This summer I was lucky enough to go to Seoul, South Korea, for one of my PhD projects. I was looking forward to work with the research team there, and also to explore South Korea. One week in Seoul and I was already aching to be in nature, and this was my chosen destination: tucked in the middle of two mountains was Guinsa, a fairly recent temple from the early 20th century, dating back to 1945, and epicentre to the Cheontae school of Korean Buddhism.
I was here for a temple stay, a 1 night, 2 day experience of temple life. Already the air was easier to breathe and the greenery had this appeasing effect. I felt like I could finally catch a break from the hustle and bustle that comes with a city as big as Seoul.
This temple was opulent; beautifully painted walls and roofs with bright colours, gold everywhere from bowls to the monk’s robe collar, every prayer room comes with CCTV cameras and additional cameras with professional audiovisual equipment. The temple also had beautifully decorated gardens and its own vegetable farms growing eggplants and peppers which they dried by the thousands on the roofs.
Daily buses arrive hourly with tourists taking in this majestic place, the prayer halls are with hundreds of people staying over night and the kitchen itself can feed up to 20,000 people. This temple was just massive, it reminded me of the buildings in the Spirited Away with every back building terrasse showing the behind the scenes of running such a visited place; bustling kitchen workers moving with purpose with the occasional break looking down towards the temples in the foot hills.
With such stimulation I had a feeling meditating would be challenging, and a was looking forward to a guided meditation practice.
1st meditation: Mala making
The first activity was mala making led by the main nun of the temple, a funny and witty lady. We had 108 wooden beads.
Our first instruction: “Take one breath in, insert the bead, breath out, and slide it along the tread” and the second: “Smile so your brain thinks you’re happy, but a little” (she makes Jack Nicholson’s evil smile from The Shining), '“if too much, your brain thinks you’re crazy”. So we went on making the bead necklace, with a slight smile as instructed, breathing in and out.
2nd meditation: Dinner ceremony
That evening we were eagerly waiting for dinner after a long day. We sat down on pillows forming 2 rows with 4 bowls laid in front of us. The dinner ceremony started with one person from each row pouring water in everyone’s 1st bowl, we had to bow before and after the person served us. We were not to use this water until after dinner.
Another person served soup in the 2nd bowl, bow and bow
Another served rice in the 3rd bowl, bowl to forehead
Another put lotus stems, bow and bow
And so on until the last bowl which was for dessert, watermelon, bow and bow.
Finally we chanted several mantras in Korean, and started eating in silence with the accompanying sound of chopstick hitting the plastic bowls.
What about that water in the 1st bowl? Well we used it to rinse each bowl and had to drink it at the end! I cannot say it was pleasant, the nun said “same as stomach”, and I thought gladfully, “good thing my stomach doesn’t have taste buds!”
The next day after going to the 3:30 am ceremony which consisted of walking around the temple, bell, shrine then chanting and bowing, we had breakfast in the main hall. No bowing this time but a meal very much like the dinner the previous day: rice, lotus stems, kimchi, soy bean sprouts.
3rd meditation: Walking meditation
Later that morning we went for a walking meditation at “nirvana” place, a hill top dedicated to the monks who have passed. This is where we started, arms on either side of the body, left hand over the right, and walk on. It was hard to focus, to meditate, the landscape was breathtaking and I couldn’t help but notice the sounds of the wind, the birds, the insects. I opted for being a witness to this environment rather than my walking, and finally felt an immense sense of peace.
There are many ways to meditate, many ways of being mindful, even in our everyday lives. I was expecting to sit in meditation but we ended up practicing mindfulness through mala making, eating and walking.
Which brought me back to my own life, my routine in Montreal. When am I present? At Luna, at home, at work? If you had to pick a task or action you feel you could be more present in, what would it be? What stops you from trying it?
Hi! I’m Lea, a fervent student of neurosciences, mental health research, and a yogi since 2008! After completing my bachelors in biomedical sciences in Thailand, I came to Montreal to do a masters studying mechanisms of depression… and now I’m studying some more as a doctoral student in Psychiatry at McGill University. I’m still devoted to the study of depression, some might say it is a gloomy subject, but it being quite prevalent in the world and highly complex, I find it to be a fascinating topic! On occasion the week day scientist in me meets the weekend yogi in me and they wonder about topics like this one, why meditate? I hope you enjoy this blog post, and leave your comments below or come to my class Saturdays 9.30am!