Vanessa and I along with our co-workers/friends, Katie and Garret, took an amazing journey 3 days ago into the heart of Korea, metaphysically speaking. Geographically we were in the North of Seoul, pretty close to the “oh so scary” border. To be honest, I don’t even know the name of the town but the destination was the Seoul International Zen Temple. The goal; to spend 24 hours living as the monks do.
It all began at the suggestion of our friend Katie. She told us one day as we were all sitting down to lunch in the school cafeteria that she was considering doing a temple stay. Temple stays are quite common around here and Vanessa had a few friends that had done one and found it an unique experience so we were game from the get go. Our other friend Garret was down too but the other 2 weren’t quite as hyped on the idea so they sat this one out. It’s certainly not for everyone.
To be honest, it wasn’t what I had expected. I thought we would be spending a few days doing some 30 minute meditation sessions here and there and maybe tending to a garden and just kind of touring the temple. I was not prepared for the 4 sets of 2 hour meditation, (especially not the 3 am one) or the 108 full body bows we ATTEMPTED to do. My legs are still hurting. None the less, it was an experience I will truly never forget. Here’s a quick run down of the our time at the temple.
Wed. 8:00 am. Met at Sub station to get to our destination by 10:30. (Public transportation will you get you anywhere, but not quickly)
10:45am. Arrived at Temple. Looks BEA Utiful. Got confusing instructions about what floor to go to but with some persistence, found the right person to talk with.
11:ish am. Changed into our hammertime pj uniforms and ate a surprisingly tasty vegetarian meal in the zen cafeteria.
Noonish Mountain hike with Zen Master and 2 other monks. Great view and hilarious monks. Off to a good start. Expected Mr. Miagi style serious monks and got a super smily, fun loving monk who laughed out loud and loudly at his own corny jokes Buddhisatva. Off to a very good start.
2:00 pm. Meditation round one. 50 minutes of contemplating this Hwan Du (Buddhist proverb);
“A student asked Venerable Master Yun Men, “Not even a thought has arisen, is there still a sin or not?” Master replied, “Mt. Sumeru!” When thought arises sin also arises. If not a thought arises there should be no kind of sin or error. But why did the master say that sin, that is error, is as big as Mt. Sumeru?”
When you think you have the answer, you probably don’t. If you do, then you will know but don’t talk to anyone about it! It’s the Buddhist way.
4:00 pm. Work time. Sweep the halls and rooms.
4:30 pm. Dinnertime comes early here! Same food as lunch pretty much. Tasty, but we Americans are a little spoiled with our variety methinks. Van is definitely fed up with the rice and weird veggies at this point. I have to admit, the fermented grass sprouts are a little to perky.
5:00 pm. Tea ceremony with Zen Master. This was quite nice. He gave us some very expensive tea from Taiwan and taught us the proper way to meditate and bow. A little awkward at first but fun all the same and just what we had come for.
6:00 pm. Evening Chants. The chanting hall was gorgeous. Traditional Korean Buddhism doesn’t focus on the statues but loves them as decorations. Zen Master wasn’t much into them but he seemed to appreciate traditions for what they are. This was the highlight of the trip for me. We got print outs of the chants for us to try to go along with it. I’m not sure how well we did with the words but the rhythm and melody was easy to keep up with and almost hypnotic. The monk leading the chants was no Liberaci but the sounds were so foreign and evocative, the experience was almost mystical. You almost couldn’t help but feel you were being transported to another time and place entirely. This for me was the true heart of Korea. Our little window into Zen. A little taste of Nirvana.
6:30 pm. Meditation round two. 2 and 1/2 hours more of focusing on the Hwan Du. My mind is extremely difficult to quite down I discovered.
9:00 pm. Break time.
9:20 pm. Lights out. Slept like a baby. Van, not so much.
3:00 am. Rise and shine for the START of the day (in the middle of the night!) and prepare for round three.
3:20 am. Round 3 Meditation. Slightly shorter round this time. Still no answer has arisen for the Hwan Du though. Concentration was surprisingly good this time however. To be honest, I did a lot of looking around during the last couple meditation rounds. These monks are incredible. How they stay so still and so focused for so long is just beyond me. Clearly I’m not as Zen as I thought I was.
4:10 am. 108 Bows. Full body bows for about 20 minutes. Give that one a try sometime. I got to 66. I think I did the most of the 4 of us. These monks are not only in peak mental condition, they’re in incredible physical shape as well!
4:30 am. Morning Chants. Again, just mesmerizing.
5:00 Meditation round four. SERIOUSLY AGAIN!? I cheated this time around. Took our translation sheets for the chants with me this time just so I could have something new to think about. Say what you will about how un-monkish I was. I did it for the sake of my sanity.
5:50 am. Breakfast. Thank Buddha. Different mushrooms this time. Other than that, pretty much the same as yesterday’ lunch and dinner.
9:00 am. Optional meditation round five. Van and I opted out of that one. We were a little Zenned out at that point. Katie and Garret apparently had a little bit more they needed to meditate over I guess. Props to them for doing it. Buddha rewarded them for it too. They got to have cheesecake with the monks afterwards to celebrate the first day of Spring in the solar calendar.
10:30 am. One last tea time with Zen Master. Talked a little about Buddhism, if we want to join the community which is filled with many different religious types including Christians and told us we were more than welcome to email him to check our answers to the Hwan Du. Also, if we wanted to skype with him, he gives lectures Tuesdays and Thursdays. Coolest monk I’ve ever met. But thank goodness we went when we did and not last week. For some insane reason only understood by the monks, they didn’t sleep all last week, choosing to meditate in place of sleep. Seven and a half hours of meditation was more than enough meditating for me; I don’t think we would have been able to handle extra meditation and no sleep on top of everything else.
All in all, this was truly an experience of a lifetime. Van and I have seen a lot of the world and we’ve done some amazing things but this was definitely one of those rare moments in life that leaves you knowing the impact of it will far exceed the 24 hours we spent there. I have a new found respect for those shiny headed loonies up there in the mountains. Perhaps they aren’t as crazy as I always took them to be. I’ve always thought it was a bit of a cop out to run off into the hills and spend your days sitting on cushy little pillows thinking the time away, waiting for the chaos to pass. Now I feel that maybe Zen Master has it right. How can you still the chaos without, never having faced the chaos within?