Zen and the art of templestay
Our car crunched over the gravel and rocks as it drove through the entrance to Hwa Gye Sa (Hwa Gye Temple). Although I’ve lived in Korea for over seven years, and have visited hundreds of temples, I was admittedly nervous about my first templestay. I had agreed to attend the templestay with my friend Jarod — a Buddhist and templestay veteran — and I wondered whether I had been foolish to agree to go along.
We got out of the car and Serlina, one of the templestay volunteers, was waiting there to greet us. Our first duty was to register and have lunch. I always look forward to Korean temple food and we were treated to bibimbap (mixed garden vegetables, roots and rice), which had all been organically grown at the temple. The bibimbap was excellent and I felt ready for my templestay experience.
Hwa Gye Sa is an important temple. It was originally built in 1522 and has been rebuilt numerous times. It has survived fires, two wars and was abandoned during the height of Neo-Confucianism. Today it’s the heart of Korea’s international Zen Buddhism. The temple has an international Zen center that hosts monks from around the world. Hwa Gye Sa was also the home of Seung Sahn, one of Korea’s most renowned monks, who passed away in 2004.
Hwa Gye Sa’s templestay program is one of the most popular in Korea and hundreds of foreigners and Koreans participate every year. The concept of templestay began in 2002 when Korea cohosted the World Cup. The number of visitors to Korea exceeded Korea’s World Cup expectations. As a result, most cities had a shortage of hotel rooms. The Korean government, in trying to find a solution, approached Korean Buddhist temples to provide accommodation for tourists. The idea was an enormous success and templestays have become a popular addition to Korea’s tourism industry.
After lunch I met Bo Gwan Su Nim (Su Nim means monk), a female monk who is the templestay director. I also met the eclectic cohort of participants who would be in our templestay group.
We were nine in total. As well as Jarod and I, there were two young Austrian engineers who were in Korea on business. They were participating in the templestay out of general interest in Buddhism and mostly wanted the “experience” of a templestay. A Polish girl was also in our group. She was a Buddhist student who was traveling around Korea, staying at temples and learning about Buddhism. She told me that she’d discovered Buddhism in Poland. Due to Buddhism’s limited presence in Poland she traveled to Asia to study more. She had read the works of Seung Sahn and it had inspired her to come to Korea.
A quiet teenage boy was also in our group. He’s half-Korean, half-American, and lives in Arizona. He’d become interested in Korea and Buddhism due to his mother’s ancestry. He said that he hoped to become a monk after finishing high school and planned to stay in Korea, living at temples. Lastly there was a Korean man and his two sons. The man told us that he was Christian but had become somewhat jaded with Christianity and wanted to explore other ideas. It’s quite common for Christians to come to Hwa Gye Sa out of curiosity and interest in Buddhism. The man’s sons had reluctantly followed him to the templestay. The university aged son seemed interested in the templestay, but the younger son was more interested in chatting to friends on his phone. The man confessed to us that he hoped the weekend would help him and his sons bond together, as well as give them some good luck and a positive mind frame for upcoming studies.
After introductions, Serlina took us for a tour around the temple. We learned about Hwa Gye Sa’s history as well as some basic Buddhist philosophy. Many of the temple buildings have friezes on the outer walls and Serlina explained some of the meaning behind them. In the main temple we sat on mats and Serlina taught us how to bow (prostrations). She also showed us how to bow when entering and leaving a temple.
One of the ideas that Serlina focused on was the concept of mindfulness. Essentially, we should try to live in the moment and not spend too much time reflecting on the past or wondering about the future. Mindfulness is a good way to help bring one’s mind back to the present. We often do routine tasks mindlessly (such as eating, cleaning or walking). When we take off our shoes we should put them neatly on the rack. When we eat we should eat every last grain of rice. When we walk we should think about the steps and path we are taking, as well as enjoy the senses of nature. Everything was about being in the moment and making even the smallest task important.
Since the weather was nice, though cool from a late winter snow, we went hiking in the mountains. We were instructed not to talk but instead meditate and enjoy the scenery. Mindfulness. The hike was long and we had a great view of northern Seoul from an observation tower along the hiking path. As we walked we focused on the moment, each step on the slippery and rocky path. I felt like a character from a Kerouac story meditating on the walk and living in the moment. The path was icy in places and we had to cross frozen streams. Focusing on my steps kept my mind in the present and washed away all other thoughts and worries.
We stopped on a hillside covered in huge boulders. With a commanding view of the city, we took a 10-minute meditation break. The goal was to clear our minds and listen to the sound of birds and wind: always focusing on the present. We hiked on. We walked up to another small temple in the mountains and stopped for a break.
This smaller temple didn’t seem to get many visitors and was very quiet. I was happy there and imagined how Buddhist temples looked centuries ago before cars and daytrippers came to visit.
Our group began the long walk back to Hwa Gye Sa. The walk was pleasant but we had to be cautious as we trekked down the gravel paths. I noticed that the paths were dotted with old military bunkers and cement pillboxes designed to provide defense against a North Korean invasion. The bunkers were derelict and the cement was cracked and broken.
Eventually we found our way back to the temple by a different path. The hillside, thanks to local hikers and monks, was veined with walking paths in all directions.
The hiking and good weather left us feeling hungry. Dinner at the temple is early, so we returned to the dining hall. After another delicious meal of bibimbap I returned to my room for a short break. The templestay was easier than I had expected it to be. I guessed there’d be lots of meditation and bowing, but it was fairly easy going. I resisted the temptation to check my phone; I laid down and listened to the sounds of the temple.
For templestay participants, the evening was a series of meditation events. At 6 p.m. the monks rang the temple bell and we joined an assembly of monks and visitors in the main temple for evening chanting. None of us knew what to do so we followed as best we could. The chanting was deep and melodious, soothing to listen to. I bowed — following the other monks — and let my eyes wander around the room, taking in the golden Buddha statues as well as the hundreds of lanterns and smaller Buddha statues. After the evening chant, we went to the Zen room above the main temple. Bo Gwan Su Nim was there to talk to us and answer our questions about Buddhism. It was during this discussion that I learned Bo Gwan Su Nim had been one of Seung Sahn’s students. She spoke fondly of Seung Sahn and I realized he must have been an inspiring person. I regretted not having learned about him earlier.
We then learned about silent meditation. Each of us sat on a cushion, cross-legged (or lotus position) and focused on our breathing. The meditation is designed to clear one’s mind and help with relaxation.
We did silent meditation, followed by a short walking meditation, then another silent mediation. It was definitely calming even though it was often difficult to keep my mind clear. I had to focus on my breathing and catch my mind before it wandered to other things like work, football, and movies I had wanted to see.
Our first night of templestay was over. Temple life finishes early in the evening and starts early the next day. I returned to the small room that I shared with Jarod. I cleaned up and went to bed. I was keen to get lots of sleep, knowing that we would be up again early the next morning.
A knock on the door woke me up at 4:30 a.m. Surprisingly, I was already awake. I got dressed and headed to the main temple. At 5 a.m. the monks rang the temple bell and we all assembled for morning chanting. This time it was easier and I knew a little more about what to expect. I took up my position and followed the bowing. I had learned to listen to the monk’s drum indicating when to bow and when to stand up. I was happy to have learned something and felt more confident following along with the chanting.
After the morning chant, we went back up to the Zen center to do another silent meditation session. This meditation was easier, but still hard on the legs. I felt I was getting better at focusing my mind and not letting my thoughts wander. Afterwards we talked a little more with Bo Gwan Su Nim and she answered a few more questions and discussed Buddhist ideas.
An early start means an early breakfast, so we went down to the dining hall for our final bibimbap. I fought my body’s desire for a strong hot coffee and went outside for a walk in the cool morning air.
We had some free time after breakfast and Bo Gwan Su Nim took us for a hike in the hills. Being late winter, the sun hadn’t risen yet. We got to see the sunrise and stopped to enjoy the moment. In summer, templestay participants usually do some kind of manual labor such as gardening or cleaning as part of their mindfulness training, however since it was still very cold the monks took us on hikes instead, which I think our entire group was happy about.
When we returned to the temple it was time for our most important session — 108 bows in the main hall. This was our final meditation. Since the templestay program is designed for foreigners, the temple prepared a CD that helped with the 108 bows. We sat on our mats and listened to the narrator who told us the meaning of the prostrations. Each bow represented some element of Buddhism; respect, correct thinking and mindfulness. We bowed to pay homage to the Buddha and we bowed to promise not to do evil, to respect all sentient life and understand other Buddhist tenants. The 108 bows took 20 minutes to complete. It was slow paced, making the bowing easier to complete and I was surprised when we were finished. Afterwards, Bo Gwan Su Nim sat with us again and talked to us about Buddhism and what the bows represented. Then we walked together to the abbot’s chambers (formerly Seung Sahn’s residence) for some green tea. The tea and discussion was the conclusion of the templestay. I asked Bo Gwan Su Nim about Seung Sahn and she told us of his life and his work to share Korean Zen Buddhism with the world. She showed us the small room that will become a museum dedicated to his memory. Bo Gwan Su Nim wished us all happiness and then we returned to our rooms to pack. As we were leaving I saw Bo Gwan Su Nim again and promised to return. Jarod promised to return regularly and participate in Hwa Gye Sa’s Sunday Buddhism lectures that are organized by Hwa Gye Sa’s foreign monks. We said our final farewells and gave each other a respectful bow. We got into the car and drove away feeling enlightened.
I kept my promise and returned the following weekend to visit Bo Gwan Su Nim. We had tea together and she surprised me with a small gift — one of Seung Sahn’s books on Buddhism.
I felt honored to receive the gift. I plan to visit Hwa Gye Sa regularly and I look forward to returning again; especially in the spring when the hills are lush with green trees and the days are longer, allowing me more time to meditate, hike and enjoy the now.
Anyone interested in participating in a templestay can contact Bo Gwan Su Nim — firstname.lastname@example.org, (02) 902 2663