Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Overnight Buddhist Temple Stay

My hagwon isn't perfect... no hagwon is... but I must say, I have it much better than most people out there. This past weekend, our director paid for us to take an overnight temple stay at Bongeunsa temple across the street from COEX mall. I've been talking about doing a temple stay for a long time now, so this was perfect for me. I got to do it, and I didn't even have to pay for it or organize it.

We met in front of Bongeunsa at the front gate at 2:20. At 2:30, we were guided into Bongeunsa by a volunteer and escorted straight to a new building in the back of the temple area. We were pleasantly surprised that there was air conditioning, as we were convinced we were going to be a pool of sweat by the time the temple stay was over, staying in some ancient building without electricity or something.

We first had to put all our belongings (except our cameras and other essential items) into a closet and were given some typical Buddhist worship attire to wear during our stay. We had to wear a vest and big baggy pants. they were quite comfortable. I guess you need to have comfy clothes when you're going to be bowing and meditating all day.

Then we had our opening ceremony where we recited some vows. After that was the tea ceremony. We were supposed to drink the tea, appreciating the smell, taste and color. Then drink again, appreciating the work that went into bring the tea to me, from growing the tree, to cutting the tree, to making the tea, to pouring the tea. Things that you usually forget about in every day life. We also ate cookies made from lotus roots. The lotus root symbolizes... uhm... something about how Buddha is the lotus, and it grows in dirty water, which is the human world... and.... uh... maybe I don't have a very good memory... I think there was something else to that metaphor.

After the tea ceremony, we made lotus lanterns. The lotus represents Buddha. Mine came out ok.. but I don't think anyone will ever employ me as an expert lantern maker... it was a little lopsided...

Next we had a tour of the temple. Here are some photos from the temple:

We then ate dinner. I wanted to take a photo of dinner, but I forgot. There are two things you need to know about meals in a Buddhist temple. First, you need to eat everything you take on your plate. If you take something and don't eat it, they will not let you hand your plate in to be washed. They do not allow any food waste at a temple. Secondly, there is no meat served in a Buddhist temple. Buddhists are vegetarians, since they seek to protect all beings. I guess eating animals would be a bit contradictory. Most of the meal was good. We ate chap chae ("Chinese- style" noodles with veggies, rice, fake meat (mmm) and seaweed soup. Actually, I should say that that is what I ate. There were more veggies and kimchi available, but I didn't want to run that risk of not finishing the food and being forced to eat something I didn't like. I wasn't a big fan of the seaweed soup... I never am... it's one of my least favorite Korean dishes. I asked the man serving the soup for just a little (in Korean) and he said, ok, and then continued to give me half a bowl. I didn't have fun forcing that down my throat.

After dinner, we watched the 6:00 drumming that proceeds the 6:30 service in the main hall. There are 4 different drums. One drum (typical style drum) is supposed to save all the land creatures that hear it. Then there is a fish shaped bell that saves all the water creatures that hear it. Then there is a cloud bell that saves all the air creatures that hear it. Then there is a big bell, that, when rung, can save all those in hell who hear it.

After that, we went to the worship service (not sure exactly what to call it... worship service sounds like a nice general term). I was always weirded out by the bowing in temples, but by this point I had done some bows and I was starting to get the hang of it. They gave us a booklet with the Korean, plus a translation of what the monks were chanting. Unfortunately, with the up and down of bowing, it was hard to keep track... They only kept us there for about 10 minutes. I was a little disappointed, because the sound of all the chanting was quite relaxing, even if I didn't understand, but I guess it would have become boring eventually.

We were then sent back to the air conditioned hall where a monk came and taught us to meditate. We were instructed to clear our minds and think of nothing. None of us were able to do this, but I guess that's normal for most people. I guess it's probably a lifetime of learning before you can really, completely, think of nothing.

We were given some free time and a snack, then we went to bed. Bed was a nice cushion on the floor. Much nicer than the bed at the hotel I stayed at in Gyeongju, for that matter. We didn't even get a floor cushion there, just a blanket to put on the floor. Bedtime, by the way, was 9:00pm

At 4:00am, we were awakened by one of the volunteers. We were rushed to get dressed and get down to the 4:30 am worship service. Walking through the temple at 4:00am in total darkness, with drums banging in the distance, and wearing Buddhist worship clothes has to be one of the most surreal feelings on earth. And even more surreal was the skyscrapers that you can see to the sides, even though you are surrounded by nature and a sense of peace.

Some photos from dawn:

We got to the temple to find that it was so crowded already that we had to sit on the sides for lack of space. Who would have thought that all those people would beat us there, even though we had slept there and had our own personal wake up call. Again we only stayed for about 10 or 15 minutes. I was getting even more into the service this time. Even thought it was all up and down for bowing, it just was very relaxing and peaceful. we were escorted back out and back to the hall where we'd been spending most of our time. We were given a short rest and some coffee or water and we sat around thinking how tired we were.

Next on the docket was the 108 bows. The volunteers led us in this bowing tradition. Each bow represents repentance for wrongdoings that we have committed in our life. They varied from murder of any life form to saying hurtful things about others to not paying remembering the people who worked to get our food and clothing from the farm to our stomach. All seemed like things worth bowing for. I wish we had said each thing before bowing, because after about a page or so, I couldn't keep up with the reading... I'm a slow reader I guess....

After this we had breakfast, which consisted of lots of panchan (side dishes), none of which I would touch knowing that I had to eat every morsel, tofu, rice, and mushroom ddeok soup. I ate up the ddeok soup (I was careful to avoid all the mushrooms when I put it into my bowl), and the tofu, and rice. My boss said to me that I didn't look like I had enough to eat... but really... I don't like mushy vegetables... which is what almost every Korean side dish consists of.

Then we went on a "meditation hike" behind the temple. We didn't really meditate much, but it was still a nice walk. After this, it was time to go back and clean up and pack up. At 9:00am we finished our temple stay. We had a quick closing ceremony, and we took a photo with our monk, and we were allowed to ask the monk any question that we wanted.

After we left, our director bought us all coffee at Coffee Bean (she then jetted out after paying so she could make it to her church on time) I can't drink much coffee, and Coffee Bean doesn't have smoothies or fruit drinks like other coffee shops, so I settled for a iced green tea. It was quite yummy. Then we headed back to the subway and headed home.

Temple stay is a great introduction to Buddhism. I wished that they had taught us more about the theory behind it, but it did give me a good feel for the basic every day practice of Buddhism. I will definitely feel more comfortable next time I visit a temple.

btw, I apologize for the horrible photo formatting of the photos here. I'm usually a nazi about the size and position of the photos on my blog, but I'm just so tired today I'm clicking all the wrong buttons and can't figure out how to reverse my mistakes without doing it over again. You can still get the point.

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