Eyes closed, I confronted the swirling screensaver of my mind.
“Just be,” counseled my teacher, a mild-mannered monk whose name, Ju Gyeong, means “Cultivate Universe.”
“Just have calm silence,” he spoke softly. “This is not difficult, but also a little difficult.”
Very difficult, I thought, feeling neither silent nor calm, while unraveling the infinite to-do list of my busy brain. I remembered thank-you notes I had failed to send. I calculated the optimal height for my lawnmower blade when I returned home from South Korea. Then I reflected on how disappointing store-bought strawberries can be.
“Shine a light in the cave,” said Ju Gyeong, counseling us to accept the random thoughts and worries that bombarded the mind. He advised us to acknowledge the distraction, then let it go.
“Like a stone in the shoe,” he said. “Only the stone is in the mind. If you try to ignore it, the stone will only bother you.”
I imagined shaking out my head like an upside-down boot, my distractions tumbling out like loose pebbles after a long hike. I breathed again and sensed a black slate of nothingness. For half a moment, I felt the calm silence Ju Gyeong had mentioned.
Then I heard a faraway truck. A gust of wind shook the tall maple trees. Outside, somebody was doing construction. I listened to the rustling fabric of my loose cotton pajamas — standard-issue monastic wear for my stay at Sudeoksa Temple. I smelled the piney smoke of the clove incense. I tasted my hunger. All five senses surged with renewed distraction.
My knees were killing me. I realized that my toes had gone numb, so I gave up my half-assed half-lotus and readjusted my legs to a more comfortable position. The lower half of my body reappeared. I felt better.
I began again, letting my thoughts pass one by one, feeling my way back through the darkness with my in-and-out breath. After a while, I stopped calculating if I was inhaling or exhaling. I merely breathed and hovered inside the wide-open space beyond my tightly-closed eyes.
Time vanished. I just was. I felt lighter inside. Now the stillness lasted a little longer than before, then much longer, until I felt hypnotized by my own breathing. It felt good.
“OK then,” the monk ended the class. I opened my eyes and greeted the other students — all Koreans. Slipping into my sandals, I followed them to the kitchen for a vegan buffet lunch. We ate quietly, carefully tasting each bite: the baked sweet potatoes, yummy seasoned greens, salty sauteed mushrooms, and fluffy white rice. The food felt pure and cleansing. For dessert, I took my time peeling and chewing on juicy mandarin oranges and persimmons.
My Korean temple stay was not my first attempt at a more mindful vacation, but it was by far the most authentic and accessible. All across South Korea, dozens of mountain temples are open to foreign visitors for one- and two-day “templestay” programs that offer a chance to experience the country’s traditional Buddhist culture firsthand. The cost is far cheaper than a hotel and it’s easy to book online.
I chose Sudeoksa Temple for its fairy-tale setting in the mountain forests of Chungnam Province — about three hours’ train ride south of Seoul. In stark contrast to the immensely high-tech capital, Sudeoksa felt quiet and secluded, with a whole network of well-kept nature paths for contemplative walks. Despite my scheduled program, I had plenty of time to explore the ancient complex, filled with meticulous gardens, traditional architecture, and extraordinary artwork. In the evening, I attended a tea ceremony, which turned out to be its own form of meditation.
“Everything exists in your mind,” said Ju Gyeong, “Fear, joy — even the taste of the tea.” He slowly unwrapped a bundle of green tea leaves, grown on Jeju Island. He handed them for me to smell, then explained the intricate etiquette involved when drinking tea with Buddhist monks.
“You don’t want to fry the tea,” he explained, pointing out that boiling water is appropriate for black tea, while green tea favors lower temperatures — between 176 degrees to 185 degrees. He steeped the tea, then poured a precise pool of light green tea into my tiny (almost sacramental-size) porcelain cup.
“The first cup is for smelling,” said Ju Gyeong, politely sniffing the edge of his cup. I inhaled the faint herbal freshness, then gulped down the refined tea. Ju Gyeong waited a few minutes and then poured again. The tea seemed brighter and greener. “The second cup is for taste,” he said, and we drank. I felt the richer flavor.
“The third cup you feel with your heart,” he said, pouring a third splash of well-steeped olive-green tea that was only barely warm yet felt more total.
After tea, I returned to my room — a bare monk’s cell with traditional paper walls and a heated floor. My bed was a low rectangle cushion with a spartan pillow. I slept better than I had hoped for — a good six hours before I woke for the 3 a.m. prayers. Stars filled the black sky and the mountain air was cold. I climbed the many stone steps to the Main Hall. Built in 1308, the temple is the oldest wooden building in Korea, constructed from whole tree timbers. The tall ochre walls held up an elaborate tile roof.
Inside sat a huge and powerful gold statue of Amita Buddha — The Buddha of Infinite Light — which shone with flickering red-orange candlelight. I watched a dozen monks file into the temple. Dressed in light gray robes and crimson sashes, the men delivered atonal chanting that droned beneath the peculiar song of the moktak, or “wooden fish” — a gong that, when hit, resembles the sound of an accelerating woodpecker.
I felt privileged to witness the spiritual practice and did my best to keep up with the many floor prostrations. When they were finished, the monks retreated to the predawn courtyard where, one by one, they began beating the massive “Dharma Drum.” Wider than my outstretched arms, the drumhead boomed wildly with the unique rhythms played out by the emphatic monks. Their robes flared with rapid dancing movements, as if they were summoning the very sunrise with continuous drumming. Even as one monk stepped to the right, another moved in from the left, not missing a single beat until the last monk hit the huge drum and it hovered back into silence.
“Now,” the youngest monk turned to me in the dark. “Would you like to ring the Universe Bell?”
Like a good traveler, I said yes, though I had no idea what this entailed. I merely followed him across the courtyard. I asked and he told me that his name was Wonmyo Seunim and he was 19 years old.
“How did you become a monk?” I asked, surprised to see a mere teenager dedicated to the contemplative life.
“My mother died when I was only 8 years old,” he told me in his solid English, “and this got me thinking about death, which got me thinking about life.” After four years of study at Sudeoksa, he was about to become a fully-fledged monk.
Patiently, Wonmyo Seunim showed me how to hold the ropes from which hung a giant log carved into a beautiful fish. The younger monk swayed the ropes back and forth before releasing on the fifth count, tapping the heavy wood on the bronze bell which clanged with an echoing ring.
This was the Universe Bell that rang every morning, marking the new day as it exists in the great and infinite universe. The monk stepped aside and I held the ropes. I counted out loud, “One . . . two . . .three . . . four,” then released on the fifth count. The wooden fish smashed into the bell, ringing so loudly I felt the vibrations shake the skin on my face. The young monk smiled amusingly, then made the universal hand motion for a little gentler.
I tried again, counting to five then letting the log kiss the bronze bell that bellowed deeply like a gong. I continued like this, counting to five and ringing the Universe Bell, over and over again, until Wonmyo Seunim took the ropes and nodded with approval.
“The universe is open?” I half-joked, feeling giddy in the rare moment.
“The universe is awake,” the monk affirmed.
This is how I feel now, many months later, back home and watching the world reopen: The universe is awake. I reflect on this as I venture out shopping, or sheepishly dine in a restaurant, or merely log back onto social media. It still feels more stressful than celebratory, and I’m not sure I’m ready for the distractions I omitted during the pandemic.
I’ve come to cherish the quiet mental space of my home and the meager meditation practice I carried back from Korea. No — my brief Buddhist sleepaway camp did not grant me inner peace, but it did give me some tools for quieting the mind. Now I have something tranquil to reach for amid the chaos. Even with my eyes closed, the universe feels a little more awake, and that really is the best souvenir.