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A peek at the monastic life

Temple stays open a door on Buddhist culture. Enlightenment is possible, but sometimes a cup of tea is just a cup of tea.

October 08, 2006|Cicely Wedgeworth | Times Staff Writer

Daejon, South Korea — THE monk set out a tiny clay teapot and cups and proceeded to rinse them all with steaming water from a plastic pot. He poured hot water into the teapot so that it overflowed, draining into the sluiced wooden tray it sat on. When the tea was ready, he poured it into the cups from an impressive height, raising and lowering the pot with flourish.

Fascinated by his movements, I asked the monk if the tea ceremony had special meaning.

"It means drinking tea," he said, looking at me in amusement. "Like drinking coffee."

In April, I had come with my mother to Jakwangsa, a temple on the outskirts of Daejon in central South Korea, to learn more about Buddhism by staying overnight at the temple and participating in Buddhist rituals. Although my mother was born in South Korea and raised with what she called "a kind of Buddhism," she was almost as clueless about the religion as I and just as curious.

The government-run program, which allows outsiders to stay overnight at temples throughout the country, was kicked off as a tourist attraction for the 2002 World Cup, co-hosted by South Korea and Japan. It seemed like a great way to discover an essential aspect of South Korea.

Even though Christianity has made considerable inroads in recent years, Buddhism remains a big part of Korean culture. At least 26% of South Koreans are Buddhist, although many do not attend temple regularly. The Jogye order, the oldest and largest in Korean Buddhism, is part of the Seon sect (better known as Zen).

I spent a year in South Korea after graduating from college in 1997. I lived in Seoul, the capital, studied the language and traveled through the country during school vacations. I visited some of South Korea's most famous temples, including the 6th century Bulguksa in Gyeongju, and was struck by their vivid style, unlike anything I had seen. Korean temples are usually colorfully painted, their giant wooden pillars seemingly made of entire logs painted maroon. Their black roofs flare toward the sky, showing off an underskirt of beams decorated in patterns of green, blue and red.

On my trip in April, we chose to stay at Jakwangsa, one of the five temples "with translation" in English, according to the temple-stay program's website.

I was a little disappointed to see that Jakwangsa was on a desolate side street. I had imagined it set picturesquely high in the mountains or at least in a grove of trees. It had the right colors, but its beams were plaster, not wood. The bathrooms were in a stand-alone structure, and our communal quarters were in a trailer-like building with aluminum siding. Plastic sheeting reinforced the windows.

On top of all that, there was no translator. But here it turned out we were in luck: The monk in residence (and there was only one) spoke English. He had obtained a doctorate in physics from Ohio State University before becoming a monk.

On our first day at Jakwangsa, Mom and I went for tea with the monk, Chong Ah, who lived in a tiny house next to the temple. He was young, with a shaved head, pleasant face and wire-rimmed glasses. He wore the baggy gray clothes typical of Korean Buddhist monastics, men and women alike.

Chong Ah, though soft-spoken and serious, had a sense of humor and invited us to ask as many questions as we wanted about Buddhism as he poured us cup after cup of tea.

"It's good for you," he said each time he refilled our cup.

Does tea have some kind of spiritual effect? I asked.

"It warms your body," he said.

Our temple stay turned out to be mostly free-form, despite the schedule outlined on the temple-stay website.

Temple tour? We'd pretty much seen it all.

Dharma talk? Watch a video.

Meditation? On your own.

What should we meditate about?

"Try to understand yourself. That is the greatest puzzle," Chong Ah said.

Humans, he said, are ruled -- and limited, in the Buddhist view -- by their desires for comfort, money, power, possessions and other things. These selfish desires often drive our actions, he said, and the Buddhist ideal is to eliminate such selfishness by examining one's actions through meditation.

We tried walking meditation -- OK, it was just a walk -- the next day with our fellow temple visitor, Deborah Miller, 44, a Canadian convert to Buddhism who had been at Jakwangsa for a week.

As we headed away from the temple, the tin-roofed shacks and trash-lined streets soon yielded to a small paved road running between rice fields and a wooded hill where azaleas peeped out from among pine trees. We passed orchards of flowering fruit trees whose pink-white blossoms lay on their branches like snow drifts. When the wind turned the right way, the air smelled sweet.

We followed the road to two buildings, a nunnery, Deborah said. One, a gaily colored structure, might have been another temple. The other building was starker, in natural colors. Unlike Jakwangsa, both were gorgeous traditional structures of wood and dark tile. I wondered what it might be like to live there as a nun.

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