Monday, October 15, 2012

Finding our zen

Sometimes, it's good to get away and clear your mind. And what better way to do that than a temple stay! The Provincial Office of Education (POE) in Chungbuk sent out emails  a few weeks ago asking if anyone would want to join on a sponsored temple stay trip. I singed up immediately as it's been something I wanted to do before I leave - and this trip would be free! I won't lie...once I knew I was definitely going and looked at the schedule, I started to regret deciding to go. Who wants to spend their much needed weekend waking up at 3am and doing 108 bows? I did apparently. So with a bit of foot dragging, I woke up on Saturday morning, not really knowing what was lying ahead of me. Awesomeness is what was.

We all (80 odd EPIK teachers) had to meet at the Office of Education by 9:40 on Saturday morning to load onto buses to Songnisan National Park - Boeun. I had been before (read that post here) but this time was different, given we were actually staying at the temple. Jecheon is 2 hours from Cheongju, so we caught the 7:00 (on a SATURDAY) bus and made it to Cheonju in time. It was another 1 hour bus ride to Songnisan, and then a 20 minute walk to the temple. Was great to see people from Orientation and catch up a bit, as we hardly ever get a chance to see everyone! Songnisan at this time of the year is beautiful. Well actually all of Korea in Autumn is beautiful. The leaves are changing, making the landscape full of vibrant reds, oranges, yellows and greens. We were greeted at the temple by our lovely host - this woman was just amazing  So happy, kind, gentle. Guess everything you expect a monk/nun to be like. Her English was great and she had a Korean Military guy there to help translate too, making it easy to communicate. We dropped our bags off at the main hall and were taken for lunch - buffet style, where we had to be careful what we dished up as there was a no-waste policy (completely understandable). I liked it this way because it meant we could eat what and how much we wanted. The food over the weekend was actually pretty good. Vegetarian, rice with different toppings which made a bimimbap vibe, soups...there was pajeon and watermelon one meal. All in all, quite delicious. We were also expected to clean our bowls and utensils till spotless, which made me think of school camps!

After lunch we changed into our gray 'Aladdin' pants and waist coats, or as we were told - our fake monk clothes. They may have looked ridiculous but were actually pretty comfortable.
Cos this looks so zen *eye roll*
We then were taken on a tour of the grounds, having the different buildings, shrines and 'national treasures' explained to us which was quite interesting. I forget when exactly, but we were also taught the proper way to bow, explaining how 2 hands held together in front of you signals you come in peace. There is so much that I learned this weekend, but I can't remember it all right now. One of the most interesting things for me, which I already knew a bit about, was the fact that Buddhists do not worship, or bow down, to Buddha. They see him as a great teacher who reached Enlightenment, the 'goal' I guess of Buddhism but they do not see him as a god and therefore are not worshiping him. The bowing is to your true self, in order to clear your mind and focus on the ills of this world and our role in it all. This is really oversimplified and maybe wrong, but it's how I understood it.

We were then taken on a hike up to a peak over looking the whole temple and surrounding areas. It was beautiful up there!!!

At the top
We sat for a while, chatting and taking in the views. Eventually, we were asked to be quiet for meditation...this was one of the highlights for me. We sat in silence, for around 15 minutes I think, and I was able to completely relax. We heard some Buddhist chanting in the background, the sounds from the temple below and just nature all around us. It sounds silly but really, it's the most 'zen' I've ever felt. From there it was back down for room placements and dinner. We were told to meet at the big drum for the evening chanting ceremony around 6. This was awesome - we stood and watched the monks beat the drum, the big bell, and go through all the rituals of evening meditation and chanting. We were taken to the main temple after this, where 3 huge golden Buddhas stood and where the monks go for chanting and meditation. None of us really knew what we were doing, so was a tad bit awkward, but we followed the lead of the monks, bowing when we had to and looking around nervously when we didn't. The inside of the temple is so pretty, with very intricate designs all over the wood. I spent most of the time just taking it all in.
Beating the drum

After that we went back to the main hall for lotus flower making - this was fun and carefree, with jokes made about how 'original' our different creations were.

Nolo, Cola and me with our finished lanterns 
We then took candles and our flowers and walked around the temple in silence, before being led into the main hall for evening meditation. Here we sat in the dark, and tried to clear our minds. We were told to tell ourselves "I love you", "I'm sorry" and "Thank you" - the same with our loved ones. We then lay down and were taken through a relaxation ritual, before bed. It was only 8.30pm and most of us were a little concerned about how we could ever fall asleep so early. But the meditation helped, as well as the fact that we had to remain in silence until the next morning. Sleep was achieved, at least a little bit was, before our VERY early 3am start.

With sleep still on our faces, it was up and to the temple at 3.30, for morning chanting and meditation. Cue bowing, meditation/sleeping, and early morning grumpiness. We didn't stay in the temple long, but were taken back to the main hall for our own zen meditation. I found this hard. Not only was I tired, sleepy, and therefore restless, but my posture is apparently atrocious, and sitting with a straight back and crossed legs felt like torture. I couldn't believe how calm and very 'zen' our guides looked...I just couldn't keep still! Funniest moment was hearing a faint snore from somewhere/someone - whoever it was, I don't blame you!!! Once we came to, it was time for the 108 bows. I was dreading this part as it sounds very difficult but actually, it was great. Let me try, as simply as I can, explain the reason for the 108 bows.

The bowing is all about prostration - you prostrate yourself in order to purify that which we do wrong in this world, to recommit yourself to the principles of Buddhism and for me it was really just about trying to focus on our role in this world, apologizing for what we do wrong and being thankful for all that we have. Buddhists believe that this act of prostration cleanses you. What I really enjoyed or found helpful, was that we listened to a CD of an American Monk while doing it, and every time we bowed, he explained why we were doing it. He took us through the '108 Delusions' of the mind...things like being sorry for thinking we are right, sorry for taking our parents for granted, praying for world peace and the end of all disease etc. For me, this whole process really just helped me focus on what I can improve on as a person living in a very connected world. A lot of what was said really spoke to me, and I think it's important to acknowledge what we do wrong each day, but not dwell on it either, which I think is the point here. Say sorry, prostrate yourself, and be free of it. Like I said, this is really oversimplified and maybe I misinterpreted it all but this is what I took from it. 108 bows went much quicker than I was expecting  but was happy to be done with it. I know we went on a walk through the forest too - but cannot remember when exactly this was (it was early, okay).

We then ate breakfast, and given the choice between taking a rest or going on another walk, I took rest ;) Was honestly the most life changing nap ever, and felt much more alive after that. It was back to the main hall where we chilled a lot and had the head monk at the temple come and briefly address us (this is all before 8am). They really have a very calming way about them. We had Q&A time with him and our nun, which was very interesting, allowing us to try and understand Buddhism better. I love that it is a religion that is all inclusive; with no one god, it allows for all beliefs to come together and take from it what we can. I can understand why Buddhists choose to live the life they do...the best way to describe it in my eyes is with what Gandhi said: Live simply so that others may simply live. There is nothing I really agree with more than that.

We sat down to a traditional tea ceremony, where we were taught how to pour and drink the tea, and it was all just very relaxed. When asked about heaven, the nun (I really wish I could remember her name) said something along the lines of 'look at us here, laughing, enjoying each others company - this is heaven on earth'. A beautiful way to think of it.

Cue lunch, and the trek back to the buses, and we were on our way home. Honestly, I took way more out of the weekend than I ever expected to, and thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience. I came home feeling relaxed despite the early morning, and am really happy I was given the opportunity to learn more about such a fascinating religion. It should be noted here, as I know a lot of people back home are probably wondering, that just because I went on this experience  does not mean I'm becoming a Buddhist. That's not what it's about. I feel I can take a lot from their teachings, and in today's world, we need to be teaching openness and tolerance, and emphasising our roles as consumers and this is where I think some Buddhist principles can be really helpful.  You don't need to be put in a box and defined as 'either this' 'or that' - at least I don't. And this weekend was about learning more and having a truly Korean experience, which is what I'm here for!

There were plenty cameramen around us, and lots of pictures were taken. Shame, I don't think the small town knew what had hit them with all 80 of us walking down the street.
There was a clip about the weekend on the Korean news, which you can see here.

So all in all, I had a wonderful weekend temple experience, and would really recommend you try it. The one in Boeun is especially beautiful but they are all over Korea! I'm glad I went, and learned above all that sometimes, our assumptions and expectations need to be ignored.

Happy Tuesday everyone!
Peace and love


  1. Bron this is a really beautiful post! And you're so right about it not being put in a box, as either this or that because here i think its about life principles, and how important our roles in this world are, and how we should look after ourselves and live as peacefully as possible. I think its so important to get away and clear your mind - our bodies deserve it. So happy that you experienced that. Loved reading this.

  2. Beautiful and insightful comment, thank you my B. This is one of the many things you can look forward to possibly experiencing here! Open minds and open hearts can only be a good thing, and all these experiences and lessons learned help us grow. Miss you, am excited for all the lies ahead of you <3