[personal profile] niori_1709
I've been to quite a few temples since I've come to Korea. There are similarities between them all, most notably in how beautiful they are. Another thing many temples have in common is that they offer Templestay programs. Templestays are an overnight look into Buddhist life. The activities depend on the sect of the temple, but they're all an excellent look at the strands of Korean Buddhism. They can be longer with a bit more free style structure or done in a two day program. That was the program that my friend and I attended one beautiful weekend at Seonunsa Temple.

Seonunsa Temple dates back to the Baekje Kingdom (before the unification of Korea, when the Silla Kingdom conquered them). It was built around 577 C.E, during the reign of one King Wideok. Like every major religion, Buddhism has many, many different sects, and Seonunsa is the temple of the Jogye Order. Master Geomdan was the builder of the temple, and he brought Buddhist teachings to the surrounding area's residents. They were people who weren't exactly making an honest living, and Geomdan brought some practical advice with him as well. He helped the locals cultivate salt, which gave them a way to survive honestly. It was an on-the-ground method to help, and the people are still grateful for it to this day. The temple is not only well known for its Templestay, but also a camellia (a beautiful bright pink flower) forest, which has trees that are around five hundred years old. I didn't get a chance to see the forest in its complete glory, because I went down on a brisk, colourful fall weekend (more on that later).

The journey to the temple was quite an interesting, and not exactly the easiest to find. After an extra detour to meet my friend down in her city, we took a bus to a terminal about an hour away. We then waited there for awhile, before taking yet another bus for a half an hour to the temple(ish) area. It dropped us off at the end of the road that led to the temple, where we needed to walk through a small residential area in order to get to the temple entrance. After signing in, it was then another ten-fifteen minute walk to the temple itself, where we would be spending the majority of our time. All in all, we were roughly an hour later than we were supposed to be, and worried that we would be missing out on the introduction about the Templestay.

As it turns out, that didn’t actually need to be a concern to us. While it was a tad embarrassing to show up later, rushing and out of breath from speed walking for half an hour, we didn’t actually miss much. Despite being marketed as one of the foreigner friendly Templestays, the guide that weekend spoke very limited English. While he was able to give some comments and descriptions throughout the weekend, he wasn’t comfortable enough acting as a full translator. That meant that we weren’t really going to be able to follow along with the presentation about the temple and tour of it after that. While it was a bit disappointing, we were encouraged to do our own tour around the temple, and I was actually okay with that. While I would have liked to have someone there to give some brief information about what I was seeing (I am a big fan of tours, especially working as a tour guide for so many summers), being able to explore at our own pace was appealing as well. So my friend and I got our temple clothes (temple clothes, made of cotton, are provided to be worn over your normal clothes) and off we went.
The temple complex itself isn’t all that big. In fact, it’s easy to do a quick exploration in about twenty minutes, if you’re in some sort of hurry. Thankfully, we weren’t, so we were able to take our time. It was calm and it was quiet, with only a few people milling around as we explored. It was an overcast day, giving everything a kind dulled feel when it came to the overall atmosphere. That wasn't bad, and in fact kind of added to the more serious, somewhat somber feel that I felt about the whole weekend. I was excited, don't get me wrong, but I was also pretty serious about it. This wasn't just a walk through a temple and then I went home. This was me stepping into the world of those Monks who lived and practiced in the temple. Being welcomed into it to learn shouldn't be taken lightly, not when you only plan to be a visitor. So our first day being more subdued than most was actually pretty atmospherically appropriate.

The temple had all the usual trappings- the main worship hall, pagodas, the works. There are also a pretty unique feature, but that's due to the equivalent of audience participation opposed to the temple itself. There are hundreds of small rock piles, small stones stacked precariously on top of another. They seems to look like little almost-pagodas themselves. They are everywhere, in empty spaces. I've heard two stories about these things, and I've had people swear up and down that one over the other is correct. The first story is that if you build one that stays up by itself, you get a wish. The second is that they're meant to attract a mountain god/spirit. This makes a lot of sense, since mountains have always played a huge part in Korean spirtiual histor. Both stories are equally cool, so in my (not expert) mind, I've just decided to combine the two. I mean, asking mountain gods/spirits for wishes makes sense, right?

We finally got to join in with the group come supper time, which was (obviously) a wide array of temple food. A word of warning, though I think it's a fairly well known fact. Buddhist monks don't eat meat of any kind, so anything served in the temple dining hall is vegetarian. This isn't a bad thing, not by far, but the food is also the same fare at all means (breakfast and supper). While I don't mind eating Korean food during the day, I'll admit that my stomach couldn't take the spice early in the morning, so I stuck to the rice. It's also a place where you need to be respectful, because this isn't just for the tourists. This is the temple's dining hall, which means all the people who work at the temple, especially the monks, eat here with you. You don't want to be the jerky, loud visitors, so you talk quietly and pay respect to any monks who happen to pass by. You also have to do your own dishes, which is unfortunate from a I-hate-doing-dishes standpoint, but it really does help you begin to feel the sense of community that living in a communal temple would create.

After supper, the first truly Buddhist temple experience we were able to observe was the evening bell ringing ceremony. The Korean Buddhist bell actually has its own name, and it's called beomjong, and it's considered a wonder of acoustic science. The shape of the bell lets the sound carry for a long ways, leaving it echoing in the silence. The sound it makes is haunting peace, and that's the only word I can think of to describe it. You here this sound, and you know it's something you should stop for. Hearing it be rung in the gathering dusk, with the sky darkening and the sounds disappearing even more into the background, is mesmerizing. This isn't the only time you hear the bell. It's this bell that wakes you up, that calls you to morning ceremonies. It breaks out through the crisp morning air, a deep beat that you'd be able to hear for kilometres. It's the only sound in the stark silence, until you're called close enough to hear the monk chanting with every hit. They strike the bell twenty-eight times, meant to add light into the darkness of the human existence. Listening to it, it almost seems possible that it does open the world for a bit more enlightenment. It's a beautiful sound and a beautiful feeling to stand there around it.

After the bell ringing, it is time for the monks to have their evening chanting ceremony. Since we were there to experience Buddhist life, we joined them. The chanting ceremony takes place in the main hall, which was new and a bit nerve wracking for me. I've never actually gone into the main hall, not when it's so open that you can peek inside without. It always feels weird to me, wandering into somewhere someone is actively worshiping, so I usually just avoid it. This time, however, I wasn't going to stand there like a spectator. I was going to join in. Chanting ceremonies are not just all about the chanting. You don't just sit there, still as a statue, for the whole time. There are certain ways to sit, times when you have to bow in different ways. It's certainly an active ceremony, and we were all given a crash course in the appropriate timing and movements. A lot of it came from trial and error and following along, but I eventually got the hang of it. I'll admit that I worried about not doing it right, but then the chanting started, and it didn't bother me as much. The movements are important, don't let me convince you otherwise, but in my heart of hearts, I'll always believe that it's the heart that needs to follow along attentively, but the body is allowed a few screw up (like not being able to sit in Lotus Position, in my case). It doesn't matter if you don't understand what's being said. It doesn't even matter if you truly believe what it being said. Regardless, you feel it in you, all the way down to your soul. The heavy voice leads the chant, wooden drum keeping time, and you move with it. The rhythm gets into you, and you no longer need to focus completely on your movements. The bows seem to flow easier, even if you're far from mastering how to do them correctly. The ceremony lasted for half an hour, but it didn't feel like it. I got so caught up in following along, that I didn't even realize that that much time had passed. The ceremony the next morning, an exact replica as the one at night, this time it's a bit more surreal, being sleep deprived as well as serene.

Next was probably the psychically hardest I did all weekend (and possibly up there in my whole life, quite frankly). This was the 108 bows. This is pretty big in Korean Buddhism, and is exactly how it sounds: There are 108 bows, and they are not just a simple bending in the middle. You need to bow standing, go to the ground and prostrate yourself, and then start over. It's exhausting, but an important part. It encourages reflection and concentration for the ones doing them (though for me it most encouraged 'Oh please don't give out legs. Breath Nicole' being thought over and over, but I am a novice). It's 108 bows because of the importance of the number (six bodily paths, six ways to suffer, three times to suffer). A monk explained all this to us, but there was a lack of a translator (though my friend spoke enough Korean to at least get the jist of it and whisper it to me). There is chanting in the background, words specifically for the 108 Bows. You're meant to think about the ways you want to change yourself. It was hard, and I am not going to understate that. Something I never need to do again, but I'm so very proud that I managed to finish all 108, no matter how terribly the last twenty or so were done.

The Templestay ends with a hike, which makes sense for a temple in the mountains. It's an easy path, most of it paved and running along a beautiful stream. It was an easy walk, and it only took roughly half an hour to get up, and maybe another twenty minutes to get back down. At the top there's a hermitage (a place for monks to pray), and something even more interesting than that. After taking a relaxing, beautiful walk, you get to see something pretty spectacular at the top. Carved into a cliff face near the hermitage, is a massive Buddha image. It dates back to the Goryeo Dynasty, and it thought to be the Maitreya (Indian) Buddha. It's huge, with elegantly curved outlines and amazing details for something so old. You can see places where it's been worn down by weather, but it's still amazingly preserved. You can make specific features, like the curls that make up the Buddha's hair. It the coolest thing I've seen at a temple here in Korea, and it was a first for me. Statues are awesome, but there was just something about this work of religious reverence that wasn't made to stand outside of natural, but was combined with it. Instead of forcing nature into a design they wanted, they look what nature had left them and worked with that. It's spectacular.

One last detail to leave you with. The Templestay was amazing, the experience wonderful, but that's not what's the thing that stuck in my head and never left, even over a year later. The colours...I'm still a little speechless to describe the fall colours. Never in my life have I seen such vivid oranges, reds and yellows gracing the trees. When the wind picked up and blew leaves off the trees, it was like it was raining large specks of paint. For all that the rest was amazing -the bell ringing in the darkness, the carvings in stone, getting lost in meditation and chants-, it's the memory of standing looking over a stone tiled wall, with the orange leaves falling down around me, lighting up the otherwise dull grey of the sky, that I see when I close my eyes. So I'll leave you with this bit of advice- if you're going to do a Templestay at any mountain temple in Korea, do it in the fall. Go when you can see the colours.



August 2017

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