a Buddhist monk

Korea has a program (Templestay) where Koreans and foreigners alike can spend time in a Buddhist Temple and experience the early wake up, simple ecological eating, long meditations,
spiritual chanting and deliberate lifestyle of the monks there. According to the Templestay website, "Templestay is a unique cultural program which lets you experience the life of Buddhist practitioners at traditional temples which preserve the 1700 year old history of Korean Buddhism."

I had been wanting to do this ever since I heard about it, and I finally got the chance. Two friends and I traveled to Jijangjeonsa Temple to spend one night and two days learning and experiencing a way of life that is drastically different from the hustle and bustle of Korea's huge cities.

The temple is beautiful, set up in the mountains and surrounded by forest. We were the first group to be part of their templestay, so it was fun to be the pioneers!
Only the monks can enter through the central doors. Everyone else uses the side doors.

There are different sects of Buddhism in Korea, but this particular temple adheres to the belief that it is ok for the monks to be married. So, of the three full monks who reside here, the head monk is married and his son Bubwon is another head monk, also married. Quite the family temple.

We were given special clothes, a simple cloth vest and baggy, comfortable pantaloons. Then we were taught the seated and walking meditation techniques, as well as how to correctly bow.
Learning the walking meditation.
Learning the seated meditation.

While most Templestay programs are confined to the specific temple, we were lucky to be taken off-site and experience some other cultural facets of the area. We drove into Buyeo, a town that is near the temple and an ancient Korean capital, so it is rich with culture and history. There, we ate at a well-known but very rustic restaurant in the woods (still in our distinctive dress).

We also went to a neat cultural performance to see traditional singing, dancing, instruments, and even a play.
With some performers.

Then it was off to a beautiful park named Lotus Flower Garden, or the King's Park. We walked around there for a bit. It was beautiful!
Our guides were Mr. Lee and Ms. Kim.

Next stop was an elderly care facility that is run by the temple. We got to tour the facility and meet some of the residents. We were the first foreigners to ever visit there. Wow. The temple also supports a childcare center and an NGO that runs a feeding program in Cambodia.
Eating at the elderly care facility.

After eating at the elderly care facility, we returned to Jijangjeongsa Temple to ring the bell (5 times), do chanting and bowing, and practice our seated and walking meditations, as well as learn how to play the moktak, a handheld wooden drum that is the heartbeat of the temple and is used to lead the services. All the chanting is done in an Indian language, a reminder of the religion's roots in India before it spread to China, then Korea.

Then, came the highlight of the trip for me. We had a conversation with one of the three monks who live at the temple. His name is Bubwon Sunim (sunim is how one addresses a monk), and he is a great guy! We had several hours of very interesting conversation even though Bubwon spoke very little English and there were some funny language lapses, but we made do and were able to connect enough that Bubwon called us Dharma Friends. He told us, "a potato is just a potato. A person is just a person. There are not good or bad people, just people." He lives by the idea of being alert, awake, and conscious of the world and existence, thinking and acting deliberately, thoughtfully. I asked him if he was always happy, and he explained that "if you have one friend who always calls you and wants to hang out and is fun to be with, you will spend more time with that person. If you have another friend who never returns your calls and does not act like a good friend, you will not want to be around that person. Same with feelings." He seeks out and wants to be around good feelings, not bad feelings. It was an amazing experience to hear the wisdom of a monk and feel a connection with someone despite religious, cultural, and language barriers. I
It was off to bed at this point, because the next day we woke up at 4:15 am. Temple life starts early! We rang the bell again, this time 36 times. After each ringing, you slowly walk the circumference of the bell, chanting.
A group ringing.

Then we had morning devotion with the monks, and Monk Bubwon helped us with our walking and seated meditations. We were told not to worry about anything besides the "here and now." Simply breathing in. Appear...Disappear as we breath air and exhale air. Acknowledging every thought we have, repeating it three times, then letting it go.

Then it was time for breakfast, which was quite the ordeal. Eating temple food is a very ritualistic and deliberate process. There were specific ways to lay the settings, serve the food, eat the food, clean the bowls, and wrap up the setting. Whew! A lot of work for a little food, but very interesting, nonetheless. Buddhist monks don't imbibe alcohol, and they eat simple, vegetarian food which adheres to some strict dietary rules that even Ms. Kim didn't quite understand.
After a little rest, we made prayer beads. 108 beads, to be exact, which was rather a lot of work because the holes in the beads were often smaller than the string. I think it was supposed to be a meditative process, but I did not feel too serene.
Then we went into the temple to join the Sunday congregation when the temple members come for their worship. Of course we were stuck right up front. But Monk Bubwon introduced us to the congregation, which welcomed us generously. The Buddhist practitioners did bowing, chanting, and some singing, though the three of us mainly just observed.
See the green vests up front?
After the official service, we stayed in the Temple with Mr. Lee to do the ritual of 108 bows. Each bow represents a different aspect of the Buddhist belief system. The session is accompanied by a pre-recorded arrangement of chanting, and each time you hear the moktak, you bow. Knees down, right hand down, left hand down, head down, palms up (optional), fold hands, stand up without using hands. Rather tough on the knees after a while. We used our 108 prayer beads to keep track of the number of bows. It was a little tedious but very calming and a feat I am proud to have accomplished. On certain occasions, the monks will do 3,000 bows in one day, which takes them 6 hours. Ours took 20 minutes. Their quads must be huge.

We ate lunch and said our goodbyes. Since then, I have been texting with Monk Bubwon and trying to incorporate a little more zen into my life. The Templestay experience was incredible. I feel fortunate to have been able to take part in it.


  1. That sounds amazing! Staying at a Buddhist mountain temple was one thing I was particularly excited about being able to do on our planned visit to Japan. I was very impressed with your meditation form in the third picture. No slouching there. I would can't wait to see the bowing re-enacted in person. Soon, soon!

  2. Are you sure? I think I counted 107.