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Templestay offers chance to experience Korea

By Ines Min, The Korea Times, May 12, 2010

Seoul, South Korea -- It was a gray, chilly morning as diplomatic and commercial representatives gathered in front of the Jogye Temple in Insa-dong, Seoul, Saturday, contrasting with the warmth and bustle of the group.

<< Participants of the G20 Templestay Experience stroll single-file during a contemplative evening walk at Magok Temple, Saturday.
/ Courtesy of the Korea Tourism Organization

Excitedly conversing about their forthcoming adventure into the world of Korean Buddhism, ambassadors, members of chambers of commerce and others stood with suitcases, many for their inaugural templestay.

Last weekend the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) and the Cultural Corps of Korean Buddhism hosted the G-20 Templestay Experience, ahead of the global gathering in Seoul this November. The destination was Magok Temple, a major branch of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, located in Gongju, South Chungcheong Province.

Three buses, three hours and 112 kilometers later, the entourage arrived at the historic temple. Established in 640 A.D. during the Silla Kingdom (57 B.C.-935 A.D.) by the monk Jajang, Magok Temple is well known today for its survival throughout the ages and original buildings. The temple was a place of refuge during the Japanese colonization (1910-1945), for those such as independence fighter Kim Gu, who famously planted a Chinese juniper tree that still stands today.

The 27 participants from nine nations including the ambassadors of Brazil, India and Mexico, and Lee Charm, president of the KTO entered through the open gate of the temple's entrance, among rows of handmade lanterns hung in preparation for the festivities for Buddha's birthday.

The day's schedule was filled with unique opportunities, from living the life of a monk to practicing awareness of the world and one's place in it. A ceremonious lunch was held, followed by a tour of the expansive grounds and a tea ceremony.

Pilar Perez-Mckay, executive director of the Australian Chamber of Commerce, has lived in Korea for three years and had wanted to go on a templestay for just as long. ``I'm learning a lot about the traditions and about the food,'' she said. ``It's very efficient'' she added, referring to how every single grain of rice must be eaten and appreciated.

Participants had the chance to take part in the evening practice of ringing the four sacred instruments: the dharma drum, the temple bell, the wooden fish and the cloud-shaped gong. The instruments represent the beings on earth, in hell, in the waters and in the sky, respectively, cleansing them. The opportunity is a rare one, as even within the temple only specific monks are allowed to sound the sacred instruments.

Before the night's end, Lee Charm spoke to his fellow participants about the following day's pre-dawn wake-up call characteristic of monastic life. ``The early worn hours are when the spirits and energy are at their best,'' he said. ``I hope today gave you a little bit of inspiration and encouraged you to look for a little more inspiration.''

3:40 a.m., Sunday

Warm, yellow lights swung softly back and forth from the hands of bleary-eyed travelers, who walked in small groups toward Magok Temple's main hall. The world was dark around them save for the glowing spheres lighting the path immediately before them.

Upon reaching the Daegwangbojeon hall, participants silently slipped out of their shoes and entered the large room carefully, respectfully. The melodic morning chants began as the ringing of the sacred instruments again filtered across the grounds, welcoming the new day.

As the chanting and meditation period concluded, it was onto the 108 prostrations, which serve as both a physical and spiritual exercise in discipline. A morning hike afterward led to the renowned hermitages of Baekryonam and Gunwangdae.

But before long, it was time for the closing tea ceremony. ``The most satisfying experience was the meditation this morning,'' said Maria Ligaya Fujita, the wife of Brazilian Ambassador to Korea Edmundo Fujita. ``It was so touching, the fact that I was doing this. Humility is something we forget, but I am going to take the humility and compassion with me.''

Indian Ambassador to Korea Skand R. Tayal said that he also felt very humbled that the teachings and philosophies of Buddha have spread so far as to reach Korea. ``In India, Buddhist philosophy has been absorbed within the larger philosophy of Hinduism,'' Tayal said. ``We do not have so many Buddhist temples; they are mostly in the mountains, and they do not have these kinds of templestays ? so I really appreciate it.''

For the Mexican Ambassador to Korea, Martha Ortiz de Rosas Gomez, and her husband, the experience was in the complete union of physical and mental awareness. ``Of course we have a little bit of pain in our legs [from the meditation poses], but we don't think about that. For example, this morning with the postrations ... I wasn't thinking about the pain in my body, because I was listening.''

``We have been rewarded in this experience and we would like to learn more about this culture,'' Gomez said. ``But mainly, we feel at peace, which is also very important. We will keep great memories of our first experience at a Korean Buddhist Temple.''

Info on Magok Temple

Magok Temple is located in Gongju, South Chungcheong Province. The temple is also known for its five-story pagoda, which depicts elements of Tibetan Buddhist influences in bronze-embellishments, making it one of three in the world. The location of the grounds along the curve of the Taegeuk Stream that is shaped like the line dividing yin and yang, also denotes special significance.

Templestays, organized by the Cultural Corps of Korean Buddhism, are held year-round at 108 temples across the southern peninsula. More than 20,000 foreign tourists participate in the program each year, according to the Korea Tourism Organization. For more information on templestays, visit www.templestay.com.

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