Eating the Zen Way: Templestay with Jeong Kwan

Sitting down to write this post, I know a lot of people have been anxiously waiting to read it, but I also don’t know if I can capture the splendor of the weekend through words. Sometimes writing can be a handicap in that way, as can photography, or any kind of self expression, really. But I’ll give it my best shot, and will also try to answer some of the questions people have been asking me about how/when/why I did the temple stay with Jeong Kwan this past weekend. Always happy to answer questions people may have after reading this. After all, this blog is intended to be equal parts information, education (and knee-slapping comedy). Let’s go!

After a week of work in Seoul (short recap: working on the creation of a new skincare brand, to be launched in Korea, China and then the US, absolute dream project and client), I hopped on the train down to Jeungup. For context, I had been wanting to visit Jeong Kwan since I moved to Asia. When I realized it was only a two-hour train ride from Seoul to her convent, I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to meet with her. I had been planning to take a trip to Seoul to make this happen, but the opportunity fell into my lap with this work trip. The stars truly did align.

Anyway, for context, she’s a Zen Buddhist monk living in the Chunjinam hermitage (a settlement where a person or a group of people lived religiously, in seclusion) of the Baekyangsa temple, located in the Naejangsan National Park, 169 miles south of Seoul, and I’ve been completely captivated by her since watching her poetic and cinematic episode of Netflix’s Chef’s Table. If you haven’t seen it…wait, you haven’t seen it? Go to Netflix right this minute and watch it. It will change your life. I’ll wait….

….Welcome back. Hope you enjoyed the episode. As you know from having just watched the episode, Jeong Kim is an absolute baller. Her traditional Korean parents had a wish for her to get married and have children by 17, but that wasn’t the life she wanted for herself. She wanted to live freely, not follow the confines of society, and so knew she would leave home at an early age. The catalyst occurred when she was 17 and her mother died. She was deeply upset by the death and by the thought that there was no guarantee she wouldn’t give her children the same kind of pain someday. So she vowed never to pass down the pain that caused her mother’s death, by never being married or having children, instead running away from home and joining the monastery.

The monks at the temple accepted her into the fold, but it wasn’t easy for Kwan to adjust to life at Baekyangsa at first, especially because she had trouble getting up early for prayer (I face the same struggle daily in my professional working life). The elders made some initial adjustments to the schedule to make her more comfortable, and she’s lived there ever since.

While the trip to her temple is only a two-hour ride, it’s a bit of a mess because not many people speak English in Korea, and likewise, the signs, websites, etc. are also largely in Korean. Additionally, the transit websites are typically designed with the usability of the first site created by Bill Gates for the World Wide Web. It’s a foreign country in the middle of Asia that’s not entirely used to tourism, so I wouldn’t expect English to be a heavily-used language, but my journey to get there is what some people would call a ‘shitshow.’ But after connecting with the templestay coordinator, Daisy, via WhatsApp an average of 10x/day (seriously—I arrived at the temple and she said, “Never before has a guest asked so many questions!”), I made it after a 90-minute train ride on the KTX from Seoul to Jeongeup, then a taxi from there to Baekyangsa. If you’re planning to visit, this is the easiest route. Don’t bother with the bus; it will save you $30, but cost you a small-to-mid-sized migraine.

I didn’t know quite what to expect for the templestay itself, but I was down for it, regardless. Daisy had distributed a two-day itinerary that I of course did not pan through, because of my insane travel schedule and workload, but in all honesty, I was more excited about the cooking class than the actual templestay. After all, Jeong Kwan is a true legend. But over the course of the next 24 hours, I found there was so much more to learn from the overnight experience.

We had a monk assigned to our group that would lead us through all our activities for the next two days. Immediately I noticed something subtle, yet noticeable, about demeanor. From the way he walked to the way he spoke, he was extremely (almost eerily) calm: happy, but not overjoyed. Every one of his movements was controlled, with deliberate intention. He spoke clearly and slowly — always pausing to think about his response before jumping in with an answer — and was rarely definitive about much of anything, “In Buddhism there isn’t right and wrong, good and bad. There just is.” I noticed this in all the monks I interacted with over the course of the weekend: just by being around them, I could feel the positive, calming energy emanating from each of them. And the group that I was with also wonderful. It was a group of 30, apparently one of the largest they’d had at the temple in one weekend, filled with nice people from across the world. Our monk guide (whose name is escaping me!), said that previously they had a lot of European visitors. But after the Netflix storm, they’ve been seeing a lot more Americans, and with the rise of the K-Wave (the increase in global popularity of South Korean culture since the 1990s), they are also seeing a huge increase in Korean tourists. I met an older couple from Texas as soon as I arrived, who I later found out were the parents of one of the three producers on Chef’s Table, who Jeong Kwan had invited herself. Pretty cool! I also met two very cool Americans working at Samsung in Seoul, and some other interesting and lovely people from Sweden, the UK and Korea.

To give you an idea of what we did prior to meeting JK herself, here is a broad outline of the one-night, two-day itinerary:

Day One

  • 1-3PM: Arrival and meeting, walking around the temple, hiking, and getting those worthy #InstaShots
  • 3-4PM: Room arrangement (We were given a comfortable cotton uniform, which we wore throughout the stay. Men and women are bunked separately, and I stayed with 2 other women, a Frenchie and a Korean-Brit, in a basic room. Floormats, blankets and pillows were provided for sleeping on the heated floor. Yes. The commitment here was real.)
  • 4-5PM: Temple introduction (learning about Buddhism and its traditions, regulations and rules of the temple, as well as a bit about how monks live day-to-day)
  • 5-6PM: Dinner time! My favorite part of the day. The temple had just opened a new building, the Shadow Room, a very architecturally-beautiful columbarium, so dinner was a communal event the night I was there, with many people from the community bringing in tasty dishes, and even makgeolli (rice wine), which I was surprised by delighted by
  • 6-8PM: During the typical templestay, this time is meant for learning how to ring the gongs, making beads and learning more about temple life, but with the opening of the new columbarium, instead there was a lights and art show that evening. Even though it was early autumn, the temple is located high up in the mountains, so we all got wrapped up in cozy sweaters, socks and pants (which I was thrilled about, as I currently live on the center of the equator where no day falls below 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and especially because I love/miss autumn). The first part of the ceremony was the award-winning architect that constructed the building speaking about his experience in Korean, which meant me Googling him and reading New York Times articles while he spoke. After about 90 minutes of him speaking in a language I don’t understand, there were a few performers: a dancer, a singer, a poet, a cellist. It was beautiful and as much as I enjoy the performing arts, the combination of not understanding Korean and the impending 4:30AM wakeup I had the next day came together around 8PM, when I headed back to the room, chatted with the ladies in my bunk for a bit (sleepover vibes), and was out cold before 9PM.

Day Two

  • 4:30-5AM: For some (my father, Michael Hayden), this is deemed as an appropriate time to wake up. However for others (his daughter, me), it is a true challenge and a testament to willpower. I woke up with the other ladies, quickly put on my layers, and headed to the temple for morning prayers. Already, my level of respect for the monks was at a high.
  • 5-6AM: Morning prayers. We followed along with the monks, reading a book of prayers translated into English. As a spiritual person, I am always interested in learning about other religions, so I especially enjoyed this part. The one hour of prayers were spent chanting about different Buddhist beliefs, like:
    • The recognition that we are always changing: so instead of focusing on “finding ourselves,” we should focus on creating the self we wish to be at every moment, because the self is always in flux (e.g., just because you feel sad today, doesn’t mean you’ll feel sad forever)
    • The idea of impermanence: celebrating the idea of change and accepting that everything is constantly changing
    • The concept that suffering is part of life: Aattaching or clinging to particular expectations, material items, and states of being is often a cause for acute frustration, disappointment, and other forms of pain, so rather than fear our suffering or seeking an ultimate resolution to it (and becoming frustrated by our lack of finding one), we can learn simply to recognize our suffering and know, again, that it is impermanent
  • 6-7AM: Breakfast with the monks. A combination of porridge, vegetables and rice (and coffee, thank the Buddha). After taking your food, you’re not meant to speak or eat until all the monks have been seated. And you also can’t waste any food—what’s on your plate is what you need to finish. Not a problem for someone like myself. In fact, seconds, please. We washed and dried our dishes, and headed out of the cafeteria.
  • 7-8AM: Sweeping the grounds, with rakes fashioned from bamboo and twigs from the local forest. Cool enough to distract me from the fact that I was doing morning chores before 8AM. Chatting with the monks, either through broken English or the translator, and enjoying their company.
  • 8:30-9AM: Tea time with the monks. Learning how to pour and enjoy Korean temple tea, a lighter version of green tea. Delicious! Asking questions about #MonkLyfe
  • 9:20-the rest of the day: JEONG KWAN TIME.

So, let’s get to the content you crave. As I’ve stated above, she’s a liberated woman in every sense of the word and has always chased the pursuit of freedom, but what makes her especially impressive is that while she’s a Buddhist monk, she’s also one of the most sought-after chefs on the planet. And it’s no wonder, after seeing her approach to cooking in Chef’s Table, and spending the weekend with her.

Walking up the hill, my excitement and anticipation could not have been higher, especially as we walked past her infamous garden and approached the covenant where she lived and cooked. And then suddenly, there she was! A tiny, 4’10” lady with a full smile popped out on the deck, giving us a big wave and rushing over to greet us. Immediately, she gave off positive, heartwarming, happy, enthusiastic energy. Together, we rolled up in her main kitchen, a combination of a large modern cooking studio and a separate, more traditional room with blush-colored walls and antiques, and immediately felt a warmth and bustle that seemed to define her typical morning.

First, we went around the room and introduced ourselves, giving her our names, countries of origin and residence, and a bit about what we do in life. She is spontaneous in her cooking, and likes to read the energy of the room and use it in her cooking to create something special to the group and the day.

She started off by explaining to us (through a translator) about her approach and beliefs surrounding cooking, which to her is about much more than the food itself. For Jeong Kwan, food is about a man or woman-to-nature connection. Before beginning preparations for our lunch, she said, “Food is never just food—it is made with plants using sunshine, wind, and water, which means all ingredients are a part of nature. So are humans, as we share the air and space with everyone and everything else. We must learn to respect nature as a way to reciprocate and appreciate with gratitude. It is our duty to take greed out of our intentions and take what we need and waste less.” Even the translator, who has a sophisticated handle on both the English and Korean languages, was having trouble translating her words. “She’s so philosophical, so spiritual,” he said.

The dish of the day — mushrooms. Not surprisingly, seasonality is an essential factor in her kitchen. She practices farming all year round, harvesting leafy greens and fruits throughout spring and summer, and root vegetables for autumn (yay!). For the cold Korean winter, she preserves the harvest, like cabbage, aubergines, and cucumbers, and ferments them to make kimchi.

There is a certain ease in the kitchen that I noticed right away. When cooking, Jeong Kwan uses her fingers to scoop up whatever is in the pot with her fingers and place a sizable amount in her mouth to taste and check the seasoning. It’s a very Korean way of cooking—using the hands to feel closer to the food.

Watching her cook was incredible. She makes everything from scratch with the help of her team—everything, from the soy sauce, vinegars, powders such as one made from dried perilla leaf and matcha, and soybean pastes fermenting in clay jars outside. Then there are the dozens of jars of pickles and kimchis filling up refrigerators all over the complex. She handed a woman in the front row a sample from a small jar was a sansho pepper leaf pickle that had been aged for over a year. The lady said it was maybe the most complex and delicious thing she had ever had. Her joy of cooking is spiritual without a doubt. It seems to come from a deep place, like instinct. She is incredibly spontaneous and playful in the kitchen. She spent about an hour chatting with us, peeling vegetables and chopping an assortment of new spring greens. She threw the lot of spring greens into a bowl, sprinkled glutinous brown rice flour and buckwheat flour and a handful of salt over the greens, mixing them with her hands. She placed the dry mixture into the steamer and placed the lid back on. Ten minutes later, a sticky tangle of greens came out of the steamer like a loosely constructed mochi. “It smells like spring,” she said, and smiled as the steam hit her face.

We ate an assortment of delicious food that day, decorated with edible flowers from her garden just a few feet away. The meal left me feeling spiritually recharged and more connected to my self than I had felt in a long time, especially given the craziness of my new job. Following the meal, which we ate as a group over the course of an hour, finished with us washing our plates and cutlery, and placing them into the sun to dry. Following the meal, we engaged in a short meditation with Jeong Kwan. This was otherworldly, especially because I was able to snag a seat directly next to her. She had set up a tarp outside so that we could be in nature, and after engaging in the meditation session, she talked a bit about the importance of meditation, as a way of learning more about yourself and connecting with your true nature. Afterwards, we had time to ask her questions and spend some informal time together. She was so gracious, saying that we were all important and special people that had been destined to come and see her that weekend. She had some other special words for us that will lose meaning in a blog post, but her words for us were inspiring and energy-infused. Everything she said came with incredible intention, in an almost artistic or poetic way, and she spoke with an incredible mixture of deep focus and pure happiness. Even though I was hearing her words through a translator, she was funny and deeply enjoyable to listen to.

In short, let it be said: the food, much like the experience, was exquisite. Infused with positive energy—there should always be harmony, Kwan says, between the person cooking, the person eating, and the ingredients—they are deeper, more complex, more enjoyable, than any food I’ve had before. We are not all Buddhist nuns. And, yet, there is a lesson here for even the least spiritual among us: we can all cook, if not meditatively, then mindfully. And we all should if we can, especially if the food we make mindfully will taste anything like Jeong Kwan’s.

Some photos from my stay at Baekyangsa Temple:

 

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