Monday, January 12, 2015

Beopjusa Temple Stay

There's a thing in Korea called a temple stay. It's like a spiritual retreat, of sorts, but you don't need to be of any particular religion to join the party. In fact, you don't have to be part of any religion to join the party. Isn't that the best?

The "temple" part of "temple stay" relates to a Buddhist temple. But did you know that Buddhism is not actually a religion? I'm sure that most people think it is because it is a way of thinking, a belief system, there are temples, and there are followers. But from my brief understanding, I've learned that it's less a religion (no church membership or anything) and more a life philosophy.

So, we were intrigued and the opportunity came so that we could attend the weekend before Christmas. I have to say that the two days we spent at this temple were probably the coolest two days we've had in Korea.

We live in a city of 600,000 people. We work at jobs. We live amongst the towering apartment buildings that surround us. It's not often that we get to spend time in nature and even less often that we see animals or stars. Beyond that, apart from occasional "culture conversations" at work and observations in public, how often do you really get an up close look at another way of life?

The Beopjusa Temple is located at the foot of Songni mountain about 90 minutes (by bus) away from from us in Cheongju. It's quiet and peaceful and calm. Monks and others live at the temple and host Koreans and foreigners alike for these weekend getaways.

We arrived on Saturday. We were given rooms and roommates (by gender) and instructed to put on our "temple clothes" which were basically just glorified pajamas. Being that we went during the winter time, everyone was wearing the pajamas over or under several layers of other clothes.

At our first meeting we sat down and saw a short movie about how to behave at the temple. Don't talk a lot. If you do talk, do so quietly. Walk softly and bow to people you pass on the temple grounds. Hold your hands gently clasped (right over left...) in front of your stomach. I was already feeling a little worried about breaking the rules. And then, they said that there should be no touching between genders. I broke that rule, literally, about five minutes later, without even realizing it.

We did a lot of sitting on the ground and felt the undeniable pain of how infrequently we sit on the ground...

We learned how to bow. And I found it interesting that before we began, a monk told us not to worry about our personal beliefs clashing with the bowing. Buddhists bow to a statue of Buddha, but she explained that they are not worshipping the statue. They are simply acknowledeing, paying attention to their deepest selves. It's less about worship and more about recognition of the goodness within us.

That's something I can get down. After all, most of us aren't as cocky and self-assured as we project. Most of us are still waging personal wars with our self-esteem. Wanting to feel like we are enough. That we measure up. Buddhism is about saying, "Yes, I am enough."

And so the bowing, down so that five points are touching the ground. Open palms to receive. Back up.

We got a tour of the temple grounds. These buildings are several hundred years old. America is barely "several" hundred years old. These traditions date back centuries. Is that not amazing?

We witnessed the evening chanting service by the monks which involved drumming and bowing before the Buddha statue. The music and chanting were really awesome and echo-y and the bows were really cool to see. Also, it was heck'a cold. It's December folks and in each of the buildings you have to take your shoes off and there's no heating. And, did I mention it's December? I watched my breath escape my body and dissipate into the frigid air inside the temple and felt my toes going numb.

Later, we had dinner. We were instructed beforehand to adhere to the rituals associated with meals. Be quiet. No talking. Take only what you will eat. Leave no food behind. Be grateful for the food that you've been given. Someone cooked that. In fact, all of of the vegetarian food at the temple is grown organically at the temple. It gives you a new appreciation for your food when you take just what you need and consider the hands that worked to make it. And is it my imagination or did the food taste better because of it?

We made lotus flower lanterns. Or at least their Dixie cup sister. We glued petals on a paper cup while the monk talked about why the lotus flower is an important symbol in Buddhist thought. It represents purity of mind even amidst the muck of the pond. How even though we are constantly distracted and troubled in life, we can still achieve a clear mind.

Not long after this we went to bed. At 9pm. Which was obviously hard for some people to manage because it felt so early. But when living with monks...

We got up at 3am for morning chanting. This is the schedule the monks follow too, so we dragged ourselves out of bed, piled on the layers, and wandered to the main temple where the monks do their thing. So cool. So cold.  

After this, we headed back to the heated part of the grounds (thank goodness!) and learned about meditation. The monk explained that, again, there is a place for meditation in any and every faith tradition. It's only a simplification and clearing of the mind. In fact, she instructed us to just count to ten over and over again, taking deep breaths, and trying to think about anything other than the numbers. This may sound easy, but it's not. We only started with a baby lesson of 20 minutes, but even sitting on the ground for that long, nonetheless, meditating while doing it was not easy.

After meditation, the monk lead us in the 108 prostrations. A prostration is a bow and let me tell you, doing 108 of them is no small task. There is a symbolism behind doing 108 of them because each bow symbolizes a different prayer/repentance. It's a way of recognizing these things we need to confess. And the monk told us that she does them daily.

Quite a work-out actually. I was shedding layers and my legs were quite sore by the end. Here's some interesting medical advice from a doctor who advocates the daily prostrations for exercise.

Ya know, after you do 20 up and downs you start thinking, "Ouch, my knee" or "Sheesh, how many have we done now?" It's easy to get distracted, but the whole purpose of the prostrations is to re-focus. And if I had to pick a part of the weekend that was most meaningful to me, it was probably those darn, exhausting prostrations. Because as we did each of the bows, we listened to what each bow represents. It's hard to get down on your knees for no reason, but when I'm bowing "to ask forgiveness for the people I have hurt because I hurt the whole Universe"? Sheesh. That's humbling.

Things got deep real fast.

Have a listen:

I bow to think about who I am.
I bow to appreciate my parents for giving birth to me.
I bow to pay attention to the good in others and not the bad.
I bow to avoid expecting obedience from others.
I bow to make the best of each moment in my life.
I bow not to put my own needs over the needs of others.
I bow to learn to be nice to people even if I have negative feelings toward them.
I bow to know that happiness does not come from others, it comes from me.
I bow to avoid looking back at the past.
I bow to the people who worked to provide me with healthy food.
I bow for friends who have been beside me sharing laughter and tears.
I bow to realize that nature is being destroyed.

I mean, come on! Imagine how the world would be a much different (a.k.a better) place if we all thought about these things every day: gratitude, responsibility, trust. It's mind boggling. And so good. I consider myself to be a fairly intentional and grateful person and yet, with nearly every bow, I thought to myself, Huh, when's the last time I considered that?

I think it was after the chanting, the meditation, and the bows that we finally ate breakfast. Whew. What a morning! Then, we had an hour, so I took a nap and it felt like a whole new day.

We took part in a Korean tea ceremony which was cool and we were able to ask some questions to the monk. Buddhism itself is quite an overwhelming thing, so I didn't know where to begin with questions about that. However, I was intensely curious about how this monk came to be a monk. She said, "That's a popular question. Everyone wants to know, why on earth would you do this to yourself?" She laughed and explained that she grew up in a strictly Catholic family in Korea, moved to Boston for school, met a man who taught her about Buddhism, and she came back to pursue becoming a monk. I don't know a ton about the process other than that it takes several years and it's no walk in the park.

What I sensed as many of us asked her questions about herself and Buddhism and temple life is that we kept wanting boxes, categories, reference points with which to frame the Buddhist experience and time after time she would say something like, "You're asking the wrong question" or "It can't be labeled that way." For example, I'm intrigued with the idea that--because Buddhism isn't a religion and doesn't worship another god--someone could be a Christian Buddhist or a Mormon Buddhist if they wanted to. The two ideas are not so far from each other that they can't cooincide. She laughed a bit at this and said, "People always ask me why I left Catholicism as if it's a place I can't continually access through my mind. There are still many lessons I carry with me even as a Buddhist now. You all want to find a way to explain something bigger than yourselves, but it's not possible."

She really is the cutest thing. Just so easy. Calm. Happy. 

We drank tea.

We went for a walking meditation.

And here's the group of us: about thirty awkward foreigners and one incredibly sweet monk.