Who would have thought life in a Korean buddhist temple would be so tough? I was already exhausted from two hours of heavy exercise and it was only 5.30am. But this was one of the most interesting things I’d ever done, and maybe if I stuck at it a bit longer…No, I think I just got out in time, before I was crippled for life.
When Korea hosted the football World Cup in 2002, someone in tourism had the bright idea of offering visitors a brief religious experience and the Temple Stay program was born. It’s one of the world’s great travel successes, a way for anyone with an interest in religion and culture to get an insight into the buddhist world view. I wasn’t converted, but I found the experience fascinating.
When I arrived at the Woljeongsa temple office, a shaven headed monk was sitting cross-legged on the floor, typing on a laptop. He passed me a registration form, which I noticed included a space for my email address. Ah – 21st century buddhism.
‘Mr Richard, you have arrived in time to do the 108 vows but that means you will miss dinner.’ ‘Oh, naturally I’d like to do the 108 vows,’ I replied. Why should I care about missing dinner? I’d already missed lunch getting here and that wasn’t too bad.
I slipped into a burnt orange judo suit, maybe not quite as bright as those issued to guests of Guantanamo Bay, but similar. I liked it very much – it was comfortable, given the warmth of the day.
Then I joined about a hundred other visitors in the vowing room and, being one of only three westerners in the group, was issued with a piece of paper with an English translation of the vows. They were all very worthy things I’d have no trouble vowing without feeling hypocritical – that I’d respect nature, do my best to be honest, that I’d honour all living things…and so on.
But buddhist vowing isn’t as easy as waking up after a big night and vowing never to drink alcohol again. Buddhist vowing means standing while each vow is chanted, then kneeling, falling forward into a prone position and standing up again. All this repeated 108 times, on an empty stomach.
Nightfall meant bed time. 7.30 seemed a bit early, but reveille was at 3.30am, apparently. I was allocated a room, sharing with the only other westerners staying that night – Sylvie and Frederic, separated from me by a paper screen. I knew their names from their name tags, but officially we weren’t supposed to be talking. One of the vows was about silence.
Waking up at 3.30am wasn’t hard. Not after sleeping on the floor on a thin mat with a little rice-filled bag for a pillow. When the gong rang, I was delighted to have an excuse to get up and face the day.
There isn’t much day at 4am. In the gloom the regular monks were chanting as they walked in a circle around the statue in the middle of the parade ground. We filed into the temple behind them and prayed for another hour – more kneeling, prostration and standing again. And chanting. It has to be said that Buddhism didn’t fare well when the religions were being allocated their music. Christianity got Handel’s Messiah; Buddhism got a sort of drone in no particular key.
‘Is it breakfast now?’ I whispered hopefully to my guide. ‘Very soon,’ was the reply. ‘Right after yoga.’
Yoga. I noticed that our instructor had to be carried in on the back of a monk because her foot was heavily bandaged. She just gave the orders while two ridiculously supple demonstrators showed how it should be done.
We started with stretch exercises I last did thirty-something years ago when in full training hoping to make the Australian Olympic hockey team. I couldn’t do them then and I sure can’t do them now. I really can’t. I did all the vowing and the praying, please let me off the yoga. Please have mercy on me – I’m a lapsed Presbyterian. In our church we didn’t even have to kneel like the Catholics.
I was lurking up the back, trying to hide behind a hundred lithe Koreans. The instructions were in Korean of course – this torture was obviously not intended for people like me. Even faking it hurt like hell. Suddenly the instructor’s voice cut through in English, ‘Mr Richard, you not trying hard enough!’
After breakfast (another hour of painful kneeling) we were invited to take part in a writing exercise. At last – something I was supposed to be reasonably good at. The task was to reflect on our lives so far, and to write a letter to our descendants. I could only think of a couple of wise words. ‘Take good care of your knees. You never know when you’ll need them.’
Further information on Korean temple stays: See templestay.com
For specific information on the Woljeongsa Temple, see: woljeongsa.org
The writer was a guest of the Korea Tourist Organisation