The generosity of others encourages me to practice geneorsity myself.
At Guinsa Temple, I made a paper lotus flower and paper lantern. Of course, since I had never made a Korean style paper lantern before, I unwittingly made one that was upside down.
I’m starting this blog with Chungcheong-buk Province, in the landlocked center of South Korea, and the very first place I visited in Chungcheong-buk is the famous Guinsa Temple, via their Templestay program.
The day before I arrived at Guinsa, I had departed Jeonju (Jeolla-buk Province) and had crossed from western side of Chungcheongbuk Province to the eastern, passing endless apple orchards, with the population density steadily decreasing after I left Chungju (hometown of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon).
I happened to arrive at Guinsa Temple during their annual tea expo, where temples from all over South Korea presented their unique tea ceremonies. I was amazed by their generosity. Clearly making the ceremonial clothes, making the teaware, setting everything up properly, preparing the delicate desserts and snacks, and of course growing and preparing the tea itself requires a great deal of effort, yet they were handing it out to everybody at no charge. Much of it was delicious, but it was the servers’ grace which make it such a memorable experience.
Many of the people participating in the Templestay were fellow foreigners. I spent a lot of time talking to an American teaching English in Hwacheon (an obscure rural town near the border with North Korea). She was much like myself. Like me, she moved to South Korea right after graduating from college. Just as I had spent much of my free time in Taiwan travelling around the island, she spends practically every weekend visiting various parts of South Korea, with the goal of visiting everywhere worth visiting in South Korea by the end of her teaching contract. No doubt I enjoyed her company because I saw so much of myself in her. There was also a couple from the Netherlands, American geeks serving in the US Army whose leave had coincided with the Templestay, a woman Spain, and a man from France who was very concerned because he did not speak English well and the people at the Temple do not speak French. How do I know? A staff member asked if anyone spoke French, and I mentioned that I speak a little, so they asked me to talk to him. He said he was glad that somebody there knew some French (though to be honest, his English is better than my French).
A volunteer served as an English speaking guide for the foreigners. She is a high school student who lives in Seoul, and her family are devout Buddhists who often visit Guinsa. She says she volunteers to practice English. We were impressed by how good her English already is.
After the tea drinking, there was a concert which featured traditional Korean music and dance. Of course, the concert was at no charge.
Meals at Guinsa are free for anybody to eat. The meals consist of kimchi, cooked vegetables, bean soup, and white rice. You should thank everything and everybody who made the meal possilbe, and you should show your gratitude by eating everything, down to the final grain of rice. I already tend to ‘lick my plate clean’ as a matter of habit, so this was easy for me.
Inside the dorm room, I discovered an English language translation of Diary of a Korean Zen Monk. I managed to find time to read the whole thing. It immersed me in the life of a Seon monk (‘Seon’ is the Korean word for ‘Zen’) during a meditation retreat during the 1970s. I learned about the Korean society of that time, as well as the contrast between the monks spiritual goals and ongoing material concerns. The book moved me, and I highly recommend it, whether you are interested in Korea and Buddhism, or are simply interested in human nature.
After dinner, we finally got our orientation, lead by a nun.
Once I learned that we were going to get much less than eight hours of sleep, I decided to skip the 108 prostrations (which were optional). I hadn’t realized before that sleep deprivation was such an essential element of Buddhist monastic life – in the diary, lack of sleep is listed as one of the ‘three lacks’. I don’t know why sleep deprivation is so important to Korean Buddhist monastic practice. Is lack of sleep supposed to be a sacrifce like lack of food?
But since I didn’t get to sleep right away, I ended up reading more Diary of a Korean Zen Monk. Oh well.
The walls of the dorm had a list of guidelines, such as the noble silence, keeping your hands in chasu, etc. However, I suspect because of the tea expo, these rules were a bit relaxed, especially since the orientation was delayed longer than usual. Still, I wish I had attended a ‘regular’ templestay so I could have experienced what temple life was like when the rules were more strictly followed.
At 3am in the morning we had to go up to participate in the morning prayer in the great dharma hall.
At sunrise, we had the walking meditation. This time, we had to remain silent. We went on a path which is generally off-limits to visitors. We left behind the temple and walking through the forest of Sobaeksan. Eventually, we passed a point with a beautiful vista.
It was beautiful.
We ended at a sunny hilltop.
After the walking meditation, eating breakfast, drinking tea with the monks (where we could ask questions – it turns out the English-speaking nun was born to a Christian family, but they all converted to Buddhism while she was a child) and cleaning our rooms, the Templestay was officially over, but I didn’t feel ready to leave. I went up to see more of the buildings, and went up a hill to the sanctuary of the founders of Guinsa. Guinsa is beautiful, but more importantly, I felt accepted, and that, if I were to invest myself there more, I could learn much of value.
And yet I learned something even in the short time I was there.
It was not an ‘escape’ from ‘the stress of everyday life’, since at that time, travel WAS my life, and a Templestay was very much travel. I was reminded of the value of living mindfully – to put in the effort to create good food, to appreciate the food you have, to appreciate the beauty of nature.
What I experienced is people being very kind – give their sublime teas, prepare delicious sweets, dance, sing, be quiet, explain their religion, offer a communal yet introspective walk through a forest. Visiting Guinsa was a privelege. And one way I respond to that kindness is to write a blog about my experiences, not just in Guinsa, but in South Korea.
What of my paper lantern and paper lotus? Trying to keep them intact during my travels was a challenge. Yet they did arrive in San Francisco, and though they show wear and tear and do not look as bright and crisp as the day I made them, they are still intact.
The generosity of others encourages me to practice geneorsity myself.
Guinsa Temple is the current headquarters of Cheontae (天台) Buddhism in Korea. Buddhism’s long and fascinating history in Korea often surfaced during my travels, but currently the dominant form of Korean Buddhism is the Jogye (曹溪) Order which emphasizes Seon (better known in English by its Japanese name, ‘Zen’), and Cheontae, with about 2 million followers, is the largest school which is independent of the Jogye Order.
During the orientation for our Templestay, we saw photos of the original, very humble Guinsa built in the 1940s. Most major Buddhist temples in Korea are over 1000 years old, though most had to be rebuilt/restored after the Korean war. Guinsa might be the only major Korean temple which was originally established in the 20th century. As stories of the miraculous things which happened at Guinsa spread, it grew more and more popular.