Beating the Sun Up

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

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Flag of Korea Rep.  , North Jeolla,
Sunday, September 9, 2012

We awoke this morning around 3am to the distant sound of drums and clacking. It was fairly faint, but still managed to get us out of our sleep, probably because the rest of the night was so quiet. The sun wasn't up yet, but we had an early morning service on the schedule. Everything was optional of course, no one was going to force you to do anything, but the service was explicitly optional in case you wanted to sleep in until 4:30am.

When we were finished our chanting we joined the slow risers for another meditation session including the performance of 108 bows. The formal bows started from standing, then you knelt and put your forehead on the floor, then stood again. The monk said it was okay to just do them from a sitting position if you had bad knees or anything else like that. Our group was fairly young, and I think everyone did them from standing. I'm pretty sure I saw a few people resting part of the way through the bows, though.

To further highlight the differences between the orientation video and our actual temple stay experience, we were all allowed to keep our cellphones and MP3 players. Before meditation I even saw one of the temple members texting. I'm not sure if he was a monk, maybe just a monk candidate, but he was texting.

After all our hard work bowing, it was time for breakfast. This was the one advantage of doing the temple stay as part of a large tour group. For large groups, the temple did a traditional monastic breakfast. Small groups and individuals were stuck with meals in the cafeteria like we'd had for dinner.

The formal meal had probably the most rules of any of the activities we'd done. First of all, there was no speaking. A few of us volunteered to go around serving the food, and the people receiving the food were supposed to jiggle their bowls when they had enough. Also, there was a specific bowl for everything and then at the end of the meal, a specific order for washing the bowls.

The bowl washing was a bit of a problem for me. We'd seen the breakfast demoed in the orientation video, and the video made it clear that the bowl washing portion of the ritual was made to conserve water. At no point was there any indication that the bowls were then washed in a sanitary manner. You just rinsed your bowls with cold water and scrubbed them down with half a slice of pickled radish. In fact, the guide monk insisted he got a special bowl set that was "his". I tried not to think about any of this as I was eating the radish--which I don't even like under normal circumstances--I'd scrubbed my own bowl with. You were required to eat the radish because not eating it would be wasteful.

At the end of dinner, we were split into two "teams". The team who cleaned their bowls the best, as determined by the clarity of the water in the cleaning water bucket, didn't have to do the dishes. The other team apparently had a few grains of rice floating in theirs (so wasteful...). So I had two pleasant surprises. First, that the bowls actually were scrubbed with soap and hot water in a sanitary manner between uses, and second that I didn't have to do any of the cleaning.

While some were stuck scrubbing pots, the rest of us got ready for a hike (aka moving meditation) in the rain. Or should I say five of us got ready for a hike in the rain. The hike was optional, and most of the group skipped it, including our guide monk. Again, it was a bit of a far cry from the orientation video of temple stayers hiking through the snow.

Between the morning service and the hiking, we had some time to wait around. There was a coffee vending machine outside of the temple gift shop. I don't usually drink coffee, but it was warm and relatively cheap, and I was fairly tired, so I had several cups this morning. It was safe to say there was no chance of me falling asleep for the rest of the day.

The hike was more of a stroll around the outer grounds. Even though it was raining lightly, the hike was enjoyable. The focus of the hike was the lover's tree, which had unfortunately been broken in one of the recent typhoons. Oops for symbolism. The hike was actually supposed to go to an outlying shrine or pagoda, but our guide deserted us after we reached the lover's tree and we weren't sure where we were supposed to go from there.

When we returned from the hike, we rejoined the rest of the group in order to make a necklace of prayer beads. We made our necklaces by stringing 108 beads. For each bead, you were supposed to do a bow and then think of a regret (the monk said we could do a wish instead if we wanted) as you put it on the string. We were sent out to go choose a shrine to build our necklaces in so we'd have something to bow in front of. Once again, you could do the bows from standing or sitting, or not bow at all. I went for a sitting bow. I had already done 108 standing bows, and who was I fooling anyway?

The bead making was the final activity for the day apart from lunch. After that, there were some closing words then we were free to go at our leisure. We hung-out in the gift shop for a bit then went down the hill to catch the city bus back to the station. It was raining still, and my friends' lanterns got a bit wet because they didn't have umbrellas and mine wasn't big enough. It turns out, if your paper lantern gets wet it's game over, so they eventually ended-up discarding their lanterns.

Waiting at the bus stop was a man in a business suit who made a bit of the typical small talk, basically "where are you from?" and do you know which bus to take. Once on the bus, he was joined by a friend at a later stop. The friend spoke a bit better English, and they tried to engage us in conversation. We were polite, but tired. About halfway into the ride, they told us we were pretty and tried to get us to go for tea with them. Really? We look pretty? Because I'm pretty sure none of us has showered or slept in two days. Needless to say, we declined and continued on to the train station as planned.

All-in-all, I really enjoyed the weekend. Even though I am definitely going to bed early, I only really started to feel tired when we hit the bus and train to head back north. Of course, the three (small) cups of coffee I had just before the hike may have had something to do with that.

While, judging from the differences between our stay and the orientation video from yesterday, we definitely received the Temple Stay Lite(TM) for Foreigners experience, I'm not sure I would have properly appreciated a more authentic program. If I stay in Korea long enough, I would like to try another temple stay. I picked-up a temple stay program guide with all of the foreigner-designated temples. At the very least, I want to do the qi gong (actually, it's the Korean art of sunmudo) temple stay in Golgul-sa. Martial arts monks would be totally awesome.

This weekend's temple stay was a bit like a Renaissance fair in that there were varying degrees of participation amongst the temple stayers. Some people made sure to do every bow and follow every protocol as best they could while others were a bit shy about getting too into things. My friends and I were some of a handful of people who actually held our hands as we'd been shown while walking and bowed when meeting each other and the monks. It wasn't that we were particularly trying to be spiritual, it was more just a feeling of if something's worth doing it's worth doing as right as possible. We didn't take it too seriously, though, and neither did the monks. One of them, who wasn't involved with the temple stay activities, chuckled at my friend when she did the greeting bow to him.

As far as going with a group tour, we had a pretty good mix of attitudes in the bunch. No one was irreverent and similarly no one took it too seriously. I should be clear there's nothing wrong with being completely serious about a temple stay and looking for a spiritual experience. You just shouldn't expect to find that experience on a group tour with 42 other foreigners, none of whom seemed to actually be Buddhist. If you're looking for that, I'd suggest you book a small group directly with the temple.

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