I noticed this post had a lot of text so I decided to add in pictures of the temple area to break up the text sometimes.
For our last GIST-organized trip, they planned for us to stay at a Buddhist temple. I was a little nervous because I’m a Christian, but it turned out to be pretty fun and very interesting.
On this trip, Mr. Hong and Ms. Kim (another administrator) drove Kelly, Sylvia, Wong, Seungbo, (two GIST students) and I to Baekyangsa Temple. We stopped for lunch on the way where we were given many many side dishes.
Here are some close-ups of some of the more unusual food we have eaten. The fish here is often served fried whole with bones and skin and all. I almost always pick around the bones, but the Koreans will usually just eat the bones if they are small enough.
We also often have tentacles and baby octopi, but usually not by themselves.
The temple was very beautiful, especially the mountain rising above it.
When we arrived we were directed to a big mostly empty building, where we received our uniforms.
Then he taught us how to bow. There is a simple bow that involves just placing your hands together and bowing your head and shoulders slightly. This is used for greeting monks and the initial bow to a Buddha statue. He said that he went to visit some temples in India earlier and they were cold to him since he was a foreigner. However, since they used the same greeting bow, they were able to become friendly.
The next bow we learned was more complicated. We started by placing our palms together in front of our chest. Then, keeping our palms together, we kneeled on the ground. Next, place your left hand on your chest and place the right hand on the floor and lower yourself into child’s pose. Now return to kneeling and place your palms together. Curl your toes so that they are on the on the ground and, keeping your palms together and your feet in place, maneuver into a squat and stand. This was difficult for me to do without losing my balance and stumbling.
He also taught us more general temple manners. For example, only monks can enter through the front doors of the temple. Everyone else must enter from the side. When you enter from the side, you must lead with your left foot and exit my leading with your right foot so that you never turn your back on the Buddha statue (It is on the right while entering and on the left while leaving). We also learned that during ceremonies, the timing and types of bows are indicated by different taps on a wood block.
Next, Monk Suan took us on a tour of the temple and the outlying temples built on the mountain nearby. It was raining so we all wore ponchos, but it was still hot. Here are some of the things I saw and learned about.
The Four Guardians’ Gate is a type of gate located at nearly all Buddhist temples. I remember seeing one at a temple I visited in Beijing, China, too. I will just quote the temple guide they gave us; I think it gives a good explanation. “At the Four Guardians’ Gate, the four celestial kings, in the world nearest to the Buddha, stand ready for war to protect the Buddha’s Dharma. Due to its importance as the guard post of the celestial kings, the Four Guardians’ Gate…is hardly ever missing from a temple.”
The drum tower was also really cool. It was located next to a tree that was decorated with a lot of colored lanterns. I don’t know what the lanterns were for.
Anyway, back to the drum tower… It was two stories. The top story contained a huge drum made from a cowhide. Hitting this drum symbolizes all four-footed creatures. I wondered though, since the monks are vegetarian, why did they use part of an animal for their drum? Did it die of old age?
Hanging on one side of the drum was a metal fish that represents all of the creatures in the sea while an image of a cloud hanging on the other side of the drum represented the creatures of the sky. On the bottom floor there was a giant bell. They ring it by hitting it with a big log a certain number of times twice a day to call the monks to ceremonies. The bell represents the people of hell.
After this we left the main temple area and hiked through the woods to the surrounding temple buildings. Monk Suan told us about the things we were passing. He called one of the trees a “Pija” tree. Since pizza becomes “pee-ja” in Korean, we all started to laugh and say yum, and he laughed too.
Monk Suan was a pretty chill guy. I expected the monks to be quiet and to hardly speak, but he was relatively talkative. He has an iPhone 4 and uses twitter! He called himself a “tweetorian” and said that he began his twitter account about a year previously and he already has 1,900 followers! When we expressed our surprise that a monk would do these things, he said there were two types of monks, those who study and meditate all the time and those who are “popular.” I don’t know if he really meant pop culture instead.
We also walked past some flowers that had no leaves. I had seen them before and wondered how they survived without photosynthesis. Monk Suan told us that the leaves and flowers come out separately, so it is a symbol of people who miss each other and are lonely because the leaves and the flowers can never meet.
After we got back to the main temple it was time for dinner. Dinner was very stressful for me. We each grabbed a bowl set.
Then we sat cross-legged on the floor and we had to separate our dining utensils in a specific way. We untied the strip of fabric in a certain way and set it aside after folding it a certain way. Then we unfolded a small placemat one handed and took our bowls apart as silently as possible and set them up in a certain order on our placemat. Everyone is supposed to hand wash their own dishes after the meal using only water, so one of our four bowls was dedicated to holding the washing water. One of the GIST boys poured water for all of us. Since you are not supposed to speak during the meals, you were supposed to twist your bowl to signal them to stop pouring water. I missed that part so I ended up with a lot of water!
Then we poured the water in turn in each of the other bowls because the food sticks less if the bowl is slightly damp. Then we served ourselves rice and soup, but you could only serve yourself once, and you were not supposed to have leftovers, so you had to guess exactly how much you would eat. Then we could serve ourselves side dishes in the remaining bowl. At least with these we could always get more. We had to eat in silence without looking at anyone else and without making much noise with our utensils.
After we finished we received some more water in our big rice bowl. Theoretically we were supposed to use a radish slice to wipe the bowl clean the best we could, and then pour that water into the soup bowl and repeating the process until we drank the remains out of our side dish bowl. Unfortunately, we hadn’t realized this and we had already eaten our radishes, so we had to use our hands. Then we used our washing water and our washcloths to clean the bowls again before dumping the waste water and re-assembling our dining sets in a specific way. MonkSuan said that they used to make them drink the waste water if there were any food bits left in it.
After dinner they rang the bell to call everyone to evening chanting. We got to see a translation of a couple of the chants and it seemed like they were calling on past Buddhas. It was unclear whether they were straight-up praying to them or if they were just saying, “Hey, these guys reached nirvana so we can too!” We just copied Monk Suan as he bowed. I’m Christian, not Buddhist, so I had planned to pray to my God while we bowed before the Buddha statue, but the bowing was so complicated I could hardly think of anything at all! I was most impressed by how the monks could bow and chant simultaneously.
After the evending service, we watched an American movie called “Little Buddha” which was pretty interesting. This blog is way too long already so if you want a plot summary you’ll have to check Wikipedia. They also gave us watermelon which was great because I was still hungry after our stressful dinner.
Then we showered and went to bed. I finally have a good picture of a shower house. This was quite similar to the other showers I’ve seen in Korea but the monks had hot water.
We slept for a short time and then they woke us up at 3:30 am for the morning service!!!! I was sooo tired. We went back to the main temple and chanted and bowed some more before we came back to our building. We then meditated for half an hour. Monk Suan told us we should think about “what is me” i.e. if we felt pain from our crossed legs, we should consider who is feeling this pain. If we had a thought we should consider who is doing the thinking. I enjoyed meditating. It was calm and serene, though my legs fell asleep a few times. Then we had an hour to kill, so I think everyone in our group went back to sleep.
We got up again a little after 6 and ate breakfast. This was less stressful because we ate in a cafeteria setting. We had bibmbap and bean sprout soup but we still had to eat all the food we served for ourselves and we had to hand wash our dishes. I didn’t mind that part at all because we were allowed to talk while we ate.
Then Monk Suan took us on a walk around the river. It was so beautiful. The water was very calm and so reflective. Here are some pictures:
Poor SeungBo accidentally dropped his phone in this pond, just after he had finished paying his parents back for the last phone he broke. After we had a few minutes of horrified silence, Monk Suan joked that now the “inyeon” between SeungBo and his phone was broken, so SeungBo laughed. “Inyeon” is a Buddhist principle concerning the interconnectedness and relationships between things. Monk Suan said maybe he can form a new “relationship” with an iPhone 5.
We stopped near a sort of graveyard and Monk Suan played his ocarina for us. He can’t read music, but he plays very well by ear. In the graveyard there were tall pillars with the stories of famous monks inscribed on it and there were little stone towers that contained the ashes of famous monks.
For our final temple activity, we drank tea together with Monk Suan. It was still only 10 am or so. The way they make tea is interesting to me. They use a small teapot that has a lot of tea leaves in it. After letting the leaves steep in hot water for a bit, the tea is poured out through a strainer into a bowl and then the tea is served from the bowl into everyone’s cups. Remember how you use two hands to show respect? Well, Monk Suan had to use a hand to hold back his long sleeve, which is how this custom originated in the first place.
While we drank, Monk Suan told us about how Buddhists l believe that everything is connected and how when you meet someone you have a connection, as in you met in a past life and will meet again in the future. He also told us a story riddle, so read below.
Once there was a monk living deep in the woods. One day a rat ran to him saying, “Help me! Please help me!” A cat was chasing the rat, so the monk hid the rat in his house to keep him safe. However, the rat grew tired of hiding and wanted to go see the world, so the monk turned him into a cat. The cat left the monk and traveled the world.
One day, the cat ran back to the monk saying, “Help me! Please help me!” He was being chased by a dog, so the monk transformed the cat into a dog. The dog left to see the world. However, some time later the dog came running back saying, “Help me! Please help me!” He was still afraid, so the monk turned him into a tiger saying, “Now you will have nothing to fear.” The tiger went out unafraid to travel the world.
Despite this, one day the tiger came running back to the monk saying, “Help me! Please help me!” The question is, what was the tiger afraid of?
We guessed other tigers, man, guns, himself, etc but we were all wrong. Monk Suan gave us a hint by telling us to consider the beginning of the story.
Some people guessed rat, others guessed the monk, but we were wrong again. I guessed the cat as a joke because that was the only other thing I remembered from the beginning of the story but Monk Suan asked me why, so I used the great skills I learned from Caltech and BSed an answer. I said the tiger was afraid of the cat because he remembered being a rat. I had actually guessed right! Yay! Monk Suan explained that though the container was different, the mind was the same, just like in reincarnation.
After this we said our goodbyes and headed out. It was still morning, so first we went to a famous cypress grove. It was really cool, but the cicadas were so loud! Ms. Kim pointed one out to me and it was nearly as big as my thumb if you include the wings. There were also some beautiful dragonflies with teal bodies and black wings.
For out last stop before GIST we had a huge lunch of pork ribs because we missed eating meat. We barely made it two meals without it! I don’t think any of us were cut out formonkhood. I was too happy to eat meat to take a photo, so you will just have to imagine it.
Tell you more in the next blog! I’m almost done regaling my Korean adventures.
Whenever I tell someone that Caltech has an undergraduate population of less than one thousand people, their first reaction is disbelief. “Really?” they exclaim. “You must know everyone! How can you get a real college experience with so few undergrads?”
One of the most exciting aspects of college life is the freedom that students enjoy when living on their own. When most students think about college life, one of the first things that comes to mind is Greek life, with the many sororities and fraternities on campuses across the country. While Caltech does not have Greek life, per se, we do have a unique housing system, similar to that of Hogwarts. There are eight houses and one residence on campus: Avery, Blacker, Dabney, Fleming, Lloyd, Page, Ricketts, Ruddock, and the Bechtel Residence. Each of the houses has its own unique culture, character, and traditions. I am a member of Ruddock House!
This past year was so different than most of us could have ever imagined. Living in “the virtual school year” posed a plethora of challenges, but at the same time, it opened the door to new possibilities. As a society, we learned how to better operate in a virtual world, and as individuals, we had time for new endeavors. For myself, this meant taking the leap of faith to move away from home and live with some fellow Techers. While I had already had the experience of moving away from home and coming to live in the Caltech houses, this was quite different. Instead of living in organized student residences with hundreds of other students, a meal plan, and tons of support resources, I was about to go live with just 5 other people (some of which I did not know super well) and we had to find and manage our own housing, food, and necessities.