I have returned from a wonderful week-long trip to Seoul, South Korea. It was my first visit there and I came away impressed and eager to return. The people were friendly, the city clean, and the public transportation reliable, pervasive, and easy to use. And the sites! Beautiful historic palaces and wondrous Buddhist temples are sprinkled throughout the modern city, which is itself cradled between mountains and river. I felt like I barely scratched the surface of all there was to see and do.
The highlight of my trip was an overnight templestay at Myogaksa Temple. The Korea templestay program has been operated for more than ten years by the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, allowing visitors to participate in the life of one of Korea’s many Buddhist temples for a short time, learning about Korean Buddhist practices and teachings. It’s a wonderful experience, especially as several of the participating temples have English-language programs designed to be foreigner-friendly. I was very fortunate that one of the Seoul-area temples with an English-language program was hosting a templestay program on the weekend that I was there.
Saturday afternoon, I arrived at the tiny Myogaksa Temple complex, which is nestled in a warren of steep urban streets. I felt quite embarrassed as I was weighed down with excessive luggage; my templestay was at the end of my trip and that very morning I’d had to buy an extra suitcase to store all of the souvenirs and gifts I’d purchased to take home! The temple attendants gracefully assisted me in getting to the temple and hauling my heavy bags up to the second floor of the modern building that contains the temple offices and living quarters. I was shown to a sleeping room with a locker for my belongings and given a simple uniform of pants and shirt to change into.
When I was taken down to the program orientation at 3pm, I learned to my surprise that I was the only participant in that weekend’s templestay. Even though Myogaksa Temple receives some 3,000 visitors each year, this particular weekend, only I and two others had registered – and the two others had cancelled. I was so grateful that the program proceeded anyway. I ended up unexpectedly receiving a very personal templestay experience.
The head of the Myogaksa templestay program, Yeoeun Sunim, is a Korean Buddhist nun. In Korea, both monks and nuns are called “Sunim” and both wear the same clothing. She was intensely energetic, perceptive, and disciplined, an endless font of information about Zen Buddhism, Korean Buddhist practices, and the history of the temple.
Sunim started off by demonstrating the proper form of Korean prostrations. Then she instructed me on the procedure for making a mala (Buddhist rosary): I was to prostrate, string one bead while still kneeling, then stand, prostrate again, string another bead, and so forth, until the full mala of 108 prayer beads was complete. During each prostration, I was to have the mental focus of laying down my regrets, sort of expressing an apology to myself and to the universe for all my thoughts and actions undertaken under the influence of the three poisons of greed, anger, and foolishness. I had plenty of mental material to fill those 108 prostrations! I felt something very powerful when I finished and the temple assistant tied the mala together and handed it to me, a physical reminder of my past regrets and current aspirations for future virtuous conduct.
Next Yeoeun Sunim instructed me in sitting meditation technique, even demonstrating the wooden stick used to keep Zen monastics alert during meditation. Sunim said that during intense practice periods she really appreciated the teaching of the wooden stick coming down on her shoulders because it invigorated her sleepy body. She told me that she’d just come out of such a period during which many monastics gathered at Myogaksa for multiple consecutive sessions of 20-hours-a-day meditation (50 minutes sitting, 10 minutes mindful movement, repeat, repeat, repeat), with only 2 hours a day of sleep.
When later, during the temple tour, we stood before the statue of Bodhidharma and Sunim told me the story of how Bodhidharma got so frustrated by the drooping of his eyelids during meditation that he ripped them off (according to the story, they fell and become tea leaves, which have an energizing effect), I got the feeling that Yeoeun Sunim greatly sympathized with his frustration. I was amazed by her visceral determination to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. For the first time, I got a direct insight in what it really means to renounce lay life and completely devote oneself to practice. I was in awe of her commitment and painfully aware of my own undisciplined mind.
The temple was originally built in 1930, but it burned down completely in a fire not many years ago, killing the previous Zen Master; the fire trucks were unable to reach the temple due to the steep and narrow surrounding streets. It took seven years to get funding and rebuild. I saw echoes of this tale repeated all over Seoul, where fires, war, and last century’s Japanese occupation destroyed palaces, temples, government buildings, and so much else, over and over again. One of the most inspirational parts of my trip was realizing how the Korean people dealt with this adversity, always getting back up, starting over, rebuilding what had been lost, and moving on, while remaining respectful of their heritage and culture.
Myogaksa Temple is a jewel. I was delighted when I peaked into the ground floor of the main temple and saw the beautiful statue of the many-armed bodhisattva of compassion, called Avalokiteśvara in Sanskrit and Chenrezig in Tibetan. The main sadhana practice I do is a short daily Chenrezig practice and this was the second time on my Seoul trip that Chenrezig showed up in a very prominent way – the first time was earlier in my trip when I went to visit Bongwonsa Temple, sat down to meditate for a short time at a shrine where a group of mostly older Korean women were already sitting, and ended up unexpectedly participating in a two-hour-long Buddhist service completely in Korean; I only figured out the focus of the service when the mantra recitation started and I picked out Chenrezig’s Korean name: Kwan Seum Bosal! The main Buddha statue at Myogaksa, set against the cliff face, is a designated national cultural treasure from the ninth or early tenth century.
At 5pm, it was time for tea with the Zen Master, once again a particular treat given that only myself and Yeoeun Sunim were in attendance. As Sunim translated, I learned that the Zen Master has traveled several times to the United States to do ceremonies for the spirits of our restless dead, particularly in the wake of 9/11. He has another trip upcoming for the same purpose. Yeoeun Sunim told him that I was a long-time Buddhist. Apparently, although they’ve had many foreign Buddhists come through their templestay program and many Americans, they’ve never had an American Buddhist before. He offered me some thoughtful and compassionate advice for dealing with a personal problem, which Sunim elaborated on later. I was very grateful for their attention, concern, and insights.
After the tea ceremony, I accompanied Sunim up to the big bell at the top of a flight of stairs, overlooking the temple and the city. In addition to the bell, at the top there was a shrine to various Buddhist guardians and another shrine honoring the spirit of the mountain, which is only one-third of its original size after having been quarried by the Japanese during the occupation. Our purpose at this time was to sound the big bell, bringing relief to those suffering in other realms. Only Sunim may invite the bell, but I was allowed to lay my hands on the massive wooden striker while she did so. Then we mindfully walked (at Sunim’s fast clip) over to the main temple, where we joined another Sunim for evening prayers. They did the chanting; I admired the stunning temple statues and paintings and tried to prostrate at the same time they did, trying not to be too obvious as I stared up at the thousands of lotus lanterns hanging from the ceiling.
Dinner was served downstairs in the main administrative building, across from the teaching shrine where most of the templestay program takes place. The earlier part of my Seoul trip I had stayed in a traditional Korean guesthouse, where I’d learned about all of the shoe changing that takes place in Korea – outside shoes are placed on a shelf by the front door, replaced by inside flip-flops; inside flip-flops are removed before entering the bathroom, replaced with bathroom flip-flops. During the templestay, that complexity was heightened with the addition of quick bows to any Buddhist statute that you passed while walking around. It definitely helped to keep me mindful, especially as I tried to keep up with Sunim!
Dinner was a delicious assortment of vegetarian foods, served buffet style with the only requirement being that you had to eat everything you took and you had to eat in silence. I enjoy most Korean food; the biggest difficulty I faced food-wise in Seoul was finding vegetarian menus. Thankfully templefood is inherently vegetarian. Sunim warned me that lights had to be out by 9:30pm but I was sound asleep on my comfy futon well before 9pm, which allowed me to pop up promptly the next morning.
At 4:30am Sunday morning I heard the sound of someone beating a moktak (a wooden percussion instrument in the rough shape of a fish, symbolizing wakeful alertness because fish never close their eyes). Sunim looked pleased to see me so awake when I joined her at 4:55am in the pre-dawn chill. We moved mindfully yet swiftly around the temple complex, inviting the morning bell and paying our respects with prostrations to the guardians, the mountain god, and the temple statutes. After observing morning chanting in the main temple, I followed Sunim down to the teaching shrine, where we settled down for one hour of sitting meditation facing each other. Sunim maintained perfect posture for the hour and looked like a living Buddha statue; I felt relieved that I didn’t shift too frequently or make a lot of noise!
There was a little time to rest before breakfast, which featured the previous dinner’s leftovers as well as rice, soup, and fruit. Note to self – next time, stick to the rice, soup, and fruit as my stomach is not prepared for kimchi at 7am! Then there was a little more time to rest before the final activity: tea ceremony with Sunim. The previous day, the Zen Master had made the lovely tea that we’d shared; this time both Sunim and I had a tea tray and she showed me how to make the tea myself in the traditional Korean style. This was also the last opportunity for Sunim to impart wisdom to me. I was grateful for her willingness to share her personal experience in a way that helped me understand my own difficulties and inspired me to practice more diligently at home.
Sunim explained that while a greedy mind is a poisoned mind, an aspirational mind is quite positive. She gave the example that if she hopes to become enlightened and then just sits around and doesn’t practice, her hope is the product of a greedy, poisoned mind. However, if she hopes to become enlightened and then practices very hard, her hope is the product of positive aspirational mind. I hope that her determined energy will inspire my own practice, which has been notably more diligent and regular since my return!
a little poem posted on the inside of a bathroom stall door at Myogaksa Temple:
If my life could not change a person,
my words cannot either.
If my life in itself cannot affect him,
my words cannot either.
– Kang Mi-jeong, children’s book writer
translated by Kim Sun-ae
Some photos from my templestay
Another interesting account of someone else’s Myogaksa templestay