Two weekends ago, Melanie and I made a bit of a last-minute decision to step a little outside our comfort zones and seek out another adventure on our to-do-in-Korea lists: a temple-stay! Our destination of choice: Mihwangsa, a temple located in Haenam county, Jeollanam-do.
After some confusion the previous day in terms of getting accurate bus information about the quickest/ most convenient route there, Mel and I left USquare on an 11:50 bus to Haenam, followed by about about a 40 minute village bus ride, leaving Haenam at 2:05PM out to Mihwangsa (Mihwang temple) entrance. While in Haenam, we had some extra time, so we grabbed bibimbap at a little restaurant across the street. As a side note, Mel pointed out that bibimbap really is a very different meal in the winter, as it contains more easily acquired and stored sea-vegetables and fewer fresh ones.
As instructed, we arrived at Mihwangsa around 4PM, and promptly found the clearly labeled temple-stay office. We were greeted warmly by our lovely host, Jajae, who gave us some delicious pure apple juice to drink. We chatted about the temple and temple-stay, and paid our ₩50,000 fee. She then gave us our sheets and temple-stay clothes, and showed us our room, after which we were free to wander until our orientation started at 5PM.
This was our little room, complete with ondol flooring, a tea-table on the left, a bathroom on the right, and all necessary bedding (as you can see, there was no bed, but the floor mats (not pictured) were thick and more than sufficient).
Our temple-stay clothes were super comfortable: a pair of quilted grey pants, which buttoned at the ankles, and a quilted vest. We wore them over our own clothing (I had jeans on, but if you’re going in the winter, a pair of comfy long underwear or thick fuzzy-lined leggings might be more a more practical bottom layer). Mel wore a hoodie under her vest, and I regretted not bringing one. I was, however, free to wear my winter jacket overtop of the temple-stay clothing.
Dressed and ready for our temple-stay adventure!
The temple-stay orientation was very informative, and gave us the confidence we needed not to make (too many) social mistakes during our stay. We learned about the temple itself, had a tour of its various buildings (including one which is relevant to Korean traditional beliefs, but not to Buddhism), and visited the main hall to learn about temple etiquette, how to do proper bows, and were given run-down of the activities in which we would participate.
A Little History
Founded during the reign of Shilla King Kyoung Deok, Mihwangsa has a particularly intriguing history. It is said that one day, villagers saw a stone boat approaching the village off the coast of Sajapo. The villagers were curious and tried to approach the boat, but it would move away each time they neared it; however if they backed off and stood still, it would come closer. This process repeated itself for several days.
Eventually, after the great master Euijo Hwasang and some other monks and residents purified themselves and offered prayers, the boat anchored itself. However, once aboard the ship, they could find no people: just a variety of statues, a gold box, a black rock, the Lotus Sutra, and a Buddhist wall painting. When they opened the gold box, the black rock broke open to reveal a tiny black cow, which grew into a huge cow.
That night, the great master had a dream about a man in golden robes, who said that he was the king of India. The king said that the shape of the mountains in the area made it suitable for a shrine to ten thousand Buddhas, and he instructed the great master to load the sutras and statues onto the back of the cow to trek across the mountains. The king told the great master to build a temple where the cow laid down. Master Euijo did as instructed. The cow fell down once while crossing the Dharma Mountain, but got back up again. After crossing the mountains, the cow fell down again, and did not get back up. Tonggyosa was erected at the place where the cow first fell down, and Mihwangsa where it fell down the second time.
The name of the temple is also significant, as “Mi” means beautiful, which is one way to describe the apparently pleasing and somehow musical bellow of the cow after it fell. “Hwang” means yellow or gold, and represents the golden robes of the man in Master Euijo’s dream.
The main hall.
A building that has much to do with wishes and Korean traditional beliefs and nothing to do with Buddhism.
The big bell, and a little more of the temple grounds.
A closer look at one statue.
Temple Etiquette and Meditation
Jajae explained to us that by putting our right and left hands together (prayer-hands style) in front of our chests (representing the coming together of the Buddha’s mind and our mind) and doing a half bow, we could express hello, goodbye, thank-you, no-thank you and more. As time at the temple is generally used for meditation and self-reflection, silence is encouraged. This bow affords everyone a means of wordless communication. Instead of the way we would normally bow out in the community, we were instructed to greet everyone at the temple (but particularly the monks) in this fashion.
Chasu was described as the respectful posture to assume when walking around the temple grounds. This involves folding your right hand over your left at the centre of your stomach. It is meant to show a humble and respectful mind.
We also learned that we should only enter the main hall through the side doors, as the front one is reserved for monks.
Upon entering the main hall, one should complete three full bows facing the Buddha. This process is more complicated than the one described above, and involves the following (forgive me if it’s overly paraphrased):
1. Put your palms together at the centre of your chest, fingers toward the ceiling, thumbs tucked in, elbows fairly loose.
2. Bend forward, and put your hands down on the mat in front of you, kneel down, and touch your forehead to the mat.
3. Raise your hands, palms facing up, to ear level, and lower again.
4. Lift your head, then knees, then hands, and carefully stand up.
5. Repeat two more times.
Our host explained that contrary to popular belief, this bowing is not an act of worshiping the Buddha statues: it is simply a sign of respect, for the Buddha, the Dharma (teachings of Buddha), and the Sangha (community).
Jajae then led us through some guided breathing meditation. Ahhh, guided breathing… As I learned during university, for some reason, my body takes guided breathing as a signal to go into panic attack mode. Why? I still don’t know. Thankfully, this time around, I was able to cautiously keep up without actually having a panic attack, which I will count as progress.
During meditation time, it was suggested to us that we take one breath for each sounding of the bell, and that we count our breaths from one to ten, and then 9, 8, 7… back down to one again, repeating the process for the duration of the session. The purpose of this is to still your mind and try to stay in the present: no thinking about the past or future or any specific thoughts except for counting your breath. Sounds easy? Not for me! However, Jajae used a great metaphor for its importance, which I hope she doesn’t mind me sharing (I hope I don’t botch it). You see, almost every minute of every day, we find ourselves thinking hundreds upon hundreds of thoughts, bouncing between past and future, and sometimes the present, but rarely allowing our minds to stand still. However, in order to experience growth and to reach enlightenment, we need to be able to reflect on our inner selves. She asked us to picture standing on the shore of the ocean, with big waves, and whether or not we could see our reflections. She compared the waves to our thoughts, and asked, in contrast, if we could see our reflections in a still pond. Some food for thought.
At 6:00PM, after bowing upon entering the dining hall, we served ourselves a delicious vegetarian dinner from the various pots and dishes at the side of the room. Our friend Lianne had been to a temple-stay at Mihwangsa before, and raved about the food. She was right. As an interesting aside, we learned that meals at the temple do not contain garlic or spring onions. Can you guess why? These strong vegetables are said to be aphrodisiacs, increasing sexual energy which could be detrimental to meditation and monks’ vows of celibacy.
Following dinner and a little down-time, we joined in Yebul (evening chanting) in the main hall at 7PM. I had the melodic chanting stuck in my head for days.
After Yebul, we followed four monks in a sort of silent procession several times around a sandy courtyard near the main hall, lit by a single lamp which cast an orange glow over everyone.
We were then invited to Dado (tea with a monk and other participants) at 7:30.
After tea, we headed back to our room. Before settling in for some reading, Mel braved the tea set and did an impressive job of imitating the tea-preparation demonstrated earlier in the evening by the monk. According to the schedule, we were to have our lights out by 10PM and to maintain “noble silence” until breakfast.
Delicious (not to mention slightly complicated) green tea!
Rise and Shine
The next morning, we were awakened at 4AM by Moktak, which is a wooden percussion instrument, to be called to Yebul (morning chanting) and Jhawsun (sitting meditation). We needed to be in the main hall by 4:20AM, and were instructed to arrive before the final sounding of a bell.
At 6:30AM, we enjoyed an amazing vegetarian breakfast comprised of the following: Lotus root with ginger, cooked young pumpkin with some mild pepper paste sauce, raddish kimchi, rice, dried seaweed, lettuce and tomato salad with yummy dressing, tofu and mushroom soup, and roll cake with coconut cream filling. This was, by far, the best breakfast I’ve eaten in Korea.
After breakfast, we participated in Oolyeok, which is working meditation at 7:30AM for an hour or so. Our task was to help the monks, our host, and some other participants stuff postcards in plastic envelopes, seal them, and then affix a label. We think they were for an upcoming festival. It was actually kind of fun!
At 8:30AM individual practice time started, during which we were free to engage in sitting or walking meditation, mountain hiking, or reading. Before we left, though, we were invited to join the another monk, this time the head monk, for tea. We had a chance to ask a few questions (largely through interpretation) and to watch him carefully consider his answers before he offered them.
After tea, we opted for a short walk/ hike in the mountains behind the temple. The weather was not ideal, but it was nice to be out in the peace and quiet of the Korean wilderness. While you can just barely see the temple in the picture below, it was completely obscured by falling snowflakes not five minutes later, as we turned to descend to the temple.
If you look in the distance, you can see Mihwangsa, just beyond the visible tree-line.
A chilly but worthwhile little hike.
Because it was B&T’s mentee’s birthday, we needed to leave before lunch, which started at 11:30 and which would have been followed by additional individual practice time. Jajae was very kind in offering to drive us to Haenam to catch our bus home.
While it was a short retreat, Mel and I both agreed that the temple-stay experience was both worthwhile and a great way to escape the city and the post-Korea planning and packing frenzy we find ourselves in these days.