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“Enlightenment” at a Korean Temple Stay

By Dan Edwards

September 4, 2010


“People who live in a chaotic modern world … are invited to participate in Templestay… a few days [here] will enable people to live a new kind of life full of energy and peace of mind.”

That’s what my guidebook has to say about Temple Stay, a program that allows world-weary types like myself to spend a few days living like a Buddhist monk, immersed in their world of daily chores, prayers, meditating, tea and stunning landscapes from a choice selection of temples around the country. Being lately bored with the daily routine of ESL school life; having been made bitter by isolation and numbed by the sudden onset of a cold, cold winter, I decided that this was exactly what I needed: a few days of peace and rest and quiet contemplation. Perhaps, away from screaming school children and awkward cultural differences and chronic fears about what on earth I’m going to do with the rest of my life, I could even enjoy some kind of epiphany: something profound that would rekindle my love of Korea, put my mind at ease, and give me a vision for my future. A lot of things to want, you might think, but, heck – I was going to live like a Buddhist monk for a few days. You know: those benign, saffron-clothed old sages from the movies who are full of sound advice and dire predictions for Western civilization.

I traveled with friends to Daeheungsa Temple in Haenam, Jeollanamdo, the southwest province of South Korea. Let’s get this out of the way quickly: it’s a beautiful place, surrounded by mountains and scattered with the late-autumn foliage. But it was cold. So very cold. Late night winds howled through our dorms, sounding suspiciously like the snores of my roommates. My hands withered and became crab like. I developed a cold. Not fun.

Moo In, Daeheungsa’s Head Monk, wasn’t having much fun either. He was also sick. Very sick. So sick that he decided to cancel most of the program’s “relaxing” and “authentic” experiences, meaning no temple chores, no meditating; only a cursory bit of chanting and bowing (which I spent self-consciously glancing at the other foreigners to check I was doing it right) and some tea in a gift shop (presumably set up to get us to buy some “gifts” from it). Which is fair enough, I guess, if you’re sick, but it made the whole experience feel more like a hotel stay in the mountains than the kind of enlightening experience I was hoping for.

Moo In invited us lads into his home late in the evening for some soju. “It’s a secret,” he said, looking about nervously. “Don’t tell the girls!” So there we were, up on the mountain, in his little house, drinking 44% soju and watching taekwondo matches on his big flat widescreen TV. Truly, here was a man fighting against all those Buddhist monk stereotypes. As I came to grips with this New-Age Monk, nursing my glass of soju, Moo In suddenly sat bolt-right and closed his eyes and held himself in such a way that my brain started racing and I thought: yes, now, truly, something important is about to be revealed. This is what you came for. This is the moment you realize something special, that will help you along this difficult road we call “life”. Grab a mental pen and take notes.

“Listen,” he said in a baritone voice, and there was an unearthly silence. I leaned in eagerly. “Listen, to the sound of…”

And then he lifted his leg and ushered forth a deep, bowel-shattering, room-shaking fart right in my direction; the force of which was like a thousand heralding trumpets from some unholy brass band. Breaking the stunned silence that followed he clapped his hands together, as if satisfied after completing a difficult task, and announced "time for bed!"

So, temple stays: I can’t say it was the peaceful experience I wanted. Sure it was pretty, but where was the meditation? The time for self-reflection and self-actualization? Where was the all-knowing monk from all those movies I’ve seen in the past? He's gone forever. Dispelled the moment he guffed right in my face.

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