The USO at Osan AB gave a free overnight “Templestay” tour at Hwaseong City’s Yongjusa (“Dragon Ball”) Temple in early May. (Templestay is a brief orientation to Korean-style Buddhism.) In all, 45 service members and civilians gathered early Saturday afternoon at 12:30 pm pronto at the USO for roll call by Ms. Hasi Jackson, USO field program manager. At 1 pm sharp our bus rolled out of the parking lot for Hwaseong arriving at Yongjusa about an hour later. Skies were overcast signaling a rainy weekend.
The Temple is in an urban setting, no secluded mountainside fortress here. The Temple complex is expansive and clean. Everyone headed inside the lodging building. It was showtime.
Inside we changed our shoes for slippers. (Lucky for me I hadn’t any holes in my socks.) We were handed two-piece Buddhist clothing. Ah, monks-in-the-making. After changing upstairs, we headed down again for an orientation to Templestay and Cheong-gyu (Buddhist etiquette). We were instructed in the fine art of bowing all the way to the ground. All 45 of us give it a go with our hands and heads (and knees and feet…). Though I work out regularly and am in good shape, bowing isn’t in my routine. At my age joints creak; I found myself stiff as the base flagpole — especially when trying to sit lotus-style.
Slideshows and documentaries were shown condensing five millennia of Korean history into minutes, ranging from major historical dynasties, the unique formation of Hangeul (Korean language) by King Sejong (1443), and the artistic designs of various Korean cultural artifacts. After sitting locked-in lotus-style, we were eager to spring up and saunter outside to explore the complex on a walking tour led by our ever-conscientious Temple guide and interpreter “Jay,” a pleasant Korean chap about 25 years old.
The premises are well-kept. Jay dutifully delivers mini-lectures on Temple history (back to 1790), stupas (stone towers functioning as Buddhist shrines), relic and artifact, building and bell…. I’m the sole visitor taking notes; there’s too much to take in without doing so. Inside the ornate Daeungbojeon, main prayer hall housing the exquisite gold-plated Shakyamunl Triad (three sacred Buddhas), Jay interprets the lecture on Buddhist philosophy from the head sunim (monk). He struggles. Though his English is decent, explaining abstract metaphysical concepts in another language is no easy feat. Articulating such is difficult enough even to another native speaker, let alone to a foreign one: dharma, karma, and schlarma…. Soon our own dharma demands everyone head on over to the main dining hall; we hadn’t eaten lunch. Even for would-be ascetic monks, hunger beckons. We rush to the dining hall under gentle rain.
Everyone appears hungry to chow down on dinner, even if it is all-vegetarian. The head sunim tells us through Jay that what we consume is not as significant as how. The chowdown is preceded with recitation of the English translation of O-kwan-kay (Pre-Meal Chant). All of us dutifully hold up our plates over our heads and mouth the words. First off is hot seaweed soup (miyeokguk: I always like to put plenty of rice in mine), followed by various vegetable dishes, kimchi and rice being mainstays of Korean cuisine. Bananas serve as dessert. Everything is washed down with plain water. (That all Buddhist monks are vegetarians is a myth. In Tibet they’re forced to eat meat; homegrown vegetables and fruits are rare.) Upon completion, we all go outside to clean our plates and utensils. It’s now 7 pm. Time to go back to the main lodge and hone our meditation and breathing exercise skills with the head monk.
He instructs us in the fine art of breathing and tai-chi (moving meditation). My balance is terrible. In one stance I almost keel over like a drunken sailor. We slog on. At 9:10 pm we call it quits till 4 am the following day.
In pitch blackness, Jay turns on our dormitory lights. It’s time to kick off the day with the traditional Buddhist 108 bows; this is standard. It’s a killer if you’re over 40 or don’t practice them routinely. We go downstairs to the big classroom. At 4:30 am in unison we perform the 1-0-8. Or try to. For every four bows, on the floor we thread a plastic lace through a small, almost tiny, bead. Fingers fumble. After 50-60 bows, it’s not easy to steady the fingers. After about 70 bows I’m getting winded—and praying for a second breath, a third, a fourth…. I’m hardly the only one. Upon finishing, my body, at least the lower-half of it, is shot. Then Jay helps us in tying up our beaded laces into wristlets. Time for breakfast.
At about 8 am breakfast is served. It’s still raining; our outdoor walking meditation is cancelled. Instead everybody is tutored in the fine art of Korean Buddhist-style tea preparation followed by musical recordings chosen by the seunim. He chooses a stirring duet by two male tenors in Italian (hmm…) and then a more soothing solo rendition of a love song in English. Next the seunim treats us to his own musical performance on the flute and a stand-up solo dance performance of Baram Chum (Dance on the Wind). We would-be monks explode into applause. He follows this up with a lengthy Question-and-Answer session. We are reminded of the most important lesson in life according to Buddhism: Find One’s True Self.
At noon we walk outside. Spring rain has now turned to a gentle drizzle. Time to say good-bye to the seunim, Jay, and the rest of the staff. We take photos together. We are tired and ready to hop on our bus and return to Base. It’s been a productive weekend; a transformative time was had by all. And it’s time to say kudos to the USO leadership and Yongjusa Temple staff for putting this all together.
– The author has taught English and the Humanities with the University of Maryland University College throughout the U.S. Pacific Command originally since 1996.