Living the Monk life – A Korean Temple Stay

7th January 2015

rsz_dsc_0988 As the end of my time here in Korea quickly approaches I am making a big effort to check off lots of things on my Korean Bucket List. A huge thing I wanted to check off that has been on my list since before I stepped foot in Asia has been to do a temple stay.

What is a temple stay you ask? Well, a temple stay is exactly what it sounds like. You book a weekend in a temple and for two days and one night you live life as a Buddhist monk.

I am not a practicing Buddhist but the belief system of Buddhism has always appealed to me. I like that it is mostly about being good to others and about strengthening your mind. I wanted to experience the real ways in which monks live and maybe detox my poor liver a little in the process. So this weekend I headed into the mountains with my good friend Nini who was the perfect partner in crime.

There are many temples in Korea that do these experiences but we chose the beautiful Dongwasa 동와사 at Palgonsan 팔곤산 (mountain) in Daegu, since it was close to home and it is a beautiful place.

We took the hour long bus with our ears popping as we climbed higher and higher into the Daegu skies. When we finally arrived we realized we’d been a bit too enthusiastic and that we were over an hour early…opphs. So we did what any good westerner would do, we drank wine. Yes I realise this is an awful thing to do before a peaceful, clean living temple stay but in our defense coffee was more expensive than wine… I mean, it would be rude not too.

rsz_dsc_0979 After we drank the dregs of our vino we headed further up into the mountains. The temple stay was centered on Dongwasa’s main temple but the space you sleep and do some activities in is housed about a 5 minute walk away in brand new buildings. Don’t worry too much about the ‘brand new’ label since time and care have been spent to make these new buildings look as authentic as possible with good, thick wood carved all around the place. I’d be surprised if they didn’t last for 100 years.

rsz_dsc_0987 rsz_dsc_0999 Our room was basic, which is what we’d come to expect in Korea. We had a private bathroom and lots of bedding for our massive floor beds. It was a shame that the under floor heating was as hot as the sun but then again it is January and every steam, pond and water droplet was frozen solid all around us so I suppose we should have been thankful for the joy that is Ondol heating (Korean under floor heating)

First up were our monk’s clothes. Imagine getting dressed into giant pink marshmallows and you will easily be able to imagine what we were wearing. They were stupidly comfy. So we set off to our first experience, layered like trifles under our marshmallow suits.

rsz_rsz_dsc_1019 We were the only two westerners which wasn’t a problem at all since the lady in charge spoke fantastic English (even if she didn’t think she could). We had chosen to do the structured stay which means we had activities to do instead of just sleeping in the temple, and boy did they have activities for us.

rsz_dsc_1101 In the first day we had tea with a monk, watched a great stop motion orientation video (which they played twice, once in Korean and once more in English just for us two…eppp), we ate a delicious dinner made of fresh vegetables, rice, soup and noodles and had time to wander the forest. This was all in just a few hours. Next up was the 5pm drumming. Every day at 5pm the monks play the drum to sooth all the injured and suffering animals. It was incredible to watch and the sound echoed through the mountains. I’ve seen the drum in many temples but I didn’t know it was for the animals. It touched me to think that’s why they play it. There was also a bell that was rung 39 times for the deceased and wandering spirits, a wooden fish that was played to sooth the aquatic creatures and a metal plate what was rung to thank the birds for their existence. It was a beautiful ceremony and exactly the kind of thing I was hoping to learn about on this trip.

rsz_dsc_1056 Humbled and happy we headed back to learn how to bow. The bowing was the part of the temple stay I had feared and looked forward to all at the same time. In Buddhist culture you do many things in 108ths . The number 108 symbolizes the 108 struggles we face in our life such as anxiety, stress, anger and so on. The bows are quite intense. You stand and half bow, then lower yourself to the floor, place your head on the floor with your hands by your ears, you turn over your palms and raise them up as if someone was standing on them and you were lifting them to the sky, then you raise up onto all fours , sit up straight on your knees and without bending your back you stand up. This may sound easy to read but monks must have thighs of steal because these bows aren’t slow ‘think about your life’ kinds of bows. They are fast moving, thigh burning punches to the gluteus maximus that make it impossible for you to think of anything else but the task at hand….which I gather is the exact point. When we did our bows we had the added bonus of making a beaded necklace at the same time, so every time we lowered ourselves to the floor we’d thread a bead. I can’t thread a bead when I’m sat still for about ten minutes, let alone in-between bowing like a mad man and looking like I’m ‘Hulking up’. By the time we finished Nini and I resembled extras from the burning man. Our hair was all over the place and our skin was a delicious shade of puce. I can safely say that this beaded necklace is now one of my greatest possessions since I worked so hard to make the bloody thing. Those monks are heroes to do that every day….jeez

After all that exhausting activity we were invited to join the nightly meditation. It lasts from 8pm to 3am but since we had an early start (and by early start I mean earlier than any human has ever needed to start) we were only allowed to do half hour.

Meditation has always intrigued me. As a teenager I tried it once or twice. I loved the idea of centering my mind and relaxing but I had never had a guide and felt kind of silly sat in my dark room with my Care Bears bed sheets.

We were taught how to sit before entering and then we sat, quite simply we just sat, for a long time and you know what, all my worries about going insane over the half hour, all the aches and pains from the bows and all my thoughts just slipped away. I spent the time trying to thank each person in my life but I couldn’t tell you if that’s what I actually thought about since it felt like seconds later we were being woken up to leave….that was HALF HOUR? My brain was in shock. It felt great.

rsz_dsc_1081 By this time it was 9pm and we were shattered. For someone who is use to a bed time of 1am this was an achievement for me. We tried our best to get some sleep but the hot floor fought against us. What felt (yet again) like seconds later, we were being woken up…once in Korean over the sound system and then a few seconds later in English…a personal message just for Nini and I to wake up. Not embarrassing at all. Oh I seem to have forgotten to tell you what time it was that we woke up…yes that’s right…3AM!!!! Now I’m not a scientist but 3am does not feel like the time anyone should be waking up. We begrudgingly put our marshmallow suits back on and followed our monk to the morning ceremony. Was it worth it? Definitely!

The walk in the dark, cold night was horrid but because we were a small group we were allowed to slip into the temple and experience the real ceremony with the other monks. We entered the massive impressive temple, did our three bows (which my still aching leg’s did not appreciate) and followed along. The monks sung, chanted and rang gongs to welcome the day. We bowed a lot more but it was so peaceful and humbling that I didn’t even care it was 3am.

When the ceremony was finished, Nini and I looked at it each other (still too tired to talk) and smiled a knowing smile that we had just experienced something really special… now could we go back to bed please! Our wishes were granted and we had half hour rest before breakfast.

rsz_dsc_1206 rsz_dsc_1210 I should mention at this point that this food was incredible. It was healthy, vegetarian, colorful and tasty. Not too spicy and full of flavor. Whatever you put on your plate you have to eat so it made me over cautious and probably made me eat the right amount instead of giving myself huge portions like I would at home. Before eating you bow to the food since it is an offering from the monks and you eat in silence. It might have been the tiredness but the silence was great to gather your thoughts. We cleaned our own dishes and then headed back to meditate again. After the night before I was excited to try meditation again, unfortunately I was far too cocky. What had been an easy task the night before seemed impossible today. I couldn’t stop moving. My knees hurt. The clock was too loud. The room was too quiet. Is that an itch on my nose? A million thoughts were in my brain and none were helpful. This may have been because we were meant to meditate for an hour instead of half hour like the night before or that I was over tired but for whatever reason all I wanted to do was open my eyes. Sitting for so long was going to be impossible and then suddenly we were getting called to finish. It is a strange experience being made to sit still and quite for so long without knowing how much time has passed. I think it’s something I’d like to do more but that morning I wanted to pull my hair out. I need a lot more practice. Once that was done it was to the room for another 2 hours sleep….ahhh bliss.

rsz_dsc_1106 rsz_dsc_1165 When we woke the night had turned to dawn and we were off on a hike. We climbed the surrounding mountains just in time to arrive at a shrine as the sun rose. It is the first part of the mountain to see the sun. We could see Daegu surrounded by mountains below us and we meditated at the top of the mountain for a few minutes. This was much easier but probably had something to do with the lovely surrounds and the fact I may have been more asleep than meditating.

rsz_dsc_1133 rsz_rsz_dsc_1127 The rest of the day was spent learning how to serve Korean tea in the traditional manner. The ceremony is beautiful to watch and very intensive. People train for years to do it properly. Nini and I were commended on our tea making ability (which we still aren’t sure how we achieved since we did the same as everyone else) but it was really interesting and another thing to take off the bucket list.

rsz_rsz_dsc_1171 rsz_dsc_1191 rsz_dsc_1195 rsz_dsc_1198 We toured the temple , ate lunch and painted on wood. It was a relaxing and restful day. Once we changed out of our marshmallow suits we brought our bags up to the main temple and were ready to say our goodbyes. We thought that we had escaped a weekend in Korea without the weirdness but oh no….then there was a slide show. Throughout the weekend the leader had been taking lots of photos. This was then edited together with Korean songs and played for all of us to see. If it’s possible I looked worse doing my 108 bows than I thought. Seeing yourself awake at 3am is also not something anyone should experience but it was funny and made us all laugh.

rsz_dsc_1235 rsz_dsc_1239 rsz_dsc_1248 rsz_dsc_1257 rsz_dsc_1264 The experience was everything I hoped it would be. It was in the perfect setting as it wasn’t too commercial or tacky (apart from the slide show) as I was afraid it would be. Everyone was friendly and happy that you wanted to learn.

rsz_dsc_1274 rsz_dsc_1280 If you are in Korea, or coming to visit I would definitely recommend a stay, even if it’s just to get the lovely gifts at the end of the trip. We received beads (that I didn’t sweat over to make), a note book and some perfume that left us feeling happy. They were very kind mementos that I’ll cherish…. Just don’t tell the monks I said that about material possessions …ok?

Have you ever stayed in a temple? What did you think? If you haven’t experienced it is it something you think you’d like to try? Tell us your stories. We would love to hear your thoughts on the concept.