Meditating with Monks

The weekend finally came and we woke up bright and early on Saturday morning to catch the bus to Gyeongju, where my parents were waiting to meet us. They had been in the city since Wednesday and I couldn’t wait to hear what they had been up to. As soon as we got off the bus I felt a world away from the skyscrapers of Seoul, its busy, crowded streets and often polluted sky.

After a delicious bento box lunch, we caught the bus and headed to Bulguksa, a beautiful temple just outside of the city, where we would be spending most of our time here on a templestay. Having visited many temples during our stay in Korea so far, I have become fascinated with Buddhism and temple life. It seemed a templestay would be the perfect introduction to this religion and a great cultural experience for my parents too on their trip. We were met at tourist information by Young Hee, who was going to guide us throughout our stay, and taken to the small house (pension) we would be staying in overnight. Because the temple is a UNESCO world heritage site, we were unable to stay in the actual temple complex. Our accommodation was simple but nice, with enough mattresses for the floor and blankets to ensure we would get a somewhat comfortable night’s sleep.
We changed into our templestay clothes; a pair of comfy baggy trousers and a sleeveless top to go over our t-shirts and off to the temple we went. It was by far the most crowded temple I have visited as of yet. Young Hee gave us a tour and explained, in rather limited English, the history of the site and Korean Buddhism. She taught us how to bow properly and the correct position for meditation. The heavens opened and the rain came down throughout the afternoon gently encouraging the tourists to leave. Dinner time soon came around and we headed to the dining hall. A simple line of dishes met us; rice, and different kinds of kimchi, beans and seaweed. We served ourselves and I remembered reading that it was expected that you ate everything you took but you could go up for seconds. It was modest but delicious, and just what we needed.
Beating the drum before the evening ceremony
After dinner we headed outside to find that the temple had now closed to tourists and visitors. Wow. What a different feel it had. Empty, the peacefulness and serenity of the place returned.  We stood outside the front of the temple and looked up to watch the monks beating the drum that symbolised the starting of the evening ceremony. Surprisingly calming, the repetitive drumming was mesmerising to watch and listen to. Next the large bell was rung and we headed into the Daeungjeon Hall as the last wooden instruments were being played. We did our three bows on entry into the temple and then followed the monks in front of us as they bowed and chanted. The experience was very new for all of us. Not knowing much about Buddhism, it felt difficult to appreciate the spirituality that is associated with it although it was very calming.
The tea ceremony
After the evening ceremony we headed back to the pension where we were to have a tea ceremony with one of the monks. This was by far the best experience of the stay for all of us. He had the process down to a fine art (and that’s saying something coming from an English tea drinker like me!) and ensured our small, delicate tea cups weren’t left empty. As we sipped our tea we spoke together. First about our family and what we are doing and then the conversation moved onto Buddhism. He told us about his decision to become a monk and what he values as the most important aspects of Buddhism. Despite going through Young Hee, who was translating, his insight was truly interesting. But it was clear that he found it frustrating being unable to express himself in English, meaning the true value of what he was saying really was lost in translation. As we neared 9pm our time together came to an end as we had to get an early night before the morning ceremony.
At 3.30am Young Hee beeped her horn and we headed out to the car and to the temple. We took a steep path through the side entrance to the temple complex. It was silent, except for our footsteps. The lanterns that lined the ceiling of the pavilions surrounding the main halls of the temple were lit and in the silence of the night they looked beautiful. We made our way once more to the Daeungjeon hall as the drums started to beat, symbolising the start of the morning ceremony. Sitting cross-legged and listening was really calming and helped me to clear my mind and focus. As the music came to an end, the monks began their chanting and once again we followed as the bowed. At the end of the ceremony we sat and meditated as one monk continued to chant. Poor Ramsey’s legs were still aching from the gym and sitting cross-legged was becoming more and more uncomfortable for him. The trick was to fold the pillow behind you so you were slightly raised, taking the pressure off of your knees slightly!
Lanterns guiding the way to the morning ceremony
As the last monk left the hall, we stayed and took out our beads and string with which we would make our prayer beads. After one bow, we strung one bead onto the string. There were about 22 beads. It amazed me just how focussing on bowing and the beads really helped to clear my mind. I could actually feel a kind of zen state… that was until I accidentally farted as I sat up from one bow. And with that my focus was gone and I felt back to reality. It was difficult not to burst out laughing to hide my embarrassment! Mum and Dad told me later that they didn’t hear it as they were in such a meditative state, but it didn’t escape Ramsey’s ears, despite him being furthest from me.
Young Hee told us that this was the first time she had ever been allowed to meditate and do the prayer beads activity in the Daeungjeon hall, and normally it took place in the lecture hall at the back of the temple complex. She felt lucky to be there meditating with special permission from the monks. With our new beads in hand we looked out over the temple and began to meditate as the sun rose and everything around us became light. Despite not necessarily being able to feel the spirituality of the place which Young Hee said was so strong, it was undoubtedly a peaceful experience.
Breakfast followed. Poor Dad wasn’t quite expecting more rice and kimchi first thing in the morning, but I definitely wasn’t complaining, especially as I hadn’t eaten too much at dinner. We jumped back in the car after breakfast and headed to Seokguram, a cave in the mountains that is home to the only stone Buddha statue in Korea. A winding road with 99 bends took us there as we cut through the heavy fog that lay in our path. The Buddha was absolutely beautiful; very much made in a different style to the Korean Buddha statues in the temples we have seen.
We headed back to the pension to bring our stay to a close, changing out of our templestay clothes and being taken back to reality. It had definitely been an interesting and insightful experience.
The rest of our day in Gyeongju was spent with Mum and Dad taking us around the places they had visited. The Cheonmachong tomb, anapji pond and Cheomseongdae observatory were all lovely to see. However the highlight was definitely dinner! Sukyeong Sikdang didn’t look like much from the outside, and was definitely a restaurant you would walk past. But we had to wait 20 minutes to get a table! It was well worth the wait! A delicious pajeon (Korean pancake), bibimbap and countless side dishes, all washed down with some homemade dongdongju (rice wine). The owner spoke fantastic English and was able to explain to use exactly what the side dishes were and how to eat everything.


Before we knew it, it was time for Ramsey and me to catch the bus back to Seoul as we would soon find ourselves back at work! Nevertheless we returned relaxed and calmed after a weekend of reflection and meditation. Mum and Dad took a train to Busan the following morning to carry on their adventure!

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