At no time of the year does a temple clash with its natural surroundings.
Bright with the energy of new growth in the springtime. Surrounded by lush green woods in the heat and blazing sun of summer. Resplendent against a backdrop of autumn golds, reds and browns.
And, of course, nestled under a soft blanket of snow while icy winds whip against exposed skin.
I stayed at Beopjusa temple, tucked away in Songnisan National Park near Cheongju, over the weekend of the winter solstice. Despite the chill in the air, I felt very peaceful and at ease as I took part in Buddhist ceremonies and slowly explored the temple grounds. Despite the short stay, I feel like I was able to gain a better understanding of monastic life and the philosophy and practices of Buddhism in Korea.
Our journey began with a stroll through an eerily deserted town as the sun started to sink in the sky. Our trio entertained the notion of this being the start to a horror film, and debated who would be the first to disappear. Fortunately, we made it to the temple unscathed, after a lovely trek through snowy forests.
Beopjusa was founded in 553 CE (that’s right, nearly a 1500-year history), but our accommodations had certainly been built a little more recently than that. We may have spent much of our time at Beopjusa bundled up, but the room we stayed in had a very cozy ondol (floor-based) heating system). Cozy socks helped, too!
This is Palsangjeon, a striking five-story wooden pagoda. Much of Korea’s wooden structures were destroyed by Samurai forces, and Beopjusa was one of the few places where such buildings were restored.
Another notable feature is the largest Buddha statue in Korea. It is 33 metres high! Unfortunately, during our stay it was covered up, perhaps for restoration work. Luckily, the large, circular room located underneath the statue’s base remained open, containing hundreds if not thousands of golden Buddha statues along its circumference.
The first evening of our stay was fairly low-key. After learning some of the basics of temple etiquette, we had a simple yet filling vegetarian dinner and learned to make lotus flowers with traditional rice paper. Despite growing in dirty, muddy water, the leaves and petals of the lotus flower remain pristine. So too should we strive to purify our thoughts against the corrupting influences of life.
Despite the somewhat full schedule, we had time to rest and explore. Our second day at the temple started at 3 a.m., with a chanting ceremony, 108 prostrations, a meditation session and finally a simple breakfast.
The 108 prostrations was both challenging and highly rewarding. Because Korean Buddhists believe that humans are prone to 108 defilements of the mind, the mindful practice of 108 prostrations is a way to to repent for past failings and appreciate all the wonderful things we have in life. The first half of the practice concerned repentance- for causing harm to others, failing to appreciate the environment that sustains us, and acting out of anger, selfishness or ignorance.
Next, we prostrated in gratitude- for the beauty of the natural world and the life it gives us, for the kindness of others, for our inherent connection to all beings. Just when I felt like I couldn’t do another bow, we completed the last one! I was grateful to partake in such a practice. It was a powerful reminder of all the things we tend to forget or take for granted in our busy day-to-day lives.
After that, I was more than happy to sneak in a nap.
Following our power nap, it was time to rejoin the group for a session of walking meditation along a beautiful forest trail. With the sounds of 30 pairs of boots crunching over the snow, it was hard to truly clear my mind and focus on the sounds of nature, but I took in the beauty of my surroundings and focused on being present in the moment.
Afterwards, we participated in a tea ceremony and question-and-answer session with the monk overseeing the templestay program. This was one of my favourite activities. It was very peaceful to slowly prepare and pour our lotus tea, and the colour, smell and taste was delightful. The sunim, or monk, who answered our questions was a wonderful individual to learn from. As the first female monk to live and work at Beopjusa, as an overseer of the templestay program, she was making history. She gave very insightful responses to our questions on monastic life, the philosophy of Buddhism in Korea, and its openness to personal interpretations and choices.
This woman had such a beautiful spirit, and her peace and happiness with her path in life really shone through. If I had one hope for humankind, it would be for everyone to find their own path and a similar level of certainty and purpose.
If you are interested in experiencing monastic life, I would certainly recommend a templestay of your own! There are 16 temples throughout Korea offering regular templestay programs, including three within Seoul. I was fortunate to participate on a weekend that offered a free stay to international participants. Keep your eyes open and you may have similar luck! That said, I feel that this would be worth paying for, and I hope to stay for a longer period at some point in the future.
Beopjusa is around a three-hour bus journey south of Seoul, located in in north Chungcheong province near Cheongju. There are buses headed towards Songnisan from both Express Bus Terminal and Dongseoul Bus Terminal (located at Gangbyeon station). Note: if you plan to leave from Express Bus Terminal, tickets for Songnisan are not sold in the main building connected to the subway station, but are instead in an adjacent building across a small street!
Until next post, and may you find your path, purpose and happiness in your life! 🙂