Temple Stay Experience: Gilsangsa Temple
I recently had the opportunity to take part in a temple stay program through the Yeon Deung Hoe International Volunteers Program. Along with about 70 other people in the group, half Korean and half foreigners, we were invited to head to Gilsangsa Temple to learn Buddhist temple etiquette, Buddhist dancing, how to eat a formal monastic meal and how to successfully prostrate and meditate.
Gilsangsa is a beautiful temple, particularly stunning right now decorated with lanterns for Buddha’s birthday, and our leaders did a great job keeping everyone involved and motivated.
As soon as we arrived, we were directed into a changing room to don more temple appropriate apparel. We were given pants and a shirt and as soon as I put my pants on, I wondered if I’d put them on backwards. Amusingly, so did every other girl in the room. We all compared and decided it didn’t really matter. After that we headed up to the main hall to stow our bags and find a seat on one of the provided mats.
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The first lesson was all about Buddhist temple etiquette. I had learned from my mother-in-law that I was not to walk up the center steps on temple grounds, as those are only to be used by the monks, but rather walk on one of the two paths usually flanking the center path at a temple. This was also covered here. Next they explained how to appropriately greet monks and bow and prostrate after entering a temple. Prostrations are done either once, three times, or 108 times.
We did sets of three generally, however in one chant we did quite a few sets of three, so we may have ended up with 108 by the end. I had wondered about this number before. My mother-in-law once called and told me that she had gone to temple and done 108 bows for me and I wasn’t really sure what I was supposed to say in response. “Thank you,” just didn’t seem quite right, and telling her not to put herself out didn’t really seem to suit the situation either. After taking part myself and talking to the monks, it seems 108 prostrations can easily be done in about 15 minutes. The etiquette lesson was very appealing to me. I enjoyed learning the customs and I also think my mother-in-law will be pleasantly surprised the next time we visit a temple together.
The next lesson covered festival dancing, which is probably not on most temple stay agendas. Our group would be performing at the Lotus Lantern Festival, so we went over the dances and got the staging figured out to make it a great show. Next we made lotus lanterns, which may not be normal at a temple stay as well, but along with providing information at the festival, we would also be helping people make lanterns. I was surprised that I was the only person on my team that had been to the festival before. I whipped through the lanterns and helped those near me that were having some trouble. The dancing and the lantern making, though not a normal segment of a temple stay, were really great ways to get our group to bond, I think. Within the group, we have five smaller teams. For both of these lessons, we were split into our teams and it really provided some time outside of the weekly lessons we have been taking for a month and a half to have some fun and get to know each other.
By the time we had finished, it was around 5:30 and everyone was pretty hungry. We were directed into four long lines on the floor, two lines facing each other. Monk Ja-oo began her explanation. First off, there are four bowls, one large and then one inside of that and another inside of that and the final smallest one inside of that one. She explained that the largest goes in front of our left knee, the next largest one goes in front of our right knee, the third goes behind the one in front of the right knee and the smallest one goes behind the largest one in front of the left knee. This set up was also to be done with everyone and everything completely silent. Most people seemed to have a difficult time with this silent part. No one was talking, but bowls just hitting the floor made a sound and Monk Ja-oo mentioned that we should try to notice this and cease. Next, water was poured into the largest bowl and swished around to clean the bowl and then swished in the subsequent bowls to clean them as well before finally being put in the third largest bowl to remain for the meal. The food was then served and upon receiving the food we were to bring the bowl up to our forehead to accept this food. The rice went in the largest bowl, the soup into the next largest and side dishes in the smallest bowl. After Monk Ja-oo gave thanks we were allowed to eat our food while still remaining silent. The silence is so that we can remember how thankful we are for the food, each and every bite, and thank Buddha for providing for us.
After we finished every morsel in the bowls, except for one lone radish, some more water was brought around. The water was poured into the biggest bowl, and we used the radish to clean the bowl, that water was then poured into the soup bowl and finally into the side dishes bowl. The radish was to be eaten and that water that we’d used to wash the bowls was to be drunk. Monks usually have their own set of bowls and utensils and this is how they clean everything without wasting a drop. They don’t even waste the water to clean the bowls. The food was delicious, as is most temple food so I’ve heard, and following that we took part in an evening service before being taken outside to enjoy the lighting of the lanterns. The night sky all around the temple and up into the trees was lit with a rainbow of color and all of the teams went around getting pictures to remember the day together.
After everyone had their fill of lanterns and photos, we were directed inside and were split into two groups, the foreigners and the Koreans, to learn more about Buddhism. Monk Ja-oo went over as much information as she could in an hour and a half and I think really enlightened some people. She has been helping us throughout our classes for the past month and a half to learn more and I’ve been so thankful to have met her. I’m sure most monks are open and honest and helpful, but I’m glad we have been able to have her as our teacher. After that it was bedtime. We would get five hours of sleep, as we had to be awake at 3:30 for morning service, prostrations and meditation.
I thought waking up at 3AM would be painful, but it really wasn’t. Yes, I completely passed out when I got home later in the day, but at 3 in the morning, I was fine. I’m still not quite sure how monks only get 5 hours of sleep a night and manage to be happy or just awake at all the whole day. We listened to the early morning drums beating and the bells ringing and chanted before taking part in a seated meditation for thirty minutes. After that, we took part in a walking meditation in which we were to walk very slowly and deliberately. We followed the leader ahead of us in a circle and then we were taken outside to walk around the temple area, continuing to be extremely slow and measured. I didn’t realize it at the time, but later in the evening when I was home my calves were sore and I couldn’t figure out why until I thought about how each step was so carefully thought of and maneuvered that it had really been a mental and physical work-out. It was a very calming experience.
By then it was 6 and it was time for breakfast. Everyone ate up quickly and we enjoyed some break time with our teams. We had been told the night before that we weren’t to talk when we woke up and weren’t to talk until after we’d eaten breakfast, so from 3AM until 6AM there was a silence that fell over us. It was a strange and peaceful situation. There were more than seventy people in the space and yet it was silent. Of course, as soon as breakfast was over it was clear to see that most people had one thing or another to comment on, but the three hours of silence was a welcome respite in a city with so many people. Surrounded, yet silent.
We had one more lesson to help us prepare for the festival and finally the head monk of the complex took us on a tour of the site. It was a really great experience and I’m glad I got to do it with this group of people. It’s easy enough to sign up for a temple stay and go with a friend here, but it was a completely different experience, I think, being with 70 people that I’ve been studying with and getting to know for a couple months now. I’m happy to have had this opportunity and I hope that perhaps I can do this again.