Saturday, January 11, 2014

Buddhist Temple Stay

Way back in early November I did an overnight temple stay at Jikjisa in Gimcheon. Since coming to Korea I thought it would be an interesting experience to become more familiar with Buddhism, so when I was offered a chance to do a free temple stay I signed up. Usually when these 'free' opportunities come up in Korea, it is only free for foreigners, and it is actually a publicity stunt where the sponsoring entity will take you picture to publish in some unknown location. That being said, I knew what to expect and was totally okay to go be an unpaid model  for whatever they were promoting as long as I was given free food.

The biggest downside to this method is that you get a less authentic experience with 100+ other foreigners running around. I also don't think the temple was logistically prepared for such a large amount of English speakers attending. The schedule was constantly being changed, we had nervous, inexperienced translators, and we spent long periods of time just sitting and waiting for the next activity to be figured out and prepared. The fact that they continued to ask if anybody attending could translate from Korean to English did not fill me with confidence.

I think this is a good indicator of our whole 'authentic' experience.

My friend Lolly and I arrived together and signed in. We were given some complimentary goody bags filled with Gimcheon and Jikjisa souvenirs such as a toothbrush and measuring tape. Yay free loot! Then we got suited up in our Buddhist clothing, which you may mistake for prison uniforms. It was quite chilly out so we layered up over our uniforms and were quite a sight to see while touring the temple grounds.

Speaking of temple tours, ours was...Interesting. Unfortunately it was not from the exciting history behind the temple and buildings, but more from the dynamic between the Korean tour guide, our poor translator, and the rest of the participants. Our translator, bless her heart, was not prepared for the task at hand. I'm fairly certain she was just a student volunteer asked help out. She was Filipino, listening to Korean, and having to translate to English. It was not pretty. Our Korean guide was noticeably unhappy with her partner, and I'm pretty sure our translator was almost in tears. It didn't help that all the participants were complaining about not understanding. I didn't mind, I just kept myself busy taking some photos and going with the flow.

After the tour, we experienced a traditional Buddhist dinner with the monks. We sat back to back and did a specific series of bows and bowl placements before serving ourselves. Once served we waited for the dinner bell and we all bowed together to eat. Part of the eating practice is to not show your mouth while scooping in food. In order to achieve this, you bring the bowl up to cover your face while you place food in your mouth with chopsticks. We all started eating together, and we all waited for everyone to finish before going to the cleaning part of the ritual. Once everyone is done eating you use some water and a little piece of pickled radish to gently wash/wipe your bowl clean, and then drink the remaining water to symbolizing being thankful for every bit of food you had.

Following dinner we made little paper lotus lanterns and glued wishes on to them. Mine says "Live long and prosper" because I was feeling a little nerdy. We then bundled up for the cold and went outside to do three laps around the pagoda, following the pace of the lead monk. I'm pretty sure that there was some more bowing involved, but all the bowing is a blur in my memory at this point.

We were free the rest of the night to set up our beds and chat until 10:00 pm, which is then lights out. We were getting up at 5:00 am, but the monks do their rounds starting at 4:00 am so it was important to let them sleep. We slept on the heated floor, or tried to sleep in my case. My hips don't take kindly to thin mats and hard floors on their own, but the floor was also too hot for me. I slept poorly, and woke up frequently to toss and turn in sleep deprived despair. 

By the time 5 am came around, I was happy to get off of the floor. After breakfast, we all made a rosary with wood beads. For each bead we put on the string we did a full, head-to-the-floor bow. You are supposed to think of a happy thought or wish while putting on each bead. 108 beads later I was finished. Finished with my rosary, and my motivation for the day. The lack of sleep and zero caffeine made me quite an unhappy camper. I had a headache and just wanted to go home.

Our generous sponsors had other plans. After the temple we were supposed to get lunch, so naturally they packed us on 3 charter buses to travel for about an hour on twisty mountain roads to some random restaurant in the middle of nowhere. Thankfully I think I got more sleep on the bus than I did the entire night on the floor, and lunch was tasty Korean BBQ. Up next was cabbage picking! We drove some more twisty roads to stop by a small field of large cabbages. We were told to pick two cabbages, which were probably about the size of beach balls before having the outer leaves and roots trimmed off. I picked my two plants figuring we would switch them out during our next stop: making kimchi. Nope! As we were going to take the cabbage off the bus, we were told the cabbage is for us to take home. Normally I'd be thrilled for free food, but this cabbage would only fit in my fridge at home if I removed everything else, including shelving. I was concerned about the amount of cabbage I now had to deal with, but maybe I could give it to a teacher at my school, right? I went and made kimchi, which was just a bunch of foreigners in aprons smearing the chili paste on already prepared cabbage leaves. After some photos taken of us completing the task we got to take home a ziplock bag of kimchi. Yet another thing for me to carry home!

I had packed light for this trip to make it an easy little weekend get away. Just one backpack mostly to house my camera and some extra layers without the hassle of carrying things with my hands. By the end of our little tour I had  a gift bag, a paper lantern, a bag of kimchi, and two humongous cabbages. I was now loaded down with stuff to carry, exactly what I was trying to avoid. Once we were dropped off at the train station, I power walked and lugged myself ahead of the two bus loads of people to purchase my return ticket home. I was still feeling quite miserable and was not going to be caught in a line while the next train home leaves the station. I approached the ticket window and was told all the seats were sold out on my train. No problem, I got two standing room only tickets for Lolly and myself. Tickets purchased, I'd leave the station in about 10 minutes and be back in Daegu in an hour.

My biggest dilemma now was that I still felt terrible and carrying all this stuff was only exasperating my condition. I could not look forward placing my belongings on a shelf above my seat and just relaxing during the ride. I looked over at a pile of bags and cabbages in the train station, where the other foreigners  had set their belongings down to go stand in line at the ticket window. Nobody would question me if I just set my cabbage down in the pile and walked away, right? Maybe someone would see my bag of cabbage and take pity on it. Take it home as their own cabbage. Give it the love I couldn't. In a moment of weakness and panic I set my cabbage down and began to walk away. One girl watched me with some confusion showing on her face to which I said "I'm sorry, I just can't handle it" and continued towards the platform. I abandoned my cabbage in a train station, but I felt a wave of relief wash over me as I sat on the ground next to an out of order lavatory. This was no place for fresh produce, I'd done the right thing.

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