When I envisioned life as a monk, I pictured old men telling tales in a yoga-like setting with calm music and dim lighting. I didn’t think I’d leave the temple a day later with incredibly sore legs, knees and back while semi-sleep deprived.
Life as a monk is no joke.
Introduction, Greetings & Learning Temple Manners
A group of us arrived at Beomeosa Temple in Busan around 1pm a few Saturdays ago for our weekend Templestay (which is exactly what it sounds like…we stayed at a temple). There were 6 foreigners (all of us being English teachers from Ulsan) and about 20 or so Koreans. We immediately changed into our monk clothes that consisted of a vest and baggy sweats designed specially for sitting “Indian style” for far too many hours at a time.
We started with a video telling us a little bit about Beomeosa temple and Buddhism. Then we all sat in a circle and introduced ourselves. Along with stating our names and where we’re from, we had to say why we were there. Most of the foreigners were interested in learning about the culture while the Koreans all had various reasons ranging from “wanting to find peace during a rough time” to “I’m in trouble and my mom made me”.
Afterwards, we learned a few “temple manners” like the proper way to bow, who to bow to, where to bow, how many times to bow, etc etc. There’s a lot of bowing.
Touring Beomeosa Temple
We toured the temple and went into dozens of different rooms that all had different purposes. The different monks who were guiding the Templestay flooded us with information via English translator – so not all of it made sense and only some of it really stuck in my mind. The main Buddha Hall (middle picture above) had a mirror that represented a mirror you go to when you die where you view all of the sins you’ve made in your life. We checked out their different gates and entrances, one of which had the “4 Guardians” – which were ginormous, colorful statues that protected the temple (and had pet dragons and smashed demons). We also were shown the Bell Tower which had the 4 Instruments they played every morning and evening. The giant drum was made out of leather from cows that had died naturally because they don’t believe in killing any other being for any reason.
A Monastic Dinner
We had an early “traditional, monastic dinner” around 6pm where we learned how the monks eat. They use the same 4 bowls for their entire lives and eat in a very organized manner on the floor. After reciting a mantra about how they are ashamed of their food (apparently because non-monk people around the temple are the ones who offer them food for free), they methodically fill one bowl with water (cleaning bowl), one with rice, one with soup and one with vegetables of some sort. Everybody eats in silence, you’re supposed to lift each bowl to your face, put food in your mouth and then rest the bowl on your lap while you chew. Afterwards, they use their “cleaning water” and a pickled vegetable of some sort to thoroughly clean out their bowls and then drink the remains. Luckily, we got to skip the traditional cleaning part.
Making Prayer Beads
After dinner, we had an evening service where we recited more chants and songs and then watched these badass monks pounding the ginormous drum in the Bell Tower before our last activity of making 108 prayer beads (108 had some type of significance but like I said, a lot of what they explained was lost in translation.) We did countless “prostrations” during the temple stay, which are especially respectful bows where you bow, go down on your knees, bring your head to the ground, lift your hands up towards your ears with your palms up (representing “lifting Buddha”) and then repeat twice (with slight variations). Three prostrations represent The Three Jewels, which I kind of already forgot, and the Three Poisons – hatred, ignorance and greed.
For our 108 prayer beads, we were instructed to do one prostration, make a wish, then string a bead onto our necklace. Our wishes could be about whatever we want for whomever we want. So with 108 wishes, I pretty much covered everything from world hunger to Obamacare to recycling to my great great grandchildren going to college. This was surprisingly exhausting and we were all relieved when we reached 107. For 108, we strung a large bead onto our necklace to connect each side and then did a complicated braid to tie it up (the same exact lanyard-braiding knots with those colorful, plastic strings we made at summer camp. You know, the ones you used as a keychain.)
This part was probably my favorite part of the templestay. Minus my aching legs, knees and back the following day, anyway. Positive thinking is really powerful. It’s nice to concentrate on all of the good things in your life and think about what could make it even better. It also encouraged me to think of my priorities in life and what would truly make me happy. And now I get to have a necklace full of lovely wishes that remind me of my loved ones.
After making our prayer beads, we had our separate male and female slumber parties on the heated ondol floors until 3am when they woke us up to watch another super intense percussion performance with the 4 instruments in the Bell Tower.
3AM Morning Ceremony
At this point, I was a bit groggy, tired, out-of-it, and a few more synonyms of “sleepy” so I don’t remember too much in detail. We had a morning ceremony where we did more chants and songs and then we were supposed to do 108 more prostrations, which was honestly the last thing anybody wanted to do after waking up at 3am sore from the previous night’s bowing. Luckily, we only had to do half (54).
This time, instead of making prayer beads, we were told to think about all of the “little Buddha’s” in our lives. The monks told us that “the main concept of Buddhism is that you are Buddha”. When you bow to people, you often say “be happy”, “may all of your wishes come true” and “may you attain Buddhahood”. They preach to “find yourself, and be like Buddha”.
So we were to think of all the little Buddha’s in our lives and write them down on a piece of paper every time we did a prostration. For each person, you can mark the type of relationship you have with them – so a heart meant “Love or Respect” a star or something meant “Friendship”, another symbol meant “Forgiveness” and so on. We were to think about the people in our lives, our relationships with them, how they affect us and vice versa and basically just pray for them.
I thought that meditation would be easy – boring even. But it was surprisingly challenging. I sit cross-legged at all times; at home watching TV, at yoga, at work in my desk and in pretty much every chair I sit in because I’m kinda small and my feet don’t usually reach the ground. So I didn’t think this would be a problem. For meditation, we were supposed to sit in a lotus position, which is cross-legged or “Indian style”, but with both of our feet on top of our leg/knee area. If we couldn’t (and I definitely couldn’t for too long), we were free to sit just normal cross-legged. Our lead monk told us to clear our heads completely, sit still and quietly and keep our eyes open. Yes, open. He said that people will sometimes fall asleep if they keep them closed (which would warrant a whack with a huge stick to wake them up).
This is the point of the templestay that I knew that I could never be a monk. Okay, I probably never had a strong desire to be one (if even a tiny bit of a desire at all), but this is when I knew I just didn’t have what it takes. My brain is just too active. I can’t get it to stop thinking. It’s in my blood, seeing as how high-strung and crazy my family is. And then there’s the sitting. I never knew how hard it could be to just sit. And I’ve never had such a strong desire to get up and run a marathon.
So needless to say, meditating was not my strong suit. I’d love to say that it was relaxing, eye-opening and I was able to “get to know myself better” or “find myself”. But no. I was just silently bitching about my legs cramping up and how much I suck at meditation.
A Monastic Breakfast + Short Hike to a Hermitage
At around 6am was breakfast (I’ve never done so many activities before 6am), which was more or less the same as dinner. After eating, we went to a hermitage, which was like a separate little temple up on a mountain. We did a short hike (which felt glorious after being still for so long) up to the hermitage which had a beautiful view out of the floor-to-ceiling windows. We did more chants and bowing before heading back down to our main hall.
The last activity they had planned for us was a tea ceremony. We learned the proper way that monks prepare the “perfect tea” (temperature, timing, amount of tea leaves, etc), which was of course, very methodical. We also were able to ask questions which, like most of what they say, ended up in 15 minute explanations. I swear we talked about a spoon for at least 10 minutes. But we got to ask them if they’re allowed to leave the temple (some are for special reasons) and why they wanted to become a monk (so they could meet all of us and teach us about Buddhism).
It was a pretty incredible experience, being able to live amongst the monks for a day. They were some of the kindest people I have ever met, always smiling and depicting that perfect, wise and gentle monk-persona I’ve always imagined. Their lives are less “peaceful” than I imagined – with 3am wakeup calls every morning, hundreds of prostrations, and chants or mantras for every occasion. Seriously every occasion.
Our lead monk also whipped out an iPad at one point – which more or less ruined the whole “isolated-monk-image”, but was more so just entertaining in a shocking kind of way. You know Steve Jobs revolutionized the world when even a monk owns an iPad.
Anyway, part of me felt somewhat more “enlightened” and maybe a little happier overall because you spend so much time praying or making “wishes” for your family and friends. It seems nice to live such a minimalistic and simplistic life of routine where you devote all of your time to exerting positive thoughts into the universe.
The other part of me, however, just wanted a cheeseburger, to sleep in, to not ever sit cross-legged again and take a shot or 7. Was the templestay wasted on me? No, I don’t think so. I never had any intention of converting or anything – I just wanted to learn a bit more about their culture, which the monks knew and they were more than happy to teach us. What I take from the whole experience, however, is that positive thinking, living simplistically in certain ways and letting go of anger can make a huge impact on your happiness and quality of life. Religion will do that – it will make you want to be a better person that leads a happier life. It makes you want others around you to be happy, regardless if you love, loathe or don’t even know them.
Thanks for an amazing weekend
To book a Templestay in Korea, click here.
For FAQ about Templestays, click here.
For directions to Beomeosa Temple in Busan, click here.