30 Americans Experience Monk's Life in South Korea Monastery
07-24-2018    Shepherd Express
<P align=center><SPAN lang=EN-US><FONT size=4><EM><BR>Beomeosa Temple's main hall, restored in 1614, and the oldest building on the grounds.<BR><BR><BR>The temple's administrative hall, built in 2000</EM></FONT></SPAN></P>

<P align=center><SPAN lang=EN-US><FONT size=4><EM><BR>Laura Bush (left) and other visitors watch a calligrapher at the temple last November<BR><BR><BR>Tidy bowls<BR></EM><BR><BR></FONT></P></SPAN>

<P><SPAN lang=EN-US><FONT size=4>By Mary Bergin </FONT></SPAN><SPAN lang=EN-US></P>

<P class=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0cm 0cm 0pt"><BR><FONT size=4>BUSAN, South Korea -- It's a chilly Friday night, and our host stokes the conversation with this:</FONT></P>

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<P class=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0cm 0cm 0pt"><SPAN lang=EN-US><FONT size=4>"Are you happy?" he asks, through a translator. "How many of you are happy?"</FONT></SPAN></P>

<P class=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0cm 0cm 0pt"><SPAN lang=EN-US><FONT size=4></FONT></SPAN>&nbsp;</P>

<P class=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0cm 0cm 0pt"><SPAN lang=EN-US><FONT size=4>Sure, it's a trick question, but a few of us raise our hands anyway.</FONT></SPAN></P>

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<P class=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0cm 0cm 0pt"><SPAN lang=EN-US><FONT size=4>He looks, nods and prods. "What is it that makes you happy?"</FONT></SPAN></P>

<P class=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0cm 0cm 0pt"><SPAN lang=EN-US><BR><FONT size=4>A loving family, one of us decides. Good health, says another. My contribution is "I'm happy because I have what I need."</FONT></P>

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<P class=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0cm 0cm 0pt"><FONT size=4>Another nod, then this challenge: "What if you lose what makes you happy? You are happy because your desires -- food, worth, success, sleep, making love -- are filled." Lose what you cherish, and you'll be one sloppy sack of sadness (my words, not his.)</FONT></P>

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<P class=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0cm 0cm 0pt"><FONT size=4>None of us is truly happy, our guru concludes. As we sip tea and stab rice dough with a pointy stick, it is hard to disagree. After trying to sit cross-legged and on the floor for more than an hour, it sure would be nice to sink into a La-Z-Boy.</FONT></P>

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<P class=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0cm 0cm 0pt"><FONT size=4>We are getting to know a Buddhist monk and this is Beomeosa Temple, near Busan, South Korea. Our teacher is Hye-Su, who left home at age 16, in search of enlightenment. That was 26 years ago, and the search is still on.</FONT></P>

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<P class=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0cm 0cm 0pt"><FONT size=4>"A monk's life is learning how to go beyond the constraints of the mundane world," we are told. It has been that way here for 1,300 years. The lifestyle is both simple and challenging, a test of will, priorities and endurance.</FONT></P>

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<P class=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0cm 0cm 0pt"><FONT size=4>For about 30 of us Midwesterners (five from Madison), this is merely an overnight stay at a Buddhist temple, and it is not what we expected. There is no nirvana, no time to plot out a spiritual quest. It is an extreme experience, hard work with no down time. Who knew?</FONT></P>

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<P class=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0cm 0cm 0pt"><FONT size=4>We are participants, not observers, in what the 150 monks here experience every day. Then we see a monk on a cell phone, a reminder that this religious community is a business too.</FONT></P>

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<P class=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0cm 0cm 0pt"><FONT size=4>There is chanting -- melodious, rich and rhythmic, but we hear it while following directions to bow, kneel, then put forehead and elbows to floor. That's oversimplifying the ritual, but we repeat it again and again, to the point where it feels like calisthenics. The monks will do this 108 times daily, in repentance for each of humanity's earthly desires.</FONT></P>

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<P class=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0cm 0cm 0pt"><FONT size=4>We Americans are a block of gray, each wearing two-piece monk suits. Volunteers tie a strap around each ankle, catching the loose pant leg. A fabric belt, around the waist, holds up way-oversized pants and makes you think twice about using the toilet (a 300-yard hike away).</FONT></P>

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<P class=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0cm 0cm 0pt"><FONT size=4>We are asked to not talk, to bow before Buddha, to walk in two straight lines, to sit in a lotus position as long as we can. Minutes seem like hours, as unconditioned muscles stretch and cramp. The monks may sit this way eight hours at a crack.</FONT></P>

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<P class=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0cm 0cm 0pt"><FONT size=4>We each get four plastic bowls, chopsticks and a soup spoon and learn the precise mealtime rituals of rinsing, eating and cleaning. "Take only 70 percent of what you can eat," we are advised.</FONT></P>

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<P class=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0cm 0cm 0pt"><FONT size=4>There are a half-dozen vegetarian food choices, white rice to kimchee, all relatively bland because spices are considered aphrodisiacs. Rice can only go into one bowl. Utensils go into another. Water fills the bottom of a third.</FONT></P>

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<P class=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0cm 0cm 0pt"><FONT size=4>This is a lesson to not be greedy or wasteful. Use the bowl to cover your mouth while eating. Keep the rice pure. Don't mix it with other foods.</FONT></P>

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<P class=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0cm 0cm 0pt"><FONT size=4>Whatever is taken but not eaten, down to a single grain of rice, will get poured into a pot of water, for the group to pass and drink, until the slosh is gone.</FONT></P>

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<P class=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0cm 0cm 0pt"><FONT size=4>OK, that doesn't happen, but we don't know it won't happen until the end. We do drink our own dishwater, sans soap, after washing the bowls with our fingertips and a slice of yellow radish.</FONT></P>

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<P class=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0cm 0cm 0pt"><FONT size=4>More, much more, is crammed into our one-day stay. Patience is tested while gluing crepe petals to paper cups; they become colorful lanterns. Martial arts are demonstrated, then practiced.</FONT></P>

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<P class=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0cm 0cm 0pt"><FONT size=4>Men sleep in one room, women another. Each person gets a pillow, blanket and 2-inch-thick mat, plopped onto a heated floor.</FONT></P>

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<P class=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0cm 0cm 0pt"><FONT size=4>It's lights out at 11 p.m., but everybody wakes four hours later, to the abrupt flick of bright lights overhead and orders to prepare for morning worship. We hear the deep-toned throbbing of a cowhide drum, a striking of a huge bell.</FONT></P>

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<P class=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0cm 0cm 0pt"><FONT size=4>Forget makeup, hair styling, tooth brushing, washing with hot water. Lessons in Zen meditation come next, then another four-bowl meal, at 6 a.m.</FONT></P>

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<P class=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0cm 0cm 0pt"><FONT size=4>It all is a far cry from spiritual retreats in the United States, the feel-good, tell-all-and-heal sessions that encourage self-absorption, convenient boundaries, inner children at play.</FONT></P>

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<P class=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0cm 0cm 0pt"><FONT size=4>Buddhist temples have traditionally been open to travelers seeking shelter, but the Templestay program didn't begin until 2002, as a way to increase lodging options for the Korea-Japan World Cup.</FONT></P>

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<P class=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0cm 0cm 0pt"><FONT size=4>The government got involved in 2004, and now more than 40 temples participate in the tourism program (but only five have English translation services).</FONT></P>

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<P class=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0cm 0cm 0pt"><FONT size=4>Almost 7,000 foreigners experienced Templestay in 2005, more than twice as many as in 2004. Program length typically ranges from one-half day (about $20) to four-day sojourns ($50 to $80 per day).</FONT></P>

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<P class=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0cm 0cm 0pt"><FONT size=4>The temple settings tend to be national or provincial parks. Families with children are welcome. At Beomeosa Temple, it is a matter of flying to Seoul, boarding a train to Busan, then taking a bus to the temple grounds.</FONT></P>

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<P class=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0cm 0cm 0pt"><FONT size=4>Had there been more time, we likely would have gotten lessons in yoga, or making green tea. We might have been assigned community work, too, like sweeping the grounds.</FONT></P>

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<P class=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0cm 0cm 0pt"><FONT size=4>Some of us painstakingly counted down the hours until we left. Most of us still wear our goodbye gift, a plain, wooden bead bracelet. This sure wasn't an American experience, but it is one that we will never forget.</FONT></P>

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<P class=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0cm 0cm 0pt"><FONT size=4>The best part about being a monk? Being free, says Hye-Su, without hesitation. Although the search for true self is unending, it is worth the journey because "if you can't find your mind, you will be deceived by your desires."</FONT></P>

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<P class=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0cm 0cm 0pt"><FONT size=4>For more information:</FONT></P>

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<P class=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0cm 0cm 0pt"><FONT size=4>Beomeosa Temple: </FONT><A href="http://www.beomeosa.co.kr"><FONT size=4>www.beomeosa.co.kr</FONT></A><FONT size=4>.</FONT></P>

<P class=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0cm 0cm 0pt"><FONT size=4>Korea Templestay program: </FONT><A href="http://www.templestaykorea.com"><FONT size=4>www.templestaykorea.com</FONT></A><FONT size=4>.</FONT></P>

<P class=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0cm 0cm 0pt"><FONT size=4>Korea National Tourism Organization: </FONT><A href="http://www.tour2korea.com"><FONT size=4>www.tour2korea.com</FONT></A><FONT size=4>, 800-868-7567 (Chicago office).</FONT></P>

<P class=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0cm 0cm 0pt"><FONT size=4>This feature originally appeared in Milwaukee's Shepherd Express. E-mail: </FONT><A href="mailto:mbergin@madison.com"><FONT size=4>mbergin@madison.com</FONT></A><BR><FONT size=4>Published: June 6, 2006 </FONT></SPAN></P>
Editor: Wang Xinyu
   
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