An Ancient Buddhist Temple
I was only a pace or two behind the monk when my crepe paper lotus lantern burst into flame. Oh good grief!
What the devil was I to do with this blazing ball of fire in such a sacred setting — an ancient Buddhist temple in Korea — where reverential silence and solemn tread were the watchwords during this dark night pilgrimage.
My Templestay was becoming a hazardous experience.
Templestays are all the rage in South Korea, where locals and tourists alike can tuck up into the forest-shrouded environs of hip-and-gable–roofed temples.
These places are storehouses of Korean cultural treasures, as well as bastions of traditional Zen meditation and a 1,600-year-old Buddhist philosophy unique to the Korean Peninsula.
There are an astonishing 73 temples dotted throughout South Korea that offer temple stays for Koreans and foreigners; about 18 of them offer stays for individuals. No less surprising is the program’s prosaic beginnings.
How Templestays were Born
In 2002, when Korea hosted the World Cup soccer matches, housing was at a premium, and some temples, noted for their hospitality to those seeking shelter, put up a number of avid fans.
Thus Templestays were born, and they have become quite popular, especially with Koreans.
Foreign visitors are most welcome, too, and that’s what I and my gaggle of fellow travelers were doing at the 1,300-year-old Beomeosa Temple.
Located outside the port of Busan, in southeast Korea, it’s situated in a lush wisteria-tree forest north of the city.
The word “temple” is deceptive, for the sprawling grounds house numerous temple buildings, as well as 11 hermitages, perched on the hillsides of Geumjeong Mountain.
After we warily trudged up numerous stone stairs and went through three beautifully carved and painted gates, we were welcomed by a dozen volunteers.
They cheerfully guided us along a circuitous route to our sleeping/lecture quarters where we would snooze (not much!), participate in various ceremonies, and converse — with the aid of an interpreter — with Chief Instructor Hye Su, the monk who heads the Templestay program at Beomeosa.
The volunteers helped us into the fine gray broadcloth vests and pants also worn by the monks, giggling as they tied strips of the fabric round our ankles to secure the pants and a larger cloth round our waists, lapping the top of the trousers over the wide band. (Disrobing for a bathroom break was quite an event.)
We were then given an etiquette lesson by one of the novice monks:
You always take off your shoes before entering any temple building; walk in single- or double-file, as instructed; try to keep silent, imitating the monks; and male and female guests always sleep apart, in separate buildings.
The monks have several sparse meals a day. Next on the agenda was our own monastic repast, rife with instructions and admonitions from Hyu Su, as we sat on cushions around the sides of a long rectangular room with a few volunteers in the center dispensing the food.
The fare was vegetarian and very mild, as spices of any kind could act as an aphrodisiac — obviously not the thing in a Buddhist temple.
We each had four dark-brown plastic bowls of varying sizes into which we placed rice, simmered or fried vegetables and seaweed, soup and water.
There was a good deal of ritual about which bowl held which item, whether a spoon or chopsticks should be used, silence — the spoken word and the clanking of utensils against dishes were no-no’s.
And how you did your own washing up before the bowls were again placed one inside the other, ready for your next meal.
There was little time for contemplation as we were moved along to our next activity, participating in an evening worship service with the monks.
I found it hard to tear my eyes away from the lustrous gold Buddha seated in the lotus position upon the temple’s altar, surrounded by flowers and flickering candles.
And, all around the room were intricately carved and painted flowers — abundant in the decor of many temples because of the belief that flowers fall from heaven when the Buddha instructs.
A gentle jab from a volunteer alerted me that I was to follow the actions of the monk in front of the altar who kneeled, slid forward on his face, raised his arms, palms up, to heaven, slid back on his knees, stood and then clasped hands to breastbone.
This went on a number of times, a sonorous chanting filling the elaborate room with a ringing spiritual accord from the monks, and accompanying creaks and groans from my group’s strained ligaments, backs and knees as the constant bobbing and weaving took their toll.
It was a relief to emerge into the crisp night air, slip feet into shoes and stretch cramped muscles.
The Craft Session
We trundled, in the usual two-by-two lineup, back to our assigned abode, where a craft session was to take place which could include prayer-bead making, woodblock-print making, stone rubbings, and — for us — the manufacture of delicate lotus lanterns.
Seated on the floor — volunteers at the ready with helpful advice, crepe paper petals, glue sticks and paper cups.
We commenced fashioning what would become colorful lanterns when a candle was inserted through the bottom of the cup.
I watched our monk, who was extremely adept at making lotus lanterns.
Abruptly, we were told to put on our coats and shoes and follow the monk outside while clutching our prized craft projects, which were then lit.
In silent procession we shuffled down a rocky hill in the dark and headed, up and down steps, to a courtyard surrounded by temples barely visible save for our lantern light and masses of sparkling stars above.
That was when my creation went up in flames. The monk paced back toward me, indicated I should throw my lantern on the ground, raised his robes, and vigorously stomped it out.
The serene expression on his face never changed as he quietly handed me his “perfect” lotus lantern, then returned to the head of the line and moved on. (I prayed I wouldn’t set my new lantern alight and disgrace myself further, and this time my luck held.)
Learning in the Moon
We circled the courtyard three times at the behest of the monk, doing something he delightfully called “learning in the moon.”
Whatever it was, it was magical as our monk’s clothes slapped against our legs, and magenta and yellow and burnt-orange crepe paper lanterns slanted shafts of light on the hoary old temples surrounding us.
But there was more to come. Back at our place of residence, we found tea-making paraphernalia had been placed round the room in front of our mats and cushions.
“Tea break and talk” proved illuminating, as the monk led us through the intricacies of making the tea, holding the delicate cups and sipping the fragrant brew.
He also engaged us in conversation, espousing a sort of “know thyself” philosophy. “If you can’t find your mind, you will be deceived by your desires,” he postulated.
Finally it was time for rest and repose, the men sent off to another building to snatch a few winks before we would be awakened — as are the monks — at 3 a.m.
We women (as did the men) dug out the snacks our guide had advised us to bring, and dipped into such unholy edibles as Oreos, Snickers bars, potato chips and chocolate-chip cookies. Alas, the flesh — our flesh — was weak.
Though the night was cold, the heated floor under our thin mats kept us toasty till the lights abruptly went on at three o’clock and we groggily arose, knowing there was precious little time to use the nearby restroom and brush a tooth.
Stumbling out into the dark, we joined the men and tromped double-file to a courtyard which housed the handsome two-storied, open-sided bell tower containing an ancient temple bell, drum, bronze gong and wooden fish-shaped gong.
Three able monks attacked these musical instruments with gusto, making the mountain ring with their joyful noise.
We then repeated the prayer ceremony of the night before, returning to our quarters by four o’clock for Zen meditation.
Our monk spoke in parables and finally told us, “The beginning of life and death is not controlled by God or Buddha, it is controlled by you, yourself.”
By now, though interested in his discourse, I could not control my cramped legs and thighs, and squirmed while endeavoring to enjoy this very early morning exchange of ideas.
Finally, we were asked to face the wall and “try and find ourselves” through meditation and contemplation.
Visiting Several Temples
Then, in the early dawn, we followed the monk to several temples, where we prayed or sat in contemplation.
Finally able to glance about at the Buddha figures sheathed in gold with their Mona Lisa smiles and knowing eyes that seemed to follow you wherever you moved, stood or sat.
I was glad to be decanted into the out-of-doors at 6 a.m. for a walk to our second monastic meal — a replica of the first evening’s, yet a little more comfortable, as we knew the ropes.
Back at our quarters we found a monk awaiting us who was the master of martial arts at Beomeosa. This form of Buddhist martial arts, practiced by monks in Korea, is called bulmudo.
Their skills are legendary, and we were lucky enough to have two martial artists on hand who, following the monk’s instructions, demonstrated some of the forms, with us following along as best we could.
Our instructor monk, Hye Su, finally bade us goodbye, and we climbed back down the stone stairs leading under the temple’s three gates to our bus.
We were touched to learn that the monks, fearing we had not had enough to eat (I sheepishly recalled the Oreos), had supplied our driver with a box of bananas and milk to tide us over on our journey back into the secular world.
I clutched the monk’s perfect lotus lantern and hoped that it would inspire me to “try and find my life.” Well, one of these days.
If You Go
Eighteen of the 73 Templestay programs are open to individuals; of these temples, several have English translators. Upon request, other temples can also accommodate individuals.
The required minimum stay is one night/two days, with the exception of Jogyesa, in Seoul, which allows for half-day stays on the second and fourth Saturday of each month.
At present, the half-day Templestay costs approximately $25; temples generally charge around $70 for one night/two day stays, which includes meals.
Reservations are required. Children are welcome, and there are family programs, as well.
Korea Tourism Organization