It feels like my friends and I have been talking about doing a templestay since we first arrived in Korea. Unfortunately, schedules never worked out. With my time in South Korea swiftly coming to an end, it was time to book a last minute templestay.
I chose Beomeosa Temple in Busan mainly because of location. I was told to arrive by 1:30pm and so I left my apartment at about 10:30 with just the slimmest slice of trepidation. I had a hazy idea of how to get to the temple and was counting on context clues to fill in the rest of the picture without taking more than three hours to do it. I took the one hour bus to the intercity bus terminal and took the one hour+ bus from there to Nopodong in Busan. Luckily, Beomeosa turned out to be the very next subway stop. Once there, I had to walk a bit up the hill to catch a bus to the temple entrance.
After getting lost on temple grounds, I found the templestay building. There, I paid the fee (70,000KRW) and they supplied me with some comfortable robes. I wore a shirt and some Heattech tights underneath my robes and they were otherwise adequately warm enough. Walking around outside required my puffy jacket.
I used my intermediate Korean skills to chitchat with some college students. They turned out to be from Ulsan as well, and I explained to them what country I was from and what my job was. As more and more people came in, it became clear that I had just signed up to be the lone foreigner at a two day event with some twenty Koreans. They gave me an excellent translator, but still: scary.
Introduction & Etiquette
Soon enough, activities began. First, we watched a short video. They asked if I wanted to see it in Korean or English and I opted for the English because I wanted to understand. This meant that I sat in the back all by myself, away from the group. It made me feel a bit isolated but I chose not to be overwhelmed about it and concentrated on the video.
At break time, I came across a sign that explained about “noble silence.” We were invited during the weekend to stay silent when walking places and even eating. According to the sign, this created the space to have a conversation with one’s self. I had never thought of silence that way. Especially coming from a family of six, it always felt like silence meant something was wrong. And here, instead, it was an opportunity to listen to the truth, to the universe inside one’s self.
A monk (the Sunim) taught us how to bow, following the moktap(??), a small wooden drum that looked like a walnut. He let us put in some practice. The Sunim also taught us how to hold our hands and why we would hold our hands that way. Another younger monk joined us and everyone introduced themselves. There was a great diversity of people with me that weekend: groups of friends, mother-child combinations, a couple and at least one person here on their own. Some had come to learn more about Buddhism; others, because of stress.
I’m pretty sure they were invited to introduce themselves in Korean and English but no one tried to speak in English. Great, I really was living out one of my worst fears.
I realized that on the level of the universe the setup was rather perfect. This weekend, this program, was an opportunity to dance with my fears around being isolated, standing apart because I don’t understand what’s going on around me, etc. The whole gamut of things. I want to help people connect even through the most difficult of barriers and I had to start taking those barriers down within myself. I could see how I was creating my own feelings of loneliness, isolation, and all the judgment stewing in my brain. No one else was saying anything (noble silence!) so there was no judgment to hear except what was inside my own head! This was my chance to open up and be free.
I introduced myself in Korean and worked with my translator to fill in the blanks.
The younger monk took us on a tour of the temple grounds. He had a very comforting way of speaking, soft and gentle. He said a lot of things, most of which I didn’t understand. My translator was really my tour guide. She was very knowledgeable and put me at ease. My head was still a mess, shrinking as I was in my own space, so I really needed that. We read Chinese characters and talked about the Three Jewel Temples of Korea.
Beomeosa isn’t one of the three jewels, but it’s beautiful. I’m glad I chose it for my temple stay. Compared to the one I went to in China, it was smaller and had a homier feel to it. But maybe that was because it was my “home” for two days.
Dinner was Korean food of course, which scared me a bit. We were asked to take and eat only as much as we thought we could handle and to leave no leftovers. While I’ve been eating Korean food for a long time now, I still didn’t know what things were called and wasn’t sure how things would taste. I was worried I would get things in the wrong proportion (too much of the stuff I didn’t want to eat, too little of what I did want to eat). I was worried there would be spicy food. I was worried I would get judged for not taking any soup.
Anyway, there was nothing else to do but eat dinner and do my best. I didn’t take a lot the first round then worried about when to get seconds before just going for it. No one said anything. We were supposed to eat in silence. The judgment was all in my head. I had to trust my own judgment and that others would say something if I was grievously wrong.
After dinner, we went to watch a ceremony of four instruments. They beat a large drum to call on all beings on the earth. There were other instruments to call those in the water, in the air, and in hell/the underworld.
We returned to the main temple hall for the evening service. The service involved more bowing. We became really practiced at bowing very quickly.
The monks sang. I’m pretty sure the language was Korean. My favorite part of any church service in Catholicism is always the singing and here was an entire service made of it. I loved it.
108 Prayer Beads and Prostrations
Ah, the 108 prayer beads and prostrations. A friend of mine had told me about her templestay and this was the part that scared me the most but it became the part that had the most impact on me.
We were going to string beads and before stringing every bead, we had to go from standing all the way down into the bow. 108 times.
At the beginning, they told us we could put our wish in the beads. If we wanted to, we could think about people we were angry about and send peace and forgiveness in their direction.
It reminded me of one exercise in a Communication Course when the Leader would tell the people in the Course to kneel or sit or stand. That exercise was designed to evoke something and for me it evoked anger, resentment, a great deal of resignation and a determination that if I could just sit there and take it, it would be over soon and I would be free. I only realized how much baggage that was when I was chatting with a friend after.
I didn’t feel forced to do the 108 prayer beads and prostrations, even though the monk led with a bamboo clapper that sounded a bit like someone was being beaten. (He didn’t swing it that hard or that often.) I really wanted what the exercise had to give me and that helped keep me going. I prayed to go forward in life and to connect with people without fears. And I realized, as we were going through the beads, that I was afraid because I wanted it badly. A lot of my fears, which were all in my head, were brought about by wanting it so badly. But I realized too, as I stood back up then folded back down into the bow, that wanting things wasn’t bad. Wanting things had me studying Korean and learning the ukulele and all sorts of other things that really enriched my life. Wanting something was what was keeping me going. I got how I could stop bowing and give up at any time, but I didn’t want to. Because I wanted to get what the exercise had to give me. Love. Acceptance. After I got through the fears and the wants, that was all I had to pour in the beads.
I really like the necklace I made because I felt like each bead was a little container of love and acceptance. That’s what it means to me.
With our beads completed, the monk and my translator explained the purpose of bowing. They said it had good health benefits and helped a person focus. After this experience, I felt that that was true. In politics, we load bowing with so much meaning, particularly that of who is lesser than or better than another. To think that one might bow for other reasons!
They put us to bed around 9 and so it was relatively easy to wake up at 5am. Our first exercise of the day was twenty minutes of meditation. The monk (with my translator) taught us how to sit and hold ourselves. He said thoughts would inevitably show up, but to simply not follow them and concentrate on one’s breath.
It was hard. I’ve tried meditation before and I’ve usually ever gotten through it with guided meditations. The monk threw us in cold, but I figured it was time that I tried it cold.
The way they had us hold our legs was really uncomfortable. Eventually, I had to unfold. I tried to relax my entire body and not to follow the thoughts, but it was seemingly like every time I’d just dropped a train of them, another one would come up. I anchored myself to my breath like it was the only thing keeping me from drowning.
Hiking to the Hermitage
We ate breakfast and were then led up the side of a small mountain. Most every temple is nestled up in a mountain, it makes for beautiful pictures and copious amounts of peace. It also made for a rather brutal climb. I could feel all 108 of the prostrations I’d made the night before as we put one foot in front of another all the way up.
At the top, we got to watch the sun rise. It’s something that happens everyday and I rarely ever get to see it. But every time I do it’s just…
Yes, it’s beautiful but it just deserves the pause, you know? Life is full of thoughts, fears, wants, and drowning. But it’s these moments that you don’t have to think at all that make life. Like that’s real life and then there’s the rest of it… which is also life but kinda not.
It reminds me of something a friend posted on facebook:
“Learn to love the fool in you, the one who feels too much, talks too much, takes too many chances, wins sometimes and loses often, lacks self control, loves and hates, hurts and gets hurt, promises and breaks promises, laughs and cries.
It alone protects you against that utterly self-controlled, masterful tyrant whom you also harbor and would rob you of human aliveness, humility and dignity but for your fool.”
-Theodore Isaac Rubin
The sun is the fool and the thoughts are the tyrant and there they live inside of you, constantly dancing.
We sat inside the hermitage and before I knew it, we were being asked to meditate again. There was the dance.
It was easier that time around. I still haven’t quite got the hang of meditation but my goal is to ten minutes every day.
Tea & Closing
Somehow, we got back down the mountain. I don’t know how my legs did it. I had a passing fancy to look around the temple properly and maybe visit the museum after the templestay was over, but my legs were so shredded, I did not do that.
We returned to the templestay building and had tea with the Sunim. I thought this was going to be an opportunity to privately chat with him, but this was like introducing ourselves again. The tea was nut-flavored. We sat in a circle and one by one people shared about their experience. I shared my experience with the 108 prayer beads. I concluded that I felt really at peace and not alone about things. I still couldn’t understand what people were saying, but I didn’t feel bad about it. I had accepted the situation and wasn’t bringing judgment to it. I even kinda felt loved.
I didn’t get all the answers to all my questions, but I gained valuable skills and a greater sense of peace even as I’m rocked back and forth by life. I look forward to more experiences exploring Buddhism and meditation.