My friend and I walked down the narrow road that leads to the temple, passing endless tangerine trees heavy with fruit. Turning a corner, suddenly Yakchunsa spread out before us, with its 30-meter tall Buddha hall, 30 ton temple bell, and ponds full of glimmering coins at the bottom.
We were in awe. What majesty! What intricate detail! I couldn’t comprehend the amount of work behind all the colourful paintings, the beautiful patterns, and the multitude of golden Buddha statues.
We went to reception to meet our host. He asked us if we believed in Buddha, and we both shook our heads no. We came here to learn more about Buddhism and Korean culture.
Our host smiled and told us that about half of visitors are Buddhists and the other half are curious.
Yakchunsa Temple began planning in 1981. Construction was finally finished in 1996 by the Venerable Hyein, who wanted to celebrate and exhibit the prominence of Buddhism in Korea.
He went on to explain that - as the name indicates (yak=medicine, cheon=stream) - Yakchunsa Temple is home to a natural spring fountain which is believed to cure illnesses.
It’s also the only temple stay for English speakers on Jeju island.
We nodded as we listened, walking slowly towards our room after being given the mustard yellow temple clothes and a book about Buddhism to study during our stay.
At 5 p.m. we went to the eating hall for dinner. Rice, vegetables and tofu. We sat down to this simple but delicious fare in quiet enjoyment.
The monks dined in a separate area. I couldn’t help but admire their beautiful light grey clothing as they walked past our room with slow deliberation.
The color and style of their clothing stands for calmness and peace, symbolizing the core of their Buddhist faith - nature, meditation, and constant learning.
It was dark by six o’clock. Having finished our evening meal we walked towards the main temple for our first chanting ceremony.
Eight monks stood in front of us, and then the bowing began. One monk chanted with a clear, penetrating voice that created echoes in the big hall.
We struggled to keep up. Bowing, kneeling, standing. Standing, kneeling, bowing . I struggled to focus on following the procedure while also trying to soak in all of the magnificent symbols and colours surrounding me.
When it was all over we had tea together. Our host told us about people from France, America, and New Zealand who had participated in the temple stay program.
While Korean Buddhism has a 1700 year old history, the temple stay program is still young. It all started during the 2002 World Cup when Korean temples decided to open their doors to Koreans and non-Korean alike in order to give people a better understanding of Buddhist life.
It turned out to be a major success, and between 2002 and 2015 more than 700,000 people stayed at Buddhist temples in Korea.
▲ A wealth of complex design and inner peace Photo courtesy of Ellinor Spång
Four a.m. It was as dark as when we went to bed.
We stumbled quickly towards the temple. I still wasn’t awake. The stars shimmered overhead as the deep voice of a temple bell called us to the early morning chant.
The entrance of the main hall was like a portal into a hidden world.
The bowing ceremony was the same as the evening before. Our bodies slowly woke up while kneeling down.
Breakfast was served at 6:30. Rice, vegetables and porridge. I ate as much as I could.
My body longed for coffee. I got tangerines instead, the first of many we received during our stay.
At eight o’clock it was time for a walking meditation. Our host took us along a trail that passed cows and dogs and farms on our way to the sea. When we finally arrived my body felt alive and fully awake.
It was a clear day. You could see Seongbangsan and Marado island. We took a group photo with our host.
He told us that meditation is a way to clean the mind from disturbances, to focus on cultivating qualities such as awareness and energy.
He also told us that meditation is a way to reach the highest wisdom, the nature of things as they are, the ultimate truth - Nirvana.
At 9:45 - when I would normally be enjoying a second cup of coffee - I was instead making prayer beads. The string contained 108 beads, one bead for each bow we would make during the ten o’clock prostrations.
They represent the 108 defilements in our minds which we cleanse though the repentance ceremony. One bow, one bead.
The ceremony wasn’t easy.
When I finally finished, my thighs were shaking. According to the Buddhist faith, my mind was now less crowded with disturbing thoughts.
Working with the long list of defilements certainly gave me some interesting insights into this religion.
Buddhism’s focus on compassion, kindness, knowledge, inner peace, and living together in harmony with nature is compelling. I can’t help but think about how badly we need these qualities in society today.
Before lunch we meditated for twenty minutes. Eyes closed, legs crossed, back straight. Letting go of control was the hardest part.
I tried to focus on my breathing to a silent count of eight. However, I kept finding myself counting to twenty. My thoughts wouldn’t stop wandering. The sound of tourists outside. The smell of tea. Dreams of coffee, of planning, of instagram, of everything but my breathing.
When I finished meditating I opened my eyes I found myself wishing that I could have done better, but the feeling passed.
At four o’clock we sat on a bench looking out over the sea. Behind us, the temple; behind the temple, Halla Mountain. We had been awake for twelve hours.
Dinner was in an hour. The sweet smell of rice was coming from the kitchen downstairs. The bench was warm.
I still remember this moment vividly. It was so full of sunlight. Me, my friend, the bench, the sky. Halla mountain and the temple bell and sounds of chanting.
The mindfulness I’d been chasing finally arrived. This moment was the most peaceful of the entire stay.
We had a final evening ceremony at seven o’clock. My mind began wandering again. It was Friday night. I thought about the bars opening in Seoul. The crowded metro stations, the cars honking on the streets; the TV programs, the news. The barbeque restaurants full of smoke.
I returned to the present and listened to the monk chanting.
I thought about how different the temple lifestyle was. Looking at a Buddha statue, I understood the decision to live this way. It’s closer to nature, and it focuses on building something within yourself and within society.
I understood it, and from time to time I even craved it. I admired the fortitude and resolution to live this way.
I completed my last bow. The old monk chanted into the night. We returned to our room and slept.
In the morning I put on my regular jeans, brushed my hair, and said goodbye to our host. The moment I got back to my car, I grabbed my phone and looked for the nearest coffee shop.
▲ Standing at the gate of Nirvana Photo courtesy of Ellinor Spång
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