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Dispatch, Korea 2: Climbing higher, in every sense
April 08, 2009

Travel Weekly Destinations Editor Kenneth Kiesnoski is exploring Seoul, South Korea, and nearby attractions on a first-time visit. His second dispatch follows.

"To become a bigger person, you must climb a higher mountain." It was an eerily appropriate and timely bit of wisdom from the venerable Ja Kwang, vice abbot of the hauntingly beautiful Woljeongsa Temple, in South Korea’s stunning Odaesan National Park.

Only a few hours before my intimate evening tea ceremony and chat with the Buddhist seunim, or monk, I struggled up a steep, snowy mountain in search of one of the country’s oldest hilltop shrines. I was still on a literal high from the trek as I settled into a floor cushion before Ja Kwang, an elfin, charming gentleman sporting a shaved head and elegant gray robes.

Woljeongsa Temple, one of 24 Buddhist monasteries where visitors can partake in Korean Tourism Organozation's Templestay program.
The vice abbot wasn’t just perceptive and wise; he also had a sense of humor.

"You look familiar," he joked to me, gesturing at my bald head between pouring a round of green tea and passing out plates of strawberries and sweet dried dates. "You should stay with me here at Woljeongsa and learn to be a Buddhist monk."

Moved, I felt nearly compelled to take him up on the offer -- which I sensed was delivered only half in jest -- if only I could. I’d been at Woljeongsa for just a few hours, but I was already in love with the place, the pace and the peace.

A complex of richly ornamented temples, shrines and antique monuments (as well as dormitories, a museum, a gift shop and a refectory) idyllic Woljeongsa (www.woljeongsa.org) was founded in 645 A.D. by a Zen monk to house relics of the Buddha himself.

Its stone pagoda and statue of a bodhisattva (Buddhist saint) are considered Korean national treasures. Burnt to the ground repeatedly over the centuries, most recently during the Korean War, it stands as enduring testament to Buddhism’s gentle -- but tenacious and pervasive -- grip on the Korean mind.

Bupjang Seunim, one of the seunim, or Buddhist monks, at Woljeongsa Temple in South Korea's Odaesan National park.
Today, Woljeongsa serves as a head temple of the Jogye Order of Buddhist monks and nuns, who warmly welcome Koreans and foreigners of all faiths, or none, for stays lasting from a few hours to several months. It is one of some 24 monasteries across South Korea offering short "temple stay" overnight programs to visitors.

Under the formal Templestay program, launched by the monasteries in cooperation with the Korea Tourism Organization in 2002, foreign visitors (called "internationals") stay at the complex of their choice for one or two nights.

Young Korean volunteers shepherd visitors through the rites and rhythms of temple life, Buddhist philosophy, vegetarian meals and nature-based activities. Many volunteers speak English fluently.

My own temple stay, and spiritual journey, began with a bus ride of more than two hours from Seoul to Jinbu, clear across the country, near the East Sea (Sea of Japan), where I caught a taxi for the 15-minute ride to Woljeongsa.

I arrived a bit early and caught the staff unawares, but the temple’s training manager, Eunmi Kim, who goes by her chosen "dharma name" of Jina, quickly materialized and invited me to lunch.

Starved, I heaped my bowl (made of stainless steel, as were the chopsticks, according to Korean custom) with piles of fragrant rice, spicy kimchi and other assorted vegetables. I grabbed a cup of steaming miso soup for good measure.

As I began to dig in, Jina gently told me that Buddhists give thanks before partaking, ponder and savor each bite, and must eat every grain of rice before rinsing their utensils and bowls.

Well, Jina saw to it, in a most positive fashion, that I worked off my overindulgence. That’s where the mountain climb came in. I was shown to my spartan but brand-new and cozy room (complete with heated floor and private shower and bath) and given a comfortable, quilted, saffron-colored uniform.

An ancient mountaintop shrine in South Korea's Odaesan National Park.
After I changed, I was told orientation wouldn’t begin for four hours, at 4 p.m. Would I like to see a small, mountaintop shrine near the spring that’s the source of faraway Seoul’s mighty Han River? Or would I rather rest?

While the cherry blossoms were blooming in the capital, Odaesan’s slopes were still covered in snow. But undaunted and intrigued, I signed on for the ad hoc hike.

At that point, I met my companions and guides for my stay. The guides were three volunteer Korean twentysomethings -- Deul Lee ("Itu"), Su Kyung Sung ("Susie") and Keu Nam Jung, our strapping hiking guide.

My companions were Sinae Jeong, a Korean guest, and Natalia Majette and Trudy Steigerwalt, two young English teachers from Philadelphia who were resident in Korea.

An hour and a half later and a couple of thousand feet higher, we were elated but exhausted from climbing snowdrift-covered, slippery mountainsides. Already fast friends, we sipped cool draughts from the spring, smiled in the sunshine and paid homage at the ancient shrine.

Working our way back down the mountain through the woods to Woljeongsa, we paused along the lantern-bedecked trail to pile stones against trees for good luck. We took an herbal tea break at another wildly ornate temple before beginning the proper Templestay activities.

Koreans decorate their Buddhist temples each spring with lanterns in commemoration of the Buddha's birthday.
After changing into fresh uniforms and enjoying dinner together (this time, with portion control), we were given the honor of helping a sunim ring the huge, sonorous main temple bell in a sort of call to prayer.

Then we were off to a short evening chant in the glorious main Buddha Hall; the hour-long, illuminating tea with the vice abbot; and then 45 minutes of "108 Bows for Harmonious Life." That’s 108 full-body, down-on-your-knees, face-to-the-floor and standing-up-again bows, one for each of life’s agonies, according to Buddhist teaching.

Sounds a bit hard, and it was, but as the saying goes: no pain, no gain. (Note: Templestay participants can opt out of certain program elements, if need be.)

As with the hike, the gain was an adrenaline rush and sense of accomplishment -- not much pain in the grand scheme of things. And when lights-out came at 9:30 p.m., this habitual night owl was ready for bed at a godlier hour than usual.

My second day at Woljeongsa dawned well before sunrise, with a 4:30 a.m. ceremony back in the Buddha Hall, then an hour of yoga and meditation before a vegetarian breakfast at 6 a.m.

After a two-hour, meditative and leisurely group nature walk along the wooded riverside, there was a post-hike break for green tea, fruits and cakes. Finally, we briefly toured the temple museum.

At a mountaintop shrine near Woljeongsa, Templestay volunteers and participants Susie, Itu, Ken, Sinae, Trudy, Natalia and Jung.
Sounds like a lot, yet somehow it was not. Nothing had been rushed. Nothing had been pushed. Yet suddenly -- all too soon -- my temple stay at tranquil Woljeongsa was over.

It was noon and time to head back to "real" life -- to busy, bustling Seoul and beyond.

After fond, extended farewells from Jina, Jung, the seunim and my other new-found friends, I boarded my bus back to the capital, satisfied but saddened to leave the sublime, serene space where that kindly vice abbot had assured me that I, "Mr. Ken," would always find a welcome.

At Woljeongsa, I not only found a welcome. I found a new part of myself. I climbed higher. And I felt bigger -- and better.

[SOURCE from TRAVEL WEEKLY] http://www.travelweekly.com/article3_ektid192576.aspx

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