I felt supremely grateful for the timing of the Chuseok holiday.
Between classroom difficulties (one student accused of cheating during a game yelled at my co-teacher and his classmates), lesson difficulties (A lesson bombed due to insufficient English speaking and excessive ease), and other serious interpersonal student problems beyond the scope of my class, I had a very difficult week.
For the first time in a very long time, drained of motivation, energy, and good cheer, I felt like I needed a church.
Instead, I went to a temple.
Following the Naju Summer Camp, one of my orientation-mates, Nonstop, invited me to join her temple stay getaway.
Nonstop earns her name from an unceasing work ethic and a seemingly irrepressible stream of thoughts. However, she simultaneously also lives up British stereotypes of repressed stoicism.
However, when the unstoppable force of a wild-mustang mind meets the immovable object of British stiff upper lips, the lip can quiver.
Seeking refuge, she embarked on a one-night temple stay during the summer. By virtue of planning a 3-night return stay and inviting me in the process, I assumed that her experience was fruitful.
It proved to be an en pointe assumption.
We arrived at Mihwangsa, a temple on the bottom of the Korean mainland, on Saturday. The crisp fresh air, happily chirping birds, and a whimsical symphony of insects immediately instilled serene spiritual peace in my muddled mind.
After changing into refreshingly breathable temple garb, I sat down for a newcomer orientation while Nonstop retreated to her room to read. One hour later, I promptly forgot 70% of the interpreter’s instructions – aside from the temple etiquette.
“Try to remain quiet when possible.”
“Please show up at all activities.”
“Do not waste any food.”
The etiquette was in fact quite simple. However, entering such spiritual grounds for the first time rattled some nerves. I did not want to be that foreigner who trampled his ponderous frame all over Buddhist culture.
This apprehension hung in my head as I sat silently in the dining hall, eating vegetables fit for a king. Who knew veganism could be so tasty? (Hint: not me). The pickled radishes, kimchi, spinach, bean sprouts, acorn jelly, tofu, and soup danced a savory samba across my taste buds.
“I could get used to this,” I thought.
Next came another miracle. People stood up to grab seconds. I gleefully (but silently) followed the herd.
After dinner, evening chanting commenced. Sitting on my knees with my hands at heart-center, I listened to soothing Korean verse as I dutifully followed my peers with full and half bows before Buddha statues. Initially, this whole ritual felt both uneasy and calming. As the weekend progressed, my comfort level grew and the calm overpowered the unease.
Finally, the evening concluded with an evening tea time. A monk poured tea with slow yet deliberate hands (as if he had practiced those exact motions for years on end) while he quizzed us about our temple stay experience.
“How did Nonstop convince you to join her for this temple stay,” the interpreter translated.
“Well, I dreamed of a Korean temple experience before I even arrived in Korea. When Nonstop invited me to join her, I could think of no better way to spend my Chuseok holiday,” I replied.
Sleeping on the floor proved difficult the first night. I yearned for my extra-firm mattress back in Namak as if it were a cloud of feathers. The floor blankets and beanbag-like pillows did not promote comfort.
But I did not attend this temple stay for comfort and luxury. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Each day began at 5:00 when the clacking of wooden instruments gently prodded me from my light sleep.
Next came the morning chanting characterized by candles, incense, more soothing Buddhist scripture, and ten minutes of silent sitting meditation.
I have some meditation experience – nearly two years. However, there was something unique and surreal about meditating in a sacred Buddha hall among fellow practitioners. Candlelight and a symphony of insects and running water served as sensory anchors.
Peace permeated my mind as pain permeated by knees and hips. (Sitting on the floor is not my strong suit).
Following this meditation came a plentiful plant-based breakfast. In fact, nearly every meal had the same elements, as if completely interchangeable. But I could not complain. It was delicious.
Next came one hour of “working meditation.” This is one hour of quiet, mindful work. In my case, it involved affixing mailing labels to envelopes. I found this habitual, repetitive task surprisingly absorbing.
Nonstop was so enthralled that she volunteered to continue sticking labels during free time the next day.
Next came three hours of free time.
Nearly boundless free time with no phone, no computer, and no work proved liberating. There was nothing but hiking, reading, and meditation on my to-do list. And even those three things were “like-to-do” not “must-do-or-else.”
So I appreciated reading, relaxing, and recreating with friends. I read two and a half books and hiked nearly 25 kilometers during these free stretches of time. Without the ever-forward-marching clock and beckoning vibrations of my phone, the present moment became my new home.
At 11:30, we ate lunch and then commenced another five hours of free time.
We occasionally diverted from the trifecta of recommended activities.
One morning, Nonstop and I bowed 108 times while silently reciting various prayers. For example, “To always do my best even in trivial matters, I prostrate.” Each prayer was a promise or wish for well-being and right action. Following each bow, I threaded a single bead. By the end, I produced a necklace imbued with deep spiritual meaning.
The next day, in celebration of Korean Thanksgiving, we all gathered in the dining hall to make songpyeon – a traditional Korean stuffed rice cake.
It was more difficult than anticipated. How rice dough can be powdery, sticky, and flaky at the same time I do not know. We had to knead a dough ball in our hands for several minutes before flattening the edges with our fingers, forming a cup. Inside the cup, we added red beans, sesame sugar, peanuts, or a chestnut. Finally, we sealed the cup and pinched the edges.
The kitchen staff steamed these cakes and served them at our evening tea. I’m not sure if I was hungry or just genuinely appreciated of the taste, but I ate mine quickly. Ten minutes later, the monk asked if anyone wanted more rice cakes.
Everyone looked at the tall gentleman with a clean plate and a reputation for eating.
At first, I refused out of politeness. Honestly, I didn’t need more food.
“They love it when you eat a lot,” remarked one frequent temple stayer.
So I relented to the tune of three more plates. Captain Fatass arrived on a vegan weekend getaway.
Nightly tea meditation may be the most memorable experience. With the help of the English translator, a monk asked us questions.
“How was your day?”
“I went hiking in the mountains. I saw a snake just hanging out, doing snake things. But when I reached for my phone to take a picture, he slithered away. I think he was just shy.”
Following each temple vacationer’s update, we could ask the monk questions. But like the snake, I too was shy. I was content to sit and listen to responses while shifting my screaming knees and lower back in a futile search for a comfortable position.
The monk’s cheery demeanor, sense of humor, and illuminating smile helped me end each day on a high note.
By the final morning, I felt very much at home. I opened the chant book and began singing the syllables in synchrony with the others. I ate second portions for every meal like it was a Hometown Buffet. I instinctively placed my palms at heart-center and bowed whenever I encountered a monk or other temple inhabitant (a respectful practice know as hapjae).
Our English translator was as kind as a person could be. She gifted us not only a traditional teacup but also a threaded bracelet representing the “five threads of Buddhism.” She even took the trouble of calling us a taxi and waiting with us until it showed up. With a parting hug, Nonstop, our coffee-crazed Canadian friend, and I embarked towards our respective cities.
Today I find it difficult to describe my temple stay experience. “Fun” is not the right word. A vacation in Yeosu, Japan, Hong Kong, or Singapore would be fun. Waking up on weekends at 5:00 sharp was not fun. Sitting cross-legged in pain was not fun.
However, whatever physical pains I accrued pale in comparison to the psychological and spiritual well-being I felt upon departure. I’ve had an intellectual curiosity in Buddhism for over two years. I’ve practiced meditation for about the same time for the purpose of mental clarity and emotional equanimity. In other words, I viewed Buddhism exclusively in abstract, intellectual, self-help terms.
However, my experience in Mihwangsa transformed my practice from one of strict self-improvement to one of spiritual well-being. Now when I hold my necklace in my hands and focus on my breath, I feel more at peace and compassionate than I ever felt before.
As astute reader may notice the title of this post – My First Temple Stay Experience. I loved my stay so much I plan to return for one night in October.
In fact, the day after making my reservation, I received an email from the temple expressing their joy at seeing my name in their system. They were happy that I wanted to return.
So was I.