The story of how I quite literally stumbled upon the Hwa Gye Sa temple and International Zen Centre is cliche. It’s so cliche that I almost didn’t share it with you. But then I remembered the happiness and joy that resulted from my visits, so here goes. If you’re living outside Korea, plan a visit to the wonderful “Land of the Morning Calm” and include it in your itinerary. If you live in Korea, revisit this infamous temple.
My discovery of Hwa Gye Sa temple was accidental. I had been living in Seoul as an ESL teacher for about four months. Work was becoming stressful and, although I would never probably admit it at the time, I was feeling rather alone. Filled with emotions I couldn’t quite explain, I went for a run. I had no route mapped, no intentions. I just let my feet do the work as my mind tried to rest. Where was I headed? I had no idea.
I sort of always thought of it this way: my feet brought me to where my heart wanted to go. I ended up at the entry of what seemed to be a temple, with sounds of chanting off in the far distance. I immediately felt a sense of calm. I didn’t know what was being said, but understood quite well the affect it was having on my emotions. It was quite possibly one of the most memorable moments of my life.
That initial Hwa Gye Sa visit had a profound impact on me, so much so that I decided to do a temple stay. Being quite self-explanatory, a temple stay involves staying at a Buddhist temple and carrying out the same daily tasks monks do. They rise at 3 am to meditate, you rise at 3 am to meditate. They hike up the mountains, you hike up the mountains.
I arrived at the temple just before lunch time on Saturday. A lovely vegetarian bimbibap (mixed Korean vegetables and roots) was prepared, made with fresh, organic produce from the temple garden. All Buddhist meals are vegetarian, and you are encouraged to take only the amount of food you will eat. You must not waste a morsel.
The next step on the itinerary was trekking up the Bukansan mountains with monks that were triple my age and triple as fit. Walking along steep cliffs while talking about some of the reasons we all exist is definitely up there on my list of memorable experiences throughout my lifetime. And to this day, I still dip my hands in water whenever I see a stream, saying hello to the mountain as encouraged by such kind, gentle souls.
Later that same day, there was mediation followed by yet another wonderful vegetarian dinner and then more meditation. While I had some previous meditation experience, my back was starting to wonder, like the eternal question within us all perhaps, why am I here? But if I learned anything during those initial few hours of meditating, it was that discomfort is normal. We experience it mentally, physically and emotionally almost each and every day.
While 24 hours in a temple doesn’t make you a Zen Master, it does open your eyes. For me, it peaked my interest enough to do a longer, five day temple stay a few months later in early August.
While my friends vacationed in Japan and other places throughout South-East Asia, I sat. And while I had sat for longer periods once before, nothing prepares you for five days of sitting and meditating in the top peak of a Korean Buddhist temple in the middle of summer with no air conditioning, fans or bug spray.
Was it easy? No. Did I have fun? It depends on what your definition of fun is. Was it life-changing? Most definitely. I still dream of my time at Hwa Gye Sa. But in true Buddhist fashion, I don’t reflect too long. After all, it’s much better to live in the moment.
Thank you, Hwa Gye Sa, for introducing me to the world of meditation. I still have an active yoga and meditation practice today.
For more information on the Hwa Gye Sa temple stay program, please visit this website:
Categories: 2012 (Pilot Project)