Monday, April 28, 2014

Blossoms and Memorials

Located at the Bongwonsa Temple in Seoul, this plot of memorial markers was particularly attractive with the spring azalea blooms. 

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Bongwonsa's Preparations for Buddha

Temples around South Korea are preparing for the upcoming celebrations of Buddha's birthday. Bongwonsa Temple, located a pleasant forested walk from my school, is no exception. Although its collection of lanterns (these were mostly of the plastic variety) is not as extensive as others I've seen, the display definitely adds a colorful splash to the courtyard area. 

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Another School Korean Gate

Pictured here is Seoul Foreign School's other Korean Gate. Below is the road taking visitors to the parking structure. The upper part is for those walking from the vehicles (buses and cars) up to the various school divisions. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Spring Around SFS Gate

Seoul Foreign School, where I teach in South Korea, is blessed with a beautiful campus. During spring, it becomes even more glorious. This past week, the azaleas really have opened up, adding an extra splash of color in the area around the school's iconic Korean Gate. Here's a few photos from my walk the other afternoon.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Easter Beauty

At daybreak this morning, I was awakened by the faint, but beautiful sound of a choir singing. Most likely, it was coming from an outdoor celebration at Yonsei University, which shares the "hill" with my school. Although I could not make out the words (it's possible that they were in Korean anyway), their message of joy was unmistakable.  I am happy to be in a country where Christianity is not suppressed, where its people are able to express their faith. Starting with the most joyous news of a Risen Savior on that first Easter morning.

A Blessed Easter to all!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Scattered Petals

Alas, most of the cherry trees have shed their blossoms, the tiny petals delicately floating to the ground. With the warm weather we've been having in Seoul, it's the closest thing to the other "white stuff" the area will be having for quite some time. I'm perfectly happy with that.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Seonamsa Temple - Hike

At 9:00, when our hike was to begin, the sun had already begun to warm the air. Thankfully, we were given the option to wear our own shoes, which made the hike a lot more comfortable. The tall monk led the group. For most of the walk, we were to be in two lines. He had us do various exercises and practices, such as walking backwards, walking VERY slowly (which did make it great to be attuned to the sounds of nature, including a pheasant flying by), and some stretching, massage, etc. with the person across from us. After leading us down some steep hills and across a stream, we entered into a forested area unlike the others. Here, the tress were all a special type of pine tree, whose ball-like seed pods had a fragrant pine scent when rubbed. As a Korean woman (who was also on a temple stay here and joined the walk) began singing in traditional dramatic tone, I looked upward. The immensely tall trunks diverged in the sky, their upper branch cluster of leaves looking like swaying giraffe spots. Looking across on the sloped ground, the mid-morning light began to play on the lower portion of the trunks.


For lunch, we were back at the dining hall. We were warned ahead of time that the monks would also be eating then, so we had better be on our best (non-talking) behavior. After lunch, we could change back into our clothing and get ready to depart. Thanking the tall monk, we walked back to the bus and on to the next destination. The bamboo forest, a planted tourist attraction, was on the way back to Seoul.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

One Week Later

Cherry blossoms deserve their symbolic attribution of temporal beauty. Last weekend, I took these photos on the mountain right by my school in Seoul.

Today, I walked through the same area. I was hoping that there would be a bit more cross-over between the cherry blossom and the azaleas (that just began to poke out a couple of days ago), but alas, much of the beauty of the cherry blossoms had faded. With the gorgeous temps, it still made a beautiful walk. I'll have to return in a week or two to check out the progress of those azaleas.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Early Morning Photography: Seonamsa Temple Stay

Following breakfast, we were given the option of catching some shut-eye for an hour or two. Seeing how beautiful the early morning light was, I decided instead to capture some of the tranquil, but dramatic scenes. Early morning fog still enshrouded the hills and mountains. The fish wind chimes gently clanged in the breeze. Dramatic light cast shadows on the latticed windows and into the open buildings. The streams and stone drinking areas gently flowed, their clear waters moving onwards. Women monks walked by, communicating without words. Others were using smartphones whose covers had the OM symbol on them. Less than an hour later, hikers, all decked out in their walking gear, began passing by.

Find more photos of my early morning walk through Seonamsa on my Flickr set

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Seonamsa Temple Stay: Buddha's Breakfast

Following the schedule, 5:40 marked the start of Buddha's Breakfast back at the dining hall. Instead of eating at the low tables as we had the night before, we would be partaking of a more formal ceremony with our bowls on spread on a cloth on the floor. Forming two lines, we quietly waited our turn to pick up a nested set of bowls and some folded cloths, tied neatly with a grey strip. Seated on the heated flooring, we were spaced apart to ensure enough area to eat properly, and also be neatly aligned with those ahead (and/or behind) us.

We then were instructed to untie the strip, then unfold the large square grey cloth, making sure that our "placemat" aligned with those of others in our row. The nested bowls were carefully placed in clockwise order on the cloth, the functions of each being explained. The end person from each row poured some water in the upper right bowl, after which we placed our spoon and chopsticks into  it. The next person placed one spoonful of rice into each person's rice bowl and then came around again, allowing each person to remove or add as desired, but reminded that we should not waste anything. Another came with the soup kettle, allowing the two people seated between the placed kettle to scoop their own soup. Side dishes followed in the same protocol. I saw even more sparse portions than the night before, indicating some rather picky eaters. As instructed, we were told we had to eat all we had in our bowls, down to the last grain of rice. The fourth person in line came and poured hot water in one of our bowls, which we used to wash and wipe the other bowls (a white cloth was provided in our tied bowl kit for this). Because no oil was used in the preparation of the foods, the monk explained that no soap was needed for washing. Each monk would have his (or her) own designated bowl set and was always responsible for keeping them clean. After a final rinse of the bowls and utensils, the water was poured into a large bucket. The buckets would be brought to the head monk for inspection; if any food particles were seen, that row of monks would have to drink the water - or at least that's what we were told. 

Monday, April 07, 2014

Seonamsa Templestay: Wakeup and Chanting

Photo by William Cho
Much to the dismay of temple visitors, the 3:20 gong cheerfully played in front of the sleeping quarters happened all too quickly. Even some of the monks looked rather sleepy as they silently made their way onto their mat, quickly assuming the meditative pose. Much to my surprise, monks staggered in late, the 3:30 chanting already starting. One particularly sleepy-looking monk kept his knitted hat on much longer than the others. All wore multiple layers under their grey uniform. One monk initiated the ceremony by striking an umbrella-shaped brahma bell, used to release the sufferings of beings in hell (according to this website. Chanting occurred, followed by interspersed strikes of the bell. Prostrations (thankfully not 108) were initiated by the strike of a mok-tak, a hollow wooden instrument with one hole and a round handle. Smoke from the incense placed near to where I was sitting began to drift my way, permeating the room with its scent. Following the chanting, the monks silently left the temple, and we headed over to a nearby building for some yoga-type exercises. 

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Seonamsa Templestay: Ask a Monk

Scooping dried tea leaves ($150 a package) into the teapot
A short while later, we reconvened in a room off the area where our sleeping rooms were located. Waiting until the boiled water was at just the right temperature, the monk combined the water with some dried tea leaves grown on the temple grounds. Through an interpreter, he explained that we were indeed honored guests, as the small wooden box of dried leaves was sold for $150 retail. The tea coming from same tea bushes, was prized by King Sejong six hundred years ago. After all had some tea, we were given a chance to ask questions. Even simple questions such as what a monk's typical daily routine was like was answered with a complex, philosophical response. Our tour guide (a Korean) struggled to interpret the monk's response with its technical, spiritual terminology, into English.The monk's sense of humor and wit did come through though.
Pouring the tea


Warned that we had to be up and ready for the 3:30 AM ceremony, I eagerly heeded the advice to go to bed after that at 9:00. The warmth of the ondol-heated floors made the sleeping much more pleasant than the colder "slumber-party" style few hours of "sleep" we had at the jinjabong the night before.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Seonamsa Templestay: 108 Prostrations and Dinner

108 Prostrations

Following the etiquette orientation, we followed the monk into another hall. Large heaters that reminded me of barn fans provided some warmth, as we each sat on our mats, stringing up our 108-beaded strand. Using the cue of a projected PowerPoint indicating each of the 108 "sins" (such as ingratitude, not caring, wastefulness)  we were to practice the 108 prostrations. The slapping of a juk-bi (an instrument made from a single bamboo piece, slit down the center) would be our cue as to when to get up or to begin the next prostration.


With the grueling prostrations behind us, we headed to the dining hall for a well-deserved dinner. Reminded about maintaining silence, we ate our simple vegetarian-style meal consisting of white rice, cooked greens, and a watery soup with more greens and small pieces of tofu. Many of the young hogwan teachers who were part of the temple stay scrunched their noses and later supplemented with chips or other junk food, but I found it to be satisfactory.