Tuesday, May 1, 2012

"Can you make me one with everything": Our Temple Stay story

Just before retiring back to our sleeping quarters after a full day temple stay program, we sat down for a chat with the Buddhist monk who was in charge of our Adventure Korea group.  He wanted to know if we had any questions about the Buddhist religion and his own path to enlightenment or if we wanted to share some "funny stories" since he loved to laugh.  As I sat there, listening to the thoughtful and meaningful questions of my peers and the sage answers of our leader, I couldn't help remembering a funny story I had once come across while surfing YouTube for no particular reason.  (Actually, you can find here).  After running it through my friend Chris, I decided to go ahead and share this "witty" joke with our humble monk.  It goes something like this:  

Me: So a Buddhist monk walks into a pizza shop (translated in Korean by our tour guide)
Monk: OK
Me: And he asks "Can you make me one with everything?"...
...  Silence...

I further tried to explain the joke as the Buddhist monk sat in anticipation of the punchline that had already been delivered and I could feel my face flushing under his intense stare.  Alas, is was not to be and the outcome was pretty much identical to the clip.  He reacted very similarly to the Dalai Lama... (At least we can say there is consistency among Buddhists.)  To further enhance my humiliation, many of the foreigners in the room also seemed to think it wasn't that funny as they started "getting" it.  Ah well, I tried...  And I thought it was funny and that's all that mattered... right?

Later, as I laid on the ondol floor trying to find sleep, I started reflecting on what a wonderful experience this Temple stay had been thus far.  Participating in one of these had been on our bucket list since Jen had read about it not too long after our arrival in the Korean peninsula.  But, since winter was fast approaching and we had no idea how to go about planning a temple stay, we decided to hold off until the Spring, when we would have more experience traveling around the country.  The time had finally come!

Adventure Korea was organizing a Temple Stay on the March 10 & 11 weekend and we signed up immediately.  Our friends, Chris and Briana later decided to join us as we embarked on this quest to find our inner spirituality and discover the ways of Buddha.  Unlike popular beliefs from back home, temple stays are nothing akin to a sweat-lodge cult like they have in the West.  It's quite the contrary, in fact.

As we arrived at Geumsansa Temple in the Southwestern Jeollabuk province, we were greeted by a serene, picturesque atmosphere and two hours of free time to roam around and explore the grounds where we would be spending the next 24 hours or so.  Geumsansa was established during the Baekje period by King Beop and was never meant to become a significant temple.  However, under the supervision of Master Jinpyo, Geumsansa was greatly expanded and became the headquarters of the Maitreya Buddhist faith during the Silla dynasty.  It also played a significant defensive role during the Japanese invasions when it was destroyed, and subsequently rebuilt in 1635 with the present buildings.  The temple also boasts the largest indoor standing Buddha statue (the Mireuksa Buddha or Buddha of the future) and many symbolic treasures for Buddhists in Korea.  Following the history lesson and the picture ops, we were given our monastic wear, separated by gender and shown our sleeping quarters before being told to meet in the main hall to start the program.

After throwing on the most comfortable clothes that have ever graced my body, Chris and I decided to release some steam by practicing the ancient art of karate (or Taekwondo... this is Korea after all).  We then proceeded to the main hall to meet our chef-de-file who would lead us during the entire program.  He was an awesome, soft-spoken, well-mannered and incredibly insightful individual.  He was the epitome of serenity and calmness but also had a very good sense of humour and loved to answer questions about his religion.

Our program started with a corny explanatory video about how to behave and what to expect from the Temple Stay.  The Buddhist monk then addressed us through his interpreter and showed us the proper bowing method and had us practice.  Then came out the arts and crafts materials to build our very own lotus flower, an important symbol of Buddhism because of the intricacies of the flower being able to grow anywhere and still remaining beautiful.  Meanwhile, a camera crew from KBS (Korean Broadcasting System) was following our every move and capturing us on film and interviewing some lucky waygooks throughout the day.  My turn came up during our handcrafting as I was one of the first to finish because of my lack of patience.  My 1 minute of fame was spent explaining the strategy of my lotus flower making skills.

Dinner ensued, where we were served bibimbap and soup and as the sun was setting, we had the opportunity to "ring the bell" of which the meaning completely escapes me.  After dusk, we lit up the candles inside our lotus flowers to literally "spark" the wishes we had made.  As we walked around the temple's treasures and listened to the singing of the prayers, I couldn't help but feel the spirituality in the atmosphere.  As a few lanterns burst into flames, we were comforted by the sound of silence and the notion that our wishes would one day come true.  It was quite a delight to be a part of.
A nice giant bowl of bibimbap

Next, we returned into the main hall for a Q&A with the monk (see FAILED JOKE above) over tea and rice cakes before heading to our respective rooms and reflecting on the knowledge we had gained and the things we had experienced on the first day of our temple stay.  By 10:30pm, I was sound asleep anticipating the optional early morning service that would be coming up way too fast.  When I awoke at 3:00am, I was surprisingly rested and ready to go.  All but one of the men made their way to the main prayer hall, where only a few of the women had gathered (the rest preferring to catch up on their beauty sleep - both Jen and Bri among them).  The 30 minute morning procession was led by four monks who sang praise to Buddha while following a strict bowing routine as all the foreigners mimicked their every move.  I have to admit feeling truly at peace while participating in this centuries old ritual.  After prayer, we were given free time before convening for meditation and breakfast at around 5:30am.  I chose to walk around the temple ground by myself and reflect on my life and the path I had chosen.  If anything, it was quite relaxing to have a chance to be completely alone in a place of worship with so much history.
Tea and rice cakes
Q&A with the monk
When we returned to the main hall, the Buddhist monk led us into meditation for which I must admit I am not too much of a fan.  Sitting cross-legged for a long period of time is not my forte.  At some point, when I finally felt as though I was reaching some sort of "perfect state of nothing", I would then remember how uncomfortable I was and, just like that, the moment was gone.  I have yet a lot to learn about meditation, but I can undoubtedly see the benefits of it.  The monastic breakfast that ensued was unlike anything I have ever tried before.  We were provided with four bowls, a set of chopsticks and a spoon.  Everything from here on out was highly ritualized, from the placement of the bowls to the dispensing of each dish.  Eating everything was absolutely essential even up to cleaning each bowl with water and a piece of radish, then eating it and drowning it with the "dirty" water.  While the food was definitely not the best Korean fare around (Buddhists, after all, are vegetarian... and I love my meat!), it was eatable... for me ( I had to help Jen who refused to smile throughout the meal).

After breakfast, the monk showed us how to make a bead bracelet and sent us on our way throughout the temple to make our own while doing the 108 bows of purification.  Filled with symbolism, each bead and subsequent bow represented our determination and tenacity to resist the temptation of "defilements" and start fresh.  Only through hard work can we regain our balanced form.  Later and in keeping with that theme, the men were sent to chop some wood while the ladies took to sweeping.  It was part of our hour of communal work to give back to the temple community.  For some, manual labour can actually be a form of meditation... but ours was very laid back and tea and rice cakes were served.
Where I chose to fabricate my bead necklace

Farewell good monk!
Shortly after, we went for a lovely nature stroll up to the love tree where we had a photo op, more bowing and meditation singing.  Farewells were then in order before returning our monastic wear and filing back onto the bus bound for home.  The temple stay program at Geumsansa was a full one, but I somehow felt great, relaxed and refreshed.  I highly recommend it to anyone seeking to learn more about Buddhism, temple life or even themselves.  A time to reflect can always be productive!
The love tree (they are bound together)

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