Monk for a Day

Trip Start Dec 02, 2011
Trip End Dec 02, 2012

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Flag of Korea Rep.  , North Jeolla,
Saturday, September 8, 2012

This weekend, a couple of my friends and I headed down to Geumsan-sa Temple (금산사) in Jeollabuk-do Province to take part in a temple stay. In Korea, many Buddhist temples allowed lay-people and even non-believers to spend a weekend or a few days experiencing temple life. Geumsan-sa was one of around fifteen temples that were specially designated for temple stays by foreigners. The temple was also home to several national architectural treasures, a few dating from over 1000 years ago. My friends and I went as part of a tour group, but an English-speaking interpreter was also provided by the temple, so it was possible to visit independently.

To get to the temple, we took a train to Jeonju followed by a city bus. Jeonju was known for an especially delicious version of bibimbap called (can you guess?) Jeonju bibimbap. We stopped at a restaurant in a small cluster of buildings near the temple bus stop and ordered some. It was delicious, definitely the best bibimbap I've had.

One of my friends, however, got a bit annoyed that the restaurant owner insisted on mixing her bibimbap for her. There seems to be a Korean perception (it's even in their middle school textbooks) that non-Koreans don't know that you're supposed to mix bibimbap before eating it. While this is probably true in many cases, I had already begun mixing mine, but apparently my friend didn't start quickly enough so the owner decided to jump in. My friend gave the owner numerous vocal and physical hints that my friend could do it herself, but the owner didn't stop until the job was possibly a bit beyond done. I was glad the owner didn't try to mix mine, because I like to keep the egg separate. Crazy foreigners.

Because check-in at the temple wasn't until 2pm, we lingered over lunch before heading on to the temple. Although I was excited about the chance to experience this part of Korean culture, and Buddhist religion in general, I have to admit that as Saturday approached, I began to wonder exactly why I had decided I wanted to spend my weekend getting up at 3am to participate in the austere rituals of a religion that was not my own. Part of my second-thinking was due to the fact we'd woken up at 5am this morning in order to catch the train to the temple, so my friends and I arrived at the temple pre-tired.

The temple, however, was lovely. Set a bit back in the mountains, the grounds featured a large open courtyard, with a raised platform on the far side. We arrived separately from the rest of the tour group, so my friends and I had some time to explore (and sneak rests behind one of the temple buildings) without being crowded. I was a little concerned when the temple's interpreter greeted us near the entrance and ended a quick tour by dumping us at the gift shop, but I think that was more because she happened to get distracted at that point than an insidious plan to get us to buy stuff.

After the rest of the group arrived, they were given a little time to wander around the grounds before we all went inside the main temple-stay hall to receive our name tags and clothes for the weekend. The clothes were baggy and not particularly attractive, but they were extremely comfortable. One of my friends was given size XL, even though I got L and she's much smaller than me. Apparently the Korean teenage boys handing out the clothes weren't the best at guessing western women's sizes. She traded it in for a L, even though she really needed an M, and has done the best to roll her pants up, although she can't have anything heavy in the pockets or her pants will fall down.

After visiting our rooms and getting dressed in the new garb, we were shown an orientation video. The video was equal parts cheesy and intimidating. The video introduced the lives of three people, a Korean businessman, a female Korean student, and a foreign guy, who each separately decided to improve their stress-filled lives by participating in a temple stay. The three were then shown going through the events of a temple stay. They surrendered their cellphones and MP3 players, walked through the snow without coats, chopped wood, were hit on the shoulders with a stick when they started to doze during meditation, and at the end shared their thoughts on how the experience had transformed them.

In addition to its somewhat hard-core presentation of a temple stay, the video provided lots of detailed information about what we were supposed to do during all of the rituals. How to bow, how to fold our hands when walking, which way to walk around a pagoda, how to eat dinner, and even which foot we were supposed to enter the temple buildings with, depending on which door we went through. It was a lot to absorb, but the monk leading our group immediately tried to lighten things after the video ended. We did spend some time practicing the bows, though.

With orientation finished, it was time to make our own lotus lanterns. We were given plain lanterns, glue sticks, and our choice of colored leaves. It took just a bit to get the hang of, the most difficult part turned out to be not crushing the leaves, but I think our lanterns turned out pretty well.

The lantern making was followed by a simple, vegetarian dinner of Korean-style curry, then it was time for the evening service. We entered the worship hall, through the right door, left foot first, and lined up behind the mats that had been setup for us. There was a lot of chanting and gourd clacking. We were given a sheet with the chants on it so we could join in. It had the chants in both the Korean script as well as phonetic English versions. It was easy to get lost, but I managed to find my place again most of the time.

During the service, there was no instruction or speaking except for the chanting. The gourd was used to signal to the monks when it was time to switch to the next part of the ceremony. We basically just watched the monks in front of us to figure out what to do when. Apart from the chanting, the only thing we had to do was a little of the formal Buddhist bowing we'd practiced.

The service concluded in the courtyard with the tolling of the temple bell. That portion was much less formal with speaking allowed. Our guide monk explained that the bell was tolled 33 times. Since there were 43 of us, we tolled the bell in pairs. While we rang the bell, one of the monks played a large standing drum in the same pavilion.

The bell ringing signaled the end of the service and time to make use of our lanterns. We lit them and formed a long line to walk in a procession around the central pagoda. Since there were so many of us, we actually ended-up circling the entire courtyard. It also made for a nice parade. No one's lantern caught on fire, but two did have their candles go out. Lantern making tip: the lanterns with the lighter yellow or pink leaves looked a lot better than the ones with mainly red leaves, which were fairly dark.

We circled a few times then went back inside for "tea time with a monk". We were each given a cup of tea and a few Korean sweets, mainly rice paste balls filled with bean or some kind of powder. Our guide monk then opened the floor to questions.

At first, it seemed a little like it might turn into "racist question hour". There were one or two questions from visitors, but since there weren't many serious Buddhists in the crowd and people were a bit shy, the questions quickly petered off. In order to try to get the conversation going, our monk decided to ask us things like "How do you like Korean people?" and "Is there anything Korean people do that you find unusual?" No one took the opportunity to discuss the differences between races. (You see, white people have names like 'Lenny', but black people have names like 'Carl'.) I think maybe if the questions had been phrased in the form of a cultural rather than racial comparison, he might have had a few takers.

At that point, we did get a couple of questions with interesting answers. One was: "Why did you decide to become a monk?" It turned out the monk had basically been tricked into becoming a monk by his father. The monk was pretty aimless after high school and his family wanted him to become a monk, I think because he wasn't the first son. He kept turning them down then one day his father told him he was sick (or his grandfather was sick?) and his father's (or grandfather's) dying wish was that he would become a monk. He entered the temple and found out later that his father was lying and no one was sick or otherwise close to death.

The monk's second story was also a little melancholy. Someone asked how often he left the temple and the answer was once a year. He had a dream since he was a child of going to Everland, a famous amusement park in Seoul. One year (when he was young) there was a contest where you bought candy bars to win a free ticket to Everland. Towards the end of the contest, he actually won a ticket, but didn't get to go. I'm not sure why exactly, but I think it was something like none of his relatives could take him. So now he dreams of the timing being right so that he can use his one time away from the temple to go to Everland.

Although there may have been the slightest undercurrent of regret, the monk seemed at peace with how his life had turned out. I guess that's why he's a monk. During meditation, he said if we have troubled thoughts, we should put our thoughts in the river and just let them float away. It worked for me. My main camera experienced it's second death this weekend, of the exact same problem I paid a lot of money to supposedly get fixed. Under normal circumstances, I would have been highly aggravated, but I just let if float down the river... The technique might not have been as effective if my thought was my father tricking me into becoming a monk, though.

At this point, all that was left to do was sleep. Although there were semi-private rooms available, my friends and I ended up in a dorm for ten people. The sleeping was on the floor Korean-style, but I grabbed an extra layer of bedding since there were plenty of pads left over. There were a couple of interesting beetles sharing the floor of the room with us, but thankfully no one smashed them, presumably in the spirit of Buddhism. I think someone may even have named one of them Norman.

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