At 3:30 a.m. in a temple in South Korea the sound of the moktak - a wooden percussion instrument that Buddhist monks play every morning to start the temple's day - jolted me awake.I pulled myself up from my floor mat, straightened my itchy gray uniform and stumbled through the pre-dawn darkness to the temple, where pink lotus lanterns illuminated a small group of people waiting to begin their morning prostrations.I was at the Lotus Lantern International Meditation Center on an overnight trip run by an organization called Templestay Korea. Created by the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, the largest Buddhist order in Korea, theprogram aims to allow visitors to "sample ordained lifestyle and experience the mental training and cultural experience of Korea's ancient Buddhist tradition," according to its Web site.
began in 2002 on the occasion of the World Cup soccer tournament held
in Korea and Japan, and has grown swiftly over the last four years from
14 temples to 50, with 52,549 participants in 2005.
The meditation center on
Ganghwa Island, about two hours from Seoul by public transportation,
certainly seems like the sort of place that could inspire calm.
grounds are nestled between rice paddies and a leafy forest, and the
center's brightly painted temple sits several stone steps up from a
gentle brook and a small pond stocked with lotus flowers and koi. Monks
wander silently, occasionally gathering at an outdoor wooden tableand
offering tea and small snacks to guests.
But be forewarned. The
point is to live like a monk. And monks keep strict schedules, are
vegetarian and spend a lot of time meditating in positions that can
become quickly uncomfortable for those unused to them.
I got my first hint of this
austere lifestyle when I arrived and was greeted by Cho Hyemun-aery,
who introduced herself in fluent English. In the guesthouse, she showed
me the communal bathroom and the small room my friend and I would stay
in, which was unfurnished except for sleeping pads, blankets and small
pillows. Then, Cho handed us our clothes for the weekend: two identical
extra-large sets of baggy gray pants and vests, along with sun hats and
blue plastic slippers.
On this particular temple
stay, the first activity was community work time. We followed Cho to
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