Monday, May 14, 2007

Sam becomes a Monk

A poor man's lament in Korea: "I have nothing but my testicles"

Down to Daejeon, to my "Temple Stay" - a programme that several Korean Buddhist temples participate in whereby foreigners can stay in temples overnight and learn and take part in the various ceremonies performed. I've chosen Ja Kwang Sa to visit, as it is not far from Seoul, just an hour by train on KTX. At the last minute, Yumi surprises me and decides to come down too - her mother is going to drive me out to the temple! Rather unexpected, and means I am in the car with Yumi, Mother, and her two friends, all of whom are very curious about me. We don't have time to have lunch together, to disappointment all round, but I am rather glad, as I'm sure I'd be on show!

So arriving at the temple at about 2pm as the instructions requested, I am ushered into the block where templestay people stay, and meet Emma, an Australian and Leon from South Africa, who are also on the programme, but staying for several days - they have a week off from teaching English in the English Village, north of Seoul. They arrived the day before. A little while later Cedrick turns up. He is an Australian from Melbourne, and is running the programme here. He's only been here for about 4 months, of a year in residence, and before was doing IT Project Management in the UK. Our PRINCE2 experiences of course mean we click immediately!

Ja Kwang Sa, or The Temple of Compassionate Light, was founded in 1969 by Venerable Thankur to educate bright minds with the help of many intellects. What am I doing here?

It is located in Hahadong, a star peak under the Kye Ryong Mountain known for having mystical energy, so there are lots of temples, some famous, in the area, like Dong Hak Sa, Kap Sa and Shin Won Sa. This temple is a general meditation centre and also offers Buddhism classes, as well as the Temple Stay programme. It is a Zen (Seon) temple, with a main building of three floors - a general purpose floor, and two floors where one can pray, one where the normal ceremonies are held, and one where one can come and pray alone. There are various buildings surrounding this, including the templestay building, bathrooms, some offices, accommodation for those resident here, dining hall etc.

My bed aka the floor

Refreshments. One need not deny the attachment for coffee

Sam's 30 Second Guide to Buddhism

Rather than a religion, Buddhism is a philosophy which says one should

1. Lead a moral life
2. To be mindful and aware of thoughts and actions
3. To develop wisdom and understanding.

There are no gods in Buddhism, one worships no idols. The figures in the temples you pray to are supposed to be an ideal human example that one aspires to become. There is no heaven and hell in terms of a place, only in terms of personal states - i.e. depression may be someone's hell. The process of letting go of all your worldly problems and attachments is called seeking 'enlightenment', and Buddhist teaching is all about how to do this.

There are hundreds of millions of Buddhists worldwide, with different sects, but all Buddhists are welcome at all temples, and Buddhism is tolerant of all other religions - Buddhists do not preach or try to convert others. There have never been any wars in the name of Buddhism. If you want to learn more, there is lots of info here, including a helpful Q&A called "Good question Good answer" by Venerable S Dhammika on

Sam meditates for the first time
A Korean Buddhist Monk should apparently be able to live on 20,000 won per year (11UKP). What's the 20 for?

The format of the stay is morning, noon and evening prayer sessions, with study time and various activities in between, plus food. There is no charge for the stay, but they accept donations. As there are only a few of us here, we get a room each, which is nice. Apparently Cedric has had 45 people staying at one time, which I think would have been very different - as it was a very relaxed friendly atmosphere existed, and we spent much time chatting.

We are called to the first ceremonial "service" (Yebool) by a large bell being sounded, 28 times in the morning and 33 in the evening, both numbers with significance. Into the main room, I followed Cedrics lead. Sat on a cushion, and stood up, prostrated, bowed, sat down etc.

Buddha himself

After it was time to meditate. The patriarch of the temple, Thankur, taught that the focus of Buddhism is 'Meditation', not only to get rid of all the imagined agonies in our mind, but also to seek the true wisdom of the Buddha, 'the True Mind'. We collected a couple of extra cushions, returned to our spots, and sat with backside at the edge of the extra cushions. The idea was to get in a position, cross-legged, to meditate for a length of time. Today was only 20 minutes, which is not so bad.

A wooden stick is tapped three times to start meditation. We keep our eyes shut - in theory this is not necessary, but it is regarded that as inexperienced types, the amount of sensory information is too much with eyes open. The object of meditiating is to "step outside of your thoughts", that is to watch your mind thinking from the outside - observe what you are thinking and why. This is not easy to do. I close my mind, and at first can only concentrate on the noises in the temple chamber as various things are put away (not everyone is meditating). Then my mind starts to go wild, without sight, and roams all over what I have to do, plans and other things on my mind. Then I almost start to feel dizzy, like I'm falling down. A couple of times I open my eyes for a second to reset my balance. And finally I feel relatively normal again. Tears of joy stream down my face. Not from any enlightenment, just from allowing blood to flow beyond my knees for the first time in almost half an hour.

We go for a walk around the area. The rural lanes are lined with fruit trees - apples and pears.

Not far away there is a beautiful nunnery called Nan gak sa.

We pass this, then head along to another large temple which is apparently used for weddings, then circle back to Jawangsa.

Dinner is kimchis of various kinds with rice and a chige soup. Simple but delicious. After dinner we have some quiet time - there are lots of books and texts to read, then we get together to play Yut, a traditional Korean game which turns out to be simple yet great fun.


Essentially one moves one's counters around a board, your movement being determined by throwing four sticks down and seeing how they land. If you land your counter on someone else, they are returned to the start point.

Making up the rules as he goes along ;)

Trying different cushions for different fortunes

The game is enjoyable because it's hard to get off the starting blocks, and relatively easy to thwart anyone getting too far ahead, which makes for a balanced and therefore good competition. Although Leon does manage to win both times, grrrr!

Playing it cool

There are a few mozzies about. I ask whether it's okay to kill them in a Buddhist sanctuary. Apparently not, though if you were to do it accidentally and without intention (cough), that would be acceptable. (SMACK!) Ooops sorry Mozzy, I'll do a couple of extra protestations in your memory!


Next morning the bell for morning prayers is rung at 5am, though I'm awake slightly before this, worrying that I'm going to oversleep! The service is relatively short, then we have breakfast, the standard kimchi, rice and soup combo.

I think if one were living here, one would seek out occasional variation in diet. Cedrick makes up vinaigrettes for his salads, and sometimes cooks for himself. After each meal, we are expected to help clean up, though in reality this merely seems to mean washing up our own dishes, which is hardly an onerous chore. We then enjoy some free time before "noon" service at 10:30am.

Representing enlightenment

This is the main service of the day. There's lots of chanting going on, which we are encouraged to join in, but it's very hard as firstly the sounds are quite strange and read very very fast.. eg: jun-bin-chan-woo-gar-bo-chop-tin etc etc… page after page of these in random sequences, then the service would jump to a different part of the booklet and it would take quite a while to work out where we had jumped to. So I gave up trying to join in and just listened. The benefit to following it in he book is that it explains what lots of the chanting meant - without this understanding it sounds nice but is essentially meaningless.

After prayers, time for meditation. The woman leading it turned to the three of us (Cedrick hadn't turned up for this) and said "fifty minutes okay?". Now, often in Korea numbers can be a bit vague - fifteen, which she surely meant, and fifty sound pretty similar, and Koreans with limited English will frequently not really differentiate. I turned to Emma, who looked at me with panic in her eyes. All of us were thinking "Surely.. 15?". So it starts. Brain much less busy with thoughts in the morning, but similar feelings to yesterday. After 15 minutes I was waiting for an end. After 20 I was thinking "She's going to call it any second now, just a long 15". Even after this, I still couldn’t accept it. After about 20, Emma got up and crept out. I wanted to follow but didn't want the locals thinking that none of these foreigners can hack it, so I stayed. Emma struggled to open the door on her otherwise silent get-away, making lots of noise!

The legs, oh the legs…
After 50 minutes of sitting exactly still in a tight cross-legged position, how can I describe my legs? Only by blaspheming! Oh my God!!! Surely medical issues in later life are guaranteed. Does pins and needles cut over to gangrene after a certain amount of time? Worse, one is expected to stand up without collapsing almost straight afterwards. Surely one can meditate lying on the ground, why is such torture necessary? This time meditating my thoughts mostly went from "Surely she meant 15 minutes" to "I can't believe Emma skipped out" to "Will they need to amputate?". Still far away from clearing the mind and finding enlightenment!

After a bit more free time, it was lunchtime, and a final meal for me before saying goodbye to everyone and heading back to Seoul.

Was it worth doing? Absolutely. It's important to understand other religions whether you agree with them or not, and to be honest of all, Buddhism appeals to me the most. Furthermore, I can be a Buddhist without much ceremony, just by trying to better myself and follow a few basic guidelines. I can't see myself being the most devout type ever, but presumably neither are most of the hundreds of millions out there. The programme itself was a fascinating opportunity to learn more about Buddhism, and the way of life in the temple. I'm only sad I didn't stay longer - one night was too short, there's so much more to learn. I'd recommend this to anyone, and in particular at this temple, as it's accessible from Seoul, and they are laid back enough for it no to be a culture nightmare. Thanks Cedrick and Ja Kwang Sa!

To Seoul.. again!
Back into town, I meet Jina and her niece at Korea University Guro Hospital. Getting there was fun. I tried to take a taxi from Guro station. First cab didn't know what the word "hospital" meant. Neither did second (I was walking along the road hailing these in the pouring rain). As the third came, I was standing under a large road sign pointing to the hospital in Korean and English, but the driver still didn't get it, so I just told him to drive and hoped the signs would continue to be in English! I made it…

Then met Yumi for Korean pizza and makgeolli - white rice milk stuff which apparently the President is a fan of at this particular institution.

Milky milky

Kimchi pancake

Two-fingered salute

My final night in Seoul, then train down to Daegu to meet Su Hwan for lunch.

Tough porter

Ciaociao Yumi-chan

Su Hwan is waiting for me when I arrive, but tells me he has to go to Seoul.. now! Something to do with Eunjeong's entry for an illustration competition. Can't argue with that. So we part, but before he goes, I give him the gifts I have - green tea cake and some special buns. You can see the look of respect in his eyes - I have learnt much in my two weeks in Korea. But I'm not match for a pro, and almost before the bag is in his hand, he retaliates with some traditional barley biscuits from a stall behind him. Damn he's good. Then just when I think it's over, literally as his train pulls in, he grabs some chocolate nut things from the platform shop and thrusts them into my hand before leaping on to the carriage. I shouldn't have started a war I could never win. He pulls away, and I head down to my ferry in Busan knowing I still have much to learn in Korea…

The noise.. the awful noise! For hours.. How do the ferry terminal staff stand it?!

Large motorbikes are common. Cars driving up pavements are a new thing

Whileing away the afternoon

Temptations at Paris Baguette

Work of art

Not sure the Americans could make the same claim

Someone's been to Sydney

Busan Port

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