Aug. 21 2014

Hwaeomsa Temple: Spirituality, Chanting at 3am, Wild Tea Gardens and my Near-Appearance in National Geographic

Hwaeomsa Temple – One of the jewels of Korean Buddhism. Literally, it’s name means, “Flower Garland Temple”. It is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful temples in all of Korea.

It’s located on Mt. Jiri (or Jiri-san – Korea’s first designated national park!) in Gurye County in Jeollanam-do province. Fortunately, that is also reasonably close to where we were staying at Danielle and Gordo’s place in Suncheon. First we took a bus from Suncheon to the city of Gurye (where we hung out in the bus station) for around 9,000₩, and them from there (because we were running a bit late) we took a taxi to the temple base for 9,000₩. There’s also a shuttle that runs every 30 minutes or so  that would’ve cost us more like 4,000₩.

We arranged a temple stay at Hwaeomsa, and were looking forward to the authentic experience of getting up to chant with the monks at 3am and eat breakfast at 5am; to do some community work, and breathe deeply the refreshing air of the mountains. Ahhhhh.

I have to say that at first I felt myself buck a bit at staying the night.  This is because it was still only March, and I had done a temple stay once in Japan around this time of year and sleeping on the cold temple floor had been a test of fortitude in itself. I was pleasantly surprised to find out (as I should have known) that the Koreans have done this supremely right – they are the masters of in-floor heating. And so, the humble room that we shared with two Korean girls felt like an exotic palace. I sprawled on that heated floor on my thin and threadbare monk mat, and got what was probably one of the best sleeps of my life. This despite the fact that we were awoken at 3am to proceed to the dharma drum.

Most Korean temples have a dharma drum. It typically hangs in a two storey pagoda that makes it easier for people to watch. Here’s a great shot of it, taken by Simon Bond, an amazing photographer whom we met at Hwaeomsa Temple, while he was there shooting for this July’s edition of National Geographic Traveller India (he’s also a local from Suncheon, as fate would have it). This would be the edition of Nat Geo that I ‘almost’ made it into. Below the cover (shot by Simon), you’ll see a photo of one of the spreads inside the feature. In the upper right hand corner, you’ll be able to see a white ginger-beard guy sitting in a tea ceremony. That’s Gordo! To his left was Simon, and then to his left was myself. So I’m about a foot and a half away from being published in National Geographic. That’s as close as I’ve come to that life goal (so far).

This is the dharma drum at Hwaeomsa Temple!

In the upper right corner! Just missed my chance.

Getting up so early in the twilight really made the whole temple grounds seem surreal. There was no one awake except for us, and the temple grounds seemed vast. It would have been a great time to shoot a kung fu movie.

I didn’t bring my mobile phone or camera with me to take pictures because I didn’t want to disturb the atmosphere. I was proved a fool about fifteen minutes later when some other temple-stayers started taking out their cameras to take snaps of the monks as they drummed away. sigh. Nothing is sacred anymore. Some people were even using flash. Flash! At 3am! With monks! Come on!

To be honest though, anyone who comes to a modern buddhist temple expecting to go back in time 300 years will be in for a sore surprise when they see monks playing around on their Samsung smartphones and logging into Facebook while driving their cars around the monastery and checking the time on their (surprisingly fashionable) watches. This wasn’t true for every monk we met, but during a tea ceremony we had earlier that night, as we talked with the monk presiding over the ceremony, and our new friend Simon who’d spent a lot of time around the hermitages, we learned that this was more common than not in the modern age of monkery.

Something the monks did have going for them was their fleecy hats (as you can see the fellow in the photo wearing). It is COLD at 3am in the mountains. I had a superlight polar shell on under my monk robes, as well as my old orange hat (thank god I finally gave in an threw it away later on the trip – it was getting really ragged) and was still freezing in my extremities. The dharma drum seems to be sort of a “call to mass”, as during the drumming, more monks kept emerging from their dormitories and heading up to the main temple where we would go to to chant, and had chanted earlier that evening before the tea ceremony and bed.

Chanting is hard work.

Specifically, the sitting. In Japanese they call it ‘seiza’ 正座 (literally, “proper sitting”). I don’t know what they call it in Korean, or if they call it anything, but it makes your legs go to sleep like crazy. And just when you think you’re starting to adjust to it, the monks finish a line of prayer and you have to stand up and do a bunch of deep bows (but not quite enough to get the circulation back in your legs) before sitting down and squishing your legs again. I feel like the sound of my knees cracking as we rose the 20th time may have temporarily drowned out the sound of about 40 monks. Rob’s technique involved try to roll back on his legs, and then use that momentum to spring up at the required moment (Rob: “That was some Bruce Lee shit!”)

After morning chants, we had the option of going with a couple monks to make a chain of Buddhist prayer beads, which I was mildly tempted to do, until I heard that you had to do one knee-cracking bow for each bead you put on the chain. No thanks, back to bed for a couple hours.

We woke again around 5:30am for breakfast. Monk breakfast here is largely fermented veggies and rice porridge. I found it surprisingly tasty though. Koreans know how to use spices and seasoning. That was something I would put in my body again.

After breakfast, we all gathered together some rakes and other tools for some weeding and sweeping around the temple grounds. This is a common thing in Japan too – whenever you stay or visit somewhere, you take some time to do some cleaning work for your hosts. Either that, or every place I’ve visited like this in Japan and Korea has developed a really humble and clever way of getting foreigners to pay their dues. Just kidding – it’s not just foreigners who do the work. Everybody pitches in.  It’s always a fun time and you meet some people while doing a little bit of exercise. I always get a kick out of it because you’d never see North Americans paying to do yardwork back home. The temple stay was 40,000 per person for one day/night (all food included).

One thing the monks really stress is to finish everything on your plate, and not leave anything behind to be wasted. So at supper the night before, I was a bit leery, as I have a tendency for my eyes to be bigger than my belly. Luckily, I played it cautious and had a personal moment of “Victory!” as I finished my plate (very quietly, so as not to disturb monk meal time). As I finished, I looked up and met Danielle’s eyes. She gave me a panicked look – she had taken too much food. Oh no! What to do? We weren’t supposed to talk – each of us had an adorable laminated monk placemat with the values of buddhism, and a ‘suggestion’ that no one should say anything during mealtime. The four of us foreigners exchange a flurry of eye signals and eyebrow wiggles, Rob and I expressing to Danielle that we could not take her plate, as we were both full already. A few more expressions between her and Gordo, and the extra food in question was bravely (as he was already stuffed) and subtlely dispatched by him after a swift exchange of bowls and a sideways glance.

Being a monk is hard.

We met a great array of people during our temple stay. Rob and Gordo’s roommate, “Linus,” and a bunch of other families and young people who had come for the experience.

Rob and Gordo meet their roommate at the temple.

Rob and Gordo meet their roommate at the temple.

After we had done our part to clean up the yard with weeding and sweeping, we broke from our monkery and exchanged our robes for normal clothes, as Simon had offered to take us deeper (and upper) into the mountain to see the Manjusri of Yeongiam Hermitage. It’s a statue of the Bodhisattva of Great Wisdom that measures 13m high.

The next mysterious turn of our journey would take us to another hermitage with a wild tea field. Simon knew there was this English-speaking monk up there. This is where we met Sven. The Man, the monk, the legend.

Sven is a dermatologist -turned-hermit monk from Hamburg, Germany who was born in the same suburb that I lived in when I lived in Germany (Bramfeld! Just how small is this world?) Sven’s day job now that he’s quit dermatology to become a monk is to look after the tea plants at this hermitage (Rob: “He was a sassy monk.”). Sven explained to us that to prepare the leaves for tea, they knead them and turn them over while drying them for seven hours straight. I asked him if you could buy the tea, but it turns out that a lot of the temples around there don’t sell their tea – just use it in ceremonies or trade it as gifts with other temples (like some secret, tea-based economy).

Sven: Master of the cheeky grin.

Sven offered to take us up to see another shrine that had been decorated for a festival the night before, and this is where our story takes a turn for the vague/weird. After showing us the nice little pavilion they had set up, he suddenly took off into the forest saying something about a vanished silver plate. Okay? Sure, my monk friend. So we took off into the bamboo after him. Literally chasing him down the mountainside, bamboo thwacking us in the face, tripping over our own shoes, trying not to loose sight of this character.

Somewhere between there and halfway down the mountain, we learned that the plate he was so ardently searching for had been dropped by another monk at the celebration the night before, and had rolled down the mountain. Ah, okay, so this is what we were looking for.

Simon bushwhacking through the bamboo forest with camera gear in tow.

Despite the five of us beating around in the bamboo bush while making our way down the mountain (through absolutely nothing that resembled a trail), we saw no glint nor hint of this silver plate. Spontaneously, once we had gone further down the mountain than would be worth it to venture up again, Sven seemed to lose interest in finding the plate, “Ah well, one of the monks probably got it last night.” But hey! We had come to a mountain stream and Sven took us out onto the boulders in the middle of it, to drink and splash around in the cold pools. The water here was incredible. It looked liked liquid crystal.

After some splashing and chatting, we realized that we were only maybe a twenty minute walk from the temple entrance. We had emerged from the forest side of the river, but across the stream saw a path that we had traversed the other day.

Then, as quickly as he’d come, Sven jumped across to the other side of the river, bid us goodbye with his cheeky grin, bowed and disappeared back up into the mountains.

He just bowed and disappeared into the forest, because of course he did. Was he even real? Can’t be sure.

I’m still not entirely sure he was human, and not some German-Korean cultural mishmash of a trickster character. Anyway, we were gladder for having met him.

We headed back down the mountain and I enjoyed exchanging some Doctor Who trivia and opinions with Simon (a Brit! And a Doctor Who fan as well!).

The trip to Hwaeomas was an amazing time. Heading back to the main gates we were feeling pleased, tired and healthy. The best.

We then caught a taxi from the base of the temple and headed back into Gurye on our way home.

Sleepyface. We were all content but tired from our days of mountain climbing and monkish lifestyle.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will tell you that the Gurye bus station on the way home was the scene of one of my most embarrassing traveller moments to date.

Nay, it was not a traveller moment. It was a tourist moment.

I left my cell phone in the back of the taxi cab we took down from the temple.

I have never done this before.

This really threw me (I blame the large pockets in my polar shell, which is had fallen out of, and the fact that we squeezed four people into a taxi cab, so we were sitting pretty awkwardly, which likely caused it to fall out. But really, I blame myself. Always check yo’self when leaving a taxi!).

Luckily, I have really cool, smart, resourceful friends. With a combination of Gordo’s mishmash Korean language skills and the kindness of a waiting taxi driver, we managed to determine which cab company the taxi we had taken belonged to.

The taxi driver at the terminal then put out an APB on my cellphone via the Korean taxi radio lines.

There were some long, skeptical minutes of waiting, but then we heard back! The driver who had taken us was on the other side of town and would bring my phone back (as long as we paid for his return trip… thanks buddy).

But still, huzzah! I was so relieved. I turned into a mushy hothead for a bit when I realized my phone was gone, because normally I’m so good with having my shit together when I travel (Rob: “Your shit’s never together”).

But I guess that just goes to show you never know what little crisis you may need to deal with while travelling – and it’s always best to keep a calm head no matter what the situation.

This has been a pretty big post, and is venturing closer to the tl;dr ledge. In fact, it may already be over. Thanks for sticking around and reading!


Hi Mel, nice to read about your experience at Hwaeomsa! You’re right Sven is surely a tree elf! As for Doctor Who this weekend… life… returns!!!

I’m so excited for the Doctor! And thanks!

Oh and I should also say, I’m loving the photos you used here!

Hi, I log on to your new stuff like every week. Your story-telling style
is witty, keep doing what you’re doing!

%d bloggers like this: