After arriving at Beomeosa late in the afternoon, my group of about thirty Americans was led by our guide through the temple complex. I looked with interest at its several dozen wooden buildings, most with ornately painted exteriors and tile roofs. The smell of incense and the sound of tinkling bells filled the air, and inside several buildings I glimpsed golden statues and flickering candles. Several robed monks with shaven heads walked through the compound, their eyes downcast and their hands folded together inside their sleeves.
Our first task was to put on our own monastic attire, a loose-fitting gray vest and trousers that went over our clothes. While before we had looked like tourists, the change in costume gave us a sense of kinship with the monks in their gray robes. I was reminded of the fact that in many traditions pilgrims wear special clothing or other items to set them apart. Before setting off for Jerusalem, medieval Christians would sew crosses onto their cloaks to identify themselves as pilgrims. Travelers to Santiago de Compostela wear the shell as a symbol of their journey; Muslims traveling to Mecca wear white.
As we sat cross-legged on the floor of the guest house, we listened to an orientation on what our next 24 hours would include. Speaking through an interpreter, a robe-clad monk with a shaved head instructed us in monastic etiquette—how to stand like a monk, how to hold our hands while walking, how to bow, and how to do the full-body prostration that is part of the monks’ prayer rituals. Then we were handed a set of bowls and told to walk to the dining hall. “Walk like birds flying,” we were told, meaning that we were to stay in single file rather than as a group.
In an orderly line we walked to the dining room, which was spare and unfurnished. As we settled onto mats arranged around the sides of the room, Hye Su, the director of instruction for the monastery, explained the temple’s eating ceremony. In deference to all of those who are hungry in the world, we were told to take only 70 percent of what would make us full.
“Eat everything you take,” he added. “And if any food is left at the end, we will all consume it.”
He can’t be serious, I thought—and then changed my mind as I looked at his stern expression. Lesson number one in monastery living, I realized, is to believe what the monk says.
While not gourmet quality, the food was nutritious and filling: tofu, vegetables, rice, and soup. At the end we scrubbed our bowls with a slice of Japanese radish and—with a sigh and a gulp—drank the rinse water we had used to clean our bowls. I was relieved to see that everyone had finished every last morsel of their meal.
Next we headed back to the guest house, where we were taught how to make lotus-shaped lanterns out of colored paper. By now night had fallen, and when we took our lit lanterns outside they glowed brightly in the darkness. In a solemn procession we walked to the stone pagoda in the temple’s central courtyard and processed around it three times. As we circled the courtyard the glowing lanterns formed a halo of ethereal light. The lights in our lanterns represented our true nature, the monk said.
The 3:00 a.m. wake up call was a challenge, I must admit, as the lights were abruptly flipped on in the guest house.
“This is way too early to be getting up,” I grumbled as I hurriedly folded my sleeping mat along with the other women in my group. (The men had slept in a separate building.)
“Hurry! Hurry!” the half-dozen female temple volunteers said as we struggled to clear the room. “We must be at the drum ceremony by 3:30.”
Stumbling a bit in the dark, a few minutes later we made our way down the hillside to a raised platform that contained a hanging drum at least ten-feet in diameter. As a monk approached it and began to pound its surface, the sound reverberated through the darkness. The wild, throbbing drumming went on for nearly a half hour, gradually bringing our sleepy minds to greater clarity.
Next it was time for morning prayers in a nearby meditation hall lined with tatami mats. About 20 monks were already in place when we entered, standing silently on their cushions. Once our group was in place, they began to chant in Korean, their deep voices blending in a seamless melody. Every few minutes they dropped to the floor to do the full-body prostration we had been taught the evening before, a movement that we Westerners awkwardly emulated (after about 10 bows, the prostrations became difficult indeed).
Out of the corner of my eye I watched the monks, fascinated by their impassive faces. Most were in their 30s and 40s and exuded health and strength. The endless prostrations seemed effortless to them.
An hour later, as I attempted to practice meditation on my own, I began to have an even greater appreciation for the discipline required of these men. Sitting cross-legged on a cushion facing the wall of the guesthouse, I struggled to follow the monk Hye Su’s teaching. “Who is the self who answers ‘yes’?” he asked as he paced behind us. “Ponder this as you sit.”
Alas, the major thing I found myself pondering was how long we were going to have to wait for breakfast. But even that brief exposure to chamseon (the Korean Buddhist form of meditation) gave me a glimpse into the difficulty of what these monks do for many hours each day.
Later that morning, we learned why the monks seemed like they were made of tempered steel. On the lawn before our guesthouse several monks gave a demonstration of bulmudo, a form of martial arts unique to Korean Buddhism. With lightning-fast reflexes the men moved and kicked, suddenly transformed from contemplative monks into ninja-like warriors. Our translator explained that monks in Korea practice martial arts because throughout the nation’s history, monasteries have periodically been called upon to defend the nation from invasion. She added that even today monks serve for two years in the South Korean military, as do all Korean males.
All too soon it was time to surrender my novice’s clothing and pack my bag to depart. Though I was tired from rising so early, I found myself reluctant to leave. This serene community of spiritual warriors held a growing fascination for me. My introduction to their austere lifestyle had given me a tremendous admiration for them. While on the surface theirs was the most regimented life I could imagine, a place where all parts of life were ritualized, I also was beginning to feel the peace that radiated throughout the temple.
Back at home, I often find myself thinking about my temple stay experience. Memories come back to me as I eat my dinner plate filled with too much food and as I walk (not like a bird, as we were advised at the monastery) in a group of friends.
Most of all, I remember what the monk Hye Su said in response to a question from our group about how often he saw his family.
“You are all my family,” he replied, gazing upon us with a radiant smile.
And somehow I can still feel a tie to him, even many miles away from that mountaintop temple filled with the smell of incense and the sound of tinkling bells.