This is the ninth in a 10-part series on templestay programs. ― ED.
Participants practice “yebul,” or meditation, at Yongjoo Temple. Foreigners and locals alike are welcome to Yongjoo Temple to experience temple life throughout the year. / Courtesy of Roger Shepherd
By Roger Shepherd
It was a shockingly cold, but clear early winter’s day when Magnolia Wetherston and I stepped off the bus No. 46 from Suwon Station to head to Yongjoo Temple in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi Province. Wetherston is a friend of mine, a visiting outdoor nutritionist from the United Kingdom who is in Korea to experience some of its culture ― would a templestay fulfil that experience?
The entrance to Yongjoo Temple is unlike that of most other temples in Korea. No large mountain looms in the background to provide a magnificent panorama, nor is it located at the top of a winding road flanked by oak and maple trees. Rather, it sits on the outer belt of Suwon in a quiet semi-industrious area at the base of a small hill. I wondered about this, and as I walked up the short path to the main gate, I stopped to look at the red two-pillared post in front of me. There was a tablet explaining the history of Yongjoo Temple, or ``Dragon Bead Temple.”
The temple was constructed in 854 during the Silla Kingdom and at that time was named Galyang Temple. The Silla Kingdom (668935 A.D.) was a strong advocate of Buddhism and permitted the construction of many of Korea’s great temples around the peninsula during its tenure.
As I looked beyond the gate, I wondered why the temple looked more Confucian in its architecture ― more a large shrine than a temple. The signboard mentioned that after being destroyed by fire in 1636 during the Manchu War, it was later rebuilt in 1790 by King Jeongjo of the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910), a respected visionary leader.
What is really remarkable is that he ordered the reconstruction of the temple site in commemoration of his father, Prince Sado, who died under strange circumstances as a young 27-year-old. Prince Sado was the son of King Yeongjo, a great Confucian monarch with intense knowledge of Korea’s traditional culture.
During this period, it is said that Prince Sado was reported to be wandering the mountains of Korea in a deranged state killing people. His father, King Yeongjo, ordered his capture and incarcerated him in a rice chest, where he died eight days later. Prince Sado’s 10-year-old son became the next heir in line and in 1776, at the age of 24, became King Jeongjo.
Sometime after his grandfather King Yeongjo’s death in 1776, many rumors filtered around the peninsula that Prince Sado had been wrongly accused before being incarcerated, and was not insane as reported. Later, in 1790, guided by the Confucian filial piety of parental worship, King Jeongjo rebuilt the temple site of Galyang-sa in commemoration of his father. A night before the completion of the temple he dreamt of a dragon flying through the heavens with a bead in its mouth, and he named the new temple Yongjoo. The temple subsequently has a fused appearance of Confucian and Buddhist architecture from the Joseon period of that time.
This program was attended by a group of about 20 Korean participants. This didn’t cause any lack of enthusiasm for Wetherston. Under the warmth of our Korean hosts, everyone settled into a charming introduction of Yongjoo Temple. Admittedly, none of the attendees of the program spoke enough English to be able to interpret the dialogue, so how did Wetherston, an open-minded traveler, cope with being in a completely foreign religious environment?
``Being a foreigner, I wasn’t quite sure I would be able to integrate and mingle in this predominantly Korean group, but I understood quickly just how accommodating and compassionate Koreans are, especially when it comes to teaching others about their culture and traditions,’’ she said.
Afterwards, the group was introduced to the exercise of ``jeol,’’ where one bows 108 times in front of Buddha as a measure of humility and meditation, followed by ``balwoo gongyang,’’ the Korean Buddhist eating ceremony. On that, Wetherston had this to say:
``It was a fairly intensive but enjoyable moment on the warmly heated floor where two rows of people performed impeccable dinner manners. Having my own personal helper for the Buddhist eating ceremony (a nerve-racking experience if you don’t have some patience and initial guidance!) was just another example of how the templestay staff really went out of their way to give me a uniquely Korean experience.’’
As the spirituality of the night grew, the group was asked under the tallow of candlelight to form a reflective moment of repentance by writing down a list of personal thoughts. After that we were all taken outside into the cold winter wind and asked to walk around a stupa commemorating Buddha.
Later, Wetherston made this reflection, ``An important highlight that sticks with me is writing our `repentances’ by evening candlelight,” she said. `` After writing our lists, they were thrown in a fire while everyone walked around a temple stupa as an act of cleansing.’’
The next morning began at 3:30 a.m. with a prayer session in the main prayer hall. The small, dark, unheated interior was packed to the brim with worshippers and monks. Fueled by everyone’s body heat the group was swept into the heavens by brilliant sutras before returning to the warmth of the nearby heated hall where they had slept the night before.
From there we all sank into an hour long session of ``chamseon’’ or meditation. As the sun rose, we all ate a hot breakfast of soup, rice and vegetables, and then were taken on a tour of the temple grounds followed by a nature walk. The walk through the amber forest was a mixture of nature hiking and spiritual rehabilitation performed through gentle exercises. For the casual stroller the scene would have looked slightly surreal as the forest became tainted with the swaying motions of yoga-style exercisers. This stage of the templestay proved to have the biggest impact on Wetherston.
``My favorite templestay activity was our meditative nature hike on the morning of the second day,” she said. “As the monk slowly led us through a beautiful forest, we were encouraged to get back in touch with nature through acts such as hugging a tree.’’
As if all that wasn’t enough, the group was taken back to the hall to participate in ``sugaeshik,’’ a Buddhist ritual where devotees are branded with incense and given Dharma names. The group lined up in rows on the floor, and the main monk walked amongst us gently singeing our forearms with burning incense. Wetherston didn’t even wince as the burning rods smoked away on her white forearm. Wetherston wasn’t ready for a Dharma name, but she enjoyed her experience at the temple.
``Well, I was pleasantly surprised with my stay at Yongjoo Temple,” she said. ``Walking onto the grounds felt like a much needed exhale from a full week of hustle-bustle society. The overall energy was serenely upbeat. I wasn’t sure what to expect but the reception was warm, unintimidating and in a welcoming environment.
``Because nothing was translated, I was given the unique opportunity to go into my own head. I felt like it was an individual experience for me, all religion aside.”
In the cold courtyard of Yongjoo Temple, looking rather inquisitive, my friend cocked one eye to the sky and puckered her lips. She gently tapped her chin with her index finger and then with a beaming smile of approval said, ``I would recommend Yongjoo Temple to those who are interested in a quiet getaway from society; one where they can get back in tune with nature and themselves and become introspective. It was a `gentle’ introduction to Korean Buddhism, I really enjoyed it!’’
To get to Yongjoo Temple, get off at Byeongjeom Station on subway line 1 and take buses 34, 34-1 or 44. For more information, visit www.yongjoosa.or.kr or call (031) 234-0040.