Thursday 6 May 2010. A monk sits in the corner of the room, brewing yellow tea, while we sit on the floor around the main table. Perfectly ripe fruits are laid out in front of us, including some of Sancheong’s famous strawberries.
The conversation rumbles on, I’m not sure about what, because it was all in Korean and my interpreter rightly didn’t feel the need to give me a running commentary. Maybe it turned towards acupuncture. For whatever reason, the lady mayor reaches into her bag and gets out her acupuncture needles.
First, Neunghae Sunim bows her head towards Mrs Mayor, to accept the needle in the middle of her bald pate. She makes all sorts of agonised grimaces to express the pain as the sharp steel went in. But she was just kidding. It’s soon clear that we are all to be treated in this way. Apparently a needle in the centre of the skull takes away your tiredness. To be honest, I didn’t feel a thing when the needle went in (and neither did I feel appreciably less tired), but maybe this was a long-term thing. We were told to leave the needles in until we went to bed for the night. Morgan had extra special treatment. As well as a needle in the top of her head, she also had a needle in the middle of her forehead.
It’s 6:45pm, and the temple bell is ringing to signal the end of the day, and banish down the valley any worldly cares and thoughts.
The rich, round sound resonates around the courtyard, and with each peal a different set of harmonics make themselves heard. Ultimately, as the echo decays, the shifting soundscape settles on a melancholy minor third.
Somehow the tone is unlike any sound produced by a western church bell. Maybe it’s the fact that the bell is suspended in the open air, not in an enclosed belfry. Or that it’s hit with a wooden hammer rather than a metal clapper.
I just want to listen in silence to the sound of the bell. But the conversation around the table rattles on regardless. I wonder if it would be impolite to get up and go outside for a bit of peace and reflection. But my good manners get the better of me and I continue to try to pay attention, drinking my tea and picking at the melon, while wishing I was outside.
It’s now time to work out my schedule for the next fifteen hours. Just one night is obviously not enough to be introduced to what Buddhism is all about. And with nothing to go on, Neunghae Sunim asks me what I would like to do, and what I wanted to get out of my visit.
That’s a tricky question, because I’m not really sure what temple stays are all about, and to be perfectly honest if I’d been in charge of booking the schedule myself I wouldn’t have booked myself a temple stay. Three o’clock in the morning is not my time of day, and everything I’d heard about temple stays involved getting up at that hour to do some prayers and meditation. How you’re supposed to meditate when you’re more than half asleep I wasn’t sure. But I couldn’t really say that I was only here at the temple because it was on my schedule, so I improvised something non-committal about wanting to find out more about the Buddhist way of life (and that if it involved eating sancho every day they might have a recruit).
Neunghae Sunim read me out the options. I was invited to choose as many or as few as I wanted.
This was really embarrassing. Was I expected to go for the full works? Or could I really just go to bed, have breakfast, have a stroll round the area and then leave for the next attraction? Better wait to hear what the options were. They were as follows:
- Join the monks for their regular 7:00pm and 3:30am prayers, followed by early morning meditation. It was now 6:55pm, so I’d kind of missed this already, but Neunghae said that was no problem. But 3:30am is definitely not my time of day. And despite my wanting to take advantage of opportunities that presented themselves to me, I considered what other opportunities would be presenting themselves later on during the following day, and how much better I would appreciate them with an extra few hours sleep. So thumbs down to this option.
- The 108 bows. I’d heard about this one. People had said what was in store, and how crippling it was. But I thought to myself: how hard can it be? 8pm-8:30pm sounded like a doddle, so that option was on. Besides which, I was told that I could do the 108 bows in a separate chapel so that no-one would see me making a fool of myself and laugh. Even better.
- The 9pm bell. This involved sitting in the courtyard listening to the bell. Now that sounded easy. And just right up my street. I was told I also had to meditate, to look in on myself. But they couldn’t really check, could they? Tick, another one for the list. If I could listen to that bell again in perfect peace, that now was really all I wanted from my visit. Forget about anything else.
- Some sutra-painting. This would enable me to … well, I can’t really remember what, but it sounded different, and there was some spare time in between breakfast and when we had to leave, so there was nothing to lose.
I even had a choice of breakfast times. Now this was REAL luxury. “What time do you normally get up at home?” I was asked. I could sense that there was the invisible hand of Mrs Mayor involved in this incredible flexibility. Breakfast time at the temple is 6am, and I was quite prepared to fit in with this in the interests of experiencing things to the full. They tried to push me towards an 8am breakfast, and we ended up compromising on 7am.
It’s 7pm and the prayers are starting. The magical sound of the moktak (목탁), the little prayer-drum, floats over the courtyard from the nearest shrine.
Another monk joins in. Before long it sounds as if a prayerful company of woodpeckers have taken over the temple, as the sounds seem to come from all directions.
Soon, an infinitely thin strain of chant, like a wisp of smoke rising from an extinguished candle, reaches the ears. Then another strain.
But the conversation over the tea table carries on, swamping the sounds from outside. I can bear it no longer. I make my excuses and walk out into the courtyard to immerse myself in these new sounds.
I take my seat on the stone steps outside the main shrine. The evening is still warm. There’s a gentle breeze which rustles the leaves of the trees, but even louder is the white noise rising from the rapids in the valley below, which almost drowns out the sound of anything else.
A monk tries to usher me into the chapel, but I resist and stay where I am, just listening, with my eyes closed, though I do get out my iPhone and try to record what I am hearing.
I sit facing down the valley, where the sound of the river is coming from. Behind me is the main shrine, where most of the monks seem to be praying. But over to the right, on the far side of the courtyard, there’s another shrine from which more chant and more toc-toc-toc sounds are emanating.
Messiaen could not have conjured up a more magical aural experience. When you try to notate sounds on a sheet of paper lined with musical staves, no matter how much you instruct the musicians to improvise or act spontaneously, there is an element of predictability in the outcome. But I now know towards what effect such music is unattainably striving.
Behind me and to the right, the moktaks were being struck whenever a monk had a prayer come into her head. Another monk felt moved to express her prayer in chant. This was not the rich, sonorous baritone chant of a Benedictine monastery, but a timid, wasted sound, but nevertheless quietly insistent, in a waveringly thin contralto. The wisps of chant wrapped themselves around the sharp hollow taps of the moktaks. In the trees, an occasional songbird twittered, almost inaudible against the roaring torrent in the valley below. The tiny bells hanging under the eaves of the shrines occasionally tinkled in the wind. And then a new bird joined the symphony, D-C-C-A, repeated once, carefully phrased, and then silence for a few minutes, while she listened to the prayers, before returning to reprise her simple solo.