Temple Stay in Daewonsa
Deep in the mountains of Jirisan, the second largest mountain in South Korea, lies a spacious temple known as Daewonsa. This temple is unique primarily due to it only housing Buddhist nuns. The nuns, who, just like the monks, have shaved heads, are decorated in the Korean gray robes to represent their Tongbulgyo denomination of Buddhism. The temple is surrounded by the constant melody of nearby streams and rivers and decorated in an assortment of colorful flowers.
A temple stay is religious retreat that is quite popular among foreigner visitors and workers in Korea. Each temple that offers a temple stay has a different focus/activities (i.e; taekwondo vs hiking). Unfortunately there are only a handful of English language temple stays which is limiting (one can find information about such temples here). Regardless, if you're determined and interested in the religion, one can try join a Korean language retreat and enjoy the surroundings. Daewonsa, unfortunately, is not an English language temple stay but because I was going there with three Korean coworkers, it made sense to do it in Korean. The head nun who is responsible for the temple stay program actually lived and volunteered in Cape Town, South Africa and was therefore fluent in English.
With the help of my coteacher and the head nun, I got the general gist of what was going on. There were about 10 of us participating in the overnight program and to commence, we gathered in one of the temples, sat in a circle, and introduced ourselves. They introduced us with a video about the concept of a temple stay as well as show us temple etiquette. One should never walk into a temple using the main stairs as those are reserved for monks/nuns. One should always put their hands together and slightly bow when they monks/nuns approach out of respect. One should also bow three times when entering a temple. The proper way is to get on your knees, put your head down, the palms facing up for a few seconds, stand up with just your feet, and then do it again. We were then given traditional Korean clothes which were pretty uncomfortable and we were required to wear it for the two days.
Over the course of our two day program, we were presented with thought-provoking questions such as reflecting on life problems and what our future dreams/desires were. At one point, 100 postcards were scattered on the ground and we had to choose two, one that represented ourselves now and one of how we want to see our futures end up.
Outside of the classroom, we were provided with three meals and told beforehand that we were to eat slowly and mindfully to appreciate what we have been given. Our plates were to be completely empty before getting up.
At 7 PM on the dot, a nun hit the gong for a few minutes to notify the nuns (and us) that they needed to gather at the main temple. When the service began, everyone did their three bows and then the nuns proceeded to chant their prayers. The temple didn't have English translations of the prayers but they did have German which was close enough. Although I can read Korean, reading at the speed of a song/chant is not a skill I have yet acquired and therefore I relied on the German/Latin script to follow along. After prayers, we had another hour of study session and then went to bed on a Korean style floor mats.
Arguably the worst part of a temple stay is that everyone is required to rise at 3 AM for morning prayers. Because it was difficult to fall asleep early, it was much harder with only four hours of sleep under my belt to force myself to rise at 3. As we stumbled into the main temple, the nuns began their 108 bows while we watched sleepily while another nun sat in front of a gong and hit the gong each time to signal a bow. The 108 bows is a meditative practice that requires much concentration, patience, and I'd say, energy. Following the ceremony, the temple stay goers went to our study temple and began our own 108 bows. The nun would hit the gong and signal us to go down and then up again. My legs got progressively more wobbly over the course of the bows and you're not really supposed to use your hands to help you get up so I was very shaky. It was definitely tiring, made me very sweaty, and hard to concentrate. I don't think I have a mind for meditation as I literally thought "when will this end?" pretty much the whole 45 minutes I think it took.
Following the bows, we brought some floor mats onto the front steps of the temple, closed our eyes, and were supposed to meditate in the cool morning breeze. My mind was once again, not clear, and dreamed of falling back asleep rather than clearing it. The next early activity was walking at the pace of a snail around the temple. We walked with one leg, then the other, and in a single file line, walked the slowest, miserable walk I have ever walked. It took twenty minutes to walk around this little building and when we got to the front, we were forced to do it again. During this process, the sun literally rose from its slumber over the surrounding mountains. It was tedious and I believe it took a really strong mind to actually mediate during it. That and waking up at three AM were the two least exciting activities. All in all, I would have to say I actually enjoyed the 108 bows because it required patience and kept me going and entertained. After the 6 AM breakfast, the nuns all collectively gathered and cleaned/swept/weeded the temple premises. I, however, passed out for two more hours until we gathered one last time and hiked around the area with some local park rangers.
All in all, it was a unique experience and it was definitely worthwhile to see a Buddhist nunnery. The nuns were friendly, peaceful, and happy. I think they live good, simple lives in Jirisan and it is definitely a good representative of a peaceful religion. They are doing something right, eh? ^^