Published: May 6th 2012May 6th 2012
Entrance to Upo Wetlands
Fishers in this area use special kinds of boats
Warning: this is a long one! The last two weekends I took short trips away from Daegu. One Sunday, I went to the Upo Wetlands (우포늪), about a 45-minute bus ride (and then a taxi ride) from Daegu (Seobu Bus Terminal near Seongdangmot). I had had it on my list of ‘Things to Do/See in Korea’ for a long time, and finally had free time, some friends to go with, and good weather. I know a swamp doesn’t seem that exciting, but the Korea Tourism Board did a good job of making it look picturesque, while talking about the many wild bird species that are protected there.Since it was so close to Daegu, I thought it would be a nice escape to nature, before mosquito season really hit.
When we got there we realized we could rent bicycles or take an ‘ox-cart ride’, but decided just to walk around first. I think it would be really nice to rent bikes there, but you can’t notice the small things when you move so fast. Almost immediately when we got inside, an older Korean man, walking with a lady, and pushing his bike up the hill towards us, started saying something to
Strange Compound at Upo
Not sure if it was fungus or what
us in Korean. This happens occasionally, and I couldn’t understand it, but we kind of just nodded and kept walking. Then suddenly he said, “Salsa?” and “Babalu?”—it turns out he recognized me from salsa dancing—Babalu is the club where I dance. I actually didn’t recognize him, but we had a short conversation in which we somehow communicated that I was with my friends. He shook my hand happily, and we each continued on our way. Since it was a bit far from Daegu, our meeting was a little random, but it was nice.
The wetlands were a nice outdoor area, with a large area to walk around. We didn’t see nearly as many animals as I expected, but we saw some ducks, maybe 8 cranes/egrets, and a frog. I did enjoy the day, and it’s a nice place to go to get away from the city. The area kind of reminded me of Chesapeake Bay. Unfortunately we didn’t do a stellar job of reading the map, but still ended up near a road and bus stop. We had taken a name card from the taxi driver when he dropped us off, so then I (designated as having the ‘best’
Korean) was given the task of calling him and telling him our location to pick us up. (We could have taken a bus, but weren’t sure how often they came). After a slightly nervous 10-15 minutes of waiting, he rolled up, and took us back to the town where we could get our bus (Changnyeong). Of course I got ice cream while waiting for our bus, so that just made the day perfect.
The next weekend, my friend Beth and I decided to do a ‘Temple Stay’. This is a program the Korean government set up for foreigners to learn more about Korean Buddhism and temple culture. There are temples all over Korea, and I’ve been to probably 5-7. But, strangely, I didn’t really know much about Buddhism. I think only about 25% of Koreans now identify as Buddhist (with 25% Christian, and 50% nonreligious), but it’s still an important part of their history and culture. Beth and I also thought we could have a bit of a relaxing time away from school/home and contemplate our lives. We decided to go to Haein Temple (Haeinsa), one of the three most important temples in Korea, and about 90 minutes from
Daegu by bus.
On Saturday morning, Beth and I quickly read some things on the internet about Buddhism so that we had a bit of a basis for it. Then we hopped on the bus. We arrived around 3:30, and we were given temple clothes to change into. After putting my pants on backwards (then fixing them) and somehow figuring out how to keep them up, I was ready for the temple orientation. We joined about 12 other foreigners and two Korean women guides. They told us some rules of the temple area (I’m sure I’ve forgotten some):
-speak less—and speak quietly
-keep your mind clear by focusing on the present
-arrange your shoes neatly when you take them off. You must remove shoes when you enter the main temple room/most other indoor places at the temple. If you arrange your shoes neatly it shows that you were focusing on taking your shoes off instead of letting your mind wander. This ties in with the previous rule.
-when walking, hold one hand over the other on top of your stomach
-bow to monks, with palms together in front of your chest, to show you
are of the same mind as they are
They also told us a bit about Buddhism. Buddhism’s goal is personal enlightenment. The first fellow to reach Enlightenment was Siddhartha Gautama, and he then told others the way he did it. He is known as Buddha (the Enlightened One). There are statues of him in temples. Although it seems as though people pray to him as a god, he’s not actually considered a god. People come to thank him for his ideas and contemplate them.
The guides went over some of the main ideas and rituals in Buddhism. The idea that stuck with me was the goal to end suffering for all beings. The rituals we learned were how to bow to monks, how to bow/do prostrations in the temple, and how to sit to meditate. After doing about 5-6 prostrations, in which you go from standing , to your knees, to forehead on the ground, and back up; I realized that our planned 108 prostrations the next morning may be difficult, but I was more worried about the hour meditation.
We ate dinner in the dining hall, which had Western-style tables and chairs. The food was a
vegetarian buffet. There was the stipulation that you can’t waste food, so I was careful about how much food I took.
Later, we went to the evening drumming ceremony. I’m still not entirely sure about its purpose, but one monk plays alone, then another monk joins, overlaps for a bit, and the first monk leaves. It was pretty cool. Then we went to the main temple for the monks’ evening religious ceremony. Our guides were in the front row, and told us when to do which bows. The monks and Buddhist worshipers chanted while another monk beat an instrument. At the same time, everyone bowed. I’m not a religious person, and I couldn’t understand the meanings of the words, but the experience was beautiful. I could see the allure of the religion. However, I did feel a little strange bowing and pseudo-praying in a place that I didn’t belong and for a religion I wasn’t affiliated with. It’s like going to Catholic Church if you’re not Catholic—you can kind of follow the rituals, but feel like an outsider (which you are).
The last activity of the day was tea time with a monk. Usually around 500 monks live
at Haein Temple, but when we went, almost all of the monks were on ‘vacation’. Luckily, there was a monk there who came to answer any questions we had through a translator. Here’s what I can remember of what he said:
-monks have kind of specialized jobs that they volunteer to do, especially as far as community work
-Korean Buddhism (or at least at Haeinsa) is ‘Zen’ (or in Korean ‘Seon’) Buddhism. This differentiates Eastern Buddhism (China, Japan, Korea) from South-eastern Buddhism (Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand etc.). Korean monks do a lot of chanting. Also, according to him, Korean monks meditate 12-16 hours per day.
-during the talk, someone’s cellphone started ringing a pop song. We were a bit embarrassed, but then he answered his phone—as surprising as it is, monks have smart phones, and even text while walking around.
-to become a monk, you must study for 4 years, and then take a test on the scriptures.
We went to bed around 9. It seems early, but we were sleepy and had to wake up at 3. Yes: 3 AM. Monks wake up at 2:50 every morning. I woke up then too, because a huge,
low-toned, mechanical-sounding bell started beeping. There was a morning drum ceremony at 3:17, so we reluctantly got up. Despite my hope that it would be starting to get light out—it was pitch-black except for the spotlights at the drumming place. After the drum ceremony, we went to the morning temple ceremony.
Then came the real test. We walked back to the training center for our prostrations. Buddhists usually bow in sets of 3 or 108. I’m not sure about the significance of the numbers. For our 108 prostrations, there was a recording in English. After each sentence we would do a prostration. Some sentences were repentance, for example, for using hurtful words or actions or seeing divisions between people. Other sentences were reminders to be mindful, like, “I am thankful for all the people who love and take care of me.” (More examples here: http://jonnyontheroad.blogspot.com/2010/09/108-bows-108-korean-buddhism.html
) Although I didn’t necessarily like the idea of repentance, I agreed with almost all of the ideas behind the sentences—we are all interconnected, etc. After the prostrations, we had some tea and water, which were definitely needed.
Then we sat back down for the meditation. The monk came to monitor us. I don’t
know if you’ve ever tried to sit perfectly still on the ground for more than a minute without scratching something, stretching, dozing off, or swallowing loudly, but it is really difficult. In order to sit properly for a Buddhist meditation, I started in a half-lotus position. Then I put my hands together so that my thumbs touched and my fingers were layered on top of each other. I held my hands over my stomach. I sat up with perfect posture. Here’s where it gets difficult. I ‘half-closed’ my eyes and lowered my chin a bit. What this turns into is a kind of squinting. Then I was only supposed to breathe through my nose, and put my tongue up so it was touching the back of my top teeth. We hadn’t really been sitting for long before my foot and leg started to go to sleep and get pins and needles. I, as smoothly as possible, switched legs, but the other one quickly fell asleep too. After sitting for what seemed like 2 days, we got up and the monk led a ‘walking meditation’ around the room. I glanced at the clock and found it had been barely 15 minutes.
Not sure what the crops are
It was soooo difficult. We then sat down for another one, but it wasn’t as long or as difficult.
After this, breakfast time! At 6 am! After we’d been awake for 3 hours! It was good we hadn’t eaten before all the bowing and meditation, but still some people’s stomachs made sounds during the bows, which was a little awkward. Anyway, I was ready for some food. After that, we had a short break and we went back to our rooms to lie down for a while.
Last, we had a temple tour, which I assumed was just to see the historical woodblocks nearby. But . . . no—it was walking up the mountain to a hermitage (which is kind of cluster of buildings where monks live, that’s part of the temple but not immediately near it). We started in a line, and I was towards the front. It was pretty tiring, especially after little sleep, and all the bowing and meditating. When we finally got to the top (with no breaks), I turned around and realized we’d lost the last 8 people. They came eventually. The hermitage had a kind of worship-room with a statue of a
famous monk who lived there. He had reached enlightenment, and many followers requested to talk to him. However, he required each person to do 3000 bows before he would talk to them. The guides said many people did this! To be honest it was a pretty big workout just to get up the mountain to that place, and I can’t imagine doing 3000 bows in a row. However, the hermitage was in a really nice setting.
Finally we got back down the mountain, and finished our tour, then our Temple Stay was over. Originally we had planned to hike down along the river in Gayasan National Park (which I’d done last fall), but we were exhausted, so we ate a kimchi pancake and drank some makkeoli (at 10am), and then took a bus back to Daegu. The Temple Stay was definitely interesting, but more intense than I’d expected. I would recommend anyone living in Korea to do one, because it’s an easy way to learn a lot. Also, how many opportunities do you have to talk to monks in your daily life?
Extra notes: Sorry for the lack of pictures of the Temple Stay. Most of the time,
I felt rude taking pictures of monks and temple life. Also, if there’s anything you have a question about, message or leave a comment. I couldn’t explain everything.
There are more photos below