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Take a Breath - Templestay Programs

I always wondered what it was like to live as a monk. I see them at the Buddhist temples here in Korea. They walk around in their pajama-looking clothing, heads shaved, almost ethereal. Fortunately, there are many programs where you can stay at a temple and experience living with the monks without committing to a life of asceticism - just a day or two (longer if you wish).


Putting on the temple clothing brought immediate relief from the week's stress. There was a transition that took place as I stepped into the large pants, folding them around my waist and securing them with the tie string. They were baggy, but comfortable. The top was a vest to be worn over a comfortable shirt and had convenient pockets to put a few things in. I liked it!


The first thing that we did was archery. Each templestay program is unique, and the one at Gulguksa provided archery and a horseback ride. I've used a bow and arrow many times, but we were taught to "become one" with the arrow. Seemed like a strange thought at first, but as we lifted the bow and arrow into the air, we took a deep breath. We held that breath as we brought the bow down and aimed at the target some 100 meters away. We released our breath as we released the arrow, and it did seem that I "blew" the arrow toward that target as it hit with a satisfying thud! Our first activity was a great success!


After the archery we were told that we could watch the Sunmudo demonstration. Sunmudo is a type of Korean Buddhist martial art that encourages harmony between body, mind, and breath. The performers were very talented, flexible, and enjoyable to watch. There were no striking of each other, just a type of Qi dong exercise that lasted for about 30 minutes. The movements were very graceful and we looked forward to some training that we would be able to receive later that evening.


Dinner was next and we expected a very simple, vegetarian meal. We weren't disappointed! The most difficult challenge for me during that weekend was sitting and sleeping on the floor. The tables were very low to the ground and my legs just don't seem to fold up very well for long periods of time (more on this later). The food was good and we ate in relative silence, seated on as many pads as we desired. After eating, we were to wash our own dishes. This was not a problem, and I wondered how it would work out in commercial settings. It was a practical gesture in that we not only participated in the process of eating, but also there was only one elderly woman running the kitchen. It was a pleasure to help out in any way that we could and she smiled her appreciation as we struggled with the few polite Korean words that we knew.


After dinner came the opportunity to practice some of that Sunmudo. The instructors were the same ones who provided the performance earlier. They were so pleasant and encouraging, but seemed to have no idea how difficult the postures were for us novices to assume! We tried, but often just laughed as they put their legs out straight and high in the air, encouraging us to do the same. Still, we had a great time trying to coordinate our bodies with our minds and our breathing while following their examples. It was a nice stretch right before we sat for evening meditation. The meditation was as expected if you've ever watched it or participated in one before. We sat and enjoyed the silence as we tried to quiet our own thoughts. Meditation is not about emptying your mind, but controlling them. Thoughts could come and be dismissed as unimportant at the time. We could just focus on our breathing as we relaxed each muscle in our bodies. The last pose, known as the "corpse pose," was the best. Lying still while listening to the instructor play a set of four chimes. The sound was melodic and wonderful, intending to strike notes to harmonize with the four elements of earth, fire, water, and wind.


That prepared us for our evening sleep. Again, we were on the floor, but separated from it by one or two pads. It really wasn't bad and the second night didn't even pose a problem or inconvenience for me. Our templestay, as most of them are, was located in the mountains. Our windows opened up allowing the mountain air, complete with the evening sounds of the birds and insects to permeate our room. I didn't need my phone app to play these sounds for a change! The night passed quickly and I was concerned about waking up at 5:00 for the morning meditation service that we were to attend...


I needn't have worried because at 5:00 AM we heard the sound of the Moktok, the wooden percussion device used for calling us to meditation and to prostrations during the service. The speakers were quite loud and the prayers of a Buddhist Monk were both intrusive and yet reassuring at the same time. We got dressed and walked up the hill to the place of chanting and meditation. We were given a Moktok to keep the rhythm along with others as the monk sang and chanted. It was a delightful experience that ended with a prayer walk to breakfast as the sun was rising. I enjoyed the experience so much that I arose at 4:30 the next morning, climbed up to the top and watched the sunrise with my two boys who were there with me. It remains one of my best memories of the stay.


The day continued with meals, meditation, the opportunity to ring the large Dharma Bell and have tea with a monk. The large Dharma Bell was designed to call people to prayer and to awaken them from the struggles of this life to contemplate a life without suffering. Buddhism teaches that the ability to detach from excessive possessions, unhealthy thoughts, and damaging relationships are ways to relieve ourselves of the many sorrows and suffering that are part of this life. Those were my thoughts as I took a deep breath and left the templestay program to return to my weekly routine at home.

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