Friday, February 11, 2011

Do as the Buddhists Do

“All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think we become.” -Buddha

Last weekend, Ryan and I concluded our New Year’s break with an overnight stay at a Buddhist Temple.

Bemeosa lies at the north end of Busan, nestled peacefully in the mountains.  After its original construction in the year 678 AD, it was partially destroyed by Japan in the 1500s.  It was completely restored to its original glory two hundred years later.

A massive gate greets visitors as they enter.  It remains a mystery how stone alone is able to support the heavy roof.  It’s hard to imagine that any architect today could replicate the surprisingly complicated engineering of the Shilla Dynasty.

After passing through the gate and locating the correct building, we changed into the oversized shirts and pants we were given by the friendly female volunteers.  

Glossy books describing our activities for the next twenty-four hours waited patiently on our floor cushions. 

A monk entered and gave us an introduction to the principles of Buddhism.  He spoke in Korean with an English translator.  His main point was that we all have control of our own minds.  How we feel is dependent on our thoughts and attitudes.

We were taught the traditional hapjong (putting palms together), bow and prostration so vital to Buddhism in Korea.  Of course I was chosen to demonstrate the prostrations in front of all twenty other participants.  How can you say no to a monk carrying a large bamboo stick?

Soon after we participated in an opening ceremony.  We sang songs, chanted along with the monk, and performed the first of many prostrations.

Next it was on to self-introduction.  Most importantly the monk wanted to know, why did you come here?  There was a mix of Koreans and foreigners.  It was interesting to hear each individual’s short bio and background.  Some had family interested in Buddhism, others wanted an escape from city life or a mastery of meditation, and a many simply wanted more information on what Buddhism is all about.

We wrapped up and made our way to an evening service.  There were strict instructions to walk silently in a single file line, with one hand placed over the other in front of our navels as a sign of modesty.

The service was held inside a beautiful temple.  Cushions were laid out for each of us to perform our prostrations.  We bowed in keeping with the rhythm of the monk's bamboo stick.  An altar at the front of the room was home to a dazzling golden Buddha.  In front of the statue were offerings of beautifully ripe pears, kiwis, apples and oranges.

After the service we entered a large dining hall and took our places on the floor for dinner.  Balwoo Gongyang is a symbolic meal in Buddhism.  It is believed that food is only necessary for keeping one’s body sustained in order to reach enlightenment.  We were told to take a set of bowls from a shelf backing one end of the room.  Our dishes were then spread out on the floor in front of us according to the monk’s direction.  Each bowl had a distinct purpose and specific use.  We were instructed to keep silent throughout the meal.

Volunteers began serving rice, soup, and water.  Side dishes were self-service.  It was made clear that we were to eat all of the food we took or were given.  We were surprised to find that the food was delicious.  The side dishes were some of the best we’ve had since being here.   In unison we said a blessing once everyone was served.

More instructions followed the meal's end.  To properly clean our dishes we poured water into each of our bowls one by one, and cleaned them with a single pickled radish.  Once no food remained in any of the bowls we were told to drink the water we’d used to clean them, then eat the radish.  This was the least pleasant part of the stay for me.  The bowls were placed back on the shelves and would wait there until breakfast.

Back to the large room where we’d first convened, it was time for the infamous 108 prostrations of repentance.  The bows serve a dual purpose.  First, many Buddhists believe that mankind goes through 108 periods of suffering in life and should make 108 bows to be free from anguish.  Second, the practice is designed to humble oneself and show respect to others.  The process is combined with the creation of “Yumju” prayer beads, said to hold within them the participant’s hopes and dreams. 

Once again to the monk’s bamboo stick beat, we dropped to our cushion, performed a prostration, and looped a cedar bead through our string.  He wasted no time, barely giving us ten seconds to complete the task which left no room for error.  My knees burned and my thighs were losing strength.

Finally finished, we counted to ensure there were 108 beads and secured them by knotting four strings together.

What a day.  I’ve never welcomed a 9:00 bedtime with such enthusiasm. 

Men slept in one room, women in another.  We took our beds (a mat, blanket and pillow) and found a place on the heated floor.  It reminded me of my slumber party days minus the gossip and giggles.

The lights came on at 3:00 AM (yes THREE AM).  For the first few hours we were awake the volunteers encouraged us to keep silent.  It was explained that only our inner dialogue should be heard.  We quickly made our beds, donned our coats and made our way silently to observe monks in their early service.  They took turns using sticks to beat an enormous drum.  

We then participated in our own early service, nearly identical to the one we experienced the previous night.  The bows however, were much more difficult than the first time around.

We remained in silence for Zen Medidation.  Backs straight and legs crossed, we were instructed to ask ourselves, “Who am I?”

Our next direction was to focus on our breathing, then air going through our nose, throat, stomache, and finally heart.  Though our backs and legs ached, we were instructed not to stretch them.  Instead, the monk said, “name your feelings and they will disappear.”  Finally we did walking meditation, feeling the energy and heat in our feet and legs.

Breakfast followed the same regimented procedures as dinner.  Again the food was delicious, even though we're not accustomed to eating spicy vegetables at six am...
We made sure to take less water for cleaning our bowls than we had the night before.  This meant we had less to drink after cleaning the dishes with our radish.  

Next we went on a foggy morning walk to a hermitage.  The steep uphill climb angered our already irritated leg muscles.  In the end the short hike revealed the entire city of Busan.  Some fog made complete clarity difficult, but the early morning view was still amazing.

The friendly monk guide told us stories surrounding nearby Geumjang (Golden Well) Mountain.  At his request, we mimicked the Korean version of a rooster noise: "Coke-ee-oh!" in an attempt to deter future attacks on the temple and surrounding areas.  In return he posed with us for a picture.

For a quick meditation, we entered a quaint temple atop the mountain.  The fog began to lift and sunlight streamed in through entirely windowed walls.

After retreating from the hill we toured a mesmerizing depiction of Hell.  It was explained that Buddhist monks feel it's their duty to venture to the underworld to rescue lost souls from eternal suffering.  He assured the group he would help us if we were headed there, as long as we attempted to return the favor if we encountered any monks there in need of service.

Persimmons, tangerines and Asian pears waited for us back in the main hall.  After our snack we dropped to our knees for the final bows of the closing ceremony.

Exhaustion aside, we appreciate the opportunity to embrace and experience a culture and religion with such unique principles and ideals.  Buddhism is truly beautiful.


  1. Hi Norah & Ryan,

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading about your adventures at a Buddhist monestary. Learned lot from your clear writing! Especially how to clean a bowl with a radish ...

    Happy Valentine's Day!

  2. Thanks Judy! I'm glad you enjoyed it and hope you've been well.