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Korean Temple Stay – the Ultimate Korean Experience

Korean Temple Stay – the Ultimate Korean Experience

By Minttu-Maaria Partanen,
An international student of Ewha Womans University
(October 28 – 29, 2006)

Day 1 Saturday
I didn’t know what to expect from one weekend at the end of October when I boarded a bus on Saturday morning with other sleepy travellers. Our weekend destination was to Gayasan National Park and to Haeinsa temple. Unfortunately our bus driver took the wrong turn somewhere so the planned five-hour-drive from Seoul took a few hours more. We had a wonderful Korean lunch and finally reached our destination, the Haeinsa temple, in the late afternoon on Saturday.

It is said that Haeinsa temple is one of the most beautiful temples in Korea. That is not a lie. Perched high on Gaya mountain, it is surrounded by magnificent nature. While the tree leaves were turning red and yellow, the mountain peaks around us glistered in all sorts of autumn shades of foliage in the fading sunlight.

First, we changed our clothes and dressed up in traditional Buddhist clothes. Wearing comfortable grey clothes, I already started to feel a bit like an actually temple resident. The monks taught us how to behave in the temple and its surrounding area. It is said that the rules of Haeinsa temple are one of the strictest temples in Korea, but I think if you really want to experience temple life you should go all the way.

In Haeinsa temple, you are not allowed to speak if you are not asked or given permission, you should not leave food on your plate, you should always bow when encountering a monk and you should always walk with holding your hands crossed. You should also obey the other rules of the temple and participate in the ceremonies and other temple activities.

We learned how to hold our hands in a grossing position called cha-su, or Hap-jang where your hands are held together at your chest region. We learned how to perform an Oh-che-tu-ji, the bow you do in front of the Buddha statue and when you are praying. All this prepared us for what it’s like to really live in a temple.

The dinner in the temple was an all-vegetarian meal since Buddhist monks generally do not eat any meat or fish. I had the one of the best kimchi dishes I have had during my stay in Korea. Food was simple—rice, kimchi, beans and vegetables in a hot red sauce, but it was so tasty that I had no troubles finishing all the food on my plate. After the dinner we gathered around to hear the evening drums hit by the monks. It was really a captive moment when the first sounds of the huge drum echoed throughout the dark yard. The drumming led us to our first chanting.

My first chanting experience was great. With dim lightning and the smell of incense we walked silently into the temple and took our seat on the cushions. Even though I couldn’t understand the words of the chanting, the singing made me relaxed and calm. The bows accompanied the chanting and gave me a feeling that I really was part of this ceremony.

Before going to sleep we made lotus lanterns with the monks and the volunteers. Some of the lanterns actually looked like lotus flowers, but some of them not so much. The monks gave us permission to talk so we could get to know each other better. In the end people who made the best lanterns got a reward. It was a nice end for the long day.

→ Click here for more info on Haeinsa temple
→ Click here for more info on Gayasan National Park

Day 2 Sunday
I have never experienced a night like I did in Haeinsa. Since we were such a big group we had to divide into different buildings for the night. Other students and I shared half of the building where the monks sleep. I have slept in a Korean style way before on a wooden floor so that was okay, but the real life survival challenge came from the fact that we had no heating in the room. At the end of October it gets really cold during the night in the mountains. Wearing all my clothes I had with me, and three blankets, I still shivered through the night. It was very quiet outside, a thing you hardly ever can experience in the busy city of Seoul. The only sound I could hear was my own breathing and the monks’ chanting. The lonely clangs of the wooden clock accompanied by the chanting continued through the night.

The wake up call was promptly at 2:30 am. With a quick wash up we were ready for the new day. The morning started with another Dharma drumming performance. The most talented monks were drumming. It was so magnificent that the last one of us woke up. The drumming led us to our morning chanting.

We stayed in the temple after the chanting because it was time for us to attempt to do 108 bows. The number 108 represents 108 human anguishes. With clangs of bamboo sticks we kneeled one after another and pressed our foreheads down on a pillow in front of us. The monks at Haeinsa explained that the bows are both good exercise and mental training. Both claims were very true. The bowing took away the chilling feeling I had had all morning since afterwards I was panting and my heart was racing. When I bowed it took my mind off the every day things and worries. It made me concentrate on that particular moment and turn my thoughts towards myself- a kind of self-reflection. The bowing was preparation for our next task, which was meditating outdoors.

It was a magical feeling when we took a seat around a stone ring outside the temple. It was still freezing and our breath was quite visible in the cold night. The sky was clear with hundreds of twinkling stars. We took a lotus position as well as we good and started to meditate. I could sense all the people around me but I couldn’t see or hear them. It was just me, my thoughts and a silent forest around me. Because it was so cold we meditated ten minutes sitting, ten walking and then ten sitting again. Otherwise we would have done meditation every fifteen minutes. I don’t think I found a lot if the answers I should have during the meditation but as the monks said, “we were just beginners at this”.

Because our program was delayed on the first day the Sunday afternoon’s schedule was tight. We first saw the Tripitaka Koreana in the temple. The weekend when I did the temple stay was the weekend when the Tripitaka Festival took place, so we went to a market place where we could learn different phases related to the Tripitaka Koreana. I carved the letters on a wood block, made my own paper, printed Korean letters on it and finally bound it together as a book. It was a lot of fun.

In the afternoon it was time for the real Tripitaka Koreana festival to begin. We gathered on a school yard and changed our clothes into traditional Korean clothes. It was the first time I wore a hanbok, which is a long skirt and a little jacket. I even wore a traditional shoes made of rice stalks. The shoes weren’t really comfortable but they gave me a lot of attention and applause from the Korean locals. They gave us each one piece of Tripitaka Koreana (not the real one), which we carried to the temple. We took our places in big row with Koreans and walked through the village up the temple. A lot of Koreans were watching our parade. I think photos of us ended up in many Korean photo albums. After giving the clothes back it was time for us to head back to Seoul.

The temple stay and the Tripitaka Koreana Festival were one of the best experiences during my stay in Korea. They taught me a lot about Buddhism and Korean culture. I would do this trip again any time.

→ Click here for more info on the Tripitaka Koreana Festival
Date 12.11.2006

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