I’d been interested in going to South Korea for a number of years before I finally managed to go. My last solo trip was about six years before I went to Korea so I was itching to do some adventuring by my lonesome. After booking the flight I took to ferociously googling “things to do in south korea” and that was how I stumbled upon the notion of staying overnight at a Buddhist Temple.
A Bus To Somewhere
After arriving at the beautiful International Airport in Seoul I made my way into the city and stayed at a nice yet cheap hostel for one night before taking an inter-city bus south to Gyeong-ju. From here I had to take a local bus to the temple. The thing that makes inter-city buses so easy to use is that they usually go from point A to point B and if point B is your final destination then you just have to get off when the bus stops. This fool-proof approach to foreign country travel unfortunately does not apply to ageing local buses which make many stops, have no electronic displays and rely on the driver shouting out stop names. Before getting on the local bus I had been practising the name of my destination (which I think was also the name of the temple …) so that I could listen out for the stop. But when I got on the bus and said the name, expecting the driver to acknowledge it by stating the cost of the journey, he just looked at me blankly with a “huh?”. I pulled out the map from the Tourist Information Office and pointed at the place. He said “Oh” followed by another word, which surely must have been the name of the stop, but why did it sound so totally different from the way it looked? I paid up and sat down in the second row from the front, desperately trying to keep the word the driver had said in my mind.
Minutes passed, houses were replaced by fields, busy streets gave way to long stretches of peaceful countryside. I watched it all go by, scanning every sign that came in to view for some clue as to how close we were to my destination. To my horror I noticed that the driver did not announce every stop. What if we passed by my stop? Where was this bus even going? Would I be stuck on this bus for the rest of the day? Forced to sleep curled up in the aisles like some vagrant bus-man?
Thankfully, no. Not only did the driver announce the stop, he also turned and gave me a “better get off, chump!” stare.
After being dumped on the side of the main road I had to make my way to the temple, following the website’s rough directions along a dusty back street. I eventually found it and walked up a short hill, past gleaming metal statues of fearsome fighting monks, towards some ancient-looking buildings.
I’d made a reservation on-line for the Templestay program and so they were expecting me. One building near the entrance to the temple grounds functioned as an office and it was here that I was given instructions on how to conduct myself during my stay.
Here’s what they told me:
- Morning Prayers. Everyone has to attend an extensive prayer session at the crack of dawn. It lasted about an hour and there was a fair amount of bowing and chanting and so on.
- Meal Times. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were all provided at set times. It was cafeteria style and all vegetarian (Buddhists, yeh?) plus it was all-you-can-eat with one proviso: Nothing can be left on your plate.
- Sunmudo Training. At this particular temple the monks trained in a unique type of meditative martial arts called Sunmudo. As part of my stay I was allowed to join in various training sessions. What I really liked about this was how they showed me what to do and how to do it but there was never any pressure to do it well. I felt comfortable doing things to the limits of my own (rather poor) physical abilities while the pros around me took things to another level.
- Temple Wear. Whilst on temple grounds we were all required to wear appropriate clothing. We were each given simple “monk” clothing, I can’t remember the name of it but it was mega comfy and flexible! I was tempted to try and buy an outfit to take home.
Also in the schedule were a number of other activities such as a Daily Sunmodo Performance, the 1080 Bows, a Talk With A Head Monk, and Walking Meditation. All of which were exactly what they sound like.
The Penthouse Suite
I shared a small room with a Korean man whose English wasn’t great but luckily it was far exceeded by his desire to communicate. The room was exactly that; a room. Inside there was nothing beyond a small wardrobe containing some sheets and pillows. There was no glass in the windows, only wooden shutters with paper screens. There were also no beds. This didn’t worry me at first because in Japan traditional hotels usually opt for futons instead of full-blown beds. However, there were also no futons …
Instead we slept on the floor, covered with simple sheets. This was more comfortable than it sounds thanks to Korean-style floor heating, called ondol.
But yeh, still wasn’t that comfortable.
The Party Never Ends
Aside from the scheduled activities guests are allowed to spend their free time any way they want. As one might expect the general vibe of the place leaned towards peaceful meditation. So that’s basically what I did; I wandered around the complex at a slow, casual pace occasionally stopping to gaze wistfully at a passing bee. It was all very “zen”.
I was also occasionally accompanied by the reincarnated form an ancient dog spirit, who lived in the temple and was one of the most chilled out, lovely and intensely fluffy canines I’ve ever had the joy of meeting.
The Way Of The Tourist
As with other ancient temples around the world this one was a tourist attraction open to the public. To draw in bigger crowds the monks give daily displays of their Sunmudo skills. It was kind of odd seeing tourists come to the temple. Obviously I was a tourist too, but I was also standing around dressed as a monk (or at least as a poor, beginner monk) so there was a part of me that thought “What if they think I’m a real monk and start asking me questions about faith and Buddha and stuff?”
The answer I came to was: I’ll just lie my tits off.
On one occasion I was sitting on a sun-lit bench, peacefully tickling the chin of a canine demigod, and a group of tourists came wandering by to check out the view from the hill upon which the bench was situated. They seemed to be a fairly old bunch of Korean folk, I imagined them to be on a coach trip from the same city I had arrived via. Once their eyes had been satisfied with the view they turned to make their way back down the hill. However, one guy hung back, shouting something to his comrades. He stopped and appeared to be admiring some flowers with his back to me. After a couple of seconds I realised something.
He was peeing.
He was peeing right in front of me.
He was peeing right in front of me on the grounds of a sacred, historical Buddhist temple.
I asked the demigod what his view of the situation was, but he was too busy bathing in the sultry sun-rays.
Tea Time At The Temple
One afternoon a group of us guests sat down for tea with one of the head monks. I really didn’t know what we were going to talk about or what this guy was going to be like. I pictured something akin to the stereotypical Catholic reverend, except instead of going on about some dead guy and his dad he’d be preaching about something else. I was way off!
This monk, he was, well, a pretty awesome dude. He was really mellow and honest. He told us a lot about his past, about how he used to get into lots of trouble and be a general pain in the neck for everyone who knew him. Then he listened to each of our problems or worries. And we listened too. To each other. To him. We listened and shared. I don’t know if any real answers came out of it all, but I certainly felt a sense of, well, maybe there just isn’t such a thing as a “real answer”. Maybe there are many different answers. And maybe that’s okay.
Templestay in South Korea
I only stayed at the temple for a day or so but I came away from that place with a real sense of peace and calm. This may have come from the simple living or the disconnection from the outside world, but whatever it was I was thankful for it. The effect stayed with me for the rest of my South Korean journey. I’m not just talking about the spiritual effect either. All of that martial arts training really did a number on my slob-eque form.
I ache just thinking about it.
Have you ever done a Templestay or something similar? Is it something that would appeal to you? It would be great to hear your thoughts in the comments!