by Jane K. Park
Korea is sometimes called the land of morning calm. The vision I had of this was finally realized when we arrived at Baek Yang Sa (White Mountain Goat) Temple, just north of Gwangju, in the Jeolla Province. Like most Buddhist temples, it was beautifully nestled in the mountains. It was remarkably cool, shady and dry while the areas of Korea we had visited up until then (Seoul, Jeju Island and Gwangju) had been quite hot and humid. Immediately stepping off the bus, I was surrounded by sounds of nature, from the crickets to the running water of the stream.
At the end of the parking lot, there is bridge over a stream which separates the “secular world” from the “sacred world of Buddha”. After crossing the bridge, there is an open temple with 4 guardians (that look rather fearsome) which protects the temple against evil spirits. Looking up from the temple grounds, I saw the white rocky peaks of the mountain which faded into a misty sky. This reminded me of images often depicted in Korean scroll paintings. How could one not feel spiritual here? It was serene and just simply beautiful! This overnight stay enabled me to see the practices of Buddhist monks and to understand the root of many Korean cultural values.
During our dinner at the temple, we sat in two rows facing each other with the monk (Sunim) and Mrs. Jo at the end facing the two rows. A traditional Buddhist communal meal is vegetarian and typically eaten in silence. Our monk guided us in unwrapping our four food bowls and their placement on the placemat. He asked us to focus on our level of hunger before food was served. He had us reflect on the idea that each grain of rice had to be grown, harvested and prepared for our meal. Since we were expected to eat all the food we took, we needed to be conscientious of how much rice and soup we asked for (no seconds). The ban chan, however, placed on trays for every 4 people, were to be shared and more could be taken as one wanted during the meal. I believe the quiet, reflective nature of Korean people came from Buddhist values.
Korean people also have a deep respect for the natural world which was evident in the green technologies they have embraced and their efforts to minimize waste. During our travels around the country, I saw wind turbines in rice fields, outdoor solar showers at the hotel on Jeju Island, “smart” hotel keys that turned off all electricity to the room a minute after leaving it and only small napkins offered at all of the restaurants. Even at the temple, phosphate containing soap was not used and all light fixtures contained low wattage bulbs.
While Buddhist monks live simple lives, they are connected to modern day issues and have some modern conveniences. One of the biggest surprises for me was that the temple had wifi! Even in what seemed a remote location, there were nearby towers carrying signals to connect to the world. We all had a good laugh when our Sumin answered a call on his iphone during our tea ceremony. It was these things that made me realize that these Buddhist monks today are more in touch with modern issues than I expected and that during their Yebul (chanting prayers that occur 3 times a day), they can pray for modern ails of the world.
Some of the other memorable moments of my trip to Korea include hiking up to the rim of the volcanic crater on Jeju Island, seeing the oldest surviving Cheomseongdae (star gazing) observatory, visiting with the children at the Hongik orphanage, learning to cook Jap chae, and riding the immaculate subways of Seoul. I am grateful to the Dwight Englewood Korean Parents Association for their generous support that enabled me to go on this incredibly inspirational and educational journey. I would also like to thank Dr. De Jarnett, Mr. Algrant and Mr. Carbon who encouraged my participation in the Sejong Cultural Education program. As a first generation Korean-American, it was incredible for me to see the country that my parents left behind over 50 years ago when they immigrated to the United States. Professionally, I have a deeper understanding of Korean cultural values which will be useful in fostering inclusivity of our Korean students and families in the DE community. Finally, I would like to thank to Mrs. Hyae Kyung Jo and Mrs. Julia Park for their incredible vision, preparation, leadership and support during this amazing trip throughout Korea.