▲ A monk bows at Yakcheonsa Temple during the templestay program. Photo courtesy Melanie Couchman
I awoke, sleepy-eyed, as our coach came to a halt after reaching our destination. As I gathered my belongings and we piled off the bus, we were all greeted by a brightly-lit, smoothie-colored sky, which seemed to set the mood for the next 18 hours.
We were part of a “cultural field trip” with the Teach and Learn in Korea program, and this semester all the Jeju TaLK scholars were taken to Yakcheonsa Temple, Seogwipo City, to gain an understanding of Buddhist monastic life on the island.
I directed my attention towards the faint sounds of gongs ringing in the distance, and somewhere buried between endless rows of palm trees, I could make out the sights of the temple.
The exterior of the multiple-storied, beautifully decorated structure was impeccably manicured. Palm trees planted in just the right places, a fountain out front blowing mist into the air, “hareubang” (stone grandfather) statues lining the staircase from the residence corridor up to the main temple.
We all filed in, and after receiving our room assignments, we were given new clothes to change into. For the girls, brown, loose pants, and a pink sleeveless vest secured with buttons and proudly displaying the Yakcheonsa emblem on the right breast.
The boys sported the same baggy bottoms, and paired with perfectly matching brown long-sleeved jackets (long sleeves are available for females upon request). The basic temple stay program consisted of three parts: Buddhist services, Zen meditation, and walking meditation along Olle Course 8.
After finishing up our vegetarian dinner and washing our dishes, the sound of the gongs rang to bring us to part one: “yebul,” ceremonial Buddhist chanting.
The main temple is multiple stories high, with balconies and staircases overlooking the massive Buddha that steals the attention of the room. The walls are lined with murals of Buddhist stories and icons, and the bright spotlights are both entrancing and distracting at the same time.
▲ The temple provides a structured program for visitors to learn about Buddhism. Photo courtesy Melanie Couchman
The ratio of Korean Buddhist worshippers to foreigners was about three to 50, which made the experience feel a little less authentic than I would have liked. The ceremony carried on with various chants and bows to the Buddha. And while I felt like a deer in headlights for the whole session, I tried my best to keep up.
At the completion of the ceremony, the “seunim,” or monk, led us to part two: Zen meditation.
The seunim explained the origins of Zen and some of the main principles that we should try to achieve through meditation. We were instructed to sit up straight, cross one leg over the other in a lotus position, direct our gaze downward, and to think without thinking for intervals of 5 minutes each.
I tried to block out the squirming from others around me, but it was difficult. I’m not sure if I actually even came close to executing the methods “correctly,” but it was fun to try.
At the conclusion of the meditation session, we bowed 108 times to the Buddha, and some of us started sweating. I learned that meditation is very hard work.
With a 9pm bedtime, and a 4am wake-up call, we moved onto part three: the meditation walk.
The world was beautiful at that time. The twilight before all the little creatures began to wake up for the day. Located just east of Jungmun and near Wolpyeong harbor, the coastline is stunning and offers a peaceful and serene experience outside of the temple walls. An excellent experience close to the temple.
In all, the templestay offered a unique and special look into a somewhat hidden culture here in Jeju, hard to find in everyday Korean life. I highly recommend the templestay to anyone in Jeju looking for a hands-on experience in Korean Buddhism.
Templestay programs at Yakcheonsa
“Yakcheonsa,” meaning “temple of the medicinal spring” after its curative waters, claims to be the largest in Asia with a structure 30 meters high and spanning 3,305 square meters.
It also boasts the tallest Vairocana statue in the country at 5 meters, the biggest wooden Birojana Buddha, an 18-ton bell and painted walls designated by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. Olle 8 also passes by the temple.
20-30,000 won (one night, two days) for cultural, experience and meditation programs. Visit website (English available) for more details.
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