Updated: Sep 20, 2020
I first came to Korea in back in 2008 as an earnest Mormon missionary. I had been assigned the greater Seoul area as the location where I’d spend a year and a half as a volunteer working to recruit new members of the church and to support those already in the area.
As soon as I found out where I’d be going, I started preparing for the my time there–learning about the Koreas and working on the language. And once in South Korea, I tried hard to stay observant and open to the country’s culture.
This was the case with one comment I often heard–I remember spending time thinking it through and trying to understand it. Though I’m not very Mormon currently, the missionary-me of the past was very devoted to the religion, a religion that teaches that it alone has the complete truth that can give you salvation. The missionary-me was taught to testify of this truth, to tell individuals that I knew it was true.
The response that took me aback was when the individual I was testifying to readily agreed with me. Yes, they'd say, it's true. This would be followed by: “There are many paths to the top of the mountain.”
And that was my first real introduction to Buddhism.
Since then, I’ve spent time learning a little more about Buddhism. I find many of its teachings helpful from a mental-health perspective: things like finding the middle path rather than extremes, and like the idea that we’re all connected. In the last few months, I’ve also tried to start meditating regularly–though this might have more to do with how meditation and mindfulness (independent of any certain spiritual practice) is being shown to have all sorts of positive benefits. But when I heard my husband would be traveling to Korea for work, I didn’t want him experiencing Korea without me. And when, planning for our trip, I found out many of the 3,000+ Buddhist temples in South Korea offer “temple stays” for visitors, I thought it might be a good opportunity to have a different kind of spiritual experience in the country.
Planning the stay
There seem to be a lot of resources dedicated to the promotion of tourism in Korea, including the handy website www.eng.templestay.com. I used the website to find a program near where we’d be staying and with a schedule that looked interesting. I decided on Bongeunsa Temple in the Gangnam (yes, that Gangnam) area of Seoul.
Bongeunsa Temple in Gangnam
I guess I expected a Buddhist temple would be old, small, and dusty. But Bongeunsa is no museum. The grounds have a large parking lot that always seemed full, and a campus of at least a dozen buildings, including ones over 100 years old up to new construction. There are monks (who live on the campus), security guards and cooks and janitors, construction workers, and a steady stream of lay people coming to worship.
Home of the temple stay program
For the temple stay program, I was directed to a newer but traditional-style building.
Traditional Korean “yo” beds, including a pillow that felt like it was filled with pebbles
I was assigned a room; my roommate, Laura, from Ireland, had already arrived. I was also issued a uniform for the stay: a soft, pajama-like top and pants in traditional Korean style that you can sometimes see older Koreans wearing.
There were thirteen of us for this English-language temple stay: Five from Ireland (including three brothers who had signed up together), three from Indonesia (including two actual Buddhists), two sisters from London, two Americans, and one from Austria.
Nam Kyung was our hostess, and she started things off by explaining that, at the temple, they do not impose any beliefs or dogmas. She then taught us about temple etiquette: how to bow (in sets of three, for the Buddha, his teachings, and the Buddhist community), how to hold your hands when walking around the temple campus (one in front of the other, held in front of the navel), and how to prostrate. Our group tried it–several knees audibly popped or cracked. It made Nam Kyung laugh. It made me think that it all didn’t have to be super somber and serious.
We were then all issued official, ajumma-style Bongeunsa visors for a tour of the temple.
Our tour guide didn’t introduce herself, but later one of our activity leaders said she was a volunteer at the temple, and that she tries to live a life in accordance with what the Buddha teaches, and that she wanted to share that with others.
A tour of Bongeunsa Temple
I think our guide was also a volunteer, and I really appreciated what I learned from her. She shared some interesting information, including the following (these are not fact-checked, but just based on what our guide taught us):
Buddhism came to Korea from China around the year 500 CE
The main building of a temple is generally built around ashes of the Buddha or some other relic
The Buddha told his followers not to make images or statues of him. He taught them that what mattered were his teachings–but the people still wanted images and relics.
Buddhism never suppressed other beliefs. The temple’s campus includes a building with a shrine for the gods of Korean folk religion, belief that existed in Korea before Buddhism.
Statues of the Buddha where he’s standing are of a “future Buddha” who has arrived in another realm after his physical death. He’s standing because “he has just arrived.” Bongeunsa temple’s large statue of “future Buddha” was fairly recently built with funds from donors, and represents a hope for the reunification of North and South Korea.
The monks have a daily ritual where they play four instruments at the opening and closing of each day: A drum, a bell, and two gongs that look like a fish and a cloud. This is so that “all creatures” can hear the Buddha’s teachings.
Lanterns are an architectural motif at the temple because they represent enlightenment with how they light the darkness; “Night means not yet awakened.”
Tea Ceremony and Copying Sutras
Our next activities were witnessing a tea ceremony and practicing our calligraphy skills. Both were with the idea of practicing mindfulness.
After a dinner of rice and vegetables, we were joined by a real-live monk for “the 108 prostrations,” a practice that is about mindfulness, but also about purification and repentance.
The cushions we had been using before dinner now each had a white cloth on them. Nam Kyung explained that it was because you start sweating pretty quick when doing the 108 prostrations. I was skeptical–our practicing made prostrating seem like quite a calming activity.
Ready for prostrations
We did the prostrating to an English-language recording. It turns out each prostration was for a different expression of repentance, gratitude, or as some kind of vow.
And each one was fast. The monk at the head of the room went from standing to kneeling with his forehead to the ground back to standing (without pushing up with your hands) in a few seconds. I was proud of myself for getting the prostrations done in a pretty similar time to our monk leader. I looked around the room–I was obviously doing better than the others.
But as the twenty minutes of prostrations continued, a few things happened: First, it became obvious that this was a cardio activity. Second, I started to get a little worried that my knees wouldn’t make it–and if not my knees, my quads. But third, I was able to start closing my eyes as the repetitious movements became more comfortable. I started focusing on the movements, on each line that was read with each prostration: Lines about asking forgiveness for unkind or cruel or neglectful actions, for not having compassion, for not being thankful to those who grow our food and make our clothing or taught us. Lines asking forgiveness for believing only what I saw or heard or did was correct. Lines about praying for an end to poverty and war and disease.
And then we finished. My knees made it. But more than that, the activity made me think: Maybe I can be a little more patient, a little more understanding, a little more compassionate.
Our last activity of the day was a yoga session. I was apprehensive–I’ve tried yoga a few times, but am simply not a fan of holding an uncomfortable position for long stretches. It was a good experience, though, planned for beginners and for meditation.
4 AM wakeup
After a night on a traditional Korean bed roll on the floor, we were up and assembled by 4 AM.
It was dark and cold when we were lead to the actual temple-part of the temple. Despite the early hour, the building was full of monks and lay people. I was tired, though, and had no idea what we were doing. Unlike the other carefully-designed activities of the stay, we didn’t get a careful orientation and explanation to this one. We were lined up with other worshipers; the monks chanted and kept a loud rhythm by striking something with a stick. We bowed, then prostrated, then sat, then stood, then prostrated…I felt a bit “over it,” and still puzzled about why we had to do this at four in the morning (along with being puzzled at what exactly was going on).
At four in the morning
After, we went back to our temple-stay building, and our same monk friend came to talk to us about meditation. Nam Kyung, who also served as translator, struggled with the language and getting his ideas across. I speak some Korean (after using it for a year and a half as a missionary), but couldn’t catch enough of his quick speech to understand. He did clearly communicate the certain way we had to sit cross-legged, how we were to place our hands, and what we were to think with each breath in and out.
Ready for meditation
The meditation session was our last planned activity of the temple stay. We had some time on our own, then cleaned things up and packed, and assembled one last time. Nam Kyung had some gifts for us, and we filled out a very official Gallup survey on the experience.
Overall, now that this experience has ended, here’s what I think.
First, my body’s sore from prostrations, yoga, sitting cross-legged for hours, and sleeping on the floor.
Second, I want to continue with meditation, and maybe even give yoga another try. I also heard Nam Kyung telling another participant that doing 108 prostrations gets easier even within a week of doing them regularly. It might just be worth trying at home–I did find the practice meditative and thought-provoking.
Third, I feel like a know more about Buddhism, and I want to keep learning more about Buddhist teachings. I’m not really interested in becoming Buddhist, but instead am interested in doing what I was told as a Mormon not to do: picking and choosing the aspects of Buddhism that are helpful to me, and leaving the aspects that aren’t. For example, I disagreed with some of the things I heard during my stay, like with some of the lines during the 108 prostrations: “I vow to be helpful in all that I do…to always be loving towards others…to be humble…positive in all that I do….” I think these are wonderful concepts, but: If I whole-heartedly vow to these things, I will fail (it’s impossible to do these things 100% of the time), and then comes the guilt and frustration.
Absolutes are some of the things that have gotten me in trouble religion-wise in the past. It’s also the kind of thinking that I think can contribute to depression. Instead of absolute vows, I’ve found it so much more helpful to think about trying, then at the end of the day giving yourself some grace for what you failed at or didn’t do like you hoped, then being willing to get back at it and try again the next day.
I also realized during the temple stay that I didn’t want anyone telling me how I was supposed to meditate, or for how long, or what I was supposed to think about, or how I was supposed to sit. Maybe again this has to do with how I don’t think absolute rules are that helpful.
So, I don’t want things that will give me guilt, or that will turn out to be painful. Still, I can remember how my actions have ripples, and to try to be mindful of others. I can try to be a little more patient, a little more loving (that might even include towards myself). This experience was unique, that’s for sure. I think, also, that it will be helpful moving forward.