We were woken up at 4 o’clock in the morning, the same time when some of us had gotten back from the pub 24 hours earlier. This time however, it was not by noisy roommates or a multitude of alarms but by the abbot making his morning round, hitting his Mokta, a wooden drum-like instrument in a chanting manner. The monk took 10 minutes for his round, as he had announced the day before. During this time we had to get out of bed, wash and go to the meeting and meditation hall. At the end of his morning round the abbot stopped hitting the Mokta and started ringing a gong, so people who were not in the meeting hall yet knew they should hurry. Once I arrived in the meeting hall, there where two seats free in the front, not seeing our supervisors I assumed these were left open for them as here in Korea ranking order is still very important. For the other participants of the study tour this doesn’t really hold since we usually sit anywhere at random.
A few of our fellow participants came rushing in at the last moment, just before the Abbot made his way from the ceremonial hall to the meeting hall. After a “good morning” from the monk he started with his morning chanting. This ceremony starts of with a simple half-bow, bending from waist towards the Budda placed in the front of the hall. The Mokta is used to support the chanting of the monk, as well as signaling the practitioners when they have to do a deep bow or prostration by an increase in the speed as he hits the Mokta. This ceremony took about 15 minutes and was in old Chinese. During the ceremony some of the volunteers of the Temple Stay organisation started up a computer. Having forgotten to turn off the sound, the windows tune echoed through the chants.
After the ceremony was finished the head monk started his talk with the announcement that the program given the day before would be changed a little, so we would continue with 108 prostrations. He explained that these 108 prostrations where left behind by a Budda as a means to reach enlightenment. He told us as well that some people did three hundred, a few practitioners a thousand and a few, very devout practitioners, even ten thousand prostrations in one ‘sitting’. In the last case the sitting would continue far into the night, even when started at half past four in the morning. Every one of these hundred-and-eight prostrations is carried out with a reason. For each prostration the accompanying reason was chanted in an English video, normally this would be done in Chinese or Korean by the abbot or most senior monk in charge. The first prostrations are done in repention of various common wrongdoings, then there are prostrations to make vows to do good and prostrations to express gratitude for various reasons. Google is your best friend if you want to know all of the 108 specific meanings. The prostrations are not done with a bow from the waist but with each prostration one goes from standing to their knees and puts his forehead and elbows on the ground after which the practitioners lift their hands to the height of the ears. This is all done in the most spiritual and respectful way one can physically manage.
The monk chanting these reasons will use the Mokta to signal the practitioners when to perform this prostration or bow and when to stand up again. The Monk starts hitting hard and then having his ‘drum stick’ bounce on the Mokta softer and softer, making you able to hear the full sound produced by the Mokta’s resonance chamber until it is so soft you only hear the hitting of wood on wood. Then at the last moment of the prostration he hits the Mokta hard once again to signal you can go sit upright and another hard one to signal the practitioners they can go to an upright once more.
After the 10th prostration it was visible people where starting to feel their knees and other parts of their bodies. At 30, most participants where showing signs of tiring as their prostrations got sloppy and not as spiritual as at the beginning. Even though at that moment there was still over half of the prostrations to go, none of the participants of the SPARK gave up before the end. When the 108 prostrations had ended the monk gave some more explanations about the prostrations and other things concerning the monastery. Then, since there was still 45 minutes left before breakfast he suggested we do another round of meditation of half an hour. But since some people might be a bit sore from the prostrations he gave a few minutes of free time first, so we could stretch our legs. At this time most of us had found out we were once more missing someone. One of our company had left in the early morning due to the religious atmosphere.
After a short break we all sat down for our second session of meditation. The monk first gave another short ‘lecture’ about meditation, explaining some monks meditate up to 20 hours a day in certain meditational centre’s. As this, for some, is the way to reach enlightenment according another Budda with a hard-to-remember name. With 3 hits of his bamboo stick he announced the start of the meditation. After 10 minutes most of us already had shifted their position multiple times while the monk in the front was still sitting like a statue. In the half hour I was staring at the monk, the only person in the room that was actually deep in meditation, he only moved once. Moreover, that was only to straighten his back further than it already was! After the half an hour was over, the monk repeated once again how important it is to live in the now and always be conscious or mindfull of oneself in at least as many words as the previous times he explained it to us.
Afterwards we were excused to prepare for breakfast which would begin a few minutes later. This breakfast, the most extensive breakfast served on the SPARK study tour so far, consisted of a buffet with potato’s, biscuits, sweet corn chips, rice porridge, watermelon, apple, oreo’s, rice cake and something like kimchee. Not a very well matched breakfast, and opinions on taste differed amongst us but there was a good amount of everything to start the day with. After breakfast went for a forest walk with the abbot. He was the only monk in the monastery at that moment since the other five monks that lived there went to a more remote retreat to meditate. The walk brought us trough a forest and past a few gravesites, of which one was of a great Korean scholar whose texts are still used in Korean schools today. The walk also took us past rice fields and other fields used to cultivate vegetables and fruits. During the walk we had some stops where the monk said something about where we were or what we were passing. There were also a few stops so pictures of the group could be taken by the monk and the templestay volunteers. Once we returned to the temple we had a bit of free time in which we could explore the monastery. After this free time we were invited for tea with the monk where we were free to ask him any questions we had for him, either about him, the monastery, Buddhism or Korea
In turn he would also ask about how things are in the Netherlands and how the group formed that was staying at the temple. The teatime started with a ceremony of a Japanese tea brewster making a performance of making green powder tea. Due to there not being much production while brewing tea in a ceremonial manner only four of us could be served at the same time. These four people would be seated in a different area where they were provided with the freshly made powder green tea. This green tea was accompanied by two Korean rice cake sweets. While seated we were told that the tea should be drunk in a specific manner: one first eats the rice cakes where they should focus on the taste, as eating and drinking should be done mindfully as well. After eating the rice cake the tea should be lifted with your right hand, placing your left under the cup. Then emptying the cup in 3 sips.
The others that where not at the table of the tea ceremony where served watermelon and melon and could ask questions. Questions posed to the monk during this time included whether he had any children, if he had any disciples, how long had been a monk here. For those interested, here are the answers to these questions: No, since his specific group of monks live in celebacy, thus without showing affectionate feelings to others. He has some disciples and he has been a monk in Korea for around 15 years now while he himself comes from India.
When the teatime/question hour ended we had a small break before a session of calligraphy started. Calligraphy is like many other things a way of meditation. Our supervisor was quickly convinced: “from now on people may choose between LaTeX and calligraphy when handing in their paper for the writing skills.” Everyone laughed, but then the person giving the calligraphy lesson was not amused and said that we should practice in silence. During the hour of practicing calligraphy I found out that there is a fine balance in the amount of ink you should have on your brush. Once there is to much ink, the strokes get so wide that they are indistinguishable and when there is not enough ink on your brush one can start differentiating between strokes left by the different hairs of the brush. The first problem you can solve by moving you brush faster, which means you get inaccurate while the second you can solve by putting more ink on your brush, often resulting in the first problem. When people started to finish their paper, a volunteer of the temple started to walk around with a stamp of the temple to legitimise our work. After finishing the first sheet some decided to redo it as the first was not done very neat while others decided to commit other thoughts to the paper. When we had finished with writing the ink stone and brushes had to be washed in a sink outside.
Afterwards we moved to the kitchen where lunch was ready. Once again a diverse meal with fruits, vegetables and soup. Having washed our dishes we returned to our rooms, changed out of the loose yoga pants everyone at the temple was wearing and put our own clothes back on. Outside the monk excused himself for what he called his non-understandable English (which was much better than most Koreans), reminded us to keep mindful once more and said his goodbyes.
The trip back to the hostel was a long one. During the two and a half hours, most (if not all) participants of the SPARK napped. Having arrived at the hostel almost everyone wanted to have a meal they knew, either steakhouse, fast food or a similar place that didn’t serve Korean food.
After diner (mine was at an Indian restaurant which was visited by many Indians) a large part of the group gathered to watch a race of Max Verstappen and have a drink of the national liquor soju. We drank it either pure or mixed with orange juice (which we aptly named sojuice). We were interrupted from time to time by power outages caused by having the TV, the washing machine, the wash drier and some other machines on at the same time and by a man in his forties who was visibly interested in our female travel companions. Having seen who won the race we went to bed with muscle aches due to the many prostrations we did.
– Dirk Buijvoets