A Meditation Retreat in South Korea

A monk at the Lotus Lantern International Meditation Center: Photo – Robin Esrock

Be it ashrams, retreats or a kibbutz, changing your lifestyle for even a weekend can be as refreshing as sipping cocktails on the beach.  A break in routine, for spiritual realignment or escape, provides a welcome sort of mental holiday.   Such is the case with a temple stay in South Korea, established by the country’s largest Buddhist order.  Leaving behind traffic, cellphones and laptops, I drove a couple of hours outside of Seoul to the Lotus Lantern International Meditation Center, to see if I could find myself.   

The center offers Zen Buddhist teaching and meditation in a beautiful temple surrounded by forest and farms.   It was originally set up for foreigners to discover Buddhism, offering basic but well maintained facilities, including garden pagodas, and a koi pond.   I am given a training uniform of grey pants, T-shirt and waistcoat to be worn at all times.   The overall atmosphere is one of tranquillity, as if the mere act of raising my voice would violate some unspoken rule.  Inside the temple, overlooked by a golden statue of Buddha, a shaved headed Russian monk named Aleksander introduces me to the basic concepts of Buddhism, explaining that enlightenment is the ultimate goal of meditation.  He stresses repeatedly that if I feel physically uncomfortable during any of the practices, I should just relax, and if I have any questions, I should just ask. 

Visitors can choose to stay for the weekend program, an intense week of meditation, or for a longer period of rest.  The  daily schedule involves chanting, meditation, garden work, walks, calligraphy, and several other options for those who need to keep themselves busy.    All meals are vegetarian, eaten in silence, although one of the monk’s cellphone did ring during dinner, leading to a chorus of muffled giggles.  Considering monks eat to sustain themselves on their path to enlightenment, and not for pleasure, the food wasn’t too bad.   I’m told that I must finish everything on my plate, avoiding waste, consuming consciously.   After washing up, I head to the meditation hall for my first lesson.     The trick is to empty your mind, focus on a mantra, becoming aware of how thoughts flow in and out your head.   Aleksander tells the group to count to ten repeatedly, aware of any errant thoughts that enter our minds.   Large mosquitoes cloud about, raining bites on my bare arms.  I ask if mosquitoes constitute a sentient life form, a sly-handed way of inquiring whether it’s OK to squash the buggers in a Buddhist temple.   “Monks do not kill mosquitoes,” says Alexander, waving a couple away from his face.   This could well be the single biggest obstruction to me ever becoming one.

Like learning to play piano, meditating takes time and practice. After a few minutes, I give up and spend the next half hour enjoying the silence, the space to breathe.  A moktak, a traditional wooden instrument, resonates that the session has ended, and we have some free time before lights out at 9:30pm.  Thin mattresses and blankets are provided, and mosquito netting mercifully keeps out the bugs while letting in a cool forest breeze.   I wake at 3:30am to the sound of the moktak, signalling it is time for chanting in the temple. In the glow of candlelight, the monks have gathered to begin chanting.  I try and follow with the helpful English guide provided, but prefer to stare at the slightly closed eyes of the golden Buddha, the smiles on the deity statues that surround him, the bright colours painted on the dragons overhead.  Prostrating oneself is a form of meditation and a sign of devotion, and Korean Zen Buddhism has 108 prostrations, each to a different chant.  Bending down onto your knees, head to the mat, hands turned upwards, stand and repeat – it becomes a strenuous, dizzying physical challenge to keep up with the monks.  I notice that sweat is starting to stain the mat where my forehead touches, but together with the rhythmic sound of the moktak and the chanting, the overall effect is almost hypnotic.  As with everything else, Aleksander tells us that monks become used to this form of prayer and meditation.

Each session it becomes a little easier to focus on my breathing, to see the numbers click over in my imagination.   The outside world floats away, save for the clear calls of birds, the buzz of insects.  Garden work, cleaning, or simply strolling into the surrounding forest, is also viewed as a form of meditation, mostly done in silent mindfulness.  You can even put on a  personal Do Not Disturb sign, in the form of wearable “Quiet Time” tag that asks everyone to respect your vow of silence.   Concluding my overnight stay, I exchange my training uniform for my street clothes, bow my head in thanks to the monks and volunteers.  Rested, as if I’ve been freshly woken from a long deep sleep.