October 26, 2017
While my friend was preparing our South Korea itinerary, he browsed through the internet for the best activities to do in South Korea during the autumn season. One activity piqued his attention – temple stay. To say that he was keen on doing it was an understatement; he made sure it was part of our itinerary and he diligently searched for temples near Seoul which offer temple stay experience. True enough, after our brief stopover at the Korean Folk Village, we found ourselves garbed in temple clothes. Moreover, it is a continuation of our immersion into Korean culture.
Not everything goes to plan. Before going to the temple, we had to transfer our things from our old accommodation to our new one. When everything has been settled, we rushed back to the subway station to make it to our 3 PM temple orientation. Although we rode the correct bus number, we unfortunately missed our stop because the voice over didn’t give any English translations. We alighted at the next bus stop and hurriedly rode the bus going back. We didn’t miss our stop this time around.
At the entrance going to the temple is a set of newly constructed Korean traditional houses. This is a replica of a Korean traditional village complete with facilities such as inns, restaurants and cafes. As we passed by the village, our olfactory senses were seduced by the whiff of tea and coffee emanating from these cafes and restaurants.
Jingwansa, or Jingwan Temple, is located at the foot of the Bukhan mountains; we walked for a couple of minutes from the main road to the temple. We were already beyond our appointed starting time but we still walked hurriedly because we didn’t want to create negative impressions. When we reached the temple, we were warmly received by the temple coordinator. An English speaker, she was tasked to welcome and orient temple stay participants. Like most Koreans we’ve met during our trip, she was very accommodating and hospitable; these qualities, I learned through our stay in Korea, are something we Filipinos share with our Korean brothers and sisters. She gave us our temple clothes and directed as to our room.
Once we have changed to our temple clothes, we went to the orientation hall where we met two other international temple stay participants – Jessica, an Australian visiting her brother in Seoul, and Frank, a German exchange student. We felt very at peace in the temple because of its isolation from the bustling metropolis that is Seoul although technically it is still within Seoul. It is even better because there were only five of us. While comfortably sitting on the floor, the orientation got underway.
We were first taught the basics of Buddhism and the proper etiquette to be observed is inside the temple. First, one can only enter the temple on the left entrance and not on the main entrance. If you’ll notice in most temples, the main doors are often blocked, especially the part that is directly in front of the main Buddha statue. It is also a taboo to turn one’s back on the Buddha. We were also taught how to do the prostrations, or bowing, properly. The coordinator also told us the story of Jingwansa.
Jingwansa is one of the four major temples around Seoul and was named after the preceptor to whom King Hyeonjong of the Joseon dynasty dedicated the temple to in 1010 AD. During the Korean war, the temple was burned to the ground but was reconstructed starting in 1963. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Jingwansa was restored to its former glory and has since then became one of the most visited temples in the country. It became more famous for its exemplary temple food. It is so famous that international personalities flock to try the temple food. Yep, no less than culinary titan, Gordon Ramsay, has tried the temple’s food.
Following the orientation is a free time which we used to rest and explore the area surrounding the temple. Jingwansa, surrounded by the Bukhan mountains, came alive with color due to the autumn foliage. Aside from the majestic scene and environment, the fresh air is rejuvenating. Once our free time was over, we again converged with the rest of the temple stay participants, both international and local, to start the official temple tour. We were warmly welcomed back by the coordinator but what stood out for me at that moment was when one Korean participant noticed my discomfort due to the cold. Other than me, everyone was wearing long-sleeved clothes underneath their temple blazers. Her motherly concern truly plucked the proverbial strings in my heart; I experienced Korean hospitality first hand.
After I went back to get my jacket, the group tour started. Through the tour, I came to understand the significance of the ugly statues that greeted visitors at the temple entrance. They symbolize our impurities which we all bear when we enter the temple. Undergoing temple transformation will purge one of these impurities. Basically, the layout of Jingwansa is like that of Sinheungsa, with the main temple greeting us upon our entry to the temple courtyard. We were walked around the temple, with the temple coordinator working overtime as she has to speak both in Korean and English; her dedication is truly admirable.
While walking around the temple, we were further oriented on temple etiquette and temple life. Whenever we meet a monk, we should bow. Lest I forget, Jingwansa is administered by female monks who are called “nims” and not monks. The head nim is called the sunim. We then headed to the main temple, where we practiced our prostrations. Prostration is a ritualistic activity and has a set protocol – one simply does not simply bow to Buddha. We listened attentively to our coordinator because despite our coordinator’s discouragement, my companions and I decided to join the 108 Prostrations ceremony held every 3 am. This is, after all, one of the highlights of the temple stay.
After our briefing at the main temple hall, we went to the temple bell to witness and join yet another temple ceremony. Daily at 6 pm, the main temple bell is tolled, and we are going to join the ceremony. Just like most temple activities, banging the bell follows its own strict set of protocol which participants must adhere to. As the autumn air starts wrapping around us, we banged the bell one after the other. It was also a chance to mutter our wishes and let the bell resonate with it.
The bell ceremony was followed by what most of us has been looking forward to – dinner and our first taste of Jingwansa’s famed temple food. The food was served buffet style and from a wide array of meals, we chose what we wanted to partake of. Please note that there was no meat in the menu as it was all vegetables and healthy. One of the most unique food served is the lotus leaf which my friend instantly loved. There is of course the ubiquitous kimchi, a staple in Korean dining halls and restaurants. To sum it all up, Jingwansa’s temple food lived up to expectations. The variety is astounding, and all food were massisseo – delicious! After dinner, we have to wash our plates. But then again, the Korean ahjummas took over. They took our plates and washed them despite our protests. We were thankful although we were kind of embarrassed because it was something we could do. They were mother hens looking after their chicks. It was cool, truly.
Post-dinner, the temple stay participants once again gathered around for another temple appointment. At 7 pm, we are to have a meet and greet session with the temple sunim. We were humbled by the sunim’s presence because she was humble, yet this belied the wisdom she has in store. The session was an enlightening experience as she shared her experience. Thankfully, she can speak in English It was also an opportunity for all of us to learn more about Buddhism and temple life. To compliment this tranquil moment, we were served tasteful tea and some Korean rice-based dessert. It was a very warm moment even though it lasted less than an hour.
After our tea ceremony with the sunim, we all headed to our respective rooms to finally take a badly needed rest. Moreover, as we are joining the 3 am 108 prostrations ceremony, we have to sleep earlier than normal. It was easy getting a shut eye because of the warmth of our room.
For now, annyeong!