A taste of the ascetic

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A taste of the ascetic

JIKJISA TEMPLE, North Gyeongsang -- With soaring skyscrapers filling the sprawling Seoul downtown and video cameras taping speeding cars on the highways, Korea in 2002 is hardly the Land of Morning Calm. It's far from being the Hermit Kingdom, too, now that every living soul on the peninsula is wired via Web phones and laptops. But behind the curtain of concrete buildings and electric computer screens lie ancient mystical sites: the Buddhist temples.

Korea's 31 major Buddhist temples near the 10 World Cup cities have opened their doors to foreign visitors during the soccer tournament period.

In May, Jikjisa temple invited in a group of foreign ambassadors and the media for the first time in the site's 1,700 year history, unveiling its mysteries. As a result of joint efforts between the Organizing Committee for the Visit Korea tourism campaign, the Committee for Buddhist Temple Stay and the Korea Buddhist Jogye Order, the Temple Stay program allows visitors to experience the ascetic life of monks and nuns inside many temples around the country. Programs vary from temple to temple, but at Jikjisa temple, activities include early morning prayer, tea ceremonies, making lotus lanterns, printing the Tripitaka Koreana, Balwu gongyang, or monastic meal, and meditation.

Jikjisa temple is near the geographical center of the peninsula, on the border between North Gyeongsang and North Chungcheong provinces. Set in the eastern foothills of Mount Hwangak, the temple ground offers a truly peaceful setting, surrounded by nature: the rushing sound of freshwater streams, the forest of ginkgo, maple and pine trees and the crisp clean air.

The name "Jikjisa," which means "directly pointing temple," echoes the Buddhist teaching of directly pointing to one's mind, to see one's original nature and attain Buddhahood. The temple is one of the oldest in Korea, built in the 5th century during the Silla Dynasty. During the later Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), Jikjisa temple was renowned as Korea's best meditation monastery, where many famous monks sought enlightenment. But, like other Korean temples, many parts of the ancient temple were burned down during foreign invasions and reconstructed in the 1960s. The remaining stone statues, pagodas and paintings are now designated as National and Provincial Treasures. The temple's own museum features an outstanding collection of Buddhist artifacts, which include the prized Hexagonal Gilded Bronze Stupa Reliquary of Dorisa Temple.

While the temple's archaic past may sound distant, what you can experience today is as refreshingly delightful as the sweet scent of daechucha, or date tea, in the afternoon. Volunteers at Jikjisa temple boast of having some of the best temple food in Korea. The green tea served during the tea ceremony was the special sejak dosimcha, made from a work of a hard-to-define process, between frying and steaming nine times.

The outdoor tea house on the temple ground serves many traditional teas, including aromatic pine tea and citron teas, for 3,500 won ($3). And numerous vegetarian, or namul, dishes and dessert candies are made from ingredients pricked fresh from the surrounding mountains.

After just one night, expect the simple life of the temple to enchant and stay with you.

'One of the most unforgettable experiences I've ever had'

Dho Young-shim, the chairman of the Organizing Committee for Visit Korea, says her telephone has not stopped ringing since the temple stay program was announced.

Ms. Dho and Master Ju-Kyeong, the temple stay director, spent months trying to figure out how to make the temple stay program work for both foreign visitors and Buddhist monks. "We needed to come up with ways to adjust the two very different groups of people: Buddhist monks would get shocked by outsiders and foreigners who don't know how to behave on the temple grounds," Mr. Ju-Kyeong said.

The program comes with various courses for learning the etiquette of Buddhism, as well as appreciating its core principles.

Mr. Ju-Kyeong said monks learned from their guests' mistakes too. "On the temple grounds, everyone should keep silent and listen to the sound of prayers, especially before the early morning worshiping. I wanted to keep quiet, but when an ambassador greeted me 'Good morning!' by raising his hand, I ended up replying 'Good morning' instead of the silent hapjang [Buddhist greeting]."

Ms. Dho feels that she still has to work on another program for foreigners to understand "real" Korean culture. A movie might be on her agenda.

Some 40 members of several diplomatic families from 21 countries participated in the pilot tour of the temple stay program on a recent weekend.

They did what Jikjisa temple monks did on a daily basis -- praying at 3:30 in the morning, followed by meditation, sweeping the temple grounds, making lotus lanterns and participating in tea ceremonies. The participants expressed their delight in their new experiences.

Arild Braastad, the Norway ambassador: "I've been to many temples in the past, but never stayed overnight. Although I could not follow everything, such as sitting down on the hard floor, the program has helped me understand at least the basics of what Buddhism in Korea means."

Alfredo Francisco Ungo, the El Salvador ambassador: "I was selected as the representative of the foreign ambassadors in Korea because I've stayed in Korea for the longest time -- seven years. Over that time, I've been to many temples all over Korea, but this is the first time I stayed overnight. This is one of the most wonderful, unforgettable experiences I've ever had in my life."

Elena Sopkova, the wife of the Slovenia ambassador: "It was really fun sharing one room with many people. Some people used nose pinchers to avoid snoring, but they didn't work anyway. My friends back home told me they would come to Korea if travel agencies could arrange temple stay programs."

Meditations to martial arts: Each temple has a program


One of the main temples of the Jogye Order and Korean Buddhism. Flea market for Buddhist arts and cultural exhibition.
The peaceful temple is in the core of the metropolis, but has preserved its traditional shape. Playing the wooden fish gong in the evening and printing sutras.
The Joseon Dynasty temple is a treasury of traditional Buddhist art. Yeongsanjae ceremony and painting the cosmic design.
The seven-story temple is a sacred place for Avalokitesvara. Hiking Mount Wumyeon.
The temple is the center of the Jingak Order, or Korean Esoteric Buddhism. Playing traditional Korean games and learning about this uncommon sect.
Located on Mount Naksan, the temple emphasizes Kwaneum prayers. Tea ceremony and making lotus lanterns.

An ancient temple where the Yellow Sea and mountains meet. Making salt from the seawater.

Gyeonggi province
King Jeongjo built this temple to pray for the repose of his father's soul. The Yongjusa Buddhist Temple Bell, National Treasure No. 120.

Gangwon province
The temple with the largest copper Buddha statue in East Asia, near the beautiful Seorak Park. The takbon, or rubbing exercise and tea ceremony.
This home of 50,000 bodhisattvas is in Odae Mountain. Hiking in the mountains and to nearby hermitages.
The temple with a legend of nine dragons carries the legend of the great monk Ui-sang. Gangwon province folk songs and performances, and visits to museums.

South Chungcheong province
In Mount Gyeryong National Park, the temple was built in the 5th century. Meditation exercises and Korean Buddhist Martial Arts.

North Gyeongsang province
It is one of the oldest temples, surrounded by beautiful nature, with a museum and delicious temple food. Takbon charcoal rubbings, tea ceremony and martial arts.
The temple is on Mount Palgong, a holy mountain with many Buddhist temples. Seogak or engraved traditional calligraphy seals.

South Gyeongsang province
The temple has the Tripitaka Koreana, scrolls of the Buddha's teaching, and has been designated by UNESCO as a historic landmark. Printings of scripture boards.
One of the three "jewels," or major temples on the peninsula. Buddhist paintings on large scrolls.

It is the one of the five largest temples in Korea, containing many relics. Buddhist martial arts performances.
Surrounded by Mount Gudeok, the temple also manages a welfare center. Tea ceremonies and other Korean traditional ceremonies.
In the forest of Mount Baegyang, the temple belongs to the Chuntae Order. Buddhist culture and Korean traditional games.

South Jeolla province
The temple was built in the Baekje Dynasty and boasts a famous legend. Tour around the temple.
This is a big temple located in Korea's spiritual Jiri Mountains, a luxurious woodland. Visits to Buddhist hermitages and making lanterns.
The second of the three "jewel" monasteries, along with Tongdosa and Haeinsa temples. Hiking and visiting Buddhist hermitages and temples.
The temple enshrines the relics, robes and patra (wooden bowl) of Venerable Master Seo-san, the great general monk soldier. Zen exercises, hiking and visiting tea fields.
Near the South Sea, the sunsets here are the most beautiful on the peninsula. Meditation and tour around the temples and hermitages.
An old temple at the foot of Mount Mudeung, the major mountain of Gwangju city.
The temple was built to serve the military as a Buddhist center in 1971. Samulnori performances and traditional wedding ceremonies.

North Jeolla province
As one of the grandest temples in Korea, it is famous for the stairway of "the impartial teaching of the Buddha." Hiking on Mount Moak and visiting other temples in the area.
The temple is famous for its 500-year-old camellia flowers. Making lotus lanterns and hiking.
A temple with one of the most beautiful vistas along the West Coast. Hiking and visiting the temples in the area.

Jeju Island
The temple of paradise where natural spring water runs all year long is one of the best sightseeing places in Korea. Jeju island sightseeing and tea ceremony.
A beautiful temple near Cheonjaeyeon waterfall, it offers an impressive scenic view. Dharma ceremony and walking to tourist attractions.

The temple stay program, which runs until June 30, is available only to foreign nationals. Visitors can stay two or three days. Depending on the number of participants and the size of the room, the fee varies from 33,000 won ($27) to 110,000 won. The package includes meals and a 10-percent reservation charge. For information or reservation in Korea, contact 02-732-9925, or 82-2-732-9925 (international). The reservation site is www.worldinn.com or apply at www.templestaykorea.net.

by Inēs Cho

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