Korean Templestay – Lessons from a Monastic Meal

One of the highlights from my recent Korean templestay was definitely the monastic meal experience. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I saw it listed on the itinerary, well, actually I envisioned a beyond simple bowl of the smallest portion rice, which would leave me immensely hungry for the rest of the night, but that wasn’t the reality.

The meal was actually quite filling and was made up of typical Korean fare. There was the ubiquitous kimchi and rice, as well as a soup and some bancheon (side dishes.) It was of course vegetarian. The contents of the meal are not what stuck with me the most though, it was the strict ritual of how to properly serve, accept, eat, and clean up after the meal that I found memorable.

The head monk that guided us through our templestay, sat at the head of the rest of us and taught us how to perform the ritual. We all sat on cushions on the floor with a bundle of dishes wrapped up tightly in a fabric bundle. We were instructed very carefully on how to unwrap the fabric, remove the four bowls of varying sizes, and how to display them in front of us. Each bowl served a purpose. One for water to be used to do the washing after the meal, one for the soup, one for the rice, and one for the side dishes.

As volunteers began to offer the rice to each participant we were strictly instructed to take only what we could consume entirely. Other volunteers served the soup and side dishes, beginning always with the head monk. There was to be absolutely no talking during the process which made it meditative and mindful. Only non-verbal communication was allowed.

The head monk said again and again not to waste any food. Every last grain of rice was to be eaten, and she was going to check at the end of the meal. When we were done eating we used the water in the water bowl to rinse all of the bowls out. During the middle of the meal she instructed us to save one of our half moons of yellow, pickled radish. The reason was that it was to serve as our scrubber for the dishes. We used our chopsticks to control the radish as we swiped it around every surface space, moving from bowl to bowl in the directed order, and then we ate the radish. The washing water we were to drink, ending up with absolutely no left over food or even any residue of our meal.

I loved it. No waste! Even the scrubber and wash water was consumed by us. Our translator expressed that although it might seem “dirty” to drink the wash water, it really wasn’t, because it only contained tiny bits of the food we had just been eating (no soap was used.)

After we drank the water our water bowl was filled with some scorched rice water which was to act as the final rinse. We poured the water from bowl to bowl and when we were finished we dumped the scorched rice water into a community collection pot. I volunteered do the collecting. If all had done their eating and washing correctly, then the community water at the end should have been crystal clear, lacking a single particle of food. As I collected I witnessed our failed attempted; as expected – we did not clear our bowls as efficiently as monks. Fortunately though, the head monk did not make us drink the community scorched rice water as a group, which is what real monks are made to do if they waste any food. Not a very delicious punishment, but an effective threat.

Eating just one meal as mindfully and thoroughly as a Korean monk has had a lasting impact on the way that I consume my daily meals. My daytime job is an English ESL teacher at a private kindergarten which feeds me lunch every day. Just as the children are taught, and as was reinforced at the templestay, I try every day to take only what I can eat completely, ending with no waste. I haven’t gone so far as to transfer the radish method into my school lunches, but I remember it as a lesson in sustainability and not wasting.

Unfortunately I did not take a single photo during the monastic meal as I didn’t want to interrupt the atmosphere and learning experience. Below is a gallery of photos from Hongbeopsa Temple where I did my stay.

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Korean Templestay – 108 Prostrations

In the past I have been invited to teach for yoga mala’s which are events where participants do 108 Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskar.) Teachers guide students through traditional Sun A and/or B, or through variations of both. It is both challenging and rewarding to push yourself to perform all of the sequences and as a teacher it has been fun to be creative and come up with variations. Although I have taught and participated in a few yoga malas, I never really knew what that number 108 was all about.

Recently, I took the opportunity to participate in a Korean Templestay. Templestays are little nightly or weekend getaways to a Korean temple. They are geared towards foreigners visiting or living in the country. During the stay, participants experience a brief monastic 24 hours (give or take.) At my templestay I wore simple cotton pants and a vest (worn over a T-shirt as showing shoulders is a big no-no at Korean temples,) ate and experienced the process of eating a monastic meal, attended two Buddhist ceremonies, made a strand of mala beads, and did 108 prostrations.

The Beads

Making the mala strand of beads felt a little bit like a summer camp activity. The other 20 or so participants and myself gathered in a beautifully painted room, sat upon meditation cushions, and were given little kits which included rough wooden beads, thick string, and a small metal tool that was to be used to push a better hole into the bead if it hadn’t been properly punched out.

While we made the malas our guide asked questions of us about Buddhism, such as what are the six offerings people bring to temple (I remember four of the six – rice, incense, flowers, fruit.) The guide/translator also explained that the beads were made of cedar which gave them a strong scent. According to her the scent is offensive to mosquitos and helps ward them off – bonus!

The number 108 was also explained, but in a mathematical-windy way reminiscent of conspiracy theories that add, subtract, and multiply to find their way to a meaningful number that supports their case. I’m not good with numbers in any sense, so unfortunately those numbers went in one ear and out the other. The following morning after stringing the beads we performed the 108 prostrations in the main hall and that’s where the magic happened.

108 Prostrations

After an opening ceremony of tycho drum, chant, and a few introductory bows, we began the 108. As I mentioned, the event was for foreigners; none of us were Korean speakers and the monks didn’t speak English, so during the bows they played a youtube video that gave a meaning to each bow. At first the video was offputting because the anouncer had a very cultish, deep, monotone voice, but what was being said by him was actually quite moving.

Reasons for bows came in groups. For example, for six or so bows there would be reasons about repenting. This is a rough memory, but a few  that I remember went something like this: “I prostrate in repentance for ever having taken my family for granted.” Then it continued with the same, “I prostrate in repentance for ever having taken my friends/nature/teachers for granted.” Another theme I remember was gratitude for similar topics: “I prostrate in gratitude for all the teachers that have touched my life,” for example. Having the sound of the video going, which visually displayed monks in monk like settings, helped the bows go by more quickly and gave them meaning.

Physically I didn’t find the bowing to be taxing, minus the speed. We bowed to the count of the youtube video which runs around 25 minutes, about 20 of those minutes being the actual bows. Doing 108 bows in 20 minutes is quick. The bows were similar to Sun Salutations and were performed by bending at the knees, hands at prayer at the chest (Namaskar,) lowering the knees down onto a meditation cushion, placing the forehead on the cushion, and then going to standing again. I overheard other participants complaining of the difficulty of it; it might be that my consistent yoga practice made the act easier for me.

Full bow.

Full bow.

Here is the link to the video to listen to while performing 108 bows, or while you do your dishes, give it a listen.  The intro of the video is a child giving a little background to the number 108 and then it gets right into the creepy voice reading of the 108 prostrations. As much as that description is not enticing, I encourage you to listen, it honestly moved me into conscious reflection.

If you ever get the opportunity to attend a Yoga Mala or a Korean Templestay, take the opportunity. Through both you can learn a lot about yourself while participating in events that lie outside of your comfort zone. Coming soon will be a write-up of the monastic meal that was the highlight of the first evening at the temple.

The templestay that I participated in was at a temple named Hongbeopsa. It is north west of Busan and can be reached by shuttle bus or taxi from Nopodong Bus Termanl. Hongbeopsa generally hosts monthly cultural events for foreigners such as lantern making, tea ceremonies, and kimichi making. To find out more about their events follow them on facebook here.