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

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.

Just Posted

Ella Stoner, five, is ready to cut off her hair and donate it to A Child’s Voice Foundation. (Photo by Lauren Stoner Photography)
Central Alberta girl to donate her ‘princess hair’ to A Child’s Voice Foundation

A five-year-old girl from Rimbey has never had a haircut before. Now,… Continue reading

Asymptomatic testing will now be available for "priority groups" who are most likely to spread the COVID-19 virus to vulnerable or at-risk populations. File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS
Alberta adds 1,195 new COVID-19 cases Saturday

Red Deer has dropped to 760 active cases

Lacombe-Ponoka MLA Ron Orr
Central Alberta MLAs comment on UCP members kicked out of caucus

A pair of central Alberta MLAs have commented on the two United… Continue reading

Contributed photo
Johanna Hannaford: Central Alberta designer offers inclusive clothing

By Stephanie Rhodes Local designer Johanna Hannaford’s inclusive clothing creations are smashing… Continue reading

Red life-ring with splash
Started from the bottom: How a family business started and grew in central Alberta

By Carina Moran We started our business in the basement of our… Continue reading

Vancouver Canucks' Zack MacEwen (71), Travis Boyd (72) and Jimmy Vesey (24) celebrate a goal against the Edmonton Oilers during third period NHL action in Edmonton on Saturday, May 15, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Big third period lifts Vancouver Canucks to 4-1 victory over Edmonton Oilers

Canucks 4 Oilers 1 EDMONTON — Matthew Highmore scored twice in the… Continue reading

A vial of the Medicago vaccine sits on a surface. CARe Clinic, located in Red Deer, has been selected to participate in the third phase of vaccine study. (Photo courtesy www.medicago.com)
Canada’s vaccine rollout operation won’t miss a beat with new military leader: expert

DARTMOUTH — The sudden departure of the senior military officer in charge… Continue reading

Quebec Premier Francois Legault speaks during a news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic, Tuesday, September 29, 2020 at the legislature in Quebec City. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot
Quebec premier argues province has power to amend constitution in letter to Trudeau

MONTREAL — Quebec Premier François Legault has written a letter to Prime… Continue reading

A demonstrator stands in front of riot police officers during a banned protest in support of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, in Paris, Saturday, May, 15, 2021. Marches in support of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip were being held Saturday in a dozen French cities, but the focus was on Paris where riot police countered organizers who said they would defy a ban on the protest, ordered on the grounds that it risked turning violent. (AP Photo/Rafael Yaghobzadeh)
Police fire tear gas on banned Palestinian march in Paris

PARIS (AP) — French riot police fired tear gas and used water… Continue reading

Photo by The Associated Press
NYC Pride parade bans police; Gay officers ‘disheartened’

NEW YORK (AP) — Organizers of New York City’s Pride events said… Continue reading

Welcoming cowboy boots at the historic and colourful Last Chance Saloon in the ghost town of Wayne near Drumheller, Alta., on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019. The bar and hotel are up for sale. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
‘It was a going concern’: Remaining bar and hotel in Alberta coal ghost town for sale

WAYNE, Alta. — Built during the First World War, it survived the… Continue reading

A letter from a bottle that washed up in New Brunswick in 2017 is shown in an undated handout photo. A team of researchers from Université du Québec à Rimouski are trying to solve the mystery of whether a letter in a bottle that washed up in New Brunswick in 2017 was indeed from a young victim of Titanic shipwreck or simply a hoax. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, N. Beaudry, UQAR *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Real or hoax? Quebec scholars probe mystery letter allegedly from Titanic passenger

MONTREAL — Researchers from Université du Québec à Rimouski are trying to… Continue reading

Minister of Transport Marc Garneau takes part in a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019. Advocates, experts and opposition MPs say correspondence showing close communication between the federal Transport Department and the Canadian Transportation Agency regarding passenger refunds throws into question the independence of the CTA, an arm’s-length body. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Emails reveal close communication between government, transport regulator on refunds

OTTAWA — Advocates, experts and opposition MPs say correspondence showing close communication… Continue reading

Most Read