Thursday 6 May 2010. We drive up a winding road, through woodland on the side of a valley until we arrive in the car park of Daewonsa Temple, in the foothills of Jirisan mountain. We are met in the car park by a monk well known to our local guide. “She’s my favourite monk,” he tells us.
She. This is something I wasn’t expecting. Yes, it seems that Daewonsa is almost exclusively inhabited by female monks.
“Our” monk, who later introduces herself as Neunghae, is in charge of temple-stayers and other visitors. Shaven-headed like all the monks, she has a wonderful smile and radiates an incredible warmth.
We are more than an hour late, and the scheduled evening meal has finished. But whether it’s divine intervention, or the local mayor gently pulling strings, they have kept the refectory open for us.
I follow wherever I am led. And before we do anything else it seems the first thing we must do is pay our respects to Buddha. Not for the first time on this trip, and definitely not for the last, I wish I was wearing slip-on shoes. We enter one of the shrines, having of course taken off our shoes, grab a cushion each from the pile in the corner (two piles for guests, two piles for the monks), and lay them side by side in front of the Buddha statue. I’m not sure what comes next, so I watch my guide out of the corner of my eye. We are going to do some bows, but I’m not sure how many, or what type of bow. If you’re not used to it, keeping your balance as you kneel down, placing your forehead to the ground, turning your palms upwards, and then standing up again, is difficult enough. But when you try to do it while watching what your neighbour is doing, to see what comes next, it’s doubly difficult.
It was only three prostrations, and I managed to stumble twice. Not a good introduction to the life of peace at the temple. But it was a got me in training for what was to come.
Exiting the shrine, I grumbled as I tried to get my feet back into my shoes, and decided to give up, instead breaking their heels and using them henceforth as slippers. We are shown to our rooms and then directed to the refectory.
|Although the shadow of a tree sweeps the courtyard
It doesn’t stir a grain of dust
Although the moonlight scatters in the pond
It doesn’t move a drop of water
You, the one with stillness in your heart,
Your world is truly pure and still.
|No need for rigid order, since no-one is watching;
End your quarrels, since no-one is listening.
This is the place, where I let go of all things.
Mountains are silent
The moonlight is pure
The valley water is exhilarating.
|Poem in Daewonsa Temple|
Waiting for us at the table is the mayor’s wife, obviously a well-known figure at the temple. Although there’s generally a segregation of the sexes at mealtimes, I was allowed to sit with my interpreter, the mayor’s wife and the local guide, Mr Min. Yoseph and the driver bond on a separate table.
I like my meat, but I would be perfectly happy being a vegetarian if every day I was fed the type of food I was given at Daewonsa. Countless side-dishes of every conceivable herb and vegetable, in all kinds of dressings, are laid out, together with a doenjang jjigae and rice. My own favourite herb was represented: the pungent and fragrant sancho (산초, zanthoxylum schinifolium), both in leaf form and berry form. It is said that only Southerners can appreciate sancho. If so, I was a Southerner in a previous life. Morgan, who has never tasted sancho before, and who according to my friend Jin-gu was a monk in a previous life, almost spat it out. She’s obviously a Seoulite through and through.
After supper, our privileged group adjourned to a small room in a corner of the main courtyard, next to the main temple bell, for tea.