Day 263 (28th of November, 2016) – Seoul, South Korea
Today was, in essence, a recovery day. And a much needed one at that. We knew this going into the day and planned it accordingly. There were a few key things we wanted to get done – booking bus tickets for the rest of the trip, buying SIM cards, shopping and some work for me. We delegated so that we could get things done quickly and relax for the bulk of the day.
After a hostel breakfast, we all headed out to Oleh to buy some SIM cards for the coming week-and-a-half. Unfortunately, Korea isn’t as utopic as Taiwan in the telecommunications department. No unlimited data for cheap prices here. In fact, it was $50 just to get a SIM up and running with a small packet of data. Those of us who wanted it bought it, and those who didn’t left.
I stayed, and was put through a torturous half an hour as the trainee staff member attempted, at first unsuccessfully, to activate my SIM. I eventually got myself a working card, though.
Meanwhile, the other three boys had headed out to the Seoul Bus Station to buy our tickets for the rest of the trip. The online purchasing services are all in Korean and far too confusing, so we decided that doing it in the person was the best option. They were only able to purchase our bus from Seoul to Busan.
I only had a brief moment to explore some extra streets in Hongdae before I had to return to the hostel for a six hour tutoring slog to pay for my upcoming week. The other boys headed on for some shopping around Myeong-dong.
My meal while tutoring was a big box of, you got it, chicken. The Koreans certainly love their chicken and so do I. The box was adorned with pictures and signatures of a Korean boy band.
After the block of work, everyone else had returned with the first of many of the week’s Krispy Kremes (the chain is much more prevalent here than in Australia…). By the time I emerged from the spare room, our plotting for the evening’s activities were already underway. We had been invited to a dinner by Ting-Ya from Canada and Øivind from Norway, both of whom worked at the hostel. The dinner was to farewell Michael after his two week stay, someone from Germany who we had only briefly met. We were all plotting some sort of way to get out of the dinner, but the problem was that the invitation was phrased in a very forceful sort of way. It was phrased more like “meet us at 8:30pm for dinner!”, not, “hey, would you like to meet us at 8:30pm for dinner?” It turned out that our half-formed friendships were a strong enough foundation to warrant a commitment to that invitation.
And so there we were, at another Korean BBQ restaurant munching on pork fat.
There’s no way to describe this dinner other than that the company was mediocre at best. Especially down my end of the table. I suffered through Øivind’s riveting tales of his sexual endeavours with women travelling through the hostel without their partners, and then after a few personal insults thrown my way and with the soju started getting to his head, I quickly turned to my next option for conversation: Sarah from Israel. After finding out where she was from, I quickly identified an easy conversation starter:
“Oh no way! You’re from Israel! I was there just a few months ago. It’s a beatiful country you’re from. You come from a great people with a great culture,” I began.
“Oh, it’s lovely to hear that people think that way. Why did you go to Israel? Did you visit any other countries in the area?” she asked.
“Yes actually. I ended my Middle Eastern trip there after a couple of weeks exploring Iran and Jordan,” I answered matter-of-factly.
“Wait, Iran? Why on Earth would you go to Iran? What a stupid thing to do!” I could tell that she wasn’t just joking around, she was genuinely angry at me.
“Oh, I thought it was relatively safe really. I certainly felt safer there than a lot of the more developed countries I’ve been to. Lonely Planet highly recommends it, and it happens to be one of the more stable democracies in the region. I mainly went there out of a historical and geopolitical fascination. I think if the place was still called Persia, people wouldn’t be as fearful. I just think its name bears uncomfortable similarities to ‘Iraq’,” I tried to argue my case, hopelessly.
But this Tel Aviv-raised American thought differently, “What history could Iran possibly have? They’re the breeding ground for terrorists. The only history they have they’d prefer to blow up.”
Sensing that this conversation was getting awkward, I thought I’d answer her questions but increasingly briefly.
“Oh, umm, I think they have lots of historical beauty. They’re the home of the Persian Empire after all. Just like in Israel, I was able to visit cities which are millenia old,” I argued.
I ought not to have bothered. She left the conversation before I did. Before I knew it, I was cornered at the table with equally unattractive company. I suffered through the rest of dinner before we could politely decline everyone’s requests for kick-ons and go off for our own night of fun.
That fun consisted of arcade darts, and lots of it.
That lasted for a few hours before we snuck back into the guesthouse, careful not to alert Ting-ya, Øivind or Sarah of our return so that they wouldn’t drag us into one of their late-night drinking sessions.
Day 264 (29th of November, 2016) – Guinsa, South Korea
I was ultimately glad that most of us got to bed early. It meant that our morning bus to Guinsa was much easier to get to. I should fill you in on Guinsa. Most Koreans don’t even know what I’m talking about when I mention that place.
Guinsa Temple, located on Mt Sobaeksan, is the main temple of the Korean Buddhist Cheontae Order. Think of it like the Vatican City of Cheontae Buddhism. Sure, the Cheontaes don’t boast the same spread as Roman Catholicism, but with over two million followers this is still a very sacred place for a lot of people. The Cheontae school of Buddhism was originally founded in the 11th century. It was brought across from India, Buddhism’s epicentre, and across China all the way up to Korea. These Chinese roots mean that Cheontae Buddhism carries with it a lot of the traditions which I witnessed during my time in Tibet, and it even uses a lot of the same Chinese characters in their teachings.
Let’s quickly cover what Cheontae Buddhism values, and what makes it unique from the other schools of Buddhism. Cheontae doctrine holds the “Lotus Sutra” as the ultimate teaching of Buddha. If you recall from my blog posts in Tibet, this teaching postulates three main things:
- All things are empty and without reality (remember the theory of emptiness?)
- All things have provisional reality
- All things are both absolutely unreal and provisionally real at once
I thought I could wrap my head around those three things when I was in Tibet, but after a couple of days of pondering it over here, I couldn’t gain the same level of understanding which I could in China. I’d struggle greatly with accepting a philosophy which advocates the notion that nothing is truly real. But each to their own.
On a more practical level, Guinsa Temple is stunningly unique. Monks have hair, buildings look distinctly Korean, and best of all, the temple is situated in a gorge between mountains.
The temple is also big enough to house 10,000 monks at any one time.
As soon as we arrived, we were handed our uniforms.
And after only a few minutes of resting in our room, we were brought out to what we nicknamed the “dojo hall” (although it turns out that there was no kung-fu at this monastery). Here, we were taught the basics of temple etiquette and Cheontae history.
Of all the things we learned, the most surprising was the rigorous schedule of Cheontae Buddhist monks. These guys don’t get a proper block of sleep. Ever. They survive off small one-hour naps throughout the day.
Our schedule was rigorous enough.
We were invited to attend morning chanting at 3:30am. Monks have to go to this immediately after their meditation, which lasts from 10:00pm until 3:30am.
Realising that it was going to be an early wake-up, we decided to explore the temple in full in the dusk light before dinner and an early bedtime. And so off we went.
The whole temple is on a steep incline. We trekked our way up the road, bowing with a hapjang to each passing monk. The hapjang refers to the clasping of the hands in a praying style and bowing to someone else. It symbolises the meeting of your mind and Buddha’s mind, and sharing the collocation of the two with another person.
We made our way to the “Buddha Hall” or “Great Dharma Hall” for the evening chanting, but due to some confusion we thought we had the wrong hall and found ourselves too far away by the time the chanting was well underway.
We resigned to just attending the early morning chanting and decided to continue exploring before dinner instead.
Dinner was… bland. We were warned that due to Buddhist tradition all meals were vegetarian, and perhaps we were naïve expecting something of a higher quality than prison food, but it certainly added to the experience.
We received some glares and anger from other people in the hall when we went up to the dish-washing area without having eaten all of our kimchi, and a brief Google search revealed exactly why that was. The Wikipedia page of Guinsa reads, “As Buddhists believe that everything people enjoy now comes from the karma of their past acts and thoughts, they have to finish their meals regardless of what dishes they have taken.”
We scuttled out of the dining hall, embarrassed.
We took a detour on the way back to our room, stopping by the Hall of the Four Heavenly Kings and the pagoda containing a fragment of the Buddha’s cremated remains.
Despite our initial plan for an early bedtime, a last-minute idea to watch the movie Her quickly changed our minds.
Day 265 (30th of November, 2016) – Busan, South Korea
It was 3am when we rose out of our beds (or should I say off the ground, since we slept in a traditional Korean style on floor mats). We donned our orange monk suits and Lachie put his hair in a samurai bun before we headed directly to the Great Dharma Hall for morning chanting.
It was a stunning hall. We entered through the right-hand door which is assigned for non-monk males, prepared our cushions and sat in front of one of the non-Buddha statues, never facing our backs towards the Buddha.
The head monk, shifu (Chinese for “master”), as we nicknamed him, arrived and ordered us back a few metres further from the Buddha. He then revealed his gong mallet and the ceremony began.
If you’re going to watch any video in this blog, it should be this one. I was able to catch some of the chanting and bowing on camera.
By 4:30am the chanting had finished. No one thought that it felt like an hour. It certainly wasn’t boring. In fact, it was a very peaceful start to the morning (minus the physical strain of the constant bowing). We decided after a recommendation from our host, Peter, that we should hike up to the top of Mt Sobaeksan to the Nirvana Palace, the places which is home to the remains of the founder of Guinsa Temple. We figured that it would be particularly special if we visited this palace for sunrise, which Peter told us would be at 5:30am.
So immediately after the chanting we got walking, passing yet more impressive monuments on the way to the hiking trail.
The hike was done completely in the dark with the aid of our phone torches, but it ended up being far quicker than the estimated one hour walking time. On the way up, we passed individual monks hiking with nothing but a small lamp returning from their morning prayers.
Reaching the top was very satisfying not only because of the physical toll which the walk took, but moreso because of the tranquility of the palace. The palace consisted of a small hut, and outside it were rows of lamps leading to the grave of the Grand Master who founded Guinsa.
The eerie and yet peaceful nature of the peak was like being in a Harry Potter movie.
As we sat there for about half-an-hour with no sign of light, I decided that it was wise to check my phone for the actual time of sunrise. It turned out that it would be at 7:20am, long after Peter’s initial suggestion. We should have realised this ourselves given that it’s winter. We decided that we had gained a really valuable experience at the Nirvana Palace as it was, and instead chose to return to the temple for breakfast by 6:30am.
Ben really wanted to see the sunrise, and so he chose to make the trek back up to the top on his own after breakfast. Very admirable – I never would have had the energy.
After we threw a few prayers Buddha’s way for Coco Pops and Weetbix, we were greeted with the exact same meal as last night.
Our stomachs couldn’t handle another of the same meal, and so we ate as much as we could before strategically stacking the leftover food underneath the trays so that people wouldn’t get angry at us.
The next part of the day was undoubtedly one of the more interesting ones of the templestay. It was led by Monk Hyeonduk Seunim. She introduced herselves to us with the interesting fact that in her previous life (there’s still conjecture amongst the group as to whether this phrase was used literally or not), she was a Catholic nun. She knows this because she saw a vision of herself as one in the mirror one day.
She set us up on a floor mat in front of a tea ceremony where she proceeded to lead us through meditation and prayer.
Before she began the ceremony, she opened the floor for any questions we had. I started:
“What’s that noise outside?” I asked, since there was the sound of one of the monks either preaching or reading out instructions over the temple’s loudspeaker.
“No, my boy, you are not focused. You are hearing sounds from outside, but I am in here. Focus your senses. That is my answer to your question.” she rebutted.
“Oh, yes, thank you Monk Hyeonduk.”
That pretty much set the tone for the session. It was all about focusing our sixth sense, the “mind’s eye”, on the tea before us.
And then the real meditation began. Monk Hyeonduk led us through a routine of chanting the phrase “kwan seum bosal”, which refers to all of the senses which you are channeling to Buddha. You chant it to a rhythm, at any pitch, and focus more on the energy being put in than the sound coming out. Here’s a demonstration.
The monk also told us that the hordes of people sharing meals with us in the hall were people undergoing month-long templestays.
Following the session with the monk, we followed Ben on his mission to obtain some sort of souvenir from the temple. We found ourselves making lotus lanterns with the only instructions being in Korean. It’s fair to say that we received a lot of assistance.
And then, walking towards our room for the final time before departure, we were able to finally get some photos which did the temple justice with the assistance of some nice sunlight.
These were two of the four kings guarding north, south, east and west from demons.
We packed our bags and strolled towards the bus to Busan which Peter had kindly organised for us.
It was full to the brim with elderly Koreans returning from their month-long retreat. The energy was (almost overwhelmingly) positive and loud. During the ride we were even handed six cobs of warm sweetcorn. None of us really had an apetite for the corn, so we tactically hid it in the overhead. It was particularly difficult communicating where we needed to be dropped off in Busan at the end of the trip. With no-one speaking English or Chinese, we were stuck passing Google Translations to and from the driver. We asked to be dropped as close as possible to a particular subway station, and were met with confused gestures and a Google Translate reply which simply read, “ride the car in waiting”. After a failed attempt to decode what he was trying to say and my SIM card having running out of data, we resorted to getting off wherever and hoping that there was a subway station nearby.
It turns out that our luck was high that day, and before we knew it we were on the Busan subway.
The transport cards in Korea are much more attractive than their Aussie counterparts.
This. City. Was. Pumping. Think of it like a less populated Seoul with beachside resorts and milder weather.
This was just a metro station. Looks much more like a nicely designed airport to me.
Our accommodation was a duplex rented over AirBnB, and we quickly realised that this was the best place we had stayed in so far on the trip.
Crouching under the low ceiling of the loft, we organised our beds before heading out to explore Busan’s city centre, a place known as Seomyeon.
Busan is a city of eight million people. It is located on the southeastern-most tip of the Korean Peninsula, giving it a prime spot for beaches and seafood. This geographic position also makes Busan Korea’s main sea port, and the fifth busiest in the world. Busan is considering placing a bid to host either the 2028 or 2032 Summer Olympics, and a number of analysts rate its chances quite highly. It has already been announced as the host of World Expo 2030.
The city’s streets form the perfect meeting of all the best parts of East Asia.
Being in such a commercial hub meant a lot of temptations for food which was familiar to us. And so it was – our first retreat to Western fast food. But hey, you’ve got to try Maccas in every country.
Ben couldn’t get over the “1955 Burger” and its prego sauce which conjured up happy memories of Ogalo’s in Lane Cove. Ben always firmly sided with Ogalo’s in the classic “Ogalo’s vs Chargrill Charlie’s” debate in boarding – Lane Cove’s two premier burger joints. It was a controversial choice and one which I did not agree with, but I’m not going to lie when I say that I thoroughly enjoyed this new take on prego in Korea.
Stay tuned for Part #2, “(Even) Deeper Into Korea”.