Jikjisa Temple Stay: A lesson in culture and ignorance.

11:06 PM Jessica Montgomery 0 Comments

A year and three months ago, I came to Korea with the intention of being completely and utterly submerged in the culture. Traditional culture: Pottery, language, religion. I even left my adult ESL internship in Detroit the summer prior telling some of my students, "Hey, I'll come back in a year speaking Korean! Don't you worry!" (They all gave me a hard time for only speaking one language. Some of them were on their 3rd or 4th language by the time I met them. And heart surgeons. Talk about making me feel lazy...)

But. Enveloped by the neon glow of Time World, an addiction to my cocoon of an apartment, enough expat friends to re-cast Braveheart, and (admittedly) laziness, my cultural-conquest aspirations fell by the wayside. I've enjoyed my life here in Korea to the fullest, sometimes overly-full; don't get me wrong. But, my second time around I hope to revisit and accomplish some of the things I initially thought I'd do when moving to Asia.

Like, ohh, I dunno... a temple stay.





Ever since I heard that a "temple stay" is an actual thing that you can, actually, physically do (!!!), I was excited and reserved all at once. I try to pride myself on being culturally sensitive, so that wasn't the issue. The only thing keeping me from jumping in was the fact that I heard these temple stays can be rather intense and physically demanding. I wasn't put off by the potential rituals to be performed, I was more concerned that my body couldn't keep up with doing them. Sitting on the floor at a Korean restaurant for dinner is enough to make my feet go numb and my hips cry out in pain. So, the idea of sitting and meditating at a Buddhist temple intimidated me. I didn't want my squirming and lack of good posture to offend anyone or make me look uninterested and disrespectful. Honestly. So I put it off.
But! A couple weeks ago my co-teacher informed me of a free (all expenses paid aside from transportation) temple stay experience at Jikjisa temple in Gimcheon. I had to jump on it right away.
The temple stay experience was put on by the Gimcheon Cultural Tourism Board and was free to the first 130 foreign teachers and international students that signed up. I hoped that this would coax my then-boyfriend into going and I was also hoping I'd see a few familiar faces. And I did! Happy to say that I met up with a few lovely women from Seoul and Daejeon alike.
Looking at the schedule provided, it seemed like we we're going to be in store for a pretty intense weekend. Waking up at 5am, cleaning the temple grounds, ceremonial practice, etc. But, it quickly came to our attention that this was Temple-Stay Light.

We arrived at the temple in droves. After a train ride, a short bus ride to the base of Jikjisa, and a beautiful walk up to the temple, we were finally here. A line of foreigners; ready with our "adventure caps" on. We were greeted at the temple by a few people in character outfits (think NBA mascots) and grabbed our goody-bag before changing into our temple garb. Our temple-wear for the weekend was really comfortable. Dark orange eelastic and velcro waisted harem pants and a matching orange top held together by two buttons. Men and women wore the same attire. I felt comfortable and the uniformity of it all gave us a sense of "Welp, we're all in this together." -One of my favorite, warm and fuzzy feelings about expat life.
After changing and settling into our rooms, we met in the main hall and sat down on mats to go over the weekend schedule and temple etiquette. After orientation we broke up into groups and met with our respective tour guides for a tour of the Jikjisa temple grounds.

I was itching to get out and walk around the grounds from the moment we arrived. Jikjisa is one of the most beautiful temples I've visited here in Korea. It was built in 418 and went through some renovations in the 1500s. You just can't get history like that in The States. Incredible. Unfortunately, I acquired that information from research I did prior to the trip. I did not get it from our tour guides. Our tour guides were incredibly sweet and lovely people but the language barrier was a big problem. Our tour guide was from The Philippines and was attempting to translate what another tour guide was saying to us in Korean. The fact that she could speak three languages and was attempting to re-route her brain from Korean-to Spanish-to English was amazing, but, it didn't really go over so well. And, unfortunately, I hate to say I was embarrassed by some of the ways other tour participants were handling themselves. Everything was a joke. That is one thing that I really can't stand. Sure, you don't understand something. It's a different culture. Or you don't agree with it. Whatever. Great. But does that give you the right to make fun of it? No. You are here representing your country, your professions, other foreigners (Lord knows we already have a bad reputation...) Act respectful. You are being given an amazing, free, cultural experience that most people from your home countries will never get the chance to have in their lifetimes. And, not to mention, you are walking, sleeping, and eating on religious ground. Would you act this way inside The Vatican? Probably not. Get your shit together.



Ok. Sorry. Rant over. Anyway! Overall... I was just happy to be able to walk around and photograph the grounds. Absolutely stunning. A small creek wound around and hugged foot bridges and buildings. The temple was nestled in the soft backdrop of rolling hills and mountains and most of the trees were still holding on to bits of Fall color. The architecture was lovely and meticulously kept. The fresh, brisk air was adding to the natural beauty of this place. Walking around, I tried to picture what it might look like in the Winter. I might have to go back to see!

After our tour we had some down time before dinner. Eating is as much a ritual for practicing Buddhist monks as bowing or lighting candles. Each movement, placement, food, bowl, and clean up practice had meaning. This is what I love about Korea. You have ancient practices going on like this right along side a culture of fast-food convenience stores. I can't help but get the sense that, even though most contemporary Korean food has a meat component, many of the ideals and ideas towards food stem from Buddhist practice. Either Buddhist practice or historical plight, occupation, and famine. This is a true culture of waste-not-want-not. And that was extremely prevalent during this meal. We were instructed to only take as much food as we planned on eating because every bit of food was to be finished. We were also instructed to take a slice of yellow radish. Not to eat right away, but to clean our bowls with after we were done, and then eat it. I loved this. What a great idea. Symbolic, beautiful, and logical really.
The meal was vegetarian. (Buddhists do not eat meat: Reincarnation.) It was probably one of the most lovely Korean meals I've had yet. I had rice (Which, I didn't really want but the lady with the rice pot plopped another scoop full into my bowl with a smile. Had to eat it.) tofu with gochujun, kimchi (Not made with fish paste therefore it tasted fresher and garlicier. So good!), some sliced kimchi raddish, a clear soup with julienne sliced potatoes, and that yellow radish for cleaning. We had four bowls before us that we were supposed to remove from being stacked together by only using our thumbs. This was supposed to be done in silence; the bowls weren't supposed to click together or make any noise and we weren't supposed to talk. Obvious to say that didn't happen. There was some confusion about the order too. At least for me. I couldn't see the example at the front since we were towards the back of the main hall of 90+ people. So I watched those around me and did my best! We had our rice bowl at the bottom left, our side dish bowl above that, our water bowl to the right, and our soup bowl placed beneath that. When we ate we were supposed to bring the bowl up to our face to hide our mouths when eating. Devout Buddhist monks believe that food is mearly for sustenance. Showing the mouth would insist that it is a pleasurable act. This was a little difficult. Another thing that was difficult: keeping my posture. Sitting up straight has never been my strong suit. Everyone once and a while, over the scrapping of spoons and chopsticks, our main temple guides voice came over the speaker: "Sit up straight, please." Ahhh!

Ok. Now on to that radish. After we finished every bit of food we were to pour a little bit of water into our rice bowl, swish it around, and then transfer it into our sides bowl. Once it was in our side dish bowl, we were supposed to take our yellow radish slice and wipe the sides with it. Once every bowl was relatively clean we were supposed to drink the radish water and eat the yellow radish. Not the best. But! I thought it totally made sense. Food is food. We were eating and drinking this stuff anyway! So, we did it. And we survived. But...then... We were supposed to take the remaining water from our water bowl and rinse each bowl again. And drink that water too, right? Haha Nope. This water we were supposed to dump. Oops. 95% of us drank the second batch of water. Rookie mistake.

After dinner it was arts and crafts time. This temple stay was starting to have the feeling of the Summer Sleep Away Camp I never had.... We made lotus lanterns out of pink and green tissue paper and candles. Inside the lantern we were supposed to write a wish. I wished to "live the life I want to live" -vague, impersonal? Oh well, that's what I wished for.
After our lanterns were completed we lit the candles and formed two single file lines outside. We were towards the front and followed one of the monks as he struck a gourd in rhythm. It was freezing and my hands were gripping my candle like Rose gripped the door in Titanic. We followed the monk in the dark to the pagoda at the center of the temple grounds. Pagodas are very important in Buddhist culture because it is thought that they house the remains of the Buddha. We circled the pagoda twice in silence, meditating and concentrating on our wish. The moon was so full we cast shadows. It was beautiful and peaceful. And. It was great to have this group of people quiet for a couple minutes.

Bed time was at 10pm. I was in one of the female dormitories inside the main hall. I claimed a spot near the window because I knew that sleeping on the floor with ondol (Korean floor heating) was going to be difficult for me. I was right. I couldn't sleep at all. I piled up my blankets to try and separate myself as much as possible from the floor but I still couldn't manage to fall asleep. It was ok though. I spent the night on my back looking up towards the ceiling past my knees; letting it sink in that I was physically in this space. I spent the night thinking about how I got here; how I got to this moment. I spent the night thinking about how crazy it was that I was here with a guy I've known since I was four years old. I spent the night thinking about how crazy it was that I was sleeping in a room full of women, most of which, I've only known for a couple hours. I spent the night thinking about trust, travel, the future, and the past. I might've slept for a good 45 minutes.

We got up at 5am to get ready and head to the dining hall by 6. Breakfast was great. I need more of this vegetarian Buddhist cuisine in my life here... I piled my plate with potatoes, mushrooms, zucchini, kimchi, fruit salad with Korean pears and black sesame seeds, soup and rice. After breakfast we had to wash our own dishes (part of communal living at a temple) and head back to the main hall. After some overly-long down time it was time to prepare for our 108 bows. We practiced the proper form of full bows and half bows. A full bow means that you kneel down onto your mat with your hands together at your chest, lower your head down and touch your forehead on you mat, raise your palms up next to your ears in a pulse, then return back up to standing position with your hands at your chest. One wasn't too bad. But we had to do 108 of them. A little physically demanding for my weak knees (which cracked 97 out of the 108 bows) and weak hips.  The 108 bows took approximately one hour to complete. But I was so excited to do this! This is something I've been looking forward to for quite sometime. After each bow, and as we were kneeling down with our foreheads close to our mats, we strung a wooden bead onto a burnt sienna string. Each bead represented one bow and one wish. By the 30th bow I was beginning to sweat. But the act of stringing the beads together in silence was a humbling experience and I looked forward to the next bead and bow with anticipation. I tried to focus on each bead being a member of family or friends (Kyle did the same.). There's a chance that if you are reading this right now, there's a bead for you strung along a Buddhist rosary. Why am I sharing this private bit of information? Well. I kinda thought that even if you don't follow, practice, or believe in Buddhism or any other religion for that matter, this activity is something that everyone can benefit from. Maybe not bowing but another sort of repetitive, meditative task. I don't know. I loved it. It's something when your eyes well up for an unexplainable reason. Neither happy nor sad; it just happens.

After our bows, we cleaned up the main hall and organized our things to get ready to leave the temple. Here I was slapped back into reality. Unfortunate reality: People are stupid, selfish, and inconsiderate. As we were sitting and listening to our temple director's directions (organizing us for which bus we were going to take into town for our FREE lunch), people were talking over him, walking about, and one man even interrupted him and yelled "Can we go now?!" My jaw dropped and I almost said something. Good thing the woman in front of me beat me to it.

I swear. People are the worst.

We changed out of our attire and piled onto buses heading into the mountains. We ate lunch at a Korean BBQ place and I opted for the vegetarian table. More 'interesting' conversation ensued: "America is the only country where the government doesn't do what the people want." -Really? Oh yeah, I'm sure North Koreans loved being executed in public. I couldn't get away from these people fast enough. Educate yourself and stop representing my country. Thank you.

We piled back onto the bus and headed to a cabbage field to pick Chinese cabbage for kimchi. I thought this was really cute. We were no longer a part of the Jikjisa temple stay but rather on tour with the Gimcheon Tourism Board. We walked atop of fallen cabbage leaves until we found the cabbage that "called to us". Yanking these massive things out of the ground was easier than you'd think! After we brushed off the dirt we brought them over to the farmer and he chopped off the root. He smiled a proud, semi-toothless grin and plopped our cabbage-baby into a green produce bag. They were ours to take home. How cute! We then headed to another location that was set up to make kimchi. We couldn't use our newly picked cabbage-babies because the kimchi process begins with soaking the cabbage in salt-brine for a couple hours. We had fresh outta-the-salt-water cabbage heads waiting for us there. It was a simple process. Put on an apron. Put on a bandanna. Grab some gochujun and slap it on some cabbage. Not the most glamourous or pleasant experience. But, hey! We're in Korea. Making kimchi is about as Korean as you can get. Now, if we only listened to Gangnam Style while doing so...

Side note -I just made cabbage-soup out of the cabbage I picked, and I must say...I'm pretty proud of myself. It wasn't half bad!

So. My overall "temple stay experience" was good. Could it of been better? Yes. I think I want to go back and do another, more intense, and dedicated temple stay. Less people. Or at least with a group of people that take it seriously. People make fun of what they are afraid of, don't understand, or are afraid to understand. I would just hope that those living in another culture would be more acclimated to this notion: Not understanding. Sure, you don't understand. But at least have the respect to attempt to learn. Isn't that why you're here anyway?






People suck.

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