Mariah and I arrive in the meditation room where the AK group is mid-orientation. We quickly take a seat while our monk demonstrates the correct way to walk on the temple grounds. Whenever we walk to the dining room or between temples, we should walk in single file, approximately four feet apart and with our right hand folded over our left in front of us. We’ve missed most of the orientation so the only other temple etiquette we hear about is that there is no talking in the dining room, restrooms or shower rooms.
The first activity following the orientation session is the making of lotus lanterns. The temple volunteers provide each group of four with a lantern frame and baskets of leaves prepared from crepe paper. I’m not the most artistic person but seriously, how hard can it be to glue leaves onto a frame in straight lines – apparently a lot more difficult that it first seems…. Finding the correct placing for the top row of leaves is perhaps the most difficult part of the lantern as you need to be careful not to cover too much of the opening where the candle needs space to breathe. As we diligently glue pieces of craft paper to our lanterns, our monk takes the time to chat to a few of us and helps me glue and stick pieces of paper to my frame.
With our lotus lanterns finished, the final step is for us to write a wish for 2011 on the paper provided which is then stapled to the bottom of our lanterns. We then hang the finished lanterns on the ropes outside and have a 40 minute break to wander around the temple grounds. It’s a great opportunity to take some photos and I’m mesmerised by the tranquillity and overall beauty of the location. I’ve always loved forests and mountains because they’re so peaceful – Geumsan is no exception!
At 17:30 we meet for dinner which is served in the dining room. It’s a bibimbap style dinner although I’m not entirely sure that this is actually bibimpbap. In addition, the soup is tofu and bean curd – fermented bean curd. Eating dinner in total silence is slightly unnerving: I’m so used to meals taking only a few minutes and trying to do several other things while eating that I find it rather strange to simply sit and eat dinner in silence at a table. It seems this is a shared feeling judging by the agonised expressions of many people around me. Our monk takes it upon himself to inspect our dishes too before we’re allowed to wash them. The monks don’t believe in wasting food so every last grain of rice must be eaten – something many foreigners don’t seem too happy to hear. Several people ignore this instruction and discard much of their dinner in the nearby trashcan simply because they don’t like the taste of the food; it would’ve been preferable to simply take less food than to discard so much of it.
Calling All Corners of the Earth...
We don’t all have time to wash our own dishes as we’re hurried to the next part of the temple experience. There are four percussion instruments on the temple grounds and these are played daily, at regular intervals, and numerous times. It’s time for our monk to tell us about each of these instruments and demonstrate two of them. Briefly, the four instruments represent land, air, water and the underworld. The first of these, the large drum, is made of cowhide and buffalo hide and is played to summon all earthbound creatures to the world of enlightenment. Two monks demonstrate this particular drum with the most amazing, rapid and long drumming I’ve heard – the total playing time had to have been at least seven minutes.
The second instrument is a suspended wooden fish that is hollowed out from the bottom. Drumsticks are played with the hollowed out part to summon all of the aquatic beings in the world and the sound that results is similar to a drum being played underwater. The cloud shaped gong is the third of the instruments. Also suspended, it is made of iron and is used to summon all airborne creatures while the final instrument is a large bell that is approximately 30cm thick, three metres high and perhaps four metres in circumference. This bell is used to summon all beings suffering in the netherworlds and you do not want to be standing next to the bell when it is struck with the suspended log. In groups of four, we all have a chance to strike this bell seven times as part of the day’s ritual. According to Geumsansa’s website, “the playing of these four instruments is symbolic of the Bodhisattva dedication to relieving all forms of life of their burdens and sufferings, and to lead them into a pain-free world of liberation”.
|The cloud shaped gong for summoning|
airborne creatures to enlightenment.
Having learnt about the percussion instruments, we follow our monk and tour leaders to the Main Buddha Hall where several monks are preparing for the evening’s chanting to the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and Predecessors. Although interesting to observe, apart from doing full bows several times in 20 minutes, there is limited comprehension as to what has just happened. This is further exemplified by the confused bows foreigners make just before leaving the temple: Each person bows in a different direction – some bow to a Buddha, some to a Bodhisattva, some bow to the monks while others, like me, simply give a confused bow that is inadvertently aimed at a blank wall. The monks take little notice of our departure as they continue their chanting for several hours into the night while we file away for the next activity on our itinerary.
Meditational Walks by Lantern Light
We return to our meditation room to find our lanterns aglow and casting a beautiful light across the building beside it. We collect our lanterns and once again line up to head back to the main courtyard where we’ll do a meditational walk. As we walk, our monk tells us to focus on the wish that we wrote on the piece of paper stapled to our lanterns – by focusing on this wish while we walk, it will be granted. My wish is for good health in 2011 – so Korean as many people point out. Our walk leads us around a pagoda several times before being lead up and around the oldest temple and back to our home base where it is now time for tea and conversation with our Buddhist monk.
We’re encouraged to ask as many questions as we like whether they are about Buddhism, monks or even
in general. Our monk obliges us with answers to many personal questions too such as: How long have you been a monk (20 years) and why did you become a monk? (to find out who I am). I find it rather difficult to understand why he became a monk to find out who he is and, at 18 years of age, to be so sure of his course of life. Despite my difficulty in understanding this, however, I’m also a little envious of his conviction that this is the right decision for him. At 29 years of age, I still doubt my path in life and lack even a fraction of the conviction that this man demonstrates every time he opens his mouth. It’s an interesting conversation and one that leads me to question a few things in my own life. Korea
The sound of the monks’ chanting floats across the courtyard from the Main Buddha Hall and provides a sense of tranquillity unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. In the hour of down time that we have before lights out at 22:00, we prepare our beds, take cold showers and have a moment to reflect on everything that has happened and the many new experiences of the last six hours. We’re reminded of the pre-dawn ceremony in the morning and many people frantically set alarm clocks for 3:00am. It’s been a long and exhausting day – so tiring that I barely realise that the text message I’m sending KiwiKat about ByungWoo has actually gone to ByungWoo instead. Maybe it’s a sign that cellular phones don’t belong in temples and that after the day’s excitement, a good night’s rest – or rather five hours of sleep – is sorely needed if I’m going to be up at 3:00am.