Korean Buddhist temples. There are some extravagantly beautiful ones here and there are some that are spectacular in their simplicity. I guess the same could be said for churches back in the States. The Catholics build some of the most beautiful and elaborate places of worship I’ve ever seen, while a multitude of other denominations might reside in prefabricated steel buildings that are completely bare of any adornment whatsoever. With these Western places of worship in mind, I find it odd to just go wandering into someone’s church or temple to go look at it. Especially if there were people at worship there.
Apparently it is an acceptable thing to do in most temples in South Korea though. They even have little “Temple Stay” tours in which you go live as a monk for the weekend. Eating nothing but mugwort and raw garlic for dinner and then sleeping on a stone bed with nothing but your spiritual acumen to keep your body warm does not sound like my thing after a hard day of contemplating a rock while sitting cross-legged in an ant bed. But hey. You do you. I’ll stick to the tours on which I am free to come and go. What isn’t going to happen for my wife to accompany me on such a trip. She seems fairly certain that I’m banned for life and tracked on some monk monitored all-points bulletin social media site where they have reached a new level of oneness and demand profuse amounts of Kung Fu as a means to right a cosmic wrong.
I’m not sure what the mug wort and raw garlic eating is all about. I’m actually not even sure that it is a real thing. It is present in the Korea creation myth in which a tiger and a bear had to eat nothing but that for 20 days while forced to live in a completely dark cave in order to be granted human form. Apparently the tiger was all “Screw that noise” and left the cave with the now halitosis suffering bear. Long story short, the bear became a human woman, married the deity who subjugated her to this treatment, and gave birth to the first Korean king in the world’s first known case of Stockholm Syndrome. Anyway, I think this is why I think Korean monks practice this weird diet that they may not really practice.
It would be a real shame if they did though. There is literally food everywhere in this country. It’s like a national pastime or something to wander about aimlessly and eat things all day. Go to a Korean rest stop off their main highway. They contain no less than 10 different restaurants, two convenience stores, and not a single danged trash can present in the entire country. Just about every street corner has some vendor of something edible, but sometimes not so edible. Do NOT even bother to try Bundaegi. I’m sure that’s spelled wrong, but it’s just boiled silkworm larvae that taste an awful lot like a urinal smells. On the more delectable side of things are some pretty spectacular frozen treats. A particularly popular one among Koreans and Americans alike is this green colored melon popsicle. It is absolutely wonderful during the heat of summer.
The point is that when in Korea, do as Koreans. This means walking around all day long and looking at things. Between looking at things you have to buy things to eat while you walk to the next thing at which you are going to look. So we did. We each had one of those popsicles I mentioned, but it was quite hot out and I was slow to finish it and ended up with sticky hands. Right before we walked into a quaint little temple in the Korean folk village. There was this stone wall in the foyer with the giant face of Korean Buddha carved into it. There was a gravel bed at the base of the wall and water perpetually ran from the top of the wall, over Buddha’s face, and disappeared into the gravel below. It produced a tranquil sound that seemed to be an overtone to the deep toned background of chanting. I’m sure there is a technical term for the effect, but I’m not a musician. You’d have to ask my wife. Some monk I presumed to be an important man walked among the crowd blessing people or little patches of cloth they brought to him. We were really quite fascinated by it all and stood in reverent silence, soaking the cultural experience in. I was particularly pleased at the sight of my wife enjoying herself so much and I stayed a little behind her so I could watch her soak it all in. My tranquility was brought to an abrupt halt when I noticed the chanting had stopped and that every person, including the monks, had stopped what they were doing and were now openly glaring in our direction. An angry sounding utterance in Korean was issued by one of the…parishioners? somewhere in the crowd. The important looking monk extended both arms out to the sides and made a motion that was obvious in its meaning. He was motioning for the people to remain calm even as he narrowed his eyes and began to inch (millimeter?) towards us. I was kind of impressed that he could narrow his eyes more than they were in their natural state, but he took on a look reminiscent of Clint Eastwood as he began addressing us in a firm but calm manner.
“Even people of other nations slow down and speak louder when trying to get foreigners to understand them,” I remember thinking. Then, “They’re onto us. They know we aren’t Korean or Buddhists”.
My wife turned and was already asking what I had done before she’d completely rounded on me. Upon completion of her turn her eyes flew open and all I could do was mutter “What?” around my popsicle stick. Then I decided that there must be something behind me that was freaking everyone out, so I turned that way while using my pants to dry my now clean hands.
The wife began gesticulating in an overly dramatic fashion that matched her tone but not her words. “Did you seriously just wash your hands on Buddha’s face”?
“She washed her face on it,” I said, indicating an ancient looking Korean woman.
“She was performing a blessing!” My wife began gesturing to the door as if telling me to get out like I was some outsider. “Just play along,” she bellowed. “Lower your gaze, bow, mumble something contrite sounding, and go”.
I did so and she followed me still yelling and gesticulating like a mad woman.
We rounded the corner and I kissed her. “That was some quick thinking,” I said. Truly amazed.
“This is why I can’t take you anywhere”.
“This is why I should take you everywhere,” I began. “Hey! They have cuttlefish on a stick over by that museum….”
I do love this woman.