Friday, 15 October 2010

Buddhist temple stay

Last weekend I went on an adventure to find 'Zen' whatever that may be. A great group of girls came along for the ride and we had a memorable weekend of a lifetime. The lovely Helen, once again organised and translated for us as we attended a temple for an overnight experience in which we would eat, sleep and live like monks,
Beomeosa Temple in Busan was celebrating it's 1000-something birthday so we didn't really experience the usual temple stay environment. I think it was better! There were many other visitors and celebratory activities or attractions for people to join in with and enjoy. The events included a 2 hour concert exhibiting an orchestra, opera singers, guitar players, harmonica renditions, and a monk rock band (who would have thought!!).  There were also loads of arts and craft activities, for example we made brightly coloured lotus flowers which made great souvenirs.

Due to all the changes, we were not able to eat an evening meal with the monks. I had been looking forward to this as it seems to be one of the key pillars of monk-dom called balwoo gongyang. Food is taken as medicine to cure greed. Balwoo is a measure of food enough to sustain the body only. This is under the premise that equal portions of food promote harmony among groups who live together. There are 27 steps of eating, which is performed in the lotus position to ensure the ceremony is correctly orchestrated. For example, they cannot mix their food unless into the specified mixing bowl, and they must not leave any food uneaten. Monks must cover their mouth with their bowl while eating and must eat from four separate bowls in a certain order. Their eyes must not wander while eating. The other main point is that Monks eat no animal products and consume a vegetarian diet. I was excited to see what we would eat and if it would be anything different or unique.

For our evening meal, the temple stay organisers had made us each a gimbap. This is a traditional Korean food and is made very much like Japanese style sushi rolls you can buy at home but I think much tastier and wholesome. There is an outer wrapping of seaweed, and inside is packed rice and vegetables with egg and ham. You can order these with cheese, fish or even beef in most Korean restaurants so it was nothing special. I was not expecting the monk's gimbap to have processed crabstick inside either, so I am not sure how authentic this meal was.

However, it was lovely eating it under the stars with good friends and surreal entertainment. The organisers chaperoned us around and ensured we were well fed and watered while watching the concert. We were given hot tea and immediately wrapped up in the softest fleece embroidered blanks when I inadvertently shivered while watching the music. We really received the VIP treatment. There were also chunks of Makkoli rice cake being passed around to snack on. This was delicious. Makkoli is a rice wine, traditionally drunk from copper dinted looking kettles in Makkoli houses. Rice cakes are made in an infinite variety or textures, colours and flavours all over Korea. The combination of the two foods was genius and really mixed up the rice cakes which can sometimes be a little bland. Hazel, one of Helen's ex-English students at the college, also came along for the weekend and she took extra special care of us. Here she is passing around the snacks. She also took lots of pictures on our cameras for us to capture the moment. I hope she had time to enjoy the weekend herself!

 Makkoli rice cakes.

Hot tea refreshments. 

Lovely warm blankets and friends.

We watched the concert until 9 pm and then went to our temple to sleep as we had to awake at 3am. After waking we would then partake in the Monk's pre-dawn ceremonies which involved stirring the universe with 4 different musical instruments, including a huge drum. This was the highlight of the weekend- watching the monk play the drum under the stars. After the ceremony, we returned to our own quarters to bow 108 times from standing palms together to a foetal positions. After each bow we threaded a single bead onto a string. It was a killer on your thighs. The monk said it was not compulsory and as I felt like a complete zombie, I and a few others skipped a few bows to concentrate on threading the beads which was a task in itself. We were told to bow to the person we respected most in the world and not to 'Buddha'. This was refreshingly honest and we did not feel pressure to be converted to Buddhism or made to feel like hypocritical participants.

After making our beads.

I was pretty hungry by this time. We were shepherded down to a canteen area for breakfast. It was full of very old looking men and women who helped themselves to vegetarian, healthy food at an enormous food hatch. I can only assume it was some kind of community soup-kitchen. We had a separate area with a sign saying 'temple stay'. I think we missed out on the authentic experience by eating in this environment but it felt humble (and early at 6am!). We had basic Korean sticky rice, dried chilies in an incredibly bitter wet orangey sauce, stir-fried mushrooms (delicious) and spiced and slightly fermented leaves for wrapping around the rice. There was of course the traditional Korean side dish -Kimchi- which is served with every meal. I don't care for it much myself raw, but BBQ'd it is great. There was also a cloudy sweet soybean and cabbage soup. This was similar to the one we sometimes have at school, minus the farm smell and much sweeter.

All in all, I am not sure we ate like monks on our weekend, but we certainly felt humbled, warm and both respected and respectful which was really wonderful.
I would definitely recommend a temple stay or temple festival to anyone visiting Korea as a priority. The monks had so much personality and warmth. I had anticipated a distance which did not materialize. Thank you Buddha for a great weekend! Click on the link to see more pictures of the Beomeosa temple on October 9-10 2010. For information on Buddhism click this link.

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