Weekend search for wisdomJINBU, Gangwon province
Driving three hours east from Seoul will put you in this world where cell phones are rendered useless and life slows to an imperceptible beat. Seated deep in Odae Mountain, Woljeongsa Temple is barely accessible to the public, but its more than 1,300 years of history are an unobstructed path to the ancient ascetic spirit of Buddhism.
This is a quiet place; even the sutra chanting creates a silence in the temple’s serene compound. But last Saturday the stillness was disturbed by some welcomed visitors, including diplomats and their families from Peru, Hungary, Honduras, India, Austria, Sri Lanka, Norway, the Netherlands and the United Nations Development Programme, who arrived by bus for a weekend discovery of Korean Buddhism.
Oddly, the way to discovery is led by a Buddhist monk, whose name, Mugu, means “seek nothing.” Following 21 hours in this beautiful place, the apparent contradiction no longer seems as such. Perhaps the change in perception has to do with the Saint of Wisdom and the spiritual training that precedes acceptance in this boy’s presence.
Instruction begins with a stroll through the temple grounds nestled in a crevice among the pine- and fir-covered peaks. In a sparsely furnished room in one of the few buildings on the temple grounds, Reverend Mugu instructs us in the ABCs of Buddhist rituals: How to walk inside the temple compound (slowly with hands held together at the chest), how to pray to the Buddha (palms pressed together, bow at the waist and then kneel and place forehead on floor) and how to meditate (sit with straight back, hands placed on crossed legs, eyes closed). We follow the lessons, if not with precision, with a quiet dignity that is punctured by “Ouch!” as knees and heads rub against the floor. “My legs hurt after these bows,” murmurs Priyanka Koets, daughter of the vice ambassador of the Netherlands. “But it’s fun.”
The training continues with Mr. Mugu telling us to inquire, to ask, “Who am I?” “What are the things that are important to me?” To the second question, Elisabeth Droyer, the first secretary of the Norwegian Embassy, answers, “Virtue.” Ruppage Bandusena, an attache at the Sri Lanka Embassy, says, “Happiness.” But Mr. Mugu does not quite agree, saying, “Well, the thing that many worldly people think most important would be money. But, let’s think about it ― you are rich forever if you possess truth in your mind.”
The reverend also delivers a sermon: “Don’t look at things with your eyes ― look at the world with your mind.” Then we begin meditation; participants are told to inhale and exhale like the Buddha did -- exhaling more than inhaling, under the principle of giving more than we receive. “Ambassadors are not quite the meditating type,” Helmut Boeck of the Austrian Embassy says, “but after this session, I guess every ambassador should do it everyday.”
Our weekend Temple Stay was organized by the Korea BBB (Before Babel Brigade) Association, which works to remove language barriers. Lee Je-hun, chairman of the association, and Dho Young-shim, the vice chairwoman, took part in our tour, the sixth since the program began last spring before the World Cup soccer games. Participants were in accord that the tour was refreshing and relaxing, but adapting to temple life was not an easy task. The major complaint: rising at 3:30 a.m. and eating all-vegetable meals under a strict no-leftover policy.
The journey to renounce the world begins at a worldly Seoul hotel, at 10 a.m. Saturday. Arriving at the temple around 2 p.m., we are asked to remove all traces of the mundane world and change into humble, modified traditional Korean attire. Then, under the guidance of Mr. Mugu, we walk about the temple compound. Mr. Bandusena, himself a Buddhist, says, “This temple is quite different from the ones in my homeland, which interests me a lot.”
Built in 643 by Jajang Yulsa, an aristocrat of the Silla Dynasty (BC 57 to AD 935) who became a monk, Woljeongsa includes a nine-story pagoda, a recognized national treasure. Jajang, during his ascetic practices in the mountains of China, had an audience with the Munsu Bosal, the Buddhist Saint of Wisdom. According to legend, the Munsu Bosal told the monk to find similar mountains on the Korean peninsula, saying he also lives there. Back home, Jajang started his journey around the country, finding Odae Mountain and establishing Woljeongsa.
According to writings from the Joseon Dynasty (1392 to 1910), the boy saint appeared to King Sejo, who was suffering from tumors all over his body, as the king bathed in a stream on the mountain. A boy suddenly approached him, and he asked the boy to wash his back, after which the king told him, “Never tell anybody you’ve seen the king naked.” The boy smiled and answered, “Well, then, you must never tell anyone that you saw the Saint of Wisdom.” The boy disappeared, and the king soon found the tumors had healed.
The Saint of Wisdom, however, could not protect Woljeongsa from the scars of the Korean War, during which the temple compound, save the pagoda, was gutted by fire. Woljeongsa, restored in the 1970s, is the headquarters in Gangwon province for the Jogye Order.
Following meditation, we line up for a yoga class. Anne-Sophie Degryse-Blateau, 13, a daughter of the United Nations Development Programme representative, Anne-Isabelle Degryse-Blateau, is obviously having fun, though she has difficulty trying to press her chest against her out-stretched legs. Someone moans “I wish I had shorter legs,” drawing laughter.
After the yoga class, David Mason, an expert in Buddhist studies, delivers a lecture on Woljeongsa. Mr. Mason has visited more than 1,000 temples in Korea and China. The day ends with an evening drum dance by the resident monks, an event rarely open to the public. Around 9:30 p.m., we call it a day.
Day Two begins at 3:30 a.m. with the sound of a wooden gong. By 4:10 a.m., we gather up for worship in front of the Buddha in the main building of the temple site. Inside a candle-lit room full of lotus lanterns and the smell of incense, we practice the required 108 bows before a gold majestic statue of the Buddha. Ms. Degryse-Blateau, the United Nations Development Programme representative, is among the few people who complete the challenging bows. Then Mr. Mugu blesses the participants, calling out names one by one to the chanting of the monks.
After this most demanding yet fruitful part of the Temple Stay, we eat breakfast -- vegetables ― and walk in the woods near the temple. Mr. Mugu says, “Slowly, let’s go!” and we follow the pristine streams, listening to his cantata about the Buddha.
At 9 a.m., we leave the Woljeongsa Temple and head to the nearby Sangwonsa Temple, one of the few temples that survived the Korean War. Mr. Mason provides details about the temple, such as how a dedicated monk refused to leave though threatened by soldiers. Ms. Droyer of the Norwegian Embassy and other members of our group leave their names and addresses on a roof tile along with 10,000 won ($8) each for the restoration of the temple. At 11 a.m., we start our journey back to our other worlds. Reaching Seoul, Jorge Bayona Medina, Peru’s ambassador, says, “This trip was so relaxing and fun.” Sujata Ray, wife of the ambassador of India, exclaims, “When my daughter comes to Korea, I will take her to a Temple Stay!” Mr. Boeck, the Austrian ambassador, says, “I had a great time and learned a lot, thanks to Korea BBB Association, an example of the spirit of volunteerism.”
by Chun Su-jin