An Overnight Stay at a Korean Temple
In theory, an overnight stay at a Korean temple sounds like the perfect activity for anyone struggling to escape the pressures of modern life. You’ll meditate, you’ll learn about Buddhism, you’ll go vegetarian. Concerns and cares will slip away as you drift into a blissful state of conscious awareness.
Unfortunately, that’s not what it’s like.
I signed up for one of these sleepovers through a program called Templestay. Created in 2002 by the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism — the largest Buddhist order in Korea — the Templestay program aims to allow visitors to “sample ordained lifestyle and experience the mental training and cultural experience of Korea’s ancient Buddhist tradition.” In other words, it’s a chance to test-drive life as a monk.
The meditation center I visited, about two hours from Seoul on Ganghwa Island, seemed like the sort of place that could inspire calm. The grounds are nestled between rice paddies and a leafy forest, and the center’s brightly painted temple sits several stone steps up from a gentle brook and a small pond stocked with lotus flowers and koi.
When my friend and I arrived — several hours late, thanks to trouble reading the bus schedule — the Templestay coordinator introduced herself in fluent English and led us to the room where we’d be staying. It was empty except for sleeping pads, blankets, and small pillows stuffed with plastic beads. After we’d dropped off our bags, she handed us our clothes for the weekend: two identical extra-large sets of baggy gray pants and vests, along with sun hats and blue plastic slippers. We looked like we’d stepped out of a propaganda poster for Maoist China.
I’d assumed that most temple life involved sitting still and cultivating enlightenment, but instead our first activity was community work time. Clad in our Mao suits, we followed the coordinator to the garden, where eight other Templestay guests squatted between raised rows of dirt, piles of potatoes scattered around them. They gave us hostile glances as we approached — thanks to our late arrival, they’d been forced to harvest potatoes for three hours in eighty-degree heat. I couldn’t blame them for their animosity; if I’d been digging in the dirt while some assholes took the slow route to Ganghwa Island, I’d be pretty pissed off too. But such negativity seemed to go against the spirit of the retreat. I adjusted my sun hat and joined them in the field.
After we’d assumed our squatting positions, the coordinator explained that we were supposed to sort the potatoes into piles of small, medium, and large — and then left without demonstrating what the Buddhist definition of “small” was. After a half hour spent tossing any potato smaller than a golf ball into a nearby box, I looked up to find a monk standing above me, examining my work. I smiled. Expressionless, he picked up my box and emptied it onto the ground.
It was time for meditation.
Once we’d learned the correct way to arrange our shoes outside the temple door, the Templestay coordinator demonstrated how to prostrate according to the Korean Buddhist tradition: kneel down, touch your forehead to the floor, and rest your hands, palms upward, on the ground. Then do it all in reverse, like a movie playing backward. Repeat, ideally several hundred times.
To me, the main value of the prostration practice was as a quadriceps exercise, but any improvement in the shape of my thighs was mitigated by the pain it caused in my arthritic knees. I had plenty of time to reflect on this discomfort when we followed our prostrations with a meditation: sitting in silence for a half hour, a slight breeze blowing through the open doors at our back as if beckoning us to escape.
After a slow walking meditation through the temple grounds, a vegetarian dinner, calligraphy practice, and a discussion on meditation led by the temple’s head monk (I spent most of the time killing mosquitoes and then feeling guilty about the karmic implications), we were sent back to our rooms to get rest before our 3:30 a.m. wake-up call. Lying on the floor, still dressed in my Mao suit, I fidgeted till 1:30.
Two hours later, the sound of the mokt’ak — a wooden percussion instrument played every morning to start the temple’s day — jolted me awake. I pulled myself up from my floor mat and stumbled through the predawn darkness to the temple, where pink lotus lanterns illuminated a small group of people inside, creating the kind of picture you would send home to friends to make them feel jealous about the exotic experiences you had while on vacation.
There is a difference, however, between postcards and reality. For example, no one sends postcards at 3:30 in the morning. Nor do most people’s vacation plans involve getting out of bed in the middle of the night to sit for a half hour in silence with their eyes closed. I watched through cracked eyelids as the Templestay coordinator repeatedly jerked herself awake just before tipping over, like a commuter on an early-morning subway train. I was close to succumbing to the same fate myself when I noticed something that kept me awake: a gigantic beetle crawling on a lotus lantern hanging above my head. This beetle was easily the size of a large fig; having it fall on my head would have been the equivalent of being smacked by a mouse. I began to focus my attention entirely on the beetle, sending prayers into the ether for its secure footing.
My prayers worked — the beetle remained aloft, and we were eventually allowed to go back outside. After sneaking a cup of instant coffee with a Venezuelan couple, I pulled myself through another walking meditation and followed the other participants to the main room for a Buddhist meal ceremony. A highly choreographed process of place-setting, serving, and eating, it included a final inspection by a head monk to see if our bowls were clean. “You do not want to disappoint him,” said the coordinator. “Doing so would reflect poorly.”
She then walked us through what would take place during the meal ceremony, including a final cleansing: we were to take a piece of pickled radish and use it to swab our dishes. This caught the attention of a young Canadian woman.
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” she said. “But how is wiping my bowl with a radish going to make it clean? What about germs?”
“We fill the bowls with very hot water,” said the coordinator, sidestepping the question. “So when you use the radish, the bowl is already very clean.”
“Is it, like, a hygienic radish?” asked the Canadian woman.
“Yes,” said the coordinator. “It is a hygienic radish.”
Things went downhill from there. Exhausted and cranky, one by one we began refusing to play monk. If one of the whole points of Buddhism was to cultivate acceptance, why, I asked, did we have to go through such an elaborate meal ceremony? The Venezuelan couple went a step further: they left.
Wishing that we had the same kind of courage, my friend and I instead counted down the hours until we returned to Seoul, and upon arrival treated ourselves to a bottle of wine. Several days later, the Templestay coordinator e-mailed the weekend’s participants and invited us to a workshop to perform three thousand prostrations to “inspire yourself into practice.” The idea sounded horrifying, but it reminded me how difficult it would be to live like a monk. Which, as the coordinator suggested, may have been the point.
Excerpted from 101 Places Not To See Before You Die by Catherine Price.