Sunday, March 6, 2011

Buddhist Temple Stay

Temple Stay Trip

Among the popular things to do in Korea, one of the most interesting and unusual is to participate in a
Temple Stay. I booked mine though “Adventure Korea” on a long weekend. As the weekend approached the weather was unusually rainy. This isn’t the nice misty Portland rain that we have in Oregon. This is rain that comes down fast and furious, and leaves one soaked though in minutes!

The day before my trip I checked the weather and it looked like the rain was here to stay for awhile. I threw some extra clothes in my bag, my camera, some toiletries and a small towel. The trip didn’t leave too early which I was grateful for, and always am on a weekend. I got up at about 6 and left for the subway at about 6:45 so that I would be at the proper spot in the city where the pick-up was scheduled with a few minutes to spare. As it turned out I arrived about 25 minutes early and the rain was still sloshing down. I bought a coffee at a local chain and was once again reminded that Koreans prefer very weak coffee. I sipped it while chatting with a couple who was also going on the same tour. At a bit before 8 I went up the subway stairs and, standing under a flap of metal, waited for the bus. Those of us who were waiting were getting wet shoes and pants already. At about quarter past eight the bus rolled up. It was a very nice, newer bus, unlike the hippie bus that was my conveyance on the last trip that I took through this company. I sat by a nice young woman who was just finishing her two year experience of teaching in Korea. She was going to meet her mother in a week and they were taking six weeks to travel in Australia and New Zealand before they headed back to Toronto together. Other people were from as far away as South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe, but Americans and Canadians made up most of the group. After about an hour and a half the bus stopped for a rest/snack stop and those who weren’t wet before were soaked by the time we got to the snack area. I got some delicious little hot potatoes that were served in a little paper dish. As I stood by one of the five foot high heaters in this area, along with everyone else, I ate the potatoes which were tasted just great. By the time our clothes were all steaming pretty well, it was time to head back to the bus.

We drove on in the mist and fog and gloom for several hours. Finally our bus began to ascend a mountainside and in only a few minutes we were above the rain! A few minutes later we arrived at the temple complex. We got off at a central area and I busied myself by taking some photos since I didn’t know whether we would be allowed to once we changed our clothes and our lifestyle. I also wanted to get a few snapshots then in case the rain decided to move up the hill later on in the day. We were given our temple stay clothes on hangers. Then we were instructed to gather our clothes and bags and walk quietly, in single file to the sleeping rooms. The walk was very pretty as we completely crossed the temple complex, passing a number of buildings before we went slightly downhill. We crossed a small bridge in a bamboo grove that took us across a stream to our living quarters. The men stayed in one building and the women in another. Our room was long and narrow and linoleum covered the floor. It was cold! We quickly put on our pants, tied at the front, and our jackets also secured by ties, over our warm outdoor clothes, which we were permitted to do. The fabric was rough and felt like flax. The garments proved to be quite warm so were a welcome addition to our other gear.

Next we were shown the restroom area. After that the men were recruited to cut and stoke the fires for the “ondal” heating in both sleeping areas. That was one time when I was glad that traditional roles are the norm in Korea. I was happy to stand back and watch the young guys struggle with the axes and the enormous chunks of wood set in front of them. In a pretty short time the floor heated up and subsequently the rooms warmed as well.

The entire group met in the women’s room which was much larger and was also meant to be used as a meeting area for everyone in our group during the day. There were about 10 men and 19 women, all of whom were under 25 except three of us. Of the remaining three of us two were under 30! The monk who was to be our teacher and guide met with us there. As a Buddhist monk he wore a traditional robe and footwear, heavy black glasses and had a shaved head. We were all a bit nervous and in awe of him because he commanded quite a presence in front of his group of novices.
We sat in an oval pattern, with the monk at the one end with his translator sitting next to him. He gave a formal welcome to us and talked about temple life. He reminded us to always have our temple clothes on when going out of our sleeping room, to walk in single file, to use the walking time as reflection and meditation, and to keep our hands folded in front of us. We got to practice these directions a number of times in the next 24 hours. Then he went on to have us introduce ourselves which took a while since everything was translated. He asked us why each of us had chosen to come to participate in the “Temple Stay.” I enjoyed hearing what each person had to say and felt a bit nervous sharing my thoughts. He was very thoughtful after I spoke and then replied that my answer was like poetry. I guess I can thank the translator for that!

The next scheduled activity was to make lotus lanterns. As the monk told us the importance of the lotus in the Buddhist religion we glued colored paper to make lotus lanterns to take home as mementos of our visit. It was a nice activity because we sat in small groups and visited with one another while working on our individual creations.

After our session was completed we had some time to walk around the temple complex and to take photos. I also noticed that there were a number of Koreans who had come to the temples for day trips, to enjoy the hiking trails and to pray in the temples. The buildings were built out of heavy timbers and were painted very gaily in bright colors, with designs on the rooftops that were reminiscent of temple roof design in Indonesia and Thailand. I was hoping to find some designs similar to the wall on one of the temples in my Ginseng Festival tour, at an ancient temple that we had visited after the ginseng festivities had been completed. Though there were many intriguing designs I couldn’t find one wall that had such a dramatic painting as at the former temple from a prior trip. It covered the whole wall, and had figures that resembled men standing in a boat. They had grossly distended stomachs and wavy lines were used to draw the vertical lines on their throats. I had learned lated that the figures in that painting were called “Death Eaters.” Eerie!

Too soon it was time to line up to go into the eating area. There was a door to the room and the area was heated. We lined up first outside to wash our hands. We were shown which tables we could sit at and which ones were reserved for the monks. There were almost 100 monks at this temple, but one only saw a few at a time so I never would have gauged this to house so many men. We were also instructed that we were to eat absolutely every morsel, including each rice grain that we served ourselves. We were told that we could have seconds if we finished what we ate. We were to eat in silence and to take care not to scrape our utensils on our dishes. The fare was simple Korean food which included a watery soup with some sprouts in it, white sticky rice, and several vegetables, one similar to zucchini (called pumpkin here). There was no butter or sauce on the vegetables. Several types of kimchee were also set out. Buddhists are vegetarian so there was no meat, eggs or milk served. I was still very hungry after eating so went to get seconds. All that remained was some white rice stuck to the bottom of the pan, a tablespoon of the greens, and plenty of kimchee, which I only eat in small amounts to flavor the bland food. After we finished eating we had to line up at a big sink and carefully rinse our dishes before leaving the dining area. I was very glad for the “Snickers” bar which I had in my bag! We were told to bring some snacks that we could eat later in our room as the food was limited by variety, and as it turns out by quantity as well.

We had more free time to walk around and look at the various temples. Then we met over by a temple that had several large Korean drums housed in it. The most interesting drum was a large piece of wood hung from ropes which swayed back and forth to beat on the wall. This was very similar to a battering ram. I looked forward to my turn as dusk was becoming night. The drum beating was the only sound in the nighttime air.

Back in our meeting room we had an evening meeting with our host monk. We were served very pretty refreshments on doll sized plates with tiny tastes of local fruits and sweets. The tea local to that region was served. The tea was a green tea, exceedingly light and delicate. I think that the water used to make the tea must have contributed to the fresh, clear taste. After tea was served several times the host monk began a friendly discussion asking questions and accepting questions as well. He told us that his parents were really devastated when at the age of eighteen he decided to become a Buddhist Monk. Korean parents are very traditional. They had expected him to live with them when he married, or at least close-by. They wanted him to provide grandchildren, preferably males, to keep the family line moving forward. A monk might only see his family once a year or even as little as once in five or more years. When he completed his novitiate and was officially a monk his father told him that despite his choice he could now accept it and be proud of his son. We had noticed during our time there that the host monk had what looked like some large dents in his skull. He said that he was born 34 years ago and that then Korea was very backward, impoverished and mostly rural. He went on to say that medical care was very primitive. When his mother was giving birth to him she was having much difficulty. The midwife used some unknown instrument that left three half inch gouges in his skull. We were also instructed in the proper way to bow and kowtow to say our prayers. It is quite a process, and though it seemed do-able at first became fatiguing very quickly.

At 10:00 our session was over and we were to go to sleep. Wake up time was scheduled for 3:00 with a “sleep-in” option of 4:15. Snoring rarely bothers me but a woman a few people down from me was sawing heavy duty z’s. I would start to doze off only to be startled awake. The room and floor were so hot that we had to sleep on top of our bedding. At 3:00 all of the lights were turned on. Those who slept longer could do so, although the lights were on!

Once up we walked single file to the temples where we were to make our prayer bead necklaces and pray in a prescribed manner . The temples were dark inside at that hour and were also ice cold. As we prayed in the prescribed manner we were to add one bead to our prayer beads after each set (bow down, then down to our knees, head to touch the ground three times, and then back to the knees, and then back to standing). There were more than a hundred beads and in the dark my ice cold numb fingers struggled to get the bead strung on to the string each time. A monk was chanting throughout this more than an hour long process which was a soothing balm to our ministrations.

Finally got back into the group room to finish the necklaces. Then we went to sweep and clean the area outside of our rooms of leaves that had fallen. Next we went to the large courtyard, got into a long straight line and worked from one end to the other sweeping the sandy soil and raking the leaves that had blown into it. It was very nice and felt as if we were performing a service of thanks until the wind came up and we were practically choked by the grit and sand that were blowing around. We happily finished that work and then met for a ceremonial breakfast.I think it was about 8 in the morning but it felt like noon to all of us. Describe the steps to the ceremony for this meal. This was the most formal ceremony that we participated in. We sat on the floor on thin cushions. One by one we took some rolled linen and a little bundle of dishes. The next hour or two was spent in learning to set out our linens, and our dishes in the proper order. There was no sound except for the quiet directions from our host monk. We were not allowed to make noise, not even setting down our spoon or chopsticks too loudly. Everything was to be done in an exacting and painstaking order. We were served soup, rice, and kimchee by some of us who volunteered. We could not make any scraping or slurping sounds. Every grain of rice and every morsel of food was to be consumed. We were each given a half moon of bright yellow pickled daikon radish. This was to be saved until the end of the meal. Once everyone was done eating one person walked around and put water into our rice bowl. Then we were instructed to clean the plate, bowl and utensils with the water. The daikon functioned as a little scrubber to get any sticky morsel of rice off of the bowl that may have remained. Then, believe it or not, we were instructed to drink the water with the tiny morsels of loosened food floating in it. Our host monk explained that monks believe that it is very important to avoid any waste of food. Some of the people felt a little sick at the thought, but as one young woman was rather severely scolded for leaving a teaspoon of rice in her bowl, we followed our instructions exactly. There was also a very specific way in which we stacked the “washed” dishes, and folded and rolled up the linens. My legs had long since gone numb even though we were allowed to change position. It was a harsh lesson in some ways but the profound respect that the monks have for each tiny bit of food was humbling.

Next we limped back to our room where we packed and had a formal goodbye session with our host monk. Again we were given opportunities to ask questions and the monk asked us questions too. Then we got in our single file formation and went on a very pleasant hike through pines and bamboos. We saw some of the wild camillia bushes that the delicious green tea was made from. The monk picked a tiny, delicate pink blossom and gave it to me. After enjoying the fragrant breeze we went back to eat our lunch. After another brief and simple lunch we returned our temple garments on their hangers and delivered them to the proper area.

We reluctantly boarded our bus and wove our way back down the hillside. We passed through villages and towns and after awhile we were creeping forward in a traffic jam on a six lane highway heading toward Seoul. This experience was behind me, both literally and figuratively.

When I feel stressed or worried I reflect back to the pristine temple stay that I experienced. My eyes wander to the beads that I made which are hanging from a hook. Thoughts of stringing those beads one by one, while praying in the dark and chilly temple returns. Echos of the monk chanting in his singsong, rhythmic voice are brought to mind . A feeling of peace and well-being returns to me. Though fleeting, the memories are there and can return whenever I draw them up.


  1. Your pictures are lovely! I had no idea that South Korea is so beautiful. It was nice to read your write-up!

  2. Beautiful post, Heidi! I enjoyed very much reading about your temple stay! Your description of the rain, the temple clothes, the silence in the dining hall, the chanting during the morning prayers, made the scene come alive! The pictures are beautiful too.

  3. I'm siting here on the banks of the Columbia at 5:00 A.M. musing over your soothing account of the temple stay. I had saved it until I had time to relax and enjoy, and this was the perfect morning. The area is so beautiful; moreover, the intricate details of the temples fascinate me. Unlike you, I would have stashed five Snickers in my "carry on." Thanks for sharing.