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Monday, August 9, 2010

Guinsa Temple Stay

I played around with a couple different titles for this blog that should explain a little about what my weekend was like:

* Who Knew Buddhism Included so Much Exercise!
* If an Old Woman Can Do It, I Can Too!
* Living the Simple (very simple) Life for the Weekend!
* Temple Stay turned Christian Camp!
* Reconnecting with God in an Unexpected Place!

Instead of giving you a play by play of what happened everyday during my temple stay, I'm going to try a different approach!  Instead I will list some of the things I learned or observed while I spent the weekend at a Buddhist Temple.  (As a side note, I went with a group of 45 Korean teachers... And there were hundreds of Koreans at the temple, and I was THE ONLY FOREIGNER!)

This is the Four Heavenly Kings Gate, and it marks the entrance to Guinsa Temple.  I walked up here after dark one night, with the flash on my camera as my only light, to take a picture.  When I got to the top and turned the corner to look inside, I almost had a panick attack!!!

Because inside were 4 GIGANTIC statues of freaky looking guys, like this one!  Buddhist believe they are able to "fight off evil spirirts." They fought me off, that's for sure!  I went running down the stairs back to my dorm!

The Monks...
* Monks can become monks at any age. 

* Some women drop their babies off at a temple for them to grow up and live as monks their entire lives!

* Some men get married and have children and then decided to become monks, leaving their families behind.

* The first 3 years as an adult monk, their job is to do hard labor as well as clean the temple, cut wood for summer, maintain the temple grounds, plant vegetables and fruit and tend to the temple garden.

* After completing those 3 years, they begin studying and attempting to reach nirvana

* There are different levels or grades of monks, which are distinguished by their attire.  The lowest grade monks wear all gray, the next highest grade wear gray with a brown piece of fabric draped over their soulders, the next highest grade wears gray with a red colored sash, and the highest, who they call "the monk boss" wears all purple!

Because our group was so large, we had the privaledge of seeing "the monk boss", which apparently was a HUGE deal, because most people never get to see him!  He apparently hides out and studies all day long. I took a video of him walking into the room as the teachers all bowed to him.  I was later told that it is impossible to take a video of him, especially as a Korean, and that I am EXTREMELY LUCKY!  Sometimes being a foreigner mixed with my naietivity works in my favor! :)  ENJOY the video!

*  Talk about an ego boost huh?!   How does anyone stay grounded when they have people bowing to the ground in front of them?!

* One woman told me that this monk is so wise that he knows everyone's prior life and their afterlife. (Everyone in the world, that is.)  hhhmmm?

*Ella, Laura, and I all climbed up to this building on the last day, after eating breakfast.  This is actually a shrine, which was erected in the memory of Sangwol Wongak, the 1st "monk boss" at Guinsa Temple.  There is a gigantic gold (not real gold) statue of him inside and lots of people were bowing to his statue. What impressed me the most about this building was the fact that it was BUILT OF ONLY WOOD!  There are absolutely no nails in the construction of it!!  The pilars inside, which hold it up, are over 300 year old pine trees!  It was truly stunning!

After learning about this shrine, we headed up to his actual gravesite!  Little did we know what a hike it would be!
1383 stairs later...

...we reached it!  Ella, Laura, and Laura's friend all bowed infront of it.

There's a beautiful garden surrounding the gravesite.  I learned that this flower is actually Korea's country flower!  It was chosen for it's beauty and it's "strength against insects."

There were lots of different flowers and plants throughout the temple grounds, but this lily was, by far, my favorite!  Who doesn't love a polka dotted lily?!

* Buddhists are VERY intune to nature!  They believe that hugging a tree can actually renew your body's energy and sometimes even cure cancer.

The Temple...
* This is the MAIN temple building at Guinsa, where most of the prayer services take place.  It's 4 stories tall (this pic only shows the top floor), and there is a large room on the 3rd floor that houses temple stay guests.  There were probably 200-300 people sleeping in that one huge room this weekend (with no air conditioning)!  Talk about dedication!

Here's another picture of it at night time (I took this after our first ceremony, on the night we arrived.)  The only people allowed in that night were the people from our group (45 teachers from Busan) and the monks. Luckily, we were some of the last people to arrive and ended up sitting in the back corner, so I didn't feel pressure to do any bowing or chanting.  I kind of just sat and observed everything!

* When you walk into the temple, you take your shoes off at the door!

*There is no air conditioner inside, so you better hope for a nice breeze during the summer!  (I came out of here, dripping in sweat!)

* There are NO CHAIRS inside the temple!

* Everyone sits on floor pillows.

* There is a proper way to sit when you're in the temple.  It's indian style with your left foot on your right knee, and your right foot tucked between the inside of your left knee... Thumbs tucked in and palms rested on your knees!  Don't forget to sit up straight and raise your shoulders!  :)

* Women sit on one side of the room, and men on the other.

*This is the inside of the main temple at Guinsa.  It's gorgeous, and intricate in a million different ways! There is a huge gold (not real gold) statue of Buddha, on a stage, in the middle, and then large gold statues of different saints on either side of him.  Then on the wall behind the statues are a bunch of wood carvings of more saints.  The ceiling are around 15 meters high (about 50 feet) and are covered in paintings of dragons, lotus flowers, and ornate designs.

* When everyone is in place inside the temple, the monks proceed down the center aisle and everyone stands up and bows to them.  There are currently 200 monks living at Guinsa, but only about 10 were in attendance that night.  They sat at the front of the room, facing us.

* To start the service, one of the monks begins by hitting a percussion instrument called a Moktak, which sounds like a piece of wood hit against a wood block.  They also use this instrument during prayer chants.  (I can actually hear the monks playing this from the temple above my own apartment sometimes!)

* The teachers and the monks began chanting the phrase, "Guang Sahng Bog Sa" (or something like that) for 10 minutes during the 1st service, over and over and over again!  I found out later that it means "We are praying, please listen to us!"  (I can't seem to get it out of my head, and I never even said it!  I guess that's the point though, right?!)

The Temple Grounds... 
* Guinsa (구인사) is a huge temple complex in North Chungcheong, South Korea (About a 4 hour drive from Central Busan).

* There are over 50 different buildings at this particular temple, each painted in the famous temple style with beautiful curved roofs! Some Korean universities actually offer a major in Temple Painting!

* Each building is tucked into the mountain with gorgeous pine trees surrounding it!

This is the building where the female monks live.  I'm not sure why, but females are not included in the different "levels" of monks.  They simply all wear gray, and don't ever have a lead role in the prayer services.  They do not shave their heads like the men, but rather pull it back into a flat bun and use a simple clip to hold it in place.

This is where the male monks live.  It's a very private area, surrounded by gates.  This is about as much as I was ever able to see of it.  Sometimes, after breakfast or lunch, I would see them sitting, silently outside their rooms.  They are very serene people. (Although some of them are fairly outgoing!  A couple of them talked with me, and one of them even told me I was beautiful, so I told him I liked his hair!) 

The temple grounds at Guinsa are stunning!  This was on the path from the walk I took everyday from my dorm building to the cafeteria (About a 10 minute walk up a VERY steep hill).

I loved their bathroom signs...  Man and Woman in the prayer position!  

The Dorms...
Most big temples have a dormitory where devotees can come and stay for FREE!  My room was on the floor with the gray balcony (at the far left end).

* While the outside is fancy and ornate, the inside is quite the opposite!

* Buddhists are incredibly simple people.  Their dorm facility was equally as simple as they are!  Ella, Laura, Laura's friend, 2 other women I didn't know, and myself all shared this room, and yes, we all slept on the hard floor with no air conditioning!  Temple stays are obvioulsy not for people who need a comfy bed and a blasting air conditioner!

Oh and taking a shower, while living at the temple, consist of doing it with about 20 naked strangers all around you!  Being a foreigner amidst all those naked Korean women was an interesting experience!  I guess everyone gets a little curious sometimes!
The Cafeteria...
*Guinsa has a huge cafeteria, with the capacity to serve 10,000 meals of rice, kimchi and vegetables daily, which are FREE to all visitors!  The cafeteria is the building to the left in this picture (where people are standing on the balcony drinking coffee).

*We ate "temple food" for breakfast, lunch and dinner! 

* In the cafeteria, food is prepared and served by volunteers!

* You CAN NOT waste any food!  There was one time where I nearly threw up (not because of the taste, but rather the portion size!)  They gave me soooo much rice, and my tummy couldn't fit anymore, so I sat, and sat, and sat until I had more room and was able to finish it!  Ella told me it was okay and that they would understand because I was a foreigner, but I didn't want to play that card!

* EVERY MEAL SERVED is grown and prepared on site!  The large brown jars, sprawled across this area are filled with sauces, kimchi, and anything else they ferment!

* I was there at just the right time to catch some of the volunteers scooping the sauce out!

*Buddhists do not eat any meat or fish because they believe in re-incarnation! I wouldn't want to eat my ancestors either, I guess!

* You can buy coffee from machines on site, but the only water available is fresh rainwater, which falls into these large stone bowls.  You use one of the 6 communal scoopers to drink the water!   Yes, that's 6 cups and hundreds (maybe even thousands) of people's mouths touching them!  

* After you've finished eating, you can walk over to the teeth brushing area!  :)

The Religion...
* Lotus flowers are central to Buddhism.  They are a metaphor for their beliefs.  This was the biggest lotus flower I'd ever seen!

* All of the classes and ceremonies were in Korean, and they used such difficult theological language that Ella wasn't able to accurately translate it for me, so a lot of times I would just sit and observe.  During break times, I would ask Ella and Laura lots of questions, but they are the equivalent of "Easter and Christmas Christians" so they really didn't know very much...

I did learn a couple things though!
* Siddhartha (Buddha), was born in 624 BC, into a royal family in  Northern India (Nepal).  His mom and dad were King and Queen at the time.  His mom had a dream that a white elephant came down from heaven and entered her womb. She believed that, on that night, she had conceived a pure and powerful being.

* Buddha is considered a saint, not a god.

* Devot Buddhists do 108 DEEP BOWS a day, like this. 

* They believe that everyone experiences 108 periods of anguish during their lifetime, and that by bowing 108 times, they are freed from that.   Ella said she normally only does 3 deep bows at the temple and she asks Buddha (the saint) to help her daughters get good scores on their exams while she bows.(Can you tell this is an educational based soceity or what?!) 

*  The 108 bows are also used as an exercise to keep your body as sharp as your mind!  On the last night of the temple stay, we were given the chance to attempt the 108 bows all together as a group.  I decided since there were no statues in the room it would be okay for me to partake in the bowing.  I used it as my own form of prayer time and really loved the experience!  My legs are still paying for it though!

* After the bowing ceremony, everyone sat down on their pillows and began chanting "Guang Sang Bog Sa (or something like that), over and over and over again in unison.  (I just sat amidst the crowd, silently watching). Then they started to branch off and say it at different speeds and levels, some yelling it!  I'll be really honest with you... This was the ONLY TIME I was really freaked out!  Imagine walking into a really charasmatic church for the 1st time and hearing 45 people speaking in tongues in the dark!  It was F.R.E.A.K.Y!  I stayed for 30 minutes, because I wanted to be able to observe their practices, but after 30 minutes, I couldn't take it anymore!  I ended up walking outside and Ella came shortly after.  I don't think she was very excited about it either!  This chanting ended up going on for 2 more hours!!!!

The lifestyle of a devout buddhist is VERY simple!  They basically study, eat, sleep (only a couple hours a night), pray, spend a lot of time in nature, meditate, and volunteer! 

* Volunteering is the biggest reason why this temple is able to offer what it does!  Hundreds of devotees volunteer on a daily basis to assist with cleaning, gardening, serving meals, washing dishes, peeling potatoes, cutting onions... You name it, they do it!  

This rail was filled with hundreds of workers gloves!  I thought it was a beautiful picture of their commitment to serving!

My experience...
I experienced quite a bit this weekend, and learned some interesting details about the culture and religion of Buddhism, but what I thought was so AMAZING was how my God met me at a Buddhist temple and ignited my excitement for Him again!  There were a lot of services in Korean, so Ella would say, "You will probably be bored during this time, so you can go back to the room and relax."  With absolutely nothing in the room to entertain me, I picked up my book, SEX GOD (by Rob Bell) and ended up finishing the entire thing over the weekend!  I love the way Rob Bell inspires me!

We went trecking on the 2nd day, as a group of 45 people, for 2 1/2 hours and the monks told us we were not allowed to talk to each other, but rather we were to enjoy the scenery and "think about ourselves" (which is a Buddhist practice).  I tried for a couple minutes, but didn't fully understand what I was suppossed to be thinking about, so instead, I used that 2 1/2 hours to pray!  WOW!  2 1/2 hours of prayer can be tiring, and incredible all at once!  I think it's fair to say that if you're my friend, or even my acquaintance, I probably prayed for you at some point!  Through that time, God totally blessed my soul!  I couldn't stop smiling!  It started to pour down rain during our trecking, and all I wanted to do was dance and praise God for this ironic moment... Trecking with a group of Buddhist during a temple stay, while connecting with God at the same time!  He truly can meet us in the most unexpected places! 

 Overall, the experience was really interesting, and I really enjoyed spending the weekend with these 3 ladies, who turned out to be quite the rebels!  They were always turning the lights off in our dorm room so the leaders would think we had gone to the late night prayer services!

On Sunday, around 11:00am, we all jumped on the bus and headed back to Busan!  During the ride, we stopped here at a rest stop area to go pottie.  I took a couple minutes to walk along this river while I waited for everyone and took in the sights!  I never knew Korea was so beautiful!   It made me excited for September, when I have 9 days off for Chuseok... Aaron and I are going to explore the country!   I'm sure there will be many more beautiful pictures to come, but with a happy couple standing in the forefront!  :) 



  1. Christine Henderson (Rodrigues)Monday, August 09, 2010 2:48:00 PM

    Sounds pretty cool Jill! xo

  2. This is an incredible experience! I would love to do something like this in the future

  3. i love this post. all the information and history but most importantly you sharing your time where you were able to commune with God. i got goose bumps as i read about your long time of prayer, it is something i struggle with so i was encouraged to hear your experience. i am so happy for you. :)

  4. This is *amazing*. I cannot fathom the beauty of the photos. Is it near Busan or Andong? I Naver-mapped the name and found two temples of the same name. I want to take photographs there (am an amateur photographer and reader of Buddhism). Please respond to Thank you!