We drove forty or so minutes out into the Jeollanam-do countryside passing recently tilled under fields or sprouting winter cover crops. Rocky buttes and mountains covered in a fall patchwork of pine green, maple red and ginko yellow surround the low-lying farmland.
The bus pulled up in front of an intricately painted gateway at the top of a set of stone steps. Within the gateway passage there were similarly detailed statues of Korean warriors in teal, red and white with black trim.
We entered a traditional Buddhist temple through wooden storm doors with translucent paper instead of glass for windows. We sat in the lotus position on cushions while robed, bald-headed monks explained to us the traditions of Buddhism and the habit of meditation. One found their true selves by quieting the mind they told us. The sun streamed in to the soothing space, which felt light and warm with exposed hand-milled blonde beams and trim.
We placed our right hand palms up in our lap and laid our left hand over top of it, touching our thumbs together. With three whacks of a ceremonial wooden instrument we began focusing on our breathing. In through the nose, deep into our expanded diaphragm and out our relaxed mouths. I focused on the silently swaying limbs of multi-colored deciduous trees that could be seen out the window beyond the wood deck, and the stone wall topped with black tiles, and the garden, and the dirt access road. For a few minutes I worked my way into a steady rhythmic breathing pattern and my thoughts slowed and blurred together.
Then my back started talking to me. The crisscrossed legs and straightened back returned me to a more distracted reality and scattered my thoughts.
After fifteen minutes we stood and began a standing meditation cycle. We circled the room ten times while silently breathing and holding our hands on our stomachs to focus our attention on our breath. The meditation ended with 3 more whacks of the stick by smiling monk.
Following the meditation session we departed the temple for lunch. We enjoyed BiBimBap, a famous Korean dish consisting thinly sliced root vegetables like daikon, red radish and carrots, along with a variety of sprouts, an assortment of pickled vegetables, mushrooms, chili paste, sesame oil and all brought together with warm sticky rice. The BiBimBap was accompanied by a basic soup and a spiced squash drink. Nearly all of the ingredients were grown on the temple grounds.
A little friend we found on the temple grounds
We moved back to the meditation room after lunch for crafts and tea. The lotus flower (로터스) represents purity and is the symbol of Buddhism. The exposed ends of each rounded rafter supporting all the temple structures is adorned with a colorfully painted lotus flower. Our art project was to paint an orange, red, gold, black and white-trimmed lotus on a round of wood. It was small, delicate work that occupied most of your mind; art as meditation.
The last event of the day was a traditional tea ceremony. The Buddhist monks told us that the lotus flower was once used to purify water and thus it is thought that lotus tea can purify the body. The hot water is served in a large celadon basin with a large white lotus flower floating and nearly filing the entire circumference of the wide basin. The tea is spooned by the youngest person in the group into thin celadon bowls and served to the elders of the group first. I was served first unfortunately!
With two hands you receive your bowl of the subtle refreshing liquid. The tea is taken with a sticky rice ball filled with candied cinnamon called tdak. With the sun low and the surrounding hills and forests casting shadows everywhere we walked the grounds of the Songbongsa Temple, peeking into traditional living quarters of the monks and walking the hill past a bamboo thicket laden with logs seeded with mushrooms that will be enjoyed 5 years time. At the top of the hill there is a stone Buddhist stele from 800 AD and a carved stone column from 650 AD. Both were made on-site to honor the death of ancient Songbongsa monks. The rain serves as a modern lapidary for these ancient national treasures of Korea, the edges are rounded but their significance is sharpened with time.
– Kenny (photo props go to Alison)