As aforementioned in my previous blog post, living in Seoul and studying at Dongguk has gifted me with various and bizarre opportunities; one of which was an authentic experience at the traditional Buddhist Ssangyesa Temple (쌍계사). Following the 5 hour long coach ride which unfortunately started in the early hours of the morning, we arrived at the temple on the southern island of Jindo with a handful of foreign students and to my surprise, also a large number of Korean natives who were looking to experience the temple stay alongside the welcoming and dedicated monks.
Upon our arrival, we scrambled for appropriate temple-wear and I was left with pieces that could have fit two of me, but it left me feeling the comfiest and freest I had in a long while. After a light rest, we explored the grounds and discovered that even an isolated Buddhist temple won’t be the only place in Korea without wifi;
and then we were called for dinner. For me, personally, I’ve never been a fan of vegan or vegetarian recipes- in fact I aggressively refuse them. My motto is usually if there’s no meat or eggs, I’m not eating. However, after experiencing the taste of temple food, I can genuinely and truthfully admit that I could manage living as a monk (for like two weeks max. though, realistically).
We were then taken for what I guess you could call an introductory class on meditating, which we would then do properly later that coming morning. Although I knew there was a specific process to prayer in Buddhism, I didn’t realise just how precise we had to be; each movement had to held with perfect angles and timing. And then, during the meditation, our backs were to be perfectly straight and our eyes just barely open, minds completely devoid of thought. Our hilarious monk instructor would also particularly enjoy coming round and smacking us straight with the large stick he had employed as a tool of discipline. I got a few whacks considering the awful posture posture I’ve perfected from playing video games my whole life. Anyway. During this first 15 minute, silent meditation period, I couldn’t bring myself to focus. I kept thinking “this really isn’t for me”, “I feel silly”, “what am I supposed to be feeling?”, etc. I tend to be skeptical of religious practice just because they’ve never worked for me and I usually question how much I think they work for other people.
Then we returned to our room and everyone helped arrange the beds and by beds, I mean blankets on the heated floor, which had me sweating my life away but also blessed me with one of the best sleeps I’ve ever had in my life. I was completely knocked out by 10:30, which can sometimes be dinner time for me, so crazy early. And then we were up at 4:30 for our hour and a half long meditiation session, which I was dreading… but ended up being one of the best hour and thirty minutes of my life. I can’t even explain the feeling without sounding ridiculous but it really was curing. Having to stay completely still and silent for so long without worrying about anything, and clearing your mind of any troubling thoughts. I strongly reccommend the experience to anyone and everyone if they ever get the chance to maybe do a temple stay.
Then there was the final activity, ‘the forrest walk’. I wish I could express sarcasm through typing, because this was for sure not a ‘forrest walk’ but a damn mountain hike. I’m not the most fit and healthy person in the world and so this was absolutely no fun for me. Endless steps. Endless. Ok sure, the view from the top was breathtaking and it was nice to say it was something I had achieved, but at this point during my travels I’ve done so many of these hikes and each time, when I’ve reached the peak, I always ask myself: was it really worth it? I’m on the verge of an asthma attack and drenched in sweat. But whatever, my friends always manage to drag me up anyway.
Thinking about the entire experience really does make me feel great though, as although I visited Busan for the festival, Jindo felt like a completely different version to Korea which I have seen on screen and also experienced first hand. Yes, ok, there was still wifi but the serene, natural landscape, lack of sky scrapers, obviously clearer air; all these contrasts really refreshed my understanding of Korean life and separated this concept of capitalism and consumerism from all of Korea. Instead, it made me consider why there is this huge distinction between a modern way of living in the country vs the ultra-traditional lifestyle. A difference that I think is far more drastic and apparent than what we can see with western cities vs countrysides.