A picturesque Korean temple surrounded with greenery

A tranquil oasis

It was raining cats and dogs as our bus wound its way into the Jin Kwan Sa Temple parking lot. “Unseasonal rain,” declared the nuns at the temple as they smilingly welcomed us. As we shed our dripping outer coats and stacked our shoes outside the main Orientation Hall, we were given fresh garments — jacket and trousers — which would be our uniform for the two-day stay at the temple.

“You have brought the rain, which is considered very lucky as it represents life,” beamed Monk Seon Woo, who conducted our orientation and offered an insight into the life of Buddhist monks. Soon enough, the gurgling sound of a rushing stream soothed the group of 20 Indian journalists visiting South Korea on a trip organised by the Indian Women&’s Press Corps (IWPC). We were later informed that the stream running through the monastery was usually a mere trickle. The nuns were thrilled at the sight of the rushing stream as the snow-melt was joined by the torrential rain.

We were led through the rain to our rooms. Some were single rooms and others were part of suites. But all our rooms were spartan, with no furniture at all. We had to roll out the beddings on the wooden floor, which was warmed from below in the traditional Korean style of ducts conducting warm air.

The Temple

The Jin Kwan Sa Temple (names of most Korean temples end with “Sa”, which means “temple”) is located in the Bukhansan National Park to the west of the capital city Seoul. It is unique as it houses only female monks (biguni) and is one of the four major temples around Seoul. It was established by the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism in 1011 to repay the Buddhist priest Jingwan for saving King Hyeon-jong&’s life when he was young.

Except for three central buildings, the entire temple complex, nestled in the middle of gentle hills clad in forests, was reduced to ashes during the Korean War (1950-53). It was restored and renewed over the past 30 years to its present state, which is a remarkable blend with no discernable difference between the old and the new.

The Jin Kwan Sa Temple is the only one in Seoul, which serves “Suryukje”, a Buddhist ceremony that “provides food and Buddha&’s teachings to spirits and starved demons, who wander the land and sea”. The temple also provides training facilities for biguni (female monks). Its serene and idyllic surroundings provide a quiet getaway for city-dwellers to rejuvenate body and soul and also attract a fair number of foreign visitors.  Korean Buddhism is a distinctive form that evolved with the rich local culture. Buddhism first arrived in the country in the year 374 and soon became the national religion of the then ruling Goguryeo kingdom.

Temple stay

As in several other Korean temples, the Jin Kwan Sa also offers temple stay programme, where visitors can spend a few days (usually two days and a night) at the temple and experience Buddhist temple culture firsthand. These include an insight into the daily monastic life, meditation and programmes like the traditional tea ceremony. Temple stay is a unique cultural programme, which lets a visitor experience the life of Buddhist practitioners, who are part of an over 1700-year-old tradition.

Our stay began with an orientation, where Monk Seon Woo informed us not just about Buddhist philosophy but also the practices, including rituals and customs to be followed during our sojourn. For instance, an elaborate ritual of bowing to elders and prostrating before the Buddha were painstakingly taught to us. We were blessed by the visit of Kae Idoa, the principal monk of the temple. As she gently spoke about the teachings of the Buddha, a sense of calm and peace pervaded the gathering.

Dinner was along the Buddhist method of eating ecologically, called Baru Gongyang, which is a monastic formal meal, which allows one to live in harmony with nature. The simple vegetarian meal of soup, rice, kimchi salads, tofu and a few mushroom and vegetable dishes, proved to be surprisingly filling. A rule in the monastry was not to waste food. We were instructed to take a limited amount of food (one could go for any number of refills) and eat all the food leaving nothing behind. One also had to wash one&’s plate, spoons and glasses.

Before retiring for the night, Monk Seon Woo conducted the tea ceremony, known as the practice of Dado. Groups of four, one of them elected a tea-master, prepared green tea in a ceremonial manner before consuming it as a last item before getting to bed.

Our day in the mountain temple began before dawn at 4.30 am. Streaming into the Orientation Hall, we were taken through a meditation session before heading for breakfast and a guided tour of the temple complex.

All too soon it was time to vend our way back to the parking lot and head for the hustle and bustle of a teaming metropolis as the temple nuns prepared for the arrival of the next lot of visitors.

This article first appeared in The Statesman on 30 March 2016.

Pic credit: http://thesoulofseoul.net/.

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