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Absolutely ama-Zen

Sites, practices of South Korea truly soul-stirring

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SOUTH JEOLLA PROVINCE, SOUTH KOREA -- The stars are out in full force early this morning, wrapping themselves around a perfect crescent moon, the mountain air is crisp but invigorating, and the silence hangs heavy.

It's comforting... but it doesn't last. The deep ring of the temple bell fractures the stillness.

Shadows slowly emerge from temporary living quarters, I join them, and we shuffle toward the only illuminated building at this tranquil compound on the southernmost tip of the Korean Peninsula. Before entering, we leave our shoes out on the weather-beaten, wooden steps. Once inside, we wait in single file to be handed a small, quilted mat and then take our places.

Mercifully, the bell-ringing ceases. A few minutes pass. Finally, two men with shaved heads and traditional sleeved grey robes enter the building and bow before a trio of large, golden statues of Buddha.

It's now 4:20 a.m. at the Mihwangsa Temple, and it's time to pray.

------

We had taken the nearly six-hour drive from the mega-city of Seoul to the Buddhist temple a day earlier, having spent three days seeing some of the attractions in and around the nation's capital as guests of the state-run Korea Tourism Organization (KTO), which is bolstering marketing efforts to reach its goal of attracting 10 million foreign tourists annually to South Korea.

I'm one of three Canadian travel writers on the six-day excursion, joined by journalists from the U.S., France, Austria and Russia.

Together, we'd toured the Samsung Group headquarters and witnessed some of its mind-blowing techno-wizardry, strolled the shops and galleries of several street markets, visited the mammoth outdoor set of one of Asia's favourite soap operas -- a kind of Young and the Restless with sword fighting, set during the Josean Dynasty (the 1400s)

We'd walked the 1,500,000-square-foot National Museum of Korea, the sixth-largest museum in the world, and savoured Korean barbecue, kimchi (spicy, fermented cabbage), sticky rice and other culinary gems.

And we marvelled at Seoul itself, a city with a population of about 10.3 million (double that if you include satellite cities) -- divided by the magnificent, nearly one-kilometre-wide Han River -- that melds centuries of history, tradition and culture with state-of-the-art infrastructure and architecture.

But an overnight stay at the 1,300-year-old Mihwangsa Temple -- billed as a cultural experience that recharges your batteries and eases your stress -- is the undisputed main event of our trip.

When Korea hosted the World Cup in 2002, the Korean government was looking for ways to accommodate thousands of overseas tourists visiting for the soccer matches. Hence, the Templestay program was born, and has grown rapidly since, giving visitors a chance to learn about traditional Korean culture and Buddhism first-hand, while experiencing the beauty of centuries-old mountain temples scattered across the country.

It's a shift by organizations like KTO toward mental-health tourism -- taking aim at foreigners suffering from depression and stress, a result of spending too many hours at work. And a skyrocketing number of temple visitors suggest it's a market worth continuing to target. In 2010, the number of participating temples in the Templestay program rose to 122 across South Korea, attracting 170,000 people for stays of one to eight nights. This year, that number is expected to climb to more than 700,000 visitors.

And I am one of the lucky ones.

------

I stayed awake and alert the entire bus ride from Seoul to Mihwangsa, determined to see as much of the countryside as I could. South Korea is dominated by mountainous terrain, making it a tough go for farming. But the valleys we pass through heading south are covered with rice fields, barley, corn and green tea. We also see smaller farms with sunflowers, ginseng and fruit trees, some crops literally growing a metre of the highway as producers use every bit of flat land they can.

Even in some of the smallest communities, newer apartment buildings tower over traditional Korean homes, or hanoks. Back in Seoul, we had wandered through Bukchon Hanok Village, a 600-year-old residential area with hundreds of old, wooden homes, with decorative outer walls, sweeping tiled roofs and subfloor heating systems. I now see many of these historic, rural homes are just as charming.

After arriving at Mihwangsa by mid-afternoon, I stand with a handful of other men near the beautifully carved and painted temple gate, already sequestered from our female travelling companions and waiting for our temple-wear to be distributed. We are at the foot of Mt. Dalma, the late-September weather is very warm and the sky is so blue it provides a perfect backdrop for the jagged, grey peaks of the mountain. In the opposite direction, we can just barely make out a village tucked deep in the valley some kilometres away, and the Yellow Sea, a shallow arm of the Pacific Ocean, just beyond.

We're greeted by temple volunteers, I'm sized up by a stone-faced worker and handed a plain, grey ensemble -- a pair of loose-fitting bottoms that slip on like sweatpants and are held up by an elastic waistband. I'm also given a matching vest, to be worn over my own T-shirt. I immediately check the tag on the collar, anxious to see at least one X before the L. Instead, there is a number.

"Excuse me... 105? These are 34s, and they're loose. I gotta live with 105?" I blurt out to the wee woman distributing our clothing, stealing a Bill Murray line from the movie Stripes as I point to my cargo shorts.

I'm met by a blank stare and wave of a hand, so I offer a soft but sincere "gamsa hamnida (thank you)" and move along -- deciding then and there to leave my lame attempts at humour at the gate. I would learn the hard way days later at a trendy men's wear store in Seoul that apparel sized at 105 is the equivalent of an extra-large garment in North America -- but more tapered. (I would abandon clothes-shopping immediately and hit up an adjacent Krispy Kreme doughnut shop, instead).

Once on the temple grounds, I'm immediately overwhelmed by the well-preserved structures of Mihwangsa Temple -- the intricate woodworking, the rainbow of colours, the stone bridges, steps and carvings -- truly a place of beauty and serenity. Built in 749, most of the buildings were burned down during the Japanese invasion of 1597 but rebuilt throughout the following decade, we later learn.

The advice had been to pack lightly for the temple stay, including a few toiletries and some fresh clothes to change into before leaving. After a quick stop at my three-metre-by-three-metre room, including a peek into the closet to find a sleeping bag-sized mat, rice-filled pillow and coarse blanket I'd later use to sleep with on the floor, we meet back in the courtyard for a slow walk up the hill to the temple graveyard. Then, it's on to the breathtaking meditation hall -- with its 1,000 Buddhas painted on the ceiling -- to learn the right way to bow, kneel and pray.

Finally, it is time for our first temple meal, and as we sit cross-legged on the floor, steamed rice, a tofu and mushroom soup, kimchi, carrots coated in red-pepper paste and tempura squash are served. There is no meat served at Mihwangsa... ever. But your palate is satisfied, both in terms of taste and portion size.

The meal is eaten slowly, in silence.

At night, we participate in an evening prayer service, with more bowing and kneeling. We listen intently to a deeply moving chorus of chanting from the South Korean guests with whom we share the hall this evening. Their commitment and devotion to the Buddhist faith is, indeed, inspiring.

Afterwards, we share tea with head monk Kum Gang, to "clear the brain and flush the toxins and poisons from our systems." Then, it is off to bed -- lights out at 10 p.m. by strict orders from management.

The floor is hard, so I fold my pillow in half to beef up the head support. Then I grab my shorts, roll them up and jam them beneath the pillow. It's at that point my gruff but loveable temple roommate, Ivan, starts to snore, and we're separated by about just a metre or so of floor space. Cold floor space, I now realize, as the heating hasn't kicked in, yet. As if my new Russian friend's nocturnal noises aren't enough, a cricket chimes in.

Inevitably, at some point I do fall asleep, but the wake-up call at 4 a.m. from a monk banging sticks outside our thin, sliding door comes quickly. Twenty minutes later, inside the grand worship hall, we are back into full bowing-and-kneeling mode. I try to follow along with text of the Korean chants, but It's difficult to concentrate as I stare at the radiant golden Buddha statues seated on the temple's altar. Candles flicker, and there are potted flowers in full bloom everywhere. Fortunately, we only kneel three times in succession before taking a few minutes' break.

There are others here, devout Buddhists participating in eight-day retreats where their silence is mandatory, who must perform 108 of these "prostrations." Some will do thousands by the long week's end. It's a way to "remove desires and worldly thoughts," we're later told.

The time approaches 5:30 a.m. when my worldly thoughts turn to breakfast. We had been well-fed for the first days of our South Korean excursion at the opulent Imperial Palace Hotel in the Gangnam district of Seoul and were getting used to bacon, sausages and succulent raw salmon. After moving to the building where we had dinner and tea the night before, I turn to our guide from KTO and ask about the morning meal. "First is meditation," Jinny replies. "Then yoga."

Sitting cross-legged on the floor for the next 30 minutes during Zen meditation is nearly too much to bear. Initially, a calmness sets in, but soon my legs are cramping badly and I can't quit squirming. Coming as welcome relief is the yoga session, clearly for beginners because I can actually do the stretching exercises. They're just what the doctor ordered, although I wonder if the head monk has ever heard joints creak like mine before.

Finally, breakfast is served -- rice porridge and fresh fruit -- and it's healthy and hearty. As we eat, we are counselled by Kum Gang, who encourages each of us to continue our meditation "to expand your mind... it is as wide as the universe is infinite. Open your heart and imagine it is as wide as the sea."

Motivational speak usually doesn't fly with me. But here, 11,000 kilometres from home, in a country boasting 5,000 years of history, inside an ancient place of worship, the softly spoken words of a gentle monk resonate like a temple bell at 4:20 a.m.

After washing up, we head straight for the mountain, trekking for nearly an hour to reach the pinnacle at about 500 metres, peering out at the ocean and then making our way back down. This is much more enjoyable than cross-legged, silent meditation, though my thighs would ache for days. But after the hike, I find myself standing in the temple courtyard looking up half a kilometre to the peak, and feel a great sense of satisfaction and joy. It is 9 a.m. and I had already climbed a mountain, prayed with Buddhists, practised Zen meditation and had a heart-to-heart chat with a monk.

Even the dim, it seems, can attain some level of enlightenment at a South Korean temple.

-- -- --

While Mihwangsa Temple requires the long drive from the heart of Seoul to the remote, southernmost tip of the country, there's a temple worth visiting found smack dab in the middle of the metropolitan madness. And getting there requires little more than carefully crossing the street from the Coex Mall, the largest underground shopping mall in all of Asia, where you can grab a cinnamon dolce latte at Starbucks or a Whopper at Burger King before heading to a place of simplicity and serenity.

For centuries, Bongeunsa was considered an isolated temple, well away from the bustling, ever-expanding city of Seoul. It sat in the middle of nowhere, at the foot of the Sudo Mountain. Even as late as the early 1970s, the area was covered by rice fields. Today, however, the temple is enveloped by the modern, hip Gangnam district.

During a recent Sunday-morning service, a conservative estimate put the crowd at about 850, all bowing before Buddha, chanting by memory and listening intently to the lecture from the head monk, a man of wit as much as wisdom judging by the giggles from worshippers. Lunch that day cost 1,000 won, roughly a loonie, and you received a teeming bowl of noodles, with kimchi and seaweed on the side.

Bongeunsa Temple is a worthwhile stop -- a mountain temple within the city limits -- if you're touring hectic Seoul and need an injection of soul.

jason.bell@freepress.mb.ca

IF YOU GO

How to get there:

Return airfare from Winnipeg to Seoul (with stops in Vancouver) is approximately $1,200, plus taxes and fees. Air Canada has one daily flight leaving Vancouver at 11:45 a.m, arriving in Seoul at 3 p.m. the next day. The flight takes approximately 11 hours. South Korea is 16 hours ahead of Vancouver and 14 hours ahead of Winnipeg.

Typical day at Mihwangsa Buddhist Temple, South Korea

4 a.m. wake-up bell

4:20-5 a.m. worship to Buddha, chanting and walking meditation

5-5:30 a.m. sitting meditation, yoga

6:30-7:10 a.m. breakfast

7:30-8:30 a.m. community work

8:30 a.m. free time

10-11:25 a.m. chanting and walking meditation

11:30-12:10 p.m. lunch

12:10 p.m. free time

5 p.m. instructions on basic temple etiquettes

6-6:40 p.m. dinner

7 p.m. evening chanting

7:30-8:30 p.m. tea and talk with head monk

10 p.m. sleep

Typical cost of Korean Templestay program:

-- 50,000 Korean won (about C$45) per night for a room with a public bathroom

-- 350,000 Korean won (about C$300) for an eight-day stay

For more information from the Korea Tourism Organization on the Templestay program, visit http://visitkorea.or.kr/enu/AC/AC_EN_4_4.jsp

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 15, 2011 D1

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