When I visited the Destinations travel show in February, I picked up a booklet which told me about the Templestay programme. Many of the Buddhist temples provide an overnight stay with an introduction to some of their practices. I chose Beomeosa, outside Busan, so that I could catch a ferry to Japan afterwards.
On arrival, I changed into the uniform provided, which was not unlike my usual shirt and trousers apart from being in plain colours, a lilac top and offwhite bottom. We kept our own socks, however, and I wished I had chosen something more sober than yellow and navy stripes. Shoes had to be taken off when entering most of the buildings, i e many times.
Most people had kept their mobile phones. I had handed mine in with my other valuables, so the only photos I took were on my way down to the bus stop at the end.
The monk in charge of the programme did not speak English, so Pamela, who looked after the practical details, summarised for us. Unfortunately the gaps between summaries were rather long so it was hard to connect the content with his very expressive body language. He was strictly ascetic, and spoke with admiration of his spiritual guide who had not slept for 15 years.
I found sitting cross-legged on a thin cushion more difficult than I expected. I never was supple enough to sit in half-lotus position, and only managed to keep still for the 20-minute meditation by concentrating on my breathing and the sound of the stream.
There were 19 of us, 10 Koreans and 9 foreigners including 5 young men from Hawaii on a cultural exchange programme.
I am very glad I had shared Korean meals with Sunny and Brian before coming here. Both dinner and breakfast consisted of rice, soup and vegetables. Dinner was very formal, with four bowls which we had to clean with a slice of yellow radish at the end. Their prayer before meals was to eat the food as if it were medicine rather than taking any pleasure in it, and when we questioned this, we were told that monks usually ate in a hurry and indeed paid little attention to what they were eating. Breakfast was an informal buffet, including a piece of pumpkin pancake – deliciously sweet.
We slept on thin mattresses on the heated floor. Pamela gave me an extra mattress and said that westerners found it difficult, but I was extremely comfortable.
The highlight for me was a trek up the mountain on Sunday morning. I was given a Korean-American novice monk to answer my questions and help me over the difficult bits of the path. The views from the top were stunning, but looking down at the castle wall made me apprehensive about the descent.
After the trek, I changed back into my own clothes, and walked down to the road to catch the bus to Beomeosa and then the metro to Busan. The station was quite close to the ferry terminal, and I went straight there for a restful afternoon.