In between all my preparations for going to Korea, I have been reflecting on the time I spent there in 2010. The places I want to go back to, the people I want to see, the faux pas I must try not to make again…
If I had to pick just one highlight, it would be the time my Korean friend Young and I spent volunteering at the Haeinsa temple in the Gaya mountains. My camera broke just before we went there, and I think perhaps there was a reason for this- I was supposed to experience it in real life, without peering down a camera lens.
Foreigners were only supposed to be part of the Haeinsa Temple Stay programme but Young persuaded one of the monks to let me volunteer along with the Koreans. We slept on bamboo mats on a huge room with about 20 (mostly elderly) Korean women. There was only one fan in a corner of the room. With Young as my interpreter, the women were able to assuage their curiosity about this white woman among them. ‘She comes from very far away and she saved all her money just so she could come to Korea!’ one of them said incredulously to the others as she shared her sweet rice cakes with me. Another said she was moved that I was volunteering in a Buddhist temple even though I was not a Buddhist, and thrust a ₩10,000 (about €6) note into my hand and would not let me give it back to her.
On our first night, I was surprised when most of the women fell fast asleep at around 7pm. Young said we would be getting up early, but I was horrified when everyone began stirring at 2.30am – only two hours after I had finally gotten to sleep. In a daze, I followed the others as we walked in single file towards a huge drum. After a monk elicited an almighty gong from it, we proceeded to the temple. I found a spot in what I thought was the back, but it actually turned out to the be the front. With horror, I realised that I had nobody to copy all the complex ‘moves’ from. Imagine the discomfort of sitting in the front row in a Catholic mass, with nobody to copy for all the standing up, sitting down and kneeling. Except in a Buddhist temple you also have to contend with sitting crossed legged, kneeling on your heels, bowing, palms in, palms out, and you do the hokey pokey….
Our work at the temple mostly involved helping in the kitchen. I laughed when I was shown the heavy duty apron, wellingtons and rubber gloves I would be wearing to wash up. But they were needed – the washing up was done at a supersonic pace, water and suds flying everywhere. An even stranger task was separating the chopsticks – monks had different designs to lay people, and even different ranks of monk had different designs.
In the evening we would sit around listening to the birdsong and chatting to other volunteers. Young talked to a man who said he had been at the temple for several months to help with his depression. We met another man whose face lit up when Young told him I was from Ireland. He talked about the Irish North-South division, as well as the famous Irish authors James Joyce and George Bernard Shaw. This was unusual and exciting in country where most people thought I was from Iceland, and I had to produce Google Maps to show them where Ireland was.
The most challenging part of staying in the Haeinsa temple was not getting up at 2.30am, or remembering moves that would have been difficult for any 1990s boy band member, or making sure I bowed my head every time I saw a monk. It was showering. When Young told me there was only a communal shower room, I whinged like a baby. ‘Everyone will stare at my big white woman boobs! And they’ve probably never seen someone above a size 10 before!’ In the end I had to suck it up or smell disgusting. I stayed wrapped in my towel until the very last moment, then let it go, bracing myself for all the gasps and stares. But they didn’t come, everyone just got on with scrubbing their vaginas.
One night a mosquito landed on my mat, and there was some fervent discussion about what to do about it. Young explained that in Buddhism you are not supposed to kill living things. One of the woman suggested blessing the mosquito and then killing it, and the others agreed that that would be a good compromise.
The next day Young and I walked to another temple, higher in the mountains. I really hate stereotypes, but in this case it is apt to say that the monk there was very much like the Dalai Lama – a genuinely kind spirit with a twinkly smile. We sat cross legged as he served us a wonderful herbal tea and asked me lots of questions about Ireland. He wanted to know what happened to unmarried mothers there and I told him that today there is far less stigma, but in the past some women were sent to work in laundries were they were treated terribly and deprived of their liberty. He paused for several moments after Young had translated my words for him, looking genuinely sad.
When it was time for us to go, the monk gave me a present of a chain with 108 glass beads – one for each of the sins of Buddhism. As we walked back down the mountain, Young said that the monk had told her that he thought I would be happy wherever I go in my life. ‘Ah yeah, why not?!’ I laughed.
On our last day at Haeinsa, we attended a tea ceremony with one of the monks and some of the other volunteers. When it was my turn to pour the tea, I accidentally spilled a little on the floor. Forgetting where I was, I muttered ‘shite’. There was silence for one dreadful moment. Then, to my great relief, laughter erupted from the bodies all around me. ‘Koreans are brilliant’, I thought to myself.