Temple Stay at Mihwangsa in Haenam, South Korea

Chuseok: Family Time and a Temple Stay at Mihwangsa, Haenam, Korea

Chuseok, the biggest holiday in Korea, is similar to American Thanksgiving. It is a time to get together with family for a cycle of binge eating and sleeping. To many expats, Chuseok is a perfect opportunity to take a quick trip to Taiwan, Japan, Jeju Island, or other exciting jaunts for a five-day weekend. Although tempting, I decided that I’d rather spend it the Korean way: with family. Indeed, it was full of laziness and eating. We did take a trip to a provincial park, Seonunsan, and did a little site seeing in the small town of Gochang, but nothing as exciting as hiking Hallasan. Even though I envied my friends biking around a Japanese island or getting lost in a Jeju human-sized maze, I enjoyed the family time. You can read about my more traditional Chuseok last year here.

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Adventuring in Seonunsan

Adventuring in Seonunsan

I got back to Gwangju after two days and hosted three couch surfers from America, Korea, and Canada. After a fuzzy night in downtown Gwangju and a pancake and omelet breakfast, two of them joined me in a temple stay in Mihwangsa Temple in Haenam.

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The bus from Gwangju to Haenam was just under two hours. Upon being dropped off in the small town, we learned that the next bus to the temple wasn’t until after the orientation had started. Ditching the 40,000 won cab ride, we stuck out our thumbs in hopes of being picked up. I have always wanted to hitchhike. With Kevin having had dozens of hitchhiking experiences and Ara speaking Korean, it was the perfect opportunity to try this method of travel. It took about twenty minutes of us standing on the side of a small road with big smiles and waves for someone to finally accept us. The kind 30-something year old man didn’t speak a lick of English, but I knew he was a laid back individual who enjoyed fishing. He went out of his way to drive us forty minutes into the country side, going through farms and narrow dirt roads to the temple. I enjoyed the hitchhiking experience and would definitely do it again.

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At Mihwangsa, we were greeted by Jajae, a lovely Korean woman who also speaks English and German. Luckily, she was in charge of foreigners so she was great in translating and ensuring that we had a comfortable and educational experience. She was truly a sweet and peaceful soul.

Like most temples, there is a legend behind 1,264 year-old Mihwangsa (미황사: beautiful yellow temple). Village people heard beautiful sounds hailing from the ocean. Drawn to the sounds, they moved closer to try to discover the origin, but the ship only moved away as they moved closer. When they gave up and turned back, the ship came closer to them. This cycle repeated for a week. Finally, the ship anchored at the port. On the ship were statues, paintings, disciples, and a golden box. Inside the golden box was a small cow that grew into a big one. That night, a disciple had a dream that told him to put the statues on the back of the cow. Wherever the cow decided to stop was where the temple of 10,000 Buddhas will be built. He followed that dream and the cow collapsed at where Mihwangsa was to be built.

Mihwangsa is a complex of several buildings, two of which are national treasures. The main building is used for major ceremonies, daily chants, and meditation. Tucked on top are a thousand Buddhas painted on the wall, making it only one out of three temples in the world to have this feature. The second treasure building is smaller and made out of pine trees. The sixteen best disciples who reached enlightenment through practice are the distinguishing features of this building.

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I’ve visited many temples and admired their beauty, but never know what I was looking at. I didn’t know much about Buddhism, but I was always curious to learn more. Thankfully, this temple stay taught me some basic principles, but I still have much to learn.

To me, Buddhism is a philosophy of life. One thing I like about Buddhism is that there are no authority figures. Rather, it is about understanding yourself. You have to seek the answers. Nobody will come and preach at you, but they will gladly answer any questions you have. Buddhists focus on becoming mindful through meditation, treating others with respect and kindness, and developing wisdom and understanding. Through intense lifelong meditation, one can reach enlightenment to understand himself and the universe. Attaining material goods shouldn’t be life goals; rather, happiness and positive relationships are priorities.

Our temple stay had a specific schedule. During temple orientation, Jajae taught Kevin and me some temple etiquette, how to bow properly, and some history of Mihwangsa. Remembering what she taught, I walked around the complex with my hands near my belly button to center my energy around me rather than dispersing it into the air with waving arms. We also had to bow every time we entered certain buildings and complete three ritualistic bows to the ground.

Dinner followed orientation. A monk signaled that it was time to eat via a wooden percussion. Starving from skipping lunch, I ravenously ate the absolutely delicious vegetarian food. Even though Buddhism doesn’t allow for onions and garlic, the food still had abundant flavor. I could easily live off of that food for the rest of my life.

We took a walk following dinner and witnessed the most magnificent sunset. There was a clear view of the distant Yellow Sea and the nearby islands of Jindo and Wando. Supposedly, Jeju Island is visible three times a year from Mihwangsa. I enjoyed some quiet time as the sky turned from various shades of oranges to dark.

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Following free time was evening chanting. A dozen people and three monks quietly gathered in the main building and sat on designated pillows. I just listened and tried to follow along with the English translations. The chanting was smooth and melodious, but it did sound slightly creepy at times.

After, we lined up and slowly walked around the yard three times behind the monks. The youngest monk led the temple stay people to the tea room. He vigilantly performed the tea-pouring ritual; he was so careful and precise, it truly looked like an art. In between pours, he asked each of the temple stay members questions about us for introductions (Jajae translated for the Korean-handicapped). The monk seemed to have a general interest in every individual. His demeanor was welcoming and calm. The green tea was delicious, but I wanted to limit my caffeine intake so I could sleep.

Kevin, Ara, and I borrowed a few books from the tea room and read outside of our abode along with the mosquitoes. I read a book about Korean temple motifs and an inspirational Q&A from a monk. Bedtime rolled around at 10:00. Ara and I shared a cozy room. With plenty of cushioning from the mats and blanket, the floor was a comfortable place.

At the tender time of 4:00am, we were woken up by a chanting monk banging on the wooden percussion, moktak. We scrambled to clean our room and headed to the main temple for the morning chant. To the untrained ears, the morning and evening chants were identical, but I believe they differed. A thirty-minute meditation session proceeded. We were taught to focus on our breath and slowly count to ten and then backwards to one, repeating the process for the entire session. It was difficult to entirely free my mind of distractions and other thoughts, but I tried to focus just on existing. Praises go to my friends who have completed the ten-day silent Vipassana retreat. I know that practicing meditation can lead to incredible benefits such as increased grey matter, better focus, reduced stress and anxiety, etc., etc., etc. I truly want to slow down and gain enough patience to meditation a little bit every day, but it’s probably more of a challenge than my current training for a half marathon. That being said, it was good for me to be forced to sit down and focus on breathing for thirty minutes. I needed it.

Breakfast at 6:30 was yet another delicious and simple meal loaded with vegetables in a soup. 7:30 was “working meditation” time, but in reality, we all stuffed envelopes for an hour. The temple is preparing for a big event by sending 8,000 invitations. The celebration is about a particular scroll painting, but I didn’t catch the details about it.

My favorite part of the day was the group hike to the top of a humble mountain behind the temple. The two-hour hike was peaceful and stunning. The trails were loaded with gigantic rocks to climb and ropes to pull yourself up along the way. It was all worth it as the view from a huge rock pile summit was gorgeous. We munched on chocolate, pears, and apples while glancing at the ocean and islands.

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Before departing, we had another fantastic meal and said our goodbyes. Jajae gave us some postcards and even drove us to the bus terminal.

Overall, the temple stay was a positive experience. While it wasn’t life-changing, I did leave with feelings of relaxation and happiness. Jajae was especially a refreshing person to encounter. I will always remember her gentle and kind demeanor.

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