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Temple stay: 48 hours at Sudeoksa Temple
After this Korean spiritual sleepover, you may never want to leave the mountains
My interest in Buddhism, in addition to a desire to escape from Seoul’s busy pace, made me decide to participate in a weekend temple stay at the Sudeoksa Temple.
Not your typical weekend -- the Korean temple stay is a bit like time travel, and is an otherworldy spiritual experience.
I chose the Sudeoksa Temple (수덕사), built in 1308 and located in the Deoksungsan Mountains in the western Chungcheongnam-do.
Literally an extension of Buddhist philosophy, the temple appears impervious to the progression of time. And although scores of tourists roll in every day in their BMWs to take pictures of the iconic wooden temple and the surrounding site, Sudeoksa lives at its own pace.
And during the two days and one night of your stay, so do you.
At Sudeoksa, your day starts at 3 a.m.
A rhythmic drumming is your alarm, and it summons everyone around for the morning chanting service.
Now, getting up in the wee hours of the morning to climb a hill to the temple in order to listen to monks recite ceremonial chants, while mechanically bowing up and down on your knees may seem masochistic to some.
But there is something about the massive leather drum hanging in the quiet, dark courtyard, the ancient wooden temple with candle light reflected off enormous gold Buddha statues, combined with the crisp night air and the first rays of dawn, that not only wakes you up, but also leaves you breathless.
Once the service is over at 4 a.m., you’re ready to start your day, with 108 bows before breakfast, as custom dictates.
The prostration bowing ceremony, practiced daily by most monks, is an exercise in cleansing your mind of earthly attachments -– essentially the superfluous information cluttering your mind.
During a traditional Korean Buddhist bow, you get down on your knees, sit on your heels, place your palms on the floor in front of you, bow your head down, lift your palms up above your head, and then get back up on your feet.
Traditional Buddhist prayer beads are used to count to 108, and during the temple stay bowing ceremony led by monk, you get to string your own beads.
One by one, bow by bow.
For every meal at the temple, you use four bowls, each one specifically designated for rice, soup, side dishes, and clear water.
You sit straight and eat slowly; you only ask for as much food as you think your body needs -– and finish everything.
With a piece of yellow radish in place of a sponge, you must carefully scrub your bowls (and eat the radish, of course) and drink rice tea from them.
After drinking the rice tea, you rinse once again -- with your clean water this time -- at which point the bowls should be squeaky clean.
The story goes that the rinsing water is the only form of sustenance for those who were greedy during their time on earth, and as a consequence are currently residing in hell with their throats thin as a needle.
After breakfast –- unsettlingly similar to lunch and dinner –- you can hike up Mount Deoksungsan.
Besides the spectacular view, there is another treat to reward you for defeating the 305 meters of elevation: perched up on the mountain lies the sacred hermitage of some of Korea’s greatest Zen masters. In the serene courtyard with pagodas, decorative pine trees, and even a small creek to drink from, the sense of place is extremely powerful.
So much so, in fact, that for a few instants you may find yourself wishing you never have to hike back down, so that you can spend the rest of your days quietly, watching the seasons change.
The remainder of the stay consists of silent introspective meditation, interspersed by gentle advice from the monks, a tea ceremony (you will find that tea made from fallen leaves found on the ground tastes surprisingly good), and time for reflection.
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