A large barrel drum can be found at Buddhist temples and if you are fortunate to be at the temple at the right time of day

Life and the pursuit of Zen

Minutes into my stay at the Haeinsa Temple in Mount Gaya, South Korea I knew one thing for certain – I was wearing the wrong shoes. My issue had nothing to do with fashion and everything to do with convenience.

Minutes into my stay at the Haeinsa Temple in Mount Gaya, South Korea I knew one thing for certain – I was wearing the wrong shoes.

My issue had nothing to do with fashion and everything to do with convenience. Upon arrival, the monks and nuns toured us around the temple showing us various buildings both inside and out. Each time we entered a building we had to remove our shoes and carefully place them in neat lines by the door. There are a lot of buildings at the Haeinsa Temple and after bending down to untie and retie my shoes multiple times, I was wishing I owned a pair of slip-on Dollar Store crocs.

Participating in a Templestay Program is one of the most unique cultural experiences you can have in Korea providing a glimpse into the fascinating religion of Korean-style Zen Buddhism and the lifestyle of the monks and nuns who devote their lives to its practice.

Over the course of two days, participants live the life of a Buddhist monk — eating in silence, meditating and bowing.

I suspected that a poor choice of footwear would be the least of my problems over the next twenty four hours.

After the temple tour, we were given special brown robes to wear that distinguished us as temple stay participants and allowed us to put our old life away and live this new one. Once properly attired, we were ready for our first lessons in living the Buddhist life and we met in a special classroom where a monk trainer named Domuji educated us on the basics of the practice including everything from fundamental theology to how to properly greet someone in the temple.

“In Korea, the practice of Buddhism is different from other countries.” said Domuji through an interpreter. “It is engaged Buddism. We seek to free ourselves from our afflictions and find the inner Buddha that is within each of us.” Buddhists in Korea believe there are 108 different kinds of afflictions to overcome in this life including everything from pride to greed. Every morning Korean monks arise at 3:00 am, visit the temple and bow 108 times. This is followed by one hour of meditation performed while sitting cross legged with perfectly straight back posture. Twice a year, the monks meditate for seven days straight without sleeping.

We spent time practising the proper way to bow — a slow, deliberate yoga-like movement that takes you from an upright position to a fully prostrate one. Then we practiced the proper pose for meditation. “There are three acceptable ways to sit during meditation,” explained Domuji. “No matter which one you choose, you will find that if you are comfortable with your knees, your back will hurt. If you are comfortable with your back, your knees will hurt. The key to the practice is to empty your mind from unnecessary thoughts and maintain a positive mind — even if something hurts.”

After our training session, we had some free time to walk around the temple and the surrounding woodland and meditate on our own. Just before dinner, we heard a large gong and then a drumming sound and we gathered in the courtyard to watch the monks perform a fascinating drumming ceremony on a massive Taiko-style drum. The drum was played by one drummer using a figure eight pattern on the drumhead in a continuous roll of beats. Several of the younger monks took turns playing, spelling each other off so the rhythmic beating remained constant.

Shortly after the drum performance, we went to dinner – eating every last grain of rice on our plates to show respect for the earth that provided it. The vegetarian meal was simple and eaten in complete silence. We bowed as we exited the building, to show respect to those who prepared the meal.

After dinner, we visited the temple and participated in a short session of bowing, chanting and meditation before gathering in the teaching room for tea time with our monk trainer. This was an opportunity for us to get to know him better and ask questions. One of the members of our group wondered if a temple stay experience could have any lasting effect on a person’s like. Domuji’s answer surprised me. It turns out he made the choice to become a monk after participating in a temple stay.

That night we slept on mats on the floor in dorm-style rooms and awoke at 3:00 am to begin our day as Korean monks. We entered the temple with its three golden statues of Buddha and kneeled on mats on the wooden floor of the temple with about 80 other monks. A monk in the middle with a deep baritone voice signalled the beginning of the morning ceremony and the monks began to chant and sing a hauntingly beautiful song and to bow 108 times.

After the ceremony, Domuji led us away to another place in the temple where we could experience an hour of meditation. “Noble silence is a way of having a conversation with yourself,” he said. “It is time for you to experience the practice of looking inward.”

I could still hear the other monks chanting in the main hall as I closed my eyes and reflected on the three questions every good monk ponders each day of his life: Who am I? Where was I before this life? Where will I go after this life?

While we meditated in the darkness, Domuji carefully circled the group while holding a long stick. If anyone drifted asleep, he tapped them on the shoulders with the stick. If their posture sagged, he placed the stick behind their back to cue them to sit up straighter.

After we pondered for what seemed a very long time, Domuji had each person go sit in front of the group while the others bowed before them. “Try to see the inner Buddha inside each person,” he advised. “If you can see each other and respect each other as Buddha, you are already in paradise.”

Since returning home, I have thought about the wisdom of Domuji’s words and his quiet lessons still resonate with me. My temple stay was a unique opportunity to experience an alternate way of living that has been preserved for more than 1,700 years. After only one day, I was certain I wasn’t cut out to be a Buddhist monk – no matter what kind of shoes I was wearing.

If You Go:

-Templestays began in 2002 when Korea hosted the World Cup and needed additional accommodations for visitors. Since that time, the programs have evolved and rooms have been upgraded to better accommodate visitors. There are now English speaking programs and some temples even offer activities and crafts for children.

-Rates for a Korean templestay average about $60 per person for adults including meals. Be sure to bring bottled water, wear comfortable slip-on shoes and wear modest clothing (no bare shoulders). Two-day stays are the most popular, but longer stays are also available. For more information, visit: eng.templestay.com or english.visitkorea.or.kr.

The Tripitaka Koreana in Haeinsa

The Tripitaka Koreana is housed at the Haeinsa Temple. It is the world’s most comprehensive and oldest intact version of Buddhist scripture and it is carved into 81, 258 wooden blocks that are housed in several buildings at the temple. The Tripitaka Koreana is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the monks at the temple call it “the wisdom of all the world.”

Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story who we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.

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