A Geumsunsa Templestay
Located in the heart of metropolitan Seoul, Geumsunsa Temple, preserving centuries of history, is only a short distance from the South Korean presidential residence called Cheongwadae and from Gyeongbok Palace. The temple is easily accessed by public transportation. Once in the compound of Geumsunsa, you feel a world apart from the bustle of the busy city visible far below the mountain.
As I entered the One Pillar Gate, I saw a small Korean style building to my right, which may sit about 10 people. It is the temple’s book café where visitors can take a book from the bookshelf and enjoy reading while having a cup of tea by selecting one of a variety of teas provided by the temple. From time to time, one can pause in their reading to enjoy the beautiful view through the spacious window.
Geumsunsa’s Templestay program is guided by Ven. Seonu, a fully-ordained nun who has been in charge of the program for the past four years. Well versed in scriptural study, Seon meditation and housekeeping duties, she says that a harmonious spirit amongst the Templestay management team is most important. Because many participants decide to try a Templestay program when they are experiencing a difficult moment or a transitional point in life, they need to feel stability and peace from the people who run the program.
Ven. Seonu tries to convey the essence of Buddha’s teachings in one sentence, which is, “A problem is not really a problem; it is you who make it a problem.” If you further explore why you think it is a problem, you will arrive at your own perspective from which you see things unfolding in the world. Problems always exist just as waves do in the ocean. You just need to change your perspective to see the totality of your life as it is.
The group that came for the two-day Templestay program on the last weekend of March consisted of about 20, and half of them were from foreign countries. Non-Korean participants were guided by Ven. Seonu who speaks English. The temple compound tour began from the One Pillar Gate, and Ven. Seonu explained the concept of non-duality at this point. “Most architectural structures have four pillars, but the One Pillar Gate has only two so that when viewed from the side it appears to have only one. There are either two or one depending on your perspective; that embodies the concept of non-duality. Buddhism says all things exist in relative terms. You understand things in opposite pairs like good and evil or large and small. If you see only one aspect of these pairs, you are prone to suffering. However, all things in the universe are connected as one.”
The tour eventually arrived at Geumsunsa’s Main Buddha Hall, called Daejeok-gwangjeon (lit. Hall of Great Peace and Light), which enshrines Vairocana Buddha. She then explained another essential point of Buddhism saying that this Buddha hall embodies the Buddhist concept of emptiness. To this, the participants’ eyes sparkled in anticipation. Buddhism says that all things manifest abundant light energy, and this is embodied by Vairocana Buddha. According to quantum physics, light can be both material and non-material or particles and waves. One sees a different aspect depending on their point of view. From this she gradually develops her explanation about emptiness, a quintessential point in understanding Buddhism.
(Left) Having baru gongyang (formal monastic meal) together
(Right) Sharing tea brewed by Ven. Seonu, participants engaged in conversations
Later the group had a vegetarian dinner and participated in the evening Buddhist ceremony, offering respect to the Buddha and reaffirming their resolution to find their true self. Then the practice of 108 prostrations began. This is the first of two key programs Geumsunsa Temple takes pride in. In fact, Ven. Seonu updated the content of 108 prostration practice, which is much different from the standard program provided by the Jogye Order. As she believes this practice is the most suitable for a monastic environment, she wanted to make it meaningful and relevant for all participants. Usually when one offers a prostration, they utter a vow or express repentance. The traditional 108 sentences in prostration practice were prepared long ago and Buddhist-oriented. She rewrote them to suit non-Buddhists and foreigners to help them concentrate on how to use their minds. In fact that is the paramount message of Buddhism; how to use and restore our mind in trying times.
“I prostrate as a vow to lead my life with passion.”
“I prostrate for coming to realize that everything is like a dream.”
“I prostrate in repentance for all those I have hurt with thoughtless words.”
After a 15-minute hike, participants arrived at a clearing with large flat rocks
where they practiced meditation in the forest.
With the uttering of each sentence, participants lowered their bodies onto the floor and prostrated themselves. With each prostration, the pain and sweat increased, but to their surprise, their minds became calm. Some participants shed tears. They descended deeper and deeper into humility. Many participants found it easier to reclaim their pure mind. Some were even able to forgive those whom they previously could not.
Martin Boswell, an English teacher residing in Korea, came with his father, Charles Boswell, who was visiting from America. Martin had long wanted to try a Templestay program but did not know which one to choose. His father’s friend, Dr. Andrew Fort, a professor of religion at Texas Christian University, recommended Geumsunsa based on his Templestay experience there in 2016. Martin was happy that his Templestay was a detoxing experience from his overuse of electronic devices and was very touched by the 108 prostrations. He said, “I was very reflective and emotional when thinking of each of my wrongdoings. It felt very purifying and a bit physically taxing, but in a good way. I felt like it was a good way to deal with some things I had experienced over the past year. I guess it is the closest thing to a religious experience I have had in many years.”
Geumsunsa gives a free coloring book to those who participate in the 108 prostrations. It contains one of the 108 sentences on each page. There are also illustrations of some of their Templestay activities like the forest meditation and the conversation over tea, as well as many temple motifs which they can color as they wish. This should be a meaningful souvenir for them that will also remind them of the vows they made during the 108 prostrations.
The next day began at 5 a.m. Upon finishing the morning Buddhist ceremony and breakfast in the style of baru gongyang (formal monastic meal), participants gathered in the courtyard to do some stretching in preparation for a hike. Soon they exited the One Pillar Gate and hiked about 15 minutes up the mountain. Walking uphill for a while, they found a large clearing with wide flat rocks upon which they sat and meditated. The site also provided a superb panoramic view of downtown Seoul stretching out below. This meditation in the forest is the second of Geumsunsa’s two key programs.
Martin Boswell sharing a memorable
experience with his father visiting from the US
Close your eyes and breathe deeply.
Listen to the sounds you do not ordinarily hear.
Listen to the birds and the wind.
Nature’s orchestra is playing a symphony for you.
Open all the cells in your body and open your heart.
Let the wind pass through you.
Shake off all the burdens weighing you down.
Become a part of nature like the trees.”
The participants seemed to understand the significance of this moment. Peace radiated from their faces and bodies. It seems that beginners and advanced practitioners alike find their inner self more easily in the forest.
In the conversation over tea with Ven. Seonu, one participant asked. “I find meditation helpful. How can I continue meditating at home?” Ven. Seonu explained, “If you can see yourself through your mind’s mirror as you look into the mirror every day, it will help your life tremendously. Actually, to be able to use this inherently good mirror that everyone has is the function of meditation. When a certain difficult feeling arises, do not try to judge, suppress or control it. When you can see it really without judgement, you can naturally purify yourself and build up inner strength.”
Geumsunsa’s Templestay participants can return any time to help as a volunteer, and many have done exactly that. Geumsunsa provides a free noodle lunch on Sundays. Hikers as well as temple visitors welcome this. They boil noodles in a large caldron over a log fire, a scene that brings fond memories of old times for many. Some Templestay participants also took the opportunity to spread a mat on the ground and enjoy a steaming bowl of noodles. The temple’s generosity put a happy smile on the faces of many.
Article by editorial staff | Photos by Geumsunsa Temple