This weekend I had the wonderful experience of a one night temple stay at Sudeoksa Temple located in Korea’s Deoksungsan Mountains. This getaway provided an opportunity to learn more about Buddhism as a religion and philosophy, as well as learn more about Korean history. I won’t claim to have been spiritually awakened but I was very intrigued by the way love, compassion and a oneness with nature are emphasized in the teachings. I also won’t claim that it was all fun. There were times, particularly during the hour and half meditation service at 4 am, that I thought that anyone who would choose to wake up at 3 am to chant and bow must be a certifiable lunatic. But it was a learning experience that was uniquely Eastern. Although most Koreans today aren’t Buddhists, the religion still plays an important role in Korean history and culture.
We arrived on Saturday afternoon and changed into our monastic wear and were given a tour of the grounds and an orientation of etiquette and rules. The temple grounds are beautiful, tucked away in the mountains and surrounded by lush vegetation. The buildings itself date back almost 1,000 years to Goryeo Dynasty. The hard work began almost immediately with the requisite 108 bows. If you’ve ever talked to someone who has done a temple stay or though of doing one yourself you will have heard about this. These aren’t just bows like you would give at the end of a performance. These are full body-drop to your knees-bring your chest to your legs-look back up-then stand without your arms touching the floors-bows. It seemed daunting at first but once I hit a rhythm it was actually somewhat relaxing. Helping the situation feel less painful was the fact that each time you knelt down you strung a bead onto a leather cord. At the end of session we each had a Buddhist prayer necklace.
The highlight of the trip, for me at least, took place that evening after dinner. Our group gathered in a circle (sitting on mats on the floor, of course) and had a dharma talk and tea service with six monks who live at the temple. I, naively perhaps, thought that the monks would be primarily Korean or at least from countries with a strong Buddhist culture. Wrong. Out of the six monks we spoke with that night only one, the head of the temple, was Korean. The other five came from Russia, Serbia and Poland. Though this is not the norm for temples across Korea it was interesting to hear the stories of those who came to Buddhism from outside of Asia. The almost two hour talk was fascinating and the topics ranged from the philosophical foundations of the Buddhist religion to beers in Harvard Yard. There were things that were way over my non-spiritual thinking head but I truly enjoyed listening to and learning from these men who, aside from the shaved head, robes and vows of celibacy and poverty, seemed so much like a friend back home.
Sunday morning’s wake up call was at 3am. My first reaction was that it must be some kind of sick joke. We lined up and marched military style to the main temple where we listened to an amazing drum ceremony that calls everyone to the temple and then participated in the predawn chanting ceremony. The temple, lit only by candle light, smelled of incense and when filled with the chanting of the monks and practitioners it seemed almost unreal, like I had been transported far back in time. After about an hour of meditation we took part in a practice called barugonyang, or bowl offering. Part of monastic life and discipline is only taking what you will eat. In this practice you take small amounts of food in different bowls and once you are finished each bowl is cleaned with a radish (that you then eat) and then rinsed with a brown tea (which you then drink) to ensure that nothing goes to waste. I was extremely apprehensive about drinking food remains but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I had expected. I’m not anxious to adopt it into everyday practice, but once wasn’t as horrible as some made it out to be.
Our stay was rounded out with some communal cleaning, a hike up the mountain to see a three meter Buddha statue (pictured above), and a lotus lantern making activity. Oh, and did I mention I’m going to be on Korean television? The Korean Broadcasting Service (KBS) sent a camera crew out. I was interviewed. And filmed doing 3 full bows. Or rather, attempting to, but instead I was tripping over my feet in a delirious from lack of sleep state. To send the embarrassment meter off the charts I was also sweaty, unshowered and wearing no makeup. Not really what I would’ve had in mind for my Korean television debut!
Regardless of the sheer exhaustion I felt at some points and my less than flattering television appearance, I had a wonderful experience and I would recommend a temple stay to anyone who is living in, or visiting, Korea.