4 am. Blackness. Wind howling outside my room. Branches being ripped off trees and flying all over the temple grounds. Awoken to the gentle sounds of gongs and chants. And the violent gusts of wind. The monks were marching towards their morning prayer. And we were about to join them.
There are Temple Stays offered all over Korea. Buddhist Temples open their doors to curious outsiders for a weekend. You eat and pray with the monks, you wear the clothes the monks wear and you sleep on the temple grounds in a private room. These Temple Stays all have a fee but they are fairly minimal and all the money goes to maintaining the temples. Every Temple offers a different experience and I am sure each stay in a temple varies a bit weekend to weekend.
I had been looking forward to this unique experience since before I landed in Korea. My friend from home had come to visit and it seemed like the perfect opportunity.
So there we were, 5 foreigners. Cloaked in orange robes, surrounded by candles and Buddhas and intricate temple decor. Real living monks welcoming us into their place of worship. Into their rhythm, into their home.
The monk looked over at me and casually lobbed a question “So what do you think is the most important thing about being alive?”
“So what do you think is the most important thing about being alive?”
He asked with such nonchalance I had to ask him to repeat the question. He was brimming with a gentle curiosity the completely undermined the magnitude of the question.
What did I think was the most important thing about being alive?
Um…. I don’t know.
We all paused. Swallowed. Looked at each other hesitantly for the answer. Then looked into ourselves. Asked an impossible question by tender but expecting eyes.
We had just gotten a crash course in meditation. We learned about impermanence, everything is constantly coming and going, nothing in permanent. We learned about mindfulness, how to stay focused on the present moment, no worry about the past or future but just connect with what is in your current surroundings. We learned about cause and effect and emptiness. A tree is not a tree we only call it a tree, and everything around you is a reflection of how you see it. Your breathe is all that matters. Now is all that matters. The most important person in the world is the person you are speaking with right now. Whether it is a stranger or your mom. I liked that. We should really put our phones away more.
The monk told us about the path down the middle. He said no love, no hate, just peace. No joy, no fear, just peace.
There were so many pieces of wisdom I took away from the weekend. But the path down the middle? I don’t think that’s for me.I kind of love the roller coaster. Okay, I really love the roller coaster. I love my emotions and they are a deep, deep part of who I am. I could never let go of happiness. I could never give up joy for peace. If that means suffering, I will suffer. I will do the best I can.
We were put to the test the next morning when we had to walk across the temple grounds to the dining hall in a massive windstorm. As foreigners, we habitually screamed throwing our arms up and running around like chickens.Dodging the loose branches circling around us. One girl with us said “look”, we paused and noticed all the monks around us remained calm and slowly and peacefully walked through the wind. We did our best to mimic their calmness after that. It was crazy how needless our reaction to the wind was, but I never even thought about why I was reacting or what good it would do me. I never though about just staying calm and walking slowly.
Now, that is a good metaphor.
And also a work in progress.
The whole experience was otherworldly. To be shook from sleep by drumming monks. To meander half conscious in empty mountains cloaked in darkness to a temple. Welcomed so openly into this deeply spiritual practice. Not a tourist trap. Not for show. Real. I felt lucky. Lucky to be there. Lucky to be immersed. Lucky I could have such an experience and to have friends who were curious and open minded. Lucky to be in Korea. Lucky to be so free.
I have big questions on my mind all the time. Ones I am constantly trying to get a break from. I have some serious existential angst. What is the reason for everything? Where do I belong and what is my purpose? Do I have a home? Will I ever have a home? What are my gifts and what is my avenue to give them back to the world? Will I matter?
Should I calm down?
A temple stay is a good antidote for that. ( And YES, I should calm down). Keep your mind in the present, focus on the people you are talking to when you are talking to them and walk slowly and calmly through the wind.
And do you want to know my answer? Do you want to know what I said was the most important part about being alive?
I said connection.
It was a tough one to answer and I felt put on the spot, I could barely settle on just one. There are so many worthy answers and my head was spinning. It would probably depend on the point in the day that you asked me too. I tried not to overthink it. Connection is important. Belonging is important.
What is your answer?
We stayed at Jikjisa and I highly recommend it. There are Temples all over and you can make reservations here.