Bwoooooooong. 4:35 am. As I attempted to cocoon myself in the folds of my fleece jacket and stifle an inclement yawn, the first strike of the morning bell began to fade into the pre-dawn chill. Bwooooooooooooong. Before the vacuum of silence could envelop it fully, another ring rose as it caught hold of the tail of the preceding bell and climbed atop it, rising and falling with a deliberate cadence. The oscillations of sound crashed around me like reverberant waves while I tried not to think of how silly I looked in my pink robe, the hair on the back of my head sprouting out awkwardly in a tuft of sleep depravation. I wiped the last remnants of my four-hour nap (yes, “nap” is a necessary qualifier; no way in hell does that constitute a full night’s sleep) from the corners of my eyelids. A group of fifteen of us was walking in single file, following the temple rule encouraging silence out of sheer fatigue rather than obedience. Stumbling gracelessly up the steps, we entered one of the temples where I found myself staring into a series of gilded statues of Buddha.
Blinking rapidly as if half-expecting the image to dissolve, like some sort of psychosomatic etch-a-sketch, several monks kneeled down in front of us, facing the statues. We followed their lead (but not without prompting one of the monks to rearrange the positioning of my feet while chuckling to himself) and engaged in a session of intense bowing. “Intense bowing? Is that a thing?” Absofuckinglutely. I’ve always associated Buddhism with a kind of spiritual flexibility, the ability to fluctuate in order to embody reverence and humility. Finding “the middle path” and all that. Before that weekend I had no idea that Buddhists were so goddamn literal; if you’re bowing in a Buddhist temple, you really do need to bend before you break. A complete bow involves bending at the waist with your hands clasped before you, kneeling to the floor in one seamless motion, touching your head, hands and feet to the ground (humility), raising your palms upward to create a figurative space for Buddha to stand (reverence) and rising upwards with complete fluidity. After several minutes of continuous bowing punctuated by the throaty chanting of the morning ritual, my legs were beginning to wobble when I rose. My sigh of relief as I walked out into the morning darkness was a bit premature. That was just the trial run for the real test of spiritual and physical endurance: prayer beads.
Looking at the simple bracelet made of one hundred and eight wooden beads lying next to my bedside table, I still feel a swell of pride. In Buddhism, the number 108 is spiritually significant. The number is reached by multiplying the senses smell, touch, taste, hearing, sight, and consciousness by whether they are painful, pleasant or neutral, and then again by whether these are internally generated or externally occurring, and yet again by past present and future to culminate the total number of possible feelings. 6 x 3 x 2 x 3 = 108. Phew, just typing that out is exhausting. Remember the arduous process for bowing in the preceding paragraph? Yeah. For each bow, while on your hands and knees, you have to carefully thread a wooden bead onto the string before rising. In unison with the other members of the group. While the monk leading the ceremony methodically bangs a wooden gourd to signify when to rise, when to kneel, and when to fumble frantically to thread each bead onto the string. One hundred and eight times. In a hypothetical Buddhist boot camp, this would definitely be a rite of initiation. As sweat trickled down my forehead before beading attractively beneath my chin, I had already lost count. When my kneeling constituted of sinking into the floor with a dignified “thud,” I prayed for the sweet embrace of death. By the moment only a few pathetic looking beads remained, I felt cleansed, triumphant and euphoric (a pleasant mix of exhaustion and endorphins). My friend Michael turned to me as we walked outside. “Fuck, man. I feel like I’ve just been in a car wreck.”
We arrived at Dwanghasa temple on Friday, March 8th. After introducing ourselves to the temple stay coordinator (a delightful woman named Sunny who I’ve managed to keep in touch with over the past month) and donning our traditional Buddhist robes (they sound more refined on paper…see the dorky pink uniforms below), we waited for the rest of our group. Michael and I had piggybacked onto a corporate retreat of thirty or so employees from LG (yup, that LG) and I was curious to see how two waegooks (foreigners) would be perceived. We were adopted into the fold almost instantly. A few of the more proficient English speakers made it their personal responsibility to translate and explain the onslaught of Korean coming our way from the monks and temple employees, giving us an abridged version of Buddhist practices and norms. I was beyond grateful, and feel truly, erm, humbled (appropriate, right?) by the level of compassion and guidance that was directed our way to ensure we had a positive experience.
After a brief orientation establishing the rules of the temple (exchanging bows with tourists outside was strangely gratifying, and we gleefully disregarded the rule about keeping conversation to a minimum to get to know our new Korean friends), I was reacquainted with the giant statue of Buddha that had made such a powerful impression on my last visit. As a temple stay participant, there is a feeling of awe and delicacy at occupying such a privileged position, even temporarily; as a representative of Dwanghasa, tourists regard you with a certain level of admiration. Returning to the main hall, we gathered around a massive table on the floor to make paper lanterns. Before my visit, I was a bit dismissive about doing anything arts and craftsy, but it turned out to be refreshingly meditative and therapeutic (at a Buddhist temple…who woulda thunk it?) While we were absorbed in delicately twisting the bits of translucent paper to make our lanterns, MJ and I were embraced with enthusiasm by one of the monks as he wrapped us in a huge bear hug. “I love you!” he beamed. Despite coming from a (relative) stranger, the statement felt totally sincere. As he started rubbing Michael’s shaved head and nodding approvingly (“Monk haircut!”), I burst out laughing. The atmosphere of contentedness was contagious.
Over the course of our 30 hour adventure (arrived on Friday afternoon and left Saturday afternoon), we had the opportunity to listen to three lectures on Korean Buddhism. At first, when one of the monks was gesturing effusively, giddily drawing on a whiteboard and speaking rapidly in Korean, a sense of unfairness and disappointment began to fester. This looks so fascinating and badass! I don’t want to miss out on an enlightening experience because of something as trivial as a language barrier. As the gulf of miscommunication began to widen along with a surge of frustration, one of the younger Korean men who spoke English turned sideways: “The monk is saying that through respect and generosity we can fight the cycle of negativity,” he whispered, turning his fingers over in his hands to emphasize the concept. Shocked by his kindness in translating for me as well as the simple profundity of the idea, I nodded silently, urging him to continue. “The best way to be generous and respect others is to put yourself aside. He talks about the importance of humility.” Throughout the next day and a half, Chan translated nearly everything, from distilling the Monk’s lectures on Buddhism to detailing the rules of propriety at a traditional Korean tea ceremony. Even with the occasional linguistic snags of translating dense spiritual ideas into a foreign language, the lectures on Korean Buddhism were fascinating. Below are some of the more inspiring, profound or interesting snippets that I took away from the experience. If my understanding of any of this comes across as overly simplistic or reductive, well, tough shit. You can cram your theological understanding up whatever orifice people cram things of that nature. (Nah, just kidding. Feel free to correct me, I love learning about this stuff!)
-Although it isn’t practical for everyone to live a monastic life, He Moon Sunim advised us to “become a monk!” Not literally, but as a metaphor for decreasing the arbitrary value we impose on money, housing and clothing. The importance lies in giving up the aspiration for material based desires and focusing on the acquisition of spiritual and introspective knowledge.
-Learn to love yourself! Value yourself and keep continuing to contribute to the value, but tread carefully because overemphasis is another vehicle for suffering.
-Happiness was explained in mathematical terms: Happiness= achievement/desire. Desire can never truly be satiated, and is a series of constantly shifting goalposts. If you remove the obsession with desire from the equation, you can be infinitely happy. Buddhism is focused on minimizing desire.
-Hedonism to escape life is temporal; the true avenue to happiness and healing is love (both of yourself and others).
Sorry for the schmaltzy spiritual harmonizing! I can’t help myself and this was a fun way to process all the information I was bombarded with over the weekend. As Michael and I left on Sunday afternoon, after He Moon Sunim insisted we take pictures in traditional Buddhist robes (see below) and entrusted us with parting gifts of incense and an aromatherapy necklace, we wandered around the temple as tourists, snapping photographs and blending into the fabric of other people. Sunny had invited us to come the following Sunday and give English lessons to Do Min Sunim, another one of the monks at Dwanghasa. In return, Do Min Sunim would instruct us in Buddhist meditation; pretty awesome exchange, right? I won’t belabor our return visit in excruciating detail (this post is long enough as it is), but I will emphasize how fascinated I was by Do Min Sunim’s modesty and subtle self-depprecation about his lack of English skills. Sitting before us with perfect posture, serenely poised in a way that showed immense strength and discipline, he looked almost apologetic and bashful as he worked through our lesson. The insecurity of an uncertain student was seeping through the cracks of his exterior of reserve and conviction. Admittedly language is a tricky beast to conquer, but the disconnect was humbling; a testament to one of my favorite quotes from American poetry. I’ll just leave this here…
“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”
-Walt Whitman, A Song of Myself