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In South Korea, Immersion in Buddhist Austerity

By CATHERINE PRICE, New York Times, November 26, 2006

Seoul, South Korea -- AT 3:30 a.m. in a temple in South Korea the sound of the moktak — a wooden percussion instrument that Buddhist monks play every morning to start the temple’s day — jolted me awake. I pulled myself up from my floor mat, straightened my itchy gray uniform and stumbled through the pre-dawn darkness to the temple, where pink lotus lanterns illuminated a small group of people waiting to begin their morning prostrations.

<< Sungsu Cho/Polaris, for The New York Times
Guests at one of the temples participating in Templestay Korea, not long after the early-morning wakeup sound of the moktak.

I was at the Lotus Lantern International Meditation Center on an overnight trip run by an organization called Templestay Korea. Created by the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism — the largest Buddhist order in Korea — the program aims to allow visitors to “sample ordained lifestyle and experience the mental training and cultural experience of Korea’s ancient Buddhist tradition,” according to its Web site. Although the program only began in 2002 on the occasion of the World Cup soccer tournament held in Korea and Japan, it has grown swiftly over the last four years from 14 temples to 50, with 52,549 participants in 2005.

The meditation center on Ganghwa Island, about two hours from Seoul by public transportation, certainly seems 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. Monks wander silently, occasionally gathering at an outdoor wooden table and offering tea and small snacks to guests.

But be forewarned — the point of the temple stay is not, as the pictures on its Web site might make it seem, to lounge next to a brook nibbling crackers as you consider what it means to reach nirvana. The point is to live like a monk. And monks, it turns out, keep strict schedules, are vegetarian and spend a lot of time silently meditating in positions that can become, quickly and without much warning, incredibly uncomfortable for those unused to them.

I got my first hint of this austere lifestyle when I arrived and was greeted by Cho Hyemun-aery, who introduced herself in fluent English. In the guesthouse, she showed me the communal bathroom and the small room my friend and I would stay in, which was unfurnished except for sleeping pads, blankets and small pillows. Then, after we’d dropped off our bags, Ms. Cho 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.

On this particular temple stay, the first activity was community work time. Clad in our Mao suits, we followed Ms. Cho to the garden, where eight or so other guests squatted between raised rows of dirt, piles of potatoes scattered around them. Our job was to sort the potatoes into piles of small, medium and large, as monks walked by, examining our efforts. We worked in silence, sweating under the afternoon sun, and were rewarded when we’d finished with small, freshly boiled potatoes, lightly salted and offered to us by a grinning Vietnamese monk.

After our snack, we wiped the dirt off our pants and gathered in the temple, where Ms. Cho showed us how to arrange our slippers neatly at the door, and taught us to prostrate according to the Korean Buddhist tradition: kneel down, touch your forehead to the floor and rest your hands, palms up, on the ground. We then meditated silently for half an hour, a slight breeze blowing through the open doors at our backs as we sat cross-legged on our prayer mats, trying to clear our minds.

Meditation and prostration, both essential parts of monks’ lives, are included in every overnight temple stay program, as are meal or tea ceremonies, lectures on Buddhism and exceptionally early wakeup calls. Beyond that, though, programs differ. Most average about 30,000 South Korean won (approximately $33, at 972 won to the U.S. dollar) a night, but temple stays can range anywhere from a few hours to a few months, depending on your budget and enthusiasm.

They also offer different activities. Lotus Lantern’s program included walking meditations through the temple grounds, calligraphy practice, a traditional Buddhist meal ceremony and a discussion about Buddhism led by the temple’s head monk. But other temples offer Buddhist martial arts, stone rubbings, hiking and painting. And the buildings themselves can also vary, from newly built meditation centers to temples that are more than a thousand years old.

Golgulsa Temple, for example, about five hours from Seoul on public transportation, was built by an Indian monk in the sixth century and is surrounded by ancient stone caves. Its program is more physically active than the other temples’, offering training in a Korean Buddhist martial art called sunmudo that incorporates traditional martial arts with yogalike poses, weapons training and breathing exercises.

Musangsa Temple, about two hours from Seoul, caters to people who don’t want to limit a wee-hours wakeup call to just one morning — it has extended temple-stay programs during the summer and winter seasons that can last for up to three months (new participants can join on Saturdays, pending approval from the temple’s abbot). The retreats at Musangsa are silent, so if you think rising before dawn and performing 108 prostrations before starting a 10-hour-long day of strictly scheduled temple activities might make you want to scream, try a different program.

An easier option is Jogyesa Temple, right in Seoul, at 27-11 Gyunji-dong, which offers half-day visits on the last Saturday of every month that include a tea and meal ceremony, meditation practice and a temple tour. If you won’t be around on the last Saturday and can scrape together a group of five or more people, you can also organize your own day at the temple, even on weekdays — just make sure to e-mail five days in advance for reservations. The e-mail address is 10mirror@ijogyesa.net.

Jun Jong-young, a temple-stay coordinator, said she wasn’t sure what exactly had caused the explosion in the program’s popularity, which saw an increase of 15,647 participants between 2004 and 2005 alone — but she did have some theories. “Korea’s economy is better now,” she said, “and people are busier and more stressed. They want to set aside time for a more cultural experience.” (Min Tae-hye, another coordinator, said North Korea’s recent nuclear tests have had no effect on interest in the program.)
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ON my particular temple stay, I was fascinated by the variety of people the program had attracted. I was the only American; my fellow participants came from Australia, Canada, Venezuela and France. What made us all want to spend a Saturday night sleeping on the floor?

For Kayte Lowri Pritchard, a 24-year-old from North Wales who came to Korea as an English teacher, the temple stay offered activities and a community she found lacking in her normal life. “I came again and again every weekend, quickly preferring the temple and sunmudo training to the usual Saturday night activities, which involved drinking a lot of alcohol and feeling awful all day on Sunday,” she told me in an e-mail. Today, she helps run Golgulsa’s program. “It’s like having a big extended family,” she said. “Everyone is so caring and kind.”

Of course, doing a weekend temple-stay program won’t immediately turn you into a Buddhist. As Ms. Cho put it, talking about Buddhism without proper, consistent, mindful practice is “like looking at a finger pointing at the moon, instead of looking at the moon itself.” But spending two days at a temple certainly does give a sense of what a monk’s schedule is like — an experience that, despite its accompanying fatigue, is not easily forgotten.

After our final group meeting, my friend and I cleaned our room and handed our itchy suits to Ms. Cho, happily changing into our normal clothes and fantasizing about the dinner we would have when we returned to Seoul. Several days later, Ms. Cho e-mailed the weekend’s participants and invited us to a workshop to perform 3,000 prostrations to “inspire yourself into practice.” It sounded horrifying, and after a moment’s thought, I realized why: the temple stay had demonstrated how difficult it would be for me, with my anxieties and preoccupations, to live like a monk. Which, when I think about it, may have been the point.

Reservations can be made through the Templestay program’s English Web site: www.templestaykorea.com. It includes links and contact information for all the temples listed above, plus information for other temples that don’t offer English translations.

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