Two weekends ago, myself and eighty or so other English teachers went on a weekend retreat to Beopjusa Temple, a site affiliated with the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. What a spiritual, eye-opening experience this was; the scenery, the program, and the people were all of the highest quality and character. I’m going to try to talk a little bit about what we did, the sights we saw, and, most importantly, the things we learned.
This was not a compulsory trip. All of the attendees signed on for it, and had some idea of what we would be getting ourselves into. So, for what seems to be par for the course over here, our crew left the provincial Office of Education at 9:00 a.m. on Saturday morning with widespread optimism and congeniality. Most expats here are not gripers or picky people. We expect the worst and hope for the best. So, our bus set off with a bunch of green, bleary-eyed foreigners.
The trip took about an hour, as the temple is still located in Chungbuk Province.* Korea is different from the U.S. in many ways, and on this particularly drive I noticed that Korean cities don’t seem have the same layering of urban/suburban sprawl as cities in the States. My impression is that most U.S. cities have a defined urban core, with an outer suburban skin insulating the city. The suburban layer is mostly residential, less dense, and in many cases less culturally vital to the identity of the city. Even further from the city’s core is the rural expanse that comprises most of earth’s land mass. In Korea, though, there seems to be an absence of this suburban layer. In Cheongju, and the parts of Seoul that I’ve seen, the city is dense all throughout it’s boundaries until you reach the city’s edge. In the blink of an eye, you go from urban metropolis to sprawling forests, farmlands, and/or mountains. No suburban grey area between the urban and the rural. I guess this could just be the urban planning culture here, or it might have to do with Korea’s rapid and continuing industrialization/expansion.
Okay, I think the digression is over. Sorry about that. You have to understand that over here I could write 24/7 and still not be able express everything I want to. It’s such a vastly different world than anything I’ve ever been a part of- with so many mental and emotional novelties- that this blog will be lucky if it can capture 0.01% of the experience. So, you see, once I open the floodgate and finally commit myself to writing, I’m prone to elaborating on the minutiae because even the minutiae can be expounded upon at great length. Okay, I think the digressive justification for my initial digression is finally over. Sorry about that one, too. Now, back to the temple stay.
We arrived at around 10 o’clock, and in such a short time were able to make it pretty far up into the mountains. Or at least it felt that way. After walking through a quaint tourist’s village on our way to the temple, we finally reached its entrance.
Upon our arrival, we were greeted by a nun who would serve as our guide and instructor for the weekend. Regrettably, my pathetic memory can’t remember her name at the moment. I can describe her a bit, though: she was a petite Korean woman with the customarily shaved head. She had simple glasses, kind eyes, and a sincere smile. There’s a picture below if you can’t wait.
Unlike many Western religious sects, Buddhism does not discriminate between the sexes. During a Q & A session, one of the female teachers asked the monk about gender differences in Buddhism, and whether it is possible for a woman to become Enlightened. Our monk responded with one of my favorite zingers of the weekend (I’m paraphrasing here, so bear with me people): “If you still see difference between men and women, you cannot become Enlightened,” or something to that effect. Good stuff right there. A part of me wishes we had a Buddhist running for President of the U.S.A.
We were also given uniforms to wear for the weekend, so as to better integrate into fake monkhood. The outfit consisted of simple grey pants and vest. After donning these cute outfits, we underwent a quick greeting and orientation. A guy named Oliver, who was in the middle of serving his mandatory two-year military service, served as our translator for the weekend. He came down from his station in Seoul just to help out.. He is about my age, and speaks English perfectly. Our nun spoke English very well, too, but there are certain complexities of the religion that cannot be properly expressed with an abbreviated vocabulary. So, Oliver stepped in at times to flesh things out for us.
Here are some of the facts that resonated most for me during her expose of Buddhism:
-Buddha never proclaimed himself to be divine. He never claimed to have any contact with the divine, either. He was simply a teacher.
-there is no belief in a heaven or hell in Buddhism. When asked by one of the more religious teachers if there is a conception of heaven in Buddhism, our monk simply said “This is heaven. Right here, right now, this is heaven.”
– Buddhism is not an exclusive religion. Though it is impossible to be both Catholic and Muslim, Buddhism is pluralistic and allows its students to maintain any previously held religious beliefs if that is their path.
It was intriguing to hear about our nun’s path to Buddhism. Her family, all devout Catholics, didn’t support her decision. In fact, it seems they opposed it. She still claims to have Catholic streaks in her, which are probably embedded as a result of the Catholic upbringing, but she felt an immediate connection with Buddhism after her first contact with the religion. In spite of her family’s opposition, she successfully became a nun. She seemed sure that she had made the right decision, though the decision has strained relations with her family pretty significantly. To me, it seems that all Buddhist monks assume a life defined by solitary reflection, mostly devoid of the social, interpersonal affections that characterize most of our existences.
After the orientation, we ate lunch. Buddhists are strictly vegetarian, and at the dining hall we were required to eat all of the food we put into our bowls. This practice is inspired by the Buddhist belief that, on average, it takes the work of 88 individuals for just one grain of rice to go from inception to your bowl. Thus, Buddhism demands moderation and a renunciation of wastefulness. More good stuff.
Post-lunch, we were given a tour of the compound:
After the tour, we went on a hike up the mountain. It was fairly steep and took about 30 minutes, so some people actually had to stop at points to catch their breath. Not me, though, as I’m a near-perfect physical specimen.
Once at the top, we spent quite a bit of time taking photos and drinking in the scenery. The lookout area was all-natural and untainted, and is reserved for meditation. Once again, I forget the name of the lookout (since my Korean is still terrible, it’s difficult to distinguish- much less remember- the names of places and people. I’m taking Korean lessons twice a week, though, to remedy that situation). Our nun told us to spread out, find a secluded place, and listen to nature for twenty minutes. Such a wholesome pastime.
We left the mountain feeling spiritually revitalized and physically starving. The Buddhist diet can’t fill up a big American boy like myself the way a good old 1/2 lb. burger, large fries, and 32 oz. Coke can. Yee-haw!
After dinner, we saw a few of the monks perform a drum ritual, pictured below.
After this performance, we went back to our sleeping quarters for a pre-bedtime meditation session. This was one of the most memorable aspects of the trip for me. After putting on some relaxing music, our nun guided the session with her narration. She told us to think of the ones we love the most; think of each person, and say three things to them: “thank you,” “I love you,” and “I’m sorry.” This was a powerful experience for me, and I felt as if I was grooming myself and my emotions. Spending some time with my figurative heart, you might say. After saying these three phrases to the ones we love, we were told to say those same three phrases to ourselves. Wow. Before you go to bed tonight, try to do this. I’ve done it a few times since, and I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
After meditation, lights went out. At 9:00 p.m., forty fully grown men were told to go to sleep. All in the same room. All on the floor (we were given mats, blankets, pillows). Surprisingly, very few of us had trouble getting to sleep- being a monk is exhausting.
Why so early? Every night, Buddhist monks at this temple go to sleep at 9:00, so we did the same. We also woke up at 3:00 a.m. the next morning, just like all the other monks. What does one do at 3 a.m. at a Buddhist temple? Well, we froze our asses off. Remember, we were up in the mountains, so at that time of morning the temperature was freezing. Aside from that, though, we went to pray with the other monks at the building shown above. We also had to perform the traditional 108 bows. Some monks do 1,000 or more of these bows every day as a means of mental and spiritual cleansing/character building. Why do they bow 108 times? Check this out for a concise explanation.
At around 5:00 a.m. we went on a walk around the compound, which once again was beautiful. There’s something refreshing about being awake that early; usually if I’m awake at 5:00 a.m., it’s on the other side of a good night’s sleep. This was a nice change. I keep thinking that my Dad (hi Dad!!!) would love being a monk because you get to go to bed early, wake up early, eat lots of rice, and go for lots of walks. Perfect.
After the walk, we had another Buddhist meal (breakfast in Korea usually consists of the same foods you’d eat for lunch or dinner. I think it’s peculiarly Western to have a unique breakfast menu) and then a parting Tea Ceremony in which we (you guessed it) drank tea and nibbled on some tasty treats. We were then thanked for our participation, and invited back to Beopjusa.
I don’t think this will be my last templestay in Korea, as it was a fertile retreat for the body and mind. I appreciated the exposure because it forces you to re-examine your own belief systems and glimpse the beliefs of a fundamentally different religion, one that doesn’t include deities or man-made hierarchies. I hope to learn more about Buddhist philosophy. There must be something to it if there are still some 300-500 million adherents after more than two millenia of non-proselytizing.
Also, here’s a video with coverage of our stay.
*Fun fact: I recently learned that the U.N. Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, was born and raised in Chungbuk Province, proving once again that this place is a cradle of greatness.