Happy Ending: Feeding Your Inner Light

Gripped by excitement and apprehension of the looming cultural immersion, we ventured to Hanmaum Seon Center, a Buddhist temple nestled into central Korean countryside. A heavy sheet of rain greeted us upon arrival, along with cappuccino-brown temple clothes featuring the world’s comfiest pair of baggy pants and a dashing vest to match. Little did we know, but we were in for a special weekend filled with Buddhist traditions and soul-searching.

“Welcome!” beamed the Buddhist monks and assistants hosting our two-day temple stay. We returned the greeting half-heartedly, entirely unsure what adventures would ensue.

To the temple. A gorgeous, breathtaking masterpiece of a temple featuring the golden Buddha front and center. Of course, we weren’t there for a tour. Instead, we were given a crash course In 180-degree bowing.

The nightly feature was another crash course of much different fashion — a traditional monastic meal. Considering it took me a solid two weeks to navigate chopsticks, this meal was no laughing matter. No talking. No clambering dishes. Complete silence.

After an hour of cross-legged, delicate eating in perfect 4-bowl rotation, we were almost finished. All that remained were tiny bits of leftover food. We had saved an extra piece of radish or kimchi and used it to clean our own bowls with water. We then drank the foggy, discolored concoction in swift gulps. Buddhist tradition commits to using all one is given. While this practice was unfamiliar from the Western perspective, it opened my eyes to just how much we take for granted each day.

We capped the night with rounds of chanting whilst circling the room with flickering candles. “Buddha in my heart . . . Buddha . . . in my heart,” we repeated over and over. Coupled with blended voices, the candles produced a special warmth that filled the space. By 10:00 pm the ritual was complete and it was time to grab some zzz’s on our floor mats and beanie bag pillows.

Illustration by Jonathan Burrello

At the envious hour of 3 AM we awoke to a booming “RISE AND SHINE!” with glaring lights. In all my early-morning-zombie glory, I stumbled upright to stretch my sore limbs. A surprisingly large group managed to rise long before the sun as we ventured to the temple. After hours of meditation, bows, delightful food, fragrant lotus tea, and games, a little coffee eased our groggy minds.

Although tired, we were far from burnt out. As Fulbrighters, we’re here to soak up the Korean culture and share our own. While a monastic meal and 3:00 am bowing may not have been on the radar, we certainly learned the power of self-care.

Life in a foreign country is not easy but feeding your inner light can help. Take it from the monks, whose teachings can inspire us all to lead better lives of light and compassion.