Sunday, July 01, 2007

Another Post, Ex Facto: 24 Hours in a Buddhist Temple

Okay, here is the much-touted, long-delayed report on our 24-hour-stay in a Buddhist temple in Korea. This came about because The Wife took a course on East Asia this past winter and found out about Temple Stay, a program where one can stay in a temple for periods ranging from a day to weeks.

The Bride set us up with a stay at Jeondeungsa, one of the oldest temples in Korea. Their official website is here. Unfortunately, the official website is all in Hongul, the Korean language, but it has lovely pictures, including some of our group. The temple is on Mt. Jeongjoksan on Ganghwa Island in the northwest of Korea (on a clear day, you can see into North Korea.)

The day started about 10:00 a.m. when we caught a bus near our hotel for Onsuri, a little village near the monastery. The Bride's father, as always when we were in Korea, had arranged for everything, including paying for our bus fares and arranging with the driver to tell us where we were to get off the bus. Someone from the monastery was to meet us at the bus stop. The island where the monastery is located is about two hours west and north of Seoul. We got off when the driver indicated, but didn't find anyone waiting for us. The bus stop consisted of a bench under a shelter, so we sat down and waited, not worried at first, but as the minutes ticked by without anyone coming up to us and identifying themselves as being from the monastery, we started getting a little worried. We had no idea what to expect. Are Buddhists dependable, or do they just "live in the moment?" Should we be looking for someone in saffron robes, with a shaved head or would our escort look like us? We had no idea and there was no one around who could speak English. We were the only caucasians at the bus stop; probably the only ones in the village, so we didn't think our guide would have any trouble figuring out who we were. After about 20 minutes, a smiling young man driving a mini-van and speaking broken English came up and directed us to his van. We had no more doubts that we were at the right place or about the hospitality of the Buddhists during the next 24 hours.

The monastery was only a 10 minute drive away from the bus stop, in a beautiful mountain setting with trees all around. It was lunch time and we were first ushered to the dining hall where we filled our plates with rice and vegetarian dishes, some of which I could identify, but all of which were uncommonly delicious. As with all of the traditional meals we ate in Korea, we sat on cushions on the floor with our plates on low tables, approximately the height of American coffee tables. (That was probably the hardest thing we did in Korea; I never did get my legs trained not to go to sleep shortly after sitting on the floor, and the rest of the time was spent shifting my legs trying unobstrusively to retain some feeling.) The monks ate at a separate table from the visitors. There were about 8 to 10 other visitors, all of them Asians. After lunch, we were issued sets of blue shirts and gray pants., the pants made of a coarse but very comfortable cotton. We were told the shirts were for us to keep, the pants we would have to buy, if we wanted to keep them after our monastery stay, which several of us did. We were shown our quarters, two persons to a room, with women and men separated. The rooms were small and had no furniture. We would sleep on the floor, on mats, which turned out to be quite comfortable, especially considering that the floors were heated (as are all floors in Korea.)

None of the monks were comfortable speaking English (although like all Koreans, they had studied English for many years, starting in elementary school, but many have not studied with native English speakers.) We had a translator, a young Korean woman, who was taking some time off from working to decide what she wants to do next. Although she had to stop and try to think of the English words from time to time, her English was very good, for the most part.
We were first given a tour of the place. The "temple" actually consists of a number of separate halls (I'm thinking there were about six, although one of the crockheads will probably correct me,) used for different purposes. Although the interiors were very elaborate, many of the exteriors looked weather-beaten and in need of repairs. The grounds, as a whole looked very nice and kept up, but we didn't see any groundskeepers, so I don't know who was responsible to keep the place looking nice (since everyone who comes there must do some work, we were given the job of sweeping the ground in front of a couple of the halls on the morning following the day we got there, but all we really did was just rearrange the dust.)

One of the halls that we saw on the tour on the first day was a place where the monks held traditional tea ceremonies. We sat, cross-legged, or knelt on the floor as we were taught what the various dishes were used for and in what order first the hot water and then the tea was poured. The instructor did not attempt to explain the religious significance of the tea ceremony, which was just as well as we probably would not have understood it.

Our next activity was making a bead bracelet. Again, the focus was just on the mechanics of doing it, not the religious significance of the beads, although there was speculation by the Humble Philosopher/Carpenter that the beads are used in prayer in much the same way that Catholics use the rosary, to keep track of repetitions of the prayers.
After dinner, which was basically the same as lunch, one of the monks gave us a lecture on meditation. Even though, sitting on the floor, my feet were killing me, I had a hard time staying awake; maybe the meditation was making me too relaxed to listen. Number Two Son, who taught himself meditation, from reading about it when he was 13 or 14,was spotted sitting in the lotus position. It was suggested that he might want to try doing the 108 Prostrations, a series of bows which involve going all the way from a standing position to squatting and then putting one's face on the floor, before standing back up -- sort of an extreme squat-thrust. Amazingly, quite a few of our group (not including me) got into the 40's on Monday evening, before the monk leading the prostrations called a halt because we needed to go on to the next activity. The next morning, three of our group, Number Two Son, The Wife, and Seester, did manage to do 108, although only Number Two Son was able to do the standing up part without using his hands to push off.

We got to bed (or floor, I should say) about 9:00 p.m. on Monday evening, having been told that we would be awakened at 4:00 a.m. the next morning for morning prayers. As I was taking off my shirt, something hit the floor in front of me, a big bug, shown here next to the bracelet for perspective, but which Baby Milton assures me was not a poisonous scorpion. Nevertheless, I was glad I spotted it before I turned off the lights. In consideration of our Buddhist hosts, I scooped the bug up and deposited it outside instead of squashing it like I would have done back in Christian America.

The next morning, it was only 3:45, when The Humble Philosopher/Carpenter banged on the door of the room I shared with Number Two Son and told us it was time to get up. I thought we had until 4:00 a.m., but apparently not. Since the only shower was going to be a cold one, I decided to skip taking a cold shower in the middle of the night. Actually, once I got the sleep out of my eyes, it was nice to be up that early. It was still pitch black, but we made our way to the hall that contained the drums and were treated to a drumming spectacle that I will never forget. Here is a video of about 30 seconds of it. Although the picture is not very good, it gives some approximation of what it sounded like. This went on for about half an hour, in the dark, with two monks drumming part of the time.

After breakfast, we (some of us, see above) did the 108 Prostrations, and then we did some hiking around the perimeter of the old castle grounds where the temple is located. Although there is a lot more that could be told, this post is too long already, but I have to relate one last interesting incident. The monk who led the 108 Prostrations also led the hike around the mountain after breakfast in the morning. At one point, he stopped the hike, and started talking to the interpreter, looking and gesturing at the cross, Seester was wearing. Seester thought "Oh, (shucks) I've offended him by wearing the cross; what was I thinking?" It turns out, to the contrary, he was not offended by the cross. He said he had noticed Seester's cross when she was doing the 108 Prostrations and realized our group must be Christian. He said that when he travels around Korea, which has an active and growing Christian population, he frequently gets yelled at to "believe in Jesus," and told that he is going to hell for being a Buddhist. He said that our show of respect for the Buddhist beliefs and traditions had caused him to go back to his room the previous night and read up on Christianity and was causing him to rethink his own attitudes towards Christians.

In all honesty, our excursion to the Buddhist temple was for purely selfish reasons; we wanted to understand the religion a little better and have an experience we never had before, but if it also advanced the cause of interfaith dialogue and understanding a little bit, maybe it will help us be reincarnated at a slightly higher level in our next lives. There was nothing in the experience that made me want to embrace the Korean form of Zen Buddhism, called Seon Buddhism. The worst part is they believe there is a king who decides who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. Like Christianity, they have added a lot of rules to what their founder, the Buddha, originally taught, rules designed more to distinguish between who is "in" and who is "out" than to perpetuate the original ideals of their religion. The Buddhism for which I have a great deal of admiration is a distilled variation about which I read in the April 22, 2002 issue of The New Yorker which I call the "Goldsmith Variation", after Marshall Goldsmith, an executive coach, which amounts to basically three principles: Be happy now (not sometime in the future,) live in the moment and let it go. I suppose those principles are too simple to use as a foundation for a religion -- who is going to give money for a church, synagogue or temple on those principles?


Gnightgirl said...

Awesome, I hung on every word.

Struck dumb at the monk's experience with Christians, yow!

Thanks for sharing—and this was NOT too long. If you think of something you forgot, let us know.

Marshall Goldsmith said...

I loved your article. I am glad that your Buddhism and mine are the same!
About the 'who would pay money' comment - you never know - I even get paid on occasion for delivering good Buddhist advice!
Life is good.

Amishlaw said...

Thanks, Mr. Goldsmith. I don't know if you realized that you had founded a branch of Buddhism with at least one adherent. I like your common sense approach to what started out, at least, as a common sense, religion. As I recall, the Buddha, is credited with telling his adherents to try his teachings, use them if they work; discard them if they don't. That seems to be the essence of what you teach, as well.