A Dynamic Templestay at Jingwansa
For Yeon Deung Hoe Global Supporters
“Beautiful!” “Handsome!” were the first utterances of Ven. Seonu, the Buddhist nun guiding the Templestay program at Jingwansa (aka. Jinkwansa) temple. The recipients of these wonderful greetings were young men and women in their 20s and 30s. They were some of the 60-plus participants from 20 different countries around the world who had volunteered to help and guide non-Koreans who will come to Korea to enjoy the 2019 Lotus Lantern Festival held on May 4. These Korean culture enthusiasts belong to a group called “Yeon Deung Hoe Global Supporters” (“Yeon Deung Hoe” is the Korean name for the annual lantern lighting ceremony). Two thirds of them are foreigners, and they will be deployed at all corners of the festival venue, ready to assist foreign visitors. The volunteers will meet once a week for six weeks to receive training, including how to better help the festival’s visitors, and this Templestay is also part of their training.
Most of the volunteers are exchange students at Korean universities or students in a four- year degree program. To Ven. Seonu’s question about how many could read Korean, about half raised their hands, an impressive result confirming their high level of interest in Korean culture. Ven. Seonu helped them feel at ease by saying, “Just enjoy every moment. Each of you is a Buddha, and thus you can show your happiness to all of the world. I will help you to enjoy this experience with your real mind, not just your intention.” Ven. Seonu then split the group in two, one sitting to the left and the other to the right. She then had them turn to face each other and say, “You are a Buddha” three times. Reaffirming their Buddha nature in this way, their faces radiated overwhelming joy and inspiration.
To add splendor to the opening ceremony Ven. Gyeho, the abbess of Jingwansa, also appeared, which is unusual for abbesses and abbots. Her smile radiated compassion, and her voice conveyed warmth and energy. She said, “I appreciate your coming every year for our Templestay program. I have asked the kitchen staff to prepare especially delicious meals for you. With your sincere work, you not only brighten Korea but your countries too. I hope you eat well, drink some tea, and enjoy your stay here. I wish you a tranquil heart during your stay in the temple.”
At dinnertime, the participants were surprised to see so much food set out on the buffet-style table. There were more than 14 vegan side dishes prepared from fresh and colorful ingredients to greet the participants, in addition to rice and soup. Most of the participants had seconds and thirds, all the while smiling with satisfaction. Before the volunteers left the Templestay training room (“Hamwoldang”), Ven. Seonu had taught them the importance of considering food as medicine; even so, it was quite a challenge to control oneself in front of such a visual and olfactory feast. Actually, Jingwansa is renowned for its temple food, and Abbess Ven. Gyeho is an acknowledged “Temple Food Master.” As a traditional temple within metropolitan Seoul, Jingwansa has been visited by many important foreign dignitaries and Michelin chefs who wanted to taste or learn about temple food from Ven. Gyeho.
Located in Bukhansan National Park in northern Seoul, Jingwansa is a historic temple with centuries of tradition. In this beautiful natural setting, the temple sits gracefully, providing a sanctuary for female monastic practitioners. Jingwansa was established by the royal decree of Goryeo’s King Hyeonjong in gratitude to the great Buddhist monk Jingwan, who saved the king’s life when he was yet a young prince. Jingwansa is also known for its annual suryukjae, which has been designated an “Intangible Cultural Heritage” by the Korean government. Suryukjae is a traditional “land and water ceremony” in which food and Buddhist teachings are offered to both the living and the dead, including wandering ghosts.
Swiss student Silvan Ehrat studies business at Hanyang University. He attended a Buddhist event about two months ago and was impressed by how joyful the participants were. Being interested in spiritual matters, he wanted to study Korean Buddhist culture as part of a community. He wants to contribute to the success of the lantern festival by helping foreign visitors
A Salvadoran student named Judith Gamaz is studying industrial engineering, also at Hanyang University. She had always wanted to participate in a Templestay program because it seemed to be a popular thing to do in Korea. Because it is a very nice way to observe and understand Korean culture and history, she’s glad she joined this event. Although she has visited temples before, Jingwansa was the first temple where she stayed overnight. Because El Salvador is a predominantly Catholic nation, she was never exposed to Buddhism there. That’s why she wants to understand the beliefs and culture of Korea. About her studies, she said, “Most of my classes are in Korean. I studied Korean for one and a half years before I entered the university. I want to get a job and live in Korea if possible because I find Korea and Koreans very nice.”
Darkness began to envelope the temple, and participants learned a few points about Buddhist etiquette, such as: how to cross your hands in front of your navel (“chasu”), how to join your palms (“hapjang”), and how to do a proper prostration. Explaining the meaning of hapjang, Ven. Seonu said, “It means my mind and the Buddha mind are not separate.” She continued, “Thus, even if we are angry, there is another mind that is very kind, which may be called the ‘seed of the lotus’ or ‘DNA of the Buddha.’” If we have faith in this kind of mind, we can soon regain inner peace and maintain a respectful mouth and ears even if negative emotions arise.
Next, the participants enjoyed a group activity called “Identifying Values.” They were divided into six groups according to themes related to values. Each group sat in a circle with a theme paper in the center. They discussed the theme, and then each participant wrote a short passage most relevant to the theme. For example, the themes included, “What makes you happy?” or “What has the greatest value for you?” Comparing the passages each one wrote, they naturally recognized people are different from each other, but that does not mean that any one is necessarily wrong.
David is a team manager in software development in Toronto, Canada. He asked for a year off from work and has been in Korea since last December to be with his fiancée, an English teacher. He signed up for Global Supporters to learn more about Buddhism and Korean culture, and also for the opportunity to do volunteer work. He attended a temple fairly regularly in Canada where he went to meditate with Bhante Sanghapala every Wednesday. Bhante Sanghapala gives seminars about “kindfulness (kind + mindfulness),” a term he himself coined. For the last five years David has meditated about 30 minutes to an hour every day. True meditation is not that easy, and he stated, “To just sit down and remain completely calm requires a skill that takes a lifetime to master.” He found Korean life to be very convenient with all of its advanced technology, but many people are still stressed. He added, “It’s nice to come to a temple and meditate. People can learn a lot from Buddhist teachings and meditation, and also get out into nature and relax.”
A day begins early in a temple. Participants get up at 4:30 a.m. and offer the morning Buddhist ceremony at 5 o’clock. Then there is the 108-prostration practice, followed by sitting meditation. Although the 108-prostration practice sounds daunting, most people manage to complete it and enjoy a sense of satisfaction. Due to time constraints, the participants tried three different forms of meditation, each lasting only five minutes. First was sitting meditation with eyes half closed, followed by sitting meditation with eyes fully closed; and lastly was meditation while lying down. Ven. Seonu asked them to focus on the rise and fall of their abdomen. If a participant could not concentrate well, she advised them to count their breaths. When the meditation session was over, some said, with a cheeky smile, that they preferred the lying down meditation.
The temperature was cool, and the sky was partly cloudy, a perfect setting for walking meditation. Ven. Seonu led the group onto the wooden-decked strolling path installed along the murmuring mountain stream. The life force emanating from the budding sprouts and blooming azaleas was palpable. Then, Ven. Seonu stopped walking and asked the group to look at the water, saying, “This water is not the same water you saw when you first arrived at this temple. By now that water has probably merged with the Han River or even arrived at the ocean. Don’t cling to the waters of the past! If you dwell on the hatred of the past, you are clinging to something that has already passed. You can only experience the water that is here now.” Ven. Seonu’s ability to teach based on whatever is available deserves unending admiration.
Soon the group arrived at the temple’s One Pillar Gate, and she asked, “Do you know why this gate is called the One Pillar Gate even though it has six pillars? The answer is that the pillars form one line, exhorting us to live like this one line. To be able to do that, to be strong and independent, we have to be here and now. Where is your mind at the moment?”
The group then walked uphill into a grove of beautiful Korean pines, tall and old with red, curved and tilted trunks. Participants stood in the middle of the grove with sunlight shining on their backs. With the bright sunshine illuminating her face like a spotlight, Ven. Seonu urged the participants, “Live your life with inner peace.” She then confessed that before becoming a nun, she was always nervous when speaking English, but that was not a problem anymore. “Now I just speak from my heart, I don’t speak English.” Her message seemed to be that all things depend on our frame of mind.
She then led the group to a Buddha hall called Chilseonggak and told a story about a rare Korean flag that had been discovered here. During the dismantling and restoration of this hall in 2009, a bundle of objects wrapped in cloth was discovered under the altar. It held a few books, old newspapers and a Taegeukgi, the flag of South Korea. These relics and the flag had been hidden there by Ven. Baek Cho-wol, an independence activist, during the Japanese colonial rule. Different from our modern flag, the flag was of the same design used by the provisional Korean government in Shanghai. It was 89 cm wide and 70 cm long and had been painted over a Japanese flag, proof that its maker rejected Japanese rule and was determined to resist.
Lorenzo Frias is from Pasadena, California, but his parents were originally from Guatemala. He studies medicine at Konkuk University in English and volunteers teaching English and Spanish. He met a few Korean students at a university in Idaho and became really good friends with them. He liked them so much that he decided to come to Korea to study with them. He’s interested in Buddhism, saying, “Today’s an eye-opening experience for me. Learning that I’m not insignificant feels so good and wonderful. That’s important because I always felt insignificant and that I didn’t matter much; that’s how my religion raised me. But here I am learning to accept and let go, to let myself grow. That means a lot to me.”
Toward the end of the Templestay, the group experienced a tea ceremony. Each group was provided with its own tea table and selected a tea master. They learned how to pour tea, how to hold a teacup properly with ten fingers, how to drink tea in three sips, and how to exchange feelings of gratitude. Ven. Seonu had the participants repeat after her: “My mind is the master of my body. My body is the teacher of my mind.” Reminding them of the harmonious balance of mind and body, Ven. Seonu seemed to want to give them something they could use again and again once they were back home. Having finished the two-day Templestay program, the participants walked downhill toward the One Pillar Gate, toward the secular world they belong to. Peace and calm exuded from them.
For walking meditation the group strolled along a wooden-decked path installed along the murmuring mountain stream.
(Left) Participants were divided into groups to discuss a common theme. Taking turns writing down their perspectives, they learned people are different from each other but not necessarily wrong.
(Right) At Buddhist ceremonies offered in the evening and morning, participants sincerely chanted the Ritual
of Seven Prostrations and the Heart Sutra.
(Left) Although the practice of 108 prostrations sounded daunting, most people completed it and enjoyed a deep sense of satisfaction.
(Right) True to Jingwansa’s reputation as a temple renowned for temple cuisine, and thanks to the abbess’ special attention, the dinner table was more bountiful than at other Templestay programs
A Short Interview with Abbess Ven. Gyeho
Your words “I have asked the kitchen staff to prepare especially delicious meals for you. I wish you a tranquil heart during your stay in the temple” touched my heart like the warm morning sun. If there is one thing you steadfastly emphasize to Buddhists, what is it?
If food is only to satisfy hunger and taste, it cannot truly be called an offering. Food can rightfully be called an offering when it is taken as medicine, when it is an act to create a pure and bright mind, and when it is a practice to illuminate the mind. A drop of water holds the kindness of heaven and earth; a kernel of grain holds the labor of ten thousand people. Indeed, the bowl of food we face every day holds the entire wisdom and compassion of the Buddha.
Jingwansa becomes more beautiful and more abundant day by day. What is the aspiration of Ven. Abbess for this year?
Based on the vows of the fourfold community, Jingwansa has become a “garden of the mind” which represents Korean history and culture beyond the boundaries of religion. It is also a venue to offer prayers and persevere in mind cultivation. I aspire for Jingwansa to continue to be a pure and fragrant monastery where everyone puts the Buddha’s teachings into action spontaneously based on their abilities.
(Left) At the One Pillar Gate, Ven. Seonu explained the term “one pillar” despite the presence of six pillars. It exhorts us to live a life as straight as “one line.”
(Right) The Global Supporters shared a cheerful moment with abbess Ven. Gyeho, shouting “Global Supporters” when the abbess shouted “Jingwansa.”
Article by editorial staff | Photos by Park Dong-sik