A free meal with South Korea's monks

A free meal with South Korea's monks
PHOTO: Shutterstock

Mountains folded around Guinsa Temple like the petals of a lotus flower.

Brightly painted buildings interrupted winter's whites and greys. The sprawling complex was crowded with visitors in hiking apparel, which in South Korea meant vibrant nylon.

Many had come to practice their Buddhist faith; others were there for exercise and the view. I was probably the only one who'd come for the food.

My guide's sombre grey robes belied her cheerful energy. Her route to the kitchen wound halfway up the mountain. I began to drag behind, grimacing at the endless cement steps.

"Think in your mind that the stairs go down," she suggested.

"Down, Hyeonduk Seunim?" I asked. "Seunim" is Korean for "monk", and politeness dictated that I always use her full title.

She nodded. "The mind controls the body."

I tried, but my brain wasn't buying it. The temple was a web of staircases, and from where I stood, they all led up.

At 70 years old, Guinsa is young for a major religious site. It was founded in the final year of Japanese occupation as a lone hut, but it quickly became a destination for pilgrims and tourists alike.

Visitors left donations and these gifts helped the temple grow. Now the towering complex fills a valley in the northern Sobaek Range, 150km southwest of Seoul.

Every day, the monks serve a free lunch to all visitors. I asked Hyeonduk Seunim about this tradition as we walked.

She described the meal as an expression of gratitude; it acknowledges the faith and donations that built Guinsa Temple.

But anyone was welcome, Buddhist or Christian, Korean or foreigner. The temple would feed them all.

Massive earthenware pots filled the kitchen courtyard. They held soy sauce, fermented beans and red pepper paste. The monks grow and preserve all their own food, from cabbage to chestnuts.

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