One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” –Henry Miller

Monday, November 1, 2010

Rising with the Monks

Golgul Temple

Last weekend was Halloween and I decided to do something a bit non-traditional. I didn't put on face paint or go to a party, but I did dress up.... if you're willing to count Buddhist trainee garb as a costume. They have programs in Korea where people have the opportunity to live like a Buddhist monk in a temple for a weekend.  I think it's safe to say that I couldn't have done something more polarizing than stay in a temple the weekend of Halloween, but in hindsight (and with a little more sleep) I'm really glad I went.

It was a beautiful time of year to go into the mountains near Gyeongju.  Like home, the leaves are changing this time of year so it was very colorful this weekend. Not to mention, we got lucky with the weather: no rain and temperatures in the 60s.

We got there around 2 on Saturday, checked in, got our temple uniform (i.e Halloween costume) and jumped right into a lesson in archery.   My friend and I noted that the master of archery shattered our imagine of a Buddhist monk. He was a Norweigan man is his late 20's with blond hair and blue eyes. But boy, were we ever wrong in doubting him. Could he ever hit a bulls eye! And later in our stay he led the yoga and Samudo training as well.  Samudo is a form of martial arts and yoga that's practiced in this particular temple. Being a Buddhist form of martial arts, Samudo is never used to harm anyone.  They don't even pretend to hit one another in Samudo routines.  I think it can best be described as a form of dance that synchronizes the mind and body.  
A Samudo performance from young boys training to be monks.

The temple uniform reminded me of something between Aladdin (the big baggy tapered pants and vest) and an inmate (orange vest).

The guy standing right behind me is the archery master. As a side note: I hit the target on this shot (it was the one and only time)
This is where I "slept" Saturday night. The two blankets and pillow on the top shelf made my "bed" on the floor.  My roommate, a Korean girl who was roughly my age, took the set on the bottom shelf.  We went to bed around 10 that night after 2 hours of Samudo training.  One monk emphasized the importance of our attendance to the early morning chanting and meditation service.  Missing this event meant missing breakfast and 3000 bows as punishment. Needless to say, I was really worried that I wouldn't wake up to the 4:00 wake up call.  I can say now that there was no need for me to be so worried. I hardly slept that night. I think I checked my watch at least 4 or 5 times and I had been laying awake on the floor for an hour before I heard the monks chanting at 4am to wake the community. 
Before the birds were singing, we trekked up to the temple  (I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say we had to hike to the top of the mountain to get there.. maybe they make monks hike to the top to increase their gratitude in reaching the temple).  Just a few things about temple procedures that I learned and experienced.  Buddhist temples have three doors (two on the sides and one in the front).  Only the monks enter the front entrance.  You never enter with your shoes on and once you walk in you should do 3 half bows immediately.  Then you grab a small pillow and do 3 full bows. A full bow means that you put your hands together in a prayer position in the center of your chest and bow halfway at your waist. Then dropping to a kneeling position, your forearms and forehead must touch the floor. You hold that position for a half second and then turn your palms face up and (with your forehead still touching the ground) raise your palms above your ears. If  it sounds complicated.. it's not. You do that three times representing your thanks for the 3 jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma (his teachings), and the Sangha (those who have found enlightenment).

The morning chanting service was quite neat.  The monks were already seated on their pillows in the front when we walked in. We filed in and followed suit. The chants were in Korean and though we had romanized translations, I really couldn't follow. I listened instead as I did the 108 bows. 

Then came the hard part: 30 minutes of meditation.  I know sitting for 30 minutes doesn't sound difficult, but you'll have to trust me when I say it was harder than sleeping on the floor that night.  Several things about it are hard. First, you sit in something called the half-lotus position, which will kill anyone's knees, hips, and, especially for me, back.  Second, you're told to "quiet your mind" and focus on your breathing.  It's hard for anyone to keep their mind quiet, but I found that my mind is like a small child in this regard. In telling it not to do something, it of course, had to do it... and man, was it loud.

Meditation went something like this:
"Aww, this is kind of nice being able to close my eyes.. I could sleep.. would they catch me if I slept.. would I have to do the bows if they caught me.. maan, its got to be 4:35.. I wish I could look at my watch.. probably 4:36 now..  that's 3:36 at home.. I wonder what everyone's doing.. I'd give anything not to be doing this right now... ooo, ooo, okay, my back hurts.. I want to reposition but how quietly can I do this.. that was a little loud.. .straighten your back.. please, god, just let the time go by..  maybe another 23 more minutes to go.. okay, focus, focus on your breath...fill your chest and empty it out.. fill your chest and empt.."  Then a few golden seconds of silence.  "hey, I'm doing it!.. .damn it." 

We followed the sitting meditation with a walking meditation down to the dining hall for breakfast. I could handle doing walking meditation all day in comparison! There was no pain and it was pitch dark .. which for me, made it so much easier to zone out. The wind was blowing and because we were only a little ways from the coast I could smell the salt in the air. Walking meditation was a much more pleasant experience and I think a more successful one, at that.

Breakfast on Sunday was a traditional Buddhist ceremony. It was complicated and ritualized... two things that made me pretty nervous. A few interesting parts:  Buddhists monks don't eat for pleasure, they eat simply to sustain their bodies (If the meditation didn't rule this lifestyle out for me, then that stipulation definitely did. I enjoy food). When they eat that eat mindfully and with gratitude.  Not a single grain of rice or drop of water can be wasted. So we had to eat every bit of food that we received. I mean every. grain. of rice. If we didn't then the monks would have sent us back to finish.  We had to clean our 4 bowls ourselves with a little bit of hot water and a piece of cabbage.  We had to drink the remaining water and eat the cabbage (I know that sounds horrifying, but it really wasn't bad... they are vegetarian so in the end it was just hot spiced water that we were drinking). 
Tea Ceremony: Through a translator we were able to ask one of the monks questions. It was the only time we were able to speak to them.

What did I get from this experience: well, apart from the bags under my eyes, I did leave with a greater knowledge of Buddhism and a new found appreciation and mindfulness of the food that I eat and the bed that I sleep on... oh and gratitude for backed chairs... I'd be okay if I never had to sit in the half lotus position again.
These two pictures are of the group who did the temple stay this weekend. Nice people from a lot of different places: Norway, Korea, Iceland, Iran, and Germany


  1. I know, and it could have been mine for the small price of 100,000 won.. which is a little less than 100 US dollars. What a steal, huhh?

  2. I LOVED your meditation monologue. Probably because it sounds exactly like what I would be thinking! Thanks for sharing!