Seoul Searching 3: A Moment of Calm
Winding through thick trees, I couldn’t help but stare off into the distance, watching as the trees began to disappear to make room for the temple’s paved clearing.
The temple stay programme was one of the original things on my South Korea to-do list but, like all things in my life, it took months of procrastination and guilt-ridden anxiety to force me to book my slot. It wasn’t until my final month in South Korea that I finally rushed to book a group ticket for myself and a few friends.
As the purpose of the temple stay programme is to be at one with nature and experience life as a Korean Buddhist monk, I was a tad sceptical about how much I would enjoy my time here. My idea of fun involves action heavy weekends, so the thought of spending my Saturday twiddling my thumbs and contemplating my every mistake seemed a little daunting. Especially as everything was so communal: praying together, cooking together, cleaning together, even showering together – How on earth could I reflect on life if I was constantly surrounded by others?
However, once I arrived at the temple, my previous worries melted away, and I readied myself to fully embrace the experience. Filled with large open spaces, the temple prioritised comfort over novelty. In the past, I had visited temples which were crammed with statues and gift shops, swarming with tourists; however, Seongwonsa temple felt more natural and peaceful. The trees cloaked the surrounds dampening any outside noise, leaving you alone with the gentle buzz of thoughts (or perhaps the mosquitoes?)
Central to the temple was a stone pagoda, the only remaining piece of the original temple which had been burned down a few centuries prior. Behind the pagoda was the main temple, which was beautifully adorned with small Buddha statues and a raised alter for the head monks. At the front of the room was a giant golden Buddha, the monks were careful to never show their back to the Buddha as this would be a sign of disrespect.
While all temples in South Korea look practically identical, what took me aback about Seongwonsa was the eerie quiet. Despite being packed full of monks and visitors, there were few traces of them. Usually, you would be able to see large groups of people praying outside the temples; however, everybody here seemed to have been spirited away.
After briefly looking around, we made our way to the back of the temple where the temple stay programme offices were kept. Unlike the temples which were painted with elaborate murals, the rooms here were a modest white, showing the monks detachment to the world. Here we were met by a woman called Kim Jaelim, our programme coordinator and translator.
From the moment we met her she was cheerful and bubbly, boasting that we were her first foreign guests and that she had been very excited to meet us. Handing us a schedule and list of rules, she quickly took us to our rooms where we would pair off later in the evening.
Our first activity involved threading 108 prayer beads onto a necklace. The number 108 is significant within Buddhism as it is seen as a number that symbolises the wholeness of existence, it connects the Earth to the Sun and the Moon. Before you can thread a single bead you must first do a series of bows: first, you bow while standing; next, you prostrate yourself and bow to the floor; finally, you bow the floor raising your hands to your ears for the Buddha’s feet, this process must be iterated for each bead you add to the necklace. As you can imagine, this means that each necklace is filled with dedication (or exhaustion in my case).
With numb knees, we moved onto our next activity of the day: The striking of the dharma bell. According to Buddhist tradition, the sounds emitted from the dharma bell provides solace to all that hear it as the ring is representative of Buddha’s teachings. For the first 15-minutes of the ceremony, we watched the monks take it in turns to rhythmically tap their instruments. Captivated by their service, I practically jumped out of my body when Jaelim started ushering us up the stairs to join the head monk.
Lined up along the side of a wooden balcony, we nervously looked down at the masses of people watching us. Moving to the back of the line, I could feel my heartbeat in the back of my throat. Each step forward was followed by a clang which vibrated through my entirety, amplifying my anxiety. By the time I reached the front of the line my hands were clammy, and my legs had a slight tremble: Jumping off a building, no problem; hitting a bell in public, terrifying – riddle me that.
The wooden pole that used to hit the bell was heavier than I anticipated, I expected it to be hollow but instead found it was quite literally half a tree. Heaving the trunk in the air I quickly released it, shuddering at the quake. My prior concerns now seemed ridiculous.
Having worked up an appetite, we were then whisked off to dinner. The canteen was separated into four long Hogwarts-esque tables where everyone sat in silence. Piling up my plate with veggies and rice, my eyes were drawn to the amount of people queueing for food: They can’t all be monks, can they? Following my eyes, Jaelim explained that the temple provides free food to everyone that visits, they merely need to help clean up afterwards. Taken aback by the selflessness of the temple, I felt a sense of longing. In the UK, people avert their eyes to the homeless and those in need, whereas in this temple, everyone was treated as equals and with consideration, we could learn from them.
Immediately after dinner, we were taken to the night-time prayer’s ritual. Entering the hall mid-sermon, we bumbled across the lino towards the prayer cushions. Pulling at the pillows in silence, we tiptoed in the direction of the other visitors, joining them as they sang. Fumbling to remember the bow sequence, we imitated the other entrants, bowing in a series of three as we had done for the 108-bead activity.
Smiling, Jaelim handed us each a prayer book in Korean and whispered for us to singalong the best we could. For the first few lines, I stiffly read aloud with the others; however, I quickly lost my place and gave up. Sneaking a peek at my either side, an old man caught my eye and smiled, silently moving in front of my group.
Whilst the prayers were comforting to listen to, the longer they sang, the more intrusive I felt, like an observer, an invader. This wasn’t something I would ever truly be apart of and standing here as they sincerely sang made me feel like I was stealing something precious from them.
As I thought this, the room suddenly went quiet, and they all began to turn to each corner of the room and bow. The smiling man from before turned back to us and signalled for us to copy him. He noticed our discomfort and chose to help us, a kind and considerate response. Following the best, I could, I wholeheartedly imitated his every move. After having bowed in a series of three to each wall, the room resumed their singing and I made more of an effort attempting to join in, loudly reading each syllable distinctly like a three-year-old who had just learned to read.
We didn’t stay for the whole ceremony, midway through Jaelim nudged us and escorted us over to the meditation hall. From the outside, the meditation hall looked just like every other building on site: green panelling, brown pillars, and a floral swirled room. However, the inside was more modest than the prayer room. Unlike the previous room which had incense altars and intensely coloured murals, the meditation room was purely filled with images of their icon, the Buddha.
In a circle, pillows sat positioned around the room, with five monks sat at the head of the room on a raised altar, dressed in grey, white and red. Opposing the monks on the other side of the hall was a bulky camcorder linked to live streaming laptop (yes, these monks are on YouTube). The head monk explained that we would spend 20 minutes sitting in a meditative state and then when he hits his stick that is the signal to transition into 10 minutes of walking meditation, this would be repeated twice.
Sitting in figure eight, I tried slowing my mind and focusing on my breathing, and for the first 10-minutes, it actually worked. But then I noticed something feathery petting my forehead which jolted me alert. The wisps of my hair tickled my temple, taunting me and begging for a reaction. Desperately trying not to move, I fought the urge to scrape at my face but the longer I resisted the more it itched. Caving in to my body’s urges, I reached to my skin and scratched away achieving a few moments of ecstatic bliss. However, now that I had given in once, the rest of my body caved, my knees cried out to move and my back cackled and cracked.
As my body screamed out, the head monk whacked at his stick, marking the end to my 20-minutes of torture. Stretching out to stand, I realised that my legs had both gone numb and spending any longer on the floor would be rude. Forcing my legs to stand, I limped across the room, keeping in time with the monk’s steps. The sudden surge of activity had taken my body by surprise.
We repeated this sequence again to my body’s dismay, only this time was infinitely harder. At the end of the session, the monks came forward, drawing us closer in a smaller circle. They politely asked us about where we’re from and why we’re here and are shocked to find out that we’re neighbours to the temple, living in the small rural town below them. Next, they invited us to ask them questions:
Why did you become a monk?
My family pushed me into it. They had always wanted me to become a monk, so I did. To begin with, I hated it, but now I find it peaceful.
Don’t your legs hurt when you meditate?
Of course, they do! Like you, I am human. I ache, I hunger, I thirst, but you must fight against these cravings.
Once the Q&A session was finished, we traipsed off to bed, feeling worn out and groggy.
Barely closing my eyes, the 4am alarm went off beckoning me to wake up and join the morning activities. Similar to the night before, we joined the prayer rituals and the morning meditation session in their entirety. Unlike the night-time session, the morning session was much emptier as the temple had not yet opened to the public. While yesterday felt eerily quiet, the hushful morning was a welcomed silence. The clouds had only just begun to rise above the mountains, creating a hauntingly beautiful mist above the temple. After watching the sunrise above the forest peaks, we peacefully ate breakfast.
Our final activity involved drinking tea with a monk. He spent the first few minutes completing the tea ceremony, a process which involved warming up and cleaning the teacups in hot tea. We then conversed in more detail about his life as a monk and some of the restrictions he has.
Do you get time off?
Sometimes, yes! In fact, I went to Seoul last weekend, but I came back on the same day. I don’t like the pollution and the busyness; I find it hard to breathe.
What do you do for fun?
I read sometimes, but mostly I meditate. I know many people who only stop meditating to eat and sleep.
Do monks do activities together for fun? Perhaps you go to KTV and sing together?
I don’t think anyone wants to hear us sing, but we do occasionally go to the cinema together. We get given funny looks in the cinema because of how we’re dressed but we have to ignore them. When you do a task, it is important to only focus on that task. In a way, going to the cinema is an act of meditation because you are wholly focused on watching the film. Really, meditation is just giving complete attention to the task at hand. When you eat, you should only eat. When you converse, you should only talk or listen.
As we left, this final notion occupied my mind, there was something comforting about meditation being more than just absent thought. If meditation could take many forms, then surely calmness could take many forms, I didn’t need to sit in silence to feel at peace. So long as I dedicated myself completely to my action, then I would achieve mindfulness.
Winding through thick trees, I couldn’t help but stare off into the distance, watching as the trees began to engulf us once again. While I didn’t experience the spiritual awakening I had anticipated, I did feel more in touch with myself and more comfortable with my newfound knowledge. Rather than focusing on hundreds of things, if I try to centre my thoughts on the task at hand, then I won’t feel so overwhelmed by the world. Of course, this wouldn’t always be possible, but every snippet of mindfulness is useful.
Since then, I have tried focus at least five-minutes each day to recentring myself, often staring off into the horizon and concentrating on the sensations of each moment: the breeze, the warmth, the smells. I have found that those moments of calm have helped slow down my thoughts during chaotic moments and provided me with brief seconds of solace from the stresses of university life.
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