The Sunday after Lanny took me to Tongdosa, we headed to Seoknamsa for morning prayer. By the way, even though it’s sometimes pronounced Seongnamsa, it really is spelt Seoknamsa; I confused many of my friends and co-workers trying to determine which one of the “two” I had been too. I digress.
The Friday night, Lanny had asked me whether I was religious…an awkward question in any situation, but made even more so when the person asking it is a religious co-teacher that you really don’t want to offend. Needless to say, my polite answer turned into a Sunday trip to temple. Though I won’t say I’ll be going back every Sunday to participate in the service, I will say that the one-time experience was truly eye-opening, and is something I wouldn’t have missed for the world…or an extra hour of sleep on the last day of the weekend.
When we arrived at Seoknamsa, we had a little time to spare before prayer started, so Lanny and I strolled around the women-only temple grounds and discovered a smack, but still very beautiful complex. Directly behind the main hall, there’s a stone staircase that lead to who-knew-where. One we climbed them, I looked back over the way we came and discovered that Seoknamsa is nestled much higher in the mountains than I thought. There’s nothing that compares to the sight of early morning mist as it rolls across the tiles roofs of a quiet temple before continuing down the lushly green mountain toward where you know your apartment is; somewhere in the distance, and hidden behind foliage that completely blocks out any sign of modern civilization. Well, maybe it doesn’t block out ALL modern civilization; as Lanny and I left the temple later on, I noticed a satellite dish discreetly covered in grey netting in an attempt to make it blend in with its surroundings…it almost worked.
The service itself was quite interesting, though my knees and ankles hurt after kneeling and bowing repeatedly for about an hour. The cool thing? The monk’s chants, and the answers of the local folk attending the service, reminded me strongly of the thousands of cicadas we had heard walking the forested path up to the tempe site itself. While this sounds like it might be grating on the ears, there was something unique about this natural sound set against the beating of brass. Even though I didn’t understand the words the monk chanted, the ceremony also gave me a chance to look closely at the architecture of the temple; I can honestly say that whoever paints and carves the interior of the temple is a true craftsman and artist. I couldn’t believe the amount of detail that went into every nook and crany of the place, or the small speakers that were set into the corners of the temple! It almost made me sad to think that someone had to drill through the wonderful architecture to bring the temple into the 21st century; but the drilling does let the sounds of Seoknamsa reverberate through the hills, and that in itself is music akin to the art of the decoration.
Once the service ended, I turned to see the entire hall filled with female monks (shaved heads and all); I hadn’t noticed them quietly enter the temple as the service progressed. Now, after they performed a final bow, these silent guardians went quickly to work bringing the food offerings from the temple we were in across the courtyard to a different temple, where a second service was about to start; one which all the monks attended even though they had just complete this one. Their devotion is truly something else! Lanny jokingly asked at this point whether I wanted to try performing the 108 bow sequences that Koreans do to “cleanse the body and spirit”. It was at this point that I reconnected with my ability to say no, and firmly declined anymore harsh treatment of my knees and ankles. At this point, Lanny came up with an even better plan, we headed out of the temple and had Pajun (fried squid and green onion) and Makgeolli (rice wine); nothing like some alcohol and grub after prayer! I may not be a committed temple goer, but I definitely love exploring the architecture of these places, not to mention sampling the local food after such an “exhausting” excursion!