USO's Templestay program

by Ron roman

Osan AB's own USO recently sponsored a first-ever Saturday "Templestay" at nearby Hwaseong City's Yongjusa Temple. (Templestay is an introduction to Korean Buddhism.) Luckily for 36 service members and civilians the Temple picked up the entire tab. A great time was had by all.

David Yoo, USO duty manager, turned out to be one ever-conscientious tour guide this late-winter Saturday afternoon. Show time was 12:30 pm sharp. He took roll call inside the Base Main Gate, and a little after 1 pm we boarded our tour bus and were on our way: all 36 of us, a motley mix of active-duty service members and civilians. About 45 minutes later, we rolled into Yongjusa's parking lot and got out.

The Temple is built on either side of the local highway bisecting it. The grounds are spacious and well-kept. We made our way inside the lodging facility. At 2 pm it was show time.

First thing you'll do upon entering the large hall, simple and unadorned (except for a big red-colored Buddhist wall mosaic), is replace your shoes with slippers. (I was relieved that I had remembered to wear new socks with no holes!) Next you're given an orientation in Korean by one of the Temple guides. His assistant interprets. Initially you'll be encouraged to hand over valuables for safekeeping and turn over, or at least off, all cell phones. Next, you'll be outfitted with Buddhist two-piece clothing. Presto! You're a monk-in-the making. After changing, you'll gather for a cartoon-like animated introduction to the Templestay experience and attendant etiquette or Cheong-kyu [italicized]. The lead guide demonstrates the proper method of bowing. All 36 in our congregation try our hands at it (and feet and knees....).

With our knees and elbows well-lubricated, the master monk (Su-nim) [italicized], a middle-aged woman, her head shaven, is introduced and proceeds to give her introduction to Templestay in English: "Why? Why are you here? Not only in this temple, but in Korea? (It's a good question: something I still ask myself.) "Why do you...." (fill in the existentialist answers) "Why? Why? Why?" She then coughs up the answer: "It's because you want to be happy! To be happy we quiet our minds. We all want to be happy. Then how?" She then repeats an Eternal Truth: "If you want to be happy, you have to make others happy." Upon a casual glance around the room, class members appear to be getting it. And we're just getting warmed up.

Next we head outside for a walking tour. Another woman, not looking like a monk, certainly not in dress or with shaven head, leads. She explains the history of the Temple. Upon arriving at the main entrance archway, she tells us that "We all arrive here without accident; this means we are all here with pure mind." She smiles. We all do upon being advised of our good fortune.

Though it's still winter, we eagerly saunter around the premises. Albeit not immaculate, the surroundings are well-kept. Mini-lectures are delivered on stupas (stone towers serving as Buddhist shrines), additional Temple history, significance of this artifact and relic, that building and bell.... I'm the only one jotting down notes. Too much to absorb without any.

In unison we continue toward the open-air main temple built in 1790 during the Joseon Dynasty. It exudes happy colors. Impressive. The pungent scent of burning incense wafts through the cold late-winter air permeating the nostrils, energizing one's sense. It's getting late in the day. Time to make our way over to the main dining hall.

Inside we kneel down on cushions to an all-vegetarian meal. The master monk reminds us, this time through her interpreter, that what we eat is not important as how [italicized] we eat. Eating is preceded by reciting the Pre-Meal Chant (O-kwan-kay) [italicized].

At 7:45 pm it's on to lotus flower-making class. At 8:30 pm it's time to call it a day--till 3 am next morning. At 3 am sharp we awake for morning chanting. We prostrate ourselves by bowing and kneeling multiple times, 108 to be exact; this is the standard number. At 6 am it's breakfast and 90 minutes later an outdoor walking meditation to include a blind-guided walk and walking stick exercise. Finally at 9:20 am we're instructed in the intricate art of tea-making, Korean Buddhist-style, followed by a concluding Question-and-Answer chat with the Su-nim [italicized].

By noon we're exhausted and ready to hop back on our tour bus and head back to the Base. Unless a monk, for some of us getting up at 3 am to trudge outdoors in the freezing cold every day to prostrate ourselves 108 times would probably be too much of a good thing--even if you're in the USAF!

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