Korea’s religious history is rooted in Tongbulgyo Buddhism, an interpretative form of religion unique to the peninsula. Of the roughly 50% of Koreans that claim to be religious, half of them follow this form of Buddhism.
One of the most unique ways to experience this side of Korean culture is to do what is called a ‘Temple Stay’ where foreigners (or Koreans) can spend the night at a temple and learn the daily life and believes of the popular religion. Lonely Planet refer’s to this retreat as ‘Buddhist boot camp’ and I can say, they are not far off on their interpretation.
Showing up in heels (under the assumption that I would receive a change of clothes), I did not come prepared for the journey I would encounter in 12 hours. This started out literally – up the mountainside.
Luckily my interpreter, who is probably the friendliest person I have ever met, lent me a pair of hiking shoes and we proceeded to hike to Geumsansa temple, a peaceful place set on the side of a mountain rich in greenery. After an hour, I changed into the temple stay uniforms, an ugly baggy, but comfortable, blue set of sweats and ate a very healthy vegetarian fare for dinner.
The program followed at this temple was fairly simple: gong ringing, evening prayer, tea with the Monks, 3am prayer, 108 bows (which they absolutely did not warn me about!), meditation, hike (they seem to be big on this), and prayer beads.
Everything that the Monks do have meaning and are in service, not just for mankind, but for all living things. 4 different gongs are rung 36 times in the morning and in the evening. 36 times for all the sufferings of the world, 4 gongs for land creatures (represented by a turtle gone laid with cow hide), creatures of the sea (represented by a wooden fish), creatures of the air (represented by a metal cloud) and mankind (represented by a large bell, pictured above).
Prayer is a set of chanting songs followed by full bowing. Morning, evening and afternoon prayer is called “Yebul” and lasts for about 30 min.
Getting up at 3am to pray is not so bad, but the 108 bows! – those sucked. By the end I was drenched in sweat and feeling kind of inadequate as two children who had also accompanied their father for the 3am bow session, seemed fine and had managed to not mess up their mats with sweat drips.
Monks do 108 bows as a prayer for the sufferings of the world. 36 sufferings x 3 lifetimes (past, present & future) = 108. These bows are full body. You start with a half bow keeping your hands in a prayer position (this represents you being one with the universe), going to down to your knees, placing your forehead to the floor and hopping up again.
Following this session, we meditated. This was another first for me and I was unsure if I would be able to stand being still for longer than 5 seconds.
I learned that I could actually meditate and while it was difficult to stop thinking at first, attempting before dusk in the middle of the mountainside is probably the best place for beginners. I also learned that the above form of meditation is saved for those that have achieved enlightenment or are very close to it. The proper way for a newbie is to place your hands over one another in a cupped position at the base of your belly.
After cleaning off, eating more vegetables and rice for breakfast, we started for prayer bead making.
I was in for another surprise with this activity. Instead of just sitting there and peacefully stringing beads onto a strand, we were to bow every time we put a bead on the strand. Guess how many beads there were? 108. For 108 sufferings.
While I was dreading doing this again, the Monk reminded me of something, with each bead you are supposed to pray for someone or something. 108 bows are a small price to pay to try and help the sufferings of the world. It takes an hour to complete, but the people you pray for live their lifetime in agony. Is it really that much of a price to pay?
Needless to say I completed the prayer beads and the experience with a newfound understanding and respect for the Buddhist religion. They are understanding, care for all things regardless of who they are, they could care less what religion you choose to follow so long as you try to help others (which I particularly appreciate) and truly dedicate their lives to the good of all.
Can all religious traditions with the same history say the same?
If interested, the Korean tourism website has loads of information on programs throughout the country:
Program I went through: