We are in South Korea. We are standing in the dark at the base of a giant golden Buddha at 4:30am. The Buddha is framed by mountains and a wooden pagoda. I’m wearing six layers of lightweight cotton, unprepared for the near-freezing temperatures we will endure for the coming hour. Shaking, I find myself trying not to wonder why I thought staying at a temple in the mountains was a good idea.
Four monks in white robes and rust-red vests arrive at the small pavilion where we have been waiting and, for ten minutes, we watch them take turns pounding on a six-foot drum. The rhythms are exciting and powerful, and a little dissonant to our western ears.
The drumming stops and the monks take turns ramming a log into the side of a giant brass bell. The sound of the bell resonates in surprising ways and the vibrations echo through me, somewhere deep. My shoulders relax and I stop feeling the cold. When the drumming stops, our host, Bori, tells us the sounds of the drum and the bell are not designed to appeal to our intellect (“monkey mind”) or hearts (with their unpredictable emotions) but to our bellies, centers of balance and quiet. And then we walk to the unheated temple for chanting and a dozen prostrations before three giant Buddhas sitting on a cloud of live orchids.
Breakfast follows in an unheated dining hall. The food is vegan with the traditional Korean palette of sour and musky and salty. Kim chee, tofu, rice, vegetables. No garlic or onions. No fats, no fruits, no caffeine. I am a vegetarian so this is not tough for me. I leave the dining hall craving ice cream.
The second day is like the first, except our meals include watermelon and grapes, and I take the time to honor a friend of the family who has left us. I say her name to myself during the morning chanting. I light a large candle and paint a black roof tile with a goodbye message. I realize how glad I am to be at the temple right now, where there are so many small ways to honor her memory.
At the end of our visit to Beopjusa Temple, we feel healthy and relaxed. The world seems quieter and strangely comforting. We will eat ice cream.
(And if you are interested, South Korea has a wonderful network of temples where you can stay and even participate according to your objectives — check out https://eng.templestay.com/)