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. Traditional staples like fermented soy, marinated sesame leaves and kimchi – Korea’s emblematic pickled vegetables – stretch the gap between harvests.
Inside, the kitchen was a cement horseshoe lined with massive cauldrons. Each held enough rice for 500 or soup for 3,000. They were so deep, the monks stirred them with shovels. Around the corner, a young woman in a pink headscarf washed rice. The starchy water went into another kettle to make a soup base.
Upstairs in the cafeteria, we were asked to take only what we could eat. The food was simple vegetarian fare: rice and kimchi, soybean soup, roast potatoes. Pilgrims and day hikers sat elbow to elbow, with hundreds of people sharing the long tables. On holidays it could be thousands, especially at Lunar New Year, which falls in January or February, and Buddha’s birthday in May.
Sharing food is integral to Korean culture. People eat from the same dishes, toast from the same glass. Food is an expression of community. By welcoming everyone to their table, the monks of Guinsa made us all family, at least for a meal.
As family members, we were expected to eat everything on our trays. Hyeonduk Seunim scolded a trio of men for leaving without finishing their food. Hanging their heads like schoolboys, they sat back down. My guide noticed stray grains of rice on my tray too. She scooped them up with a spoon and popped them firmly in my mouth.
After lunch, Hyeonduk Seunim invited me to a ceremony. We backtracked down the stairs to the Main Dharma Hall, where a golden Buddha dominated the room, flanked by Bodhisattvas. Offerings of fruit were stacked in front of them. Banners fluttered overhead, and the walls were painted like pages of a picture book. Monks pounded drums and chanted, their voices as ornate as the woodwork.
Hyeonduk Seunim guided me to a red cushion at Buddha’s feet. “You are our guest.”
On my right knelt two well-dressed women with the faces of sisters. They didn’t look at me, but focused sad eyes on the Buddha. I wondered what kind of ritual I was intruding on. Hyeonduk Seunim settled on my other side, and together we bowed.
For the next hour we processed between altars, bowing again and again. One hinge from the waist, three full prostrations, another hinge. I began to understand how the monks handled all those stairs.
I didn’t recognise the ceremony until we reached the final altar, buried under bowls of vegetables, pillars of apples and glass jars of candy. A white piece of paper had been placed on a throne at the centre of the display. This was a memorial service, and the paper represented someone who had died. The floor vibrated with drumbeats as we bowed again.
In Korean tradition, there are certain days of the year when the spirits of the dead return to their families. They are bowed to and feasted. On Lunar New Year and the autumn harvest holiday Chuseok, the entire country takes part in ancestor rites. But today, it was just these two women marking the anniversary of a loved one’s death.
The ceremony ended and we processed outside to burn the paper. As it crumbled to ash, the sisters turned to me for the first time. They thanked me for coming to honour their ancestors. My presence wasn’t seen as an intrusion; it was a connection.
“Maybe in a past life their relative was American,” Hyeonduk Seunim translated.
I was invited to join them for the last part of the ritual. Hyeonduk Seunim gestured us into a spare, empty room with a low table at the centre. Bowls of fruit and vegetables were brought from the altar, along with mugs of coffee and barley tea. The offerings to the dead were now shared by the living. This symbolically brought both worlds together for a meal.
We all sat down to eat: the spirits, the sisters, the monk and me, the stranger who was maybe not a stranger. Together at the table, we were family.
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