About 40% of Koreans practice Buddhism. Historically this number was much higher. Korea has a number of large, historic temples. One of the largest is Haeinsa. Haeinsa is a little over an hour away from Daegu by bus. It’s located up in the mountains beside a river. The temple is a world heritage site because it houses the Tripitaka Koreana. The Tripitaka Koreana is a Korean collection of the Tripitaka (Buddhist scriptures, and the Sanskrit word for “three baskets”), carved onto 81,340 wooden printing blocks in the 13th century. It is the world’s most comprehensive and oldest intact version of Buddhist canon in Chinese script.
Buddhism, for me, is mysterious and foreign. I was curious to know more about the religion. Also, I’m a huge history buff. I couldn’t resist visiting a historic site like Haeinsa. Because the population of Koreans who practice Buddhism has been consistently shrinking, the government began a nationwide temple stay program. This program allows anyone interested to stay in a Buddhist temple and observe / participate in the daily life of a the monks that live there. The program’s goals are to reignite interest in Korean Buddhism and help preserve the historic traditions.
Christian and I arrived in the evening around 5 pm. We checked in and were given traditional Korean clothing to change into. After that we were sat down and given the rules of our stay. While wearing the traditional clothing, we were not to consider ourselves as tourists, but as students of the temple. We were to walk around the grounds in a respectful way. This meant with our hands clasped in front of us and our eyes down. If we saw another monk, we were to bow to them. We were not to talk during mealtime or any of the ceremonies. When we did speak, we had to keep our voices low. We were to respect the practices of Buddhism, which meant removing our shoes before entering any of the temples and not turning our back on any image of the Buddha.
Next we had dinner with the monks. As mentioned before, it was done in silence. The meal was simple and vegetarian. After that the monks went out to a pavilion that housed a huge drum. They beat the for about 30 minutes, switching monks every few minutes. Each monk had their own style and it was clear that they had practiced what they were doing a lot. It’s hard to describe. Next we followed the monks into the main temple where they chanted and prayed for another 30 minutes or so. After that we went to the meditation walk. A meditation walk looks like a maze. The one at Haeinsa took 30 minutes to walk. As you walk, you are supposed to keep your mind clear and focused on one desire – good health, a new job, etc. If your mind wanders from that thought, you stop walking and refocus.
After the walk, we went back to the temple stay hall and had a “get to know you” session. We made lotus flowers out of paper and each person introduced themselves. It was about a 50/50 split between Westerners and Koreans. Throughout our stay, there was constant translation between languages going on. Lights out was at 9:00pm. This seems early, but we had to get up at 3:45am the next day for morning prayer.
The next day we went to morning prayer, followed by chanting, then meditation. After that we went to breakfast which was nearly identical to dinner. The stay ended after a we were given a tour of the grounds by an American educated, English-speaking monk. I thought his most interesting story was about his first year as a monk. When you are a first year monk, it’s like being a freshman in high school. You are the lowest ranking person there. The monks have a difficult work schedule and are still adjusting to the lifestyle. One day, some of the freshman monks wanted to eat chicken really bad. They ordered some chicken and had it delivered to the temple. The monk giving the tour had just walked into the room with the chicken when they were all caught by a senior monk. Even though he didn’t get a chance to eat any of the meat, he was guilty by association. They were all told that they would be expelled from the temple. The monk begged to stay and the senior monk said if he really wanted to stay, he had to do 3,000 prostrations a day until further notice. This is a bow that starts in the standing position, goes all the way to the ground, then stands back up again. He had to do these prostrations for two weeks before he was allowed to stay in the temple. The monk is pictured below.
The temple stay was a great experience. I learned a little bit about Buddhism, but one day is not nearly enough to begin to understand this complex religion. I’ve tried to read more about, but it’s still difficult to understand. Unlike Christianity, Buddhism is not an evangelistic religion. Therefore, there has never been a big push to translate Buddhist texts. If you are interested in it, you have to seek it out. Also, the differences between Eastern and Western languages and culture make translations of Buddhist writings, for me at least, difficult to understand or relate to. Here’s an example. This is Chuang-Tzu, a 3rd century Chinese philosopher’s thoughts on the central Zen principle of “no mind”. “Body like dry bone, mind like dead ashes; this is true knowledge. Not to strive after knowing, the whence. In darkness, in obscurity, the mindless cannot plan. What manner of man is this?” huh??