That was the title of my 20 hour dip into Buddhism at Myogaksa Temple in Seoul which was lovely, but winding back as usual.....
Last weekend my fellow Whittie and theta, Amy Soderquist, graced Daejeon with her cheerful presence for a visit. Friday night, I caught Inception with my friend Tracy. Pros: great idea and I loved the details of dreaming logistics like the kick. Cons: way over-hyped, I was expecting a twist in the end that never happened. The one thing I still wonder about, and if you solve this for me then you're my hero, is in the part where Leo talks with his wife about how they did have their time and grow old together in the world they made and you see two old hands linking with the limbo architecture in the background. BUT, when they go to end limbo, die, and wake up at the train tracks, they're both young. Why?
Anyways, Sat morning Amy came and we hung out at my place for a bit before making our way to one of Korea's national cemeteries almost at the end of the subway line with Tracy in tow. It was a bit of a trek from the station, I think it was a bit misleading to name it after a landmark that is nearly 20 minutes away but what do I know? It was pretty though, fairly green, surrounded by mountains and with several monuments and obelisks as well. Also, almost every tombstone was decorated in shockingly colorful fake flowers which made for quite the rainbow spread as we walked around. We also saw a huge tribute to Korea's deceased servants and got politely told off for shielding our eyes from the sun with umbrellas in its presence as we were hiding our eyes from their spirits. As a side note, yes this means I've gone Korean and walked around in the sun with an umbrella. In my defense, it's hot. Like, really hot. We hopped a convenient shuttle back to the subway that entirely escaped our notice on the outgoing trip and went to Shi-Chung, or City Hall for a nice lunch of mandu and cupcakes. Amy and I split double chocolate and red velvet. None too shabby. That night, we had galbi which was also delicious and met some friends at a bar downtown. Pretty chill night but pleasant to be sure. The next morning, I took her for her first gimgilbang experience and soaked up the relaxation. I even found this amazing bonus room in the washing area in the locker room that was new to me. I'd never gone in because it was a 75 degree (celcius) steam room and I knew the 60 degree one was quite hot enough for me and with pretty mosaics to boot. However, the hotter one has a small air conditioned water pool inside of it with really gorgeous stone paintings of fish and octopi and seaweed on it. Quite the luxurious find, it felt like the set of a movie save all the old naked women. Amy liked it and I bid her goodbye, very glad to have seen her before I blow this popsicle stand!
The week after she left spanned about an hour until I somehow arrived at that weekend. Friday night, I went back for my final English club meeting. I was really glad to catch up with some of the members and rope them into a potluck I'm throwing this Saturday for some added time with some of my favorite people here. We went for some chicken and then for round 2, we drove like 40 minutes to the edge of the city and had some soju and beer at a random little restaurant. There were only 5 of us and it was very nice and relaxing. They ordered some snacks and I tried abalone (which looks terrifyingly slimy and requires about a thousand chews to subdue) AND a shrimp head. I've only seen people suck shrimp heads in movies about the south and travel shows, much less chew it but I did both. To be fair, I stopped before the eyes but there I was pleasantly surprised...it was crispy, like eating a seafood chip. We sipped and talked until 2 when I decided to be sensible and go home.
Good idea, as I woke up bright and early the next morning to begin my temple stay in Seoul. I navigated some steep little side streets outside the designated subway stop with surprising ease and found the temple about an hour before I had to be there so I went and had a rather disgusting hot dog for lunch. Culinary disappointment aside, I made it back in perfect time and was immediately ushered up into a reception room to change into a grey tunic and harem pants to be worn for the duration of the program. I met some lovely Korean girls who christened me Hye Mi in Korean, or beauty and wisdom. How's that for a first impression? Once everyone was there, we went downstairs to the main program room and all introduced ourselves. It was quite the international group- Korean, of course, plus Swiss, American, French, Polish, Australian, Chinese, Italian, Argentinian, Egyptian and British. Very nice people, I must say. Then, we learned some basic Buddhist philosophy.
One of the biggest truths in Buddhism is that everyone and everything is Buddha. Our only job is to respect each other and do our personal best to recognize and wake up our Buddha mind. Being human, there are several things that get in our way. There are six main failings (among them greedy minds, ignorant minds, and angry minds) and six senses (taste, touch, sound, sight, smell, and thought) six times six times three (for past, present, and future) equal 108, the number of all our potential shortcomings. We do prostrations to literally pour out our mind of its impurities and recognize our mistakes...108 to be exact. To do a prostration, you stand straight, bring your palms together in front of your rib cage, sink down to your knees, tuck your toes under your feet, put your right hand down, then your left hand down, touch your forehead to the ground (thereby establishing five points of contact with the earth) and then flip your hands palm upward and lift them a few inches. Then, the hands go back down, you put one prayer bead on a string, the left hand comes up to you chest, followed by the right, and palms touching, you rock back on your heels and stand up slowly. Yep, we did that 108 full times to make a full blown prayer necklace. I literally couldn't walk down stairs, my thigh muscles gave out every other step so I had to stumble down as best I could clutching the rail for support. My legs still K.I.L.L. but it was a cool experience so no regrets here.
After making the beads and finishing the prostrations, we went to the very top of the temple to do a sunset bell striking ceremony. This was a cool one. A nun chanted in a very rich voice and guided us as we used a medium sized log to strike the bell. It was so big that the reverberations literally throbbed with sound in between tolls, it zinged up your arm. After, we went to the main room for a quick evening chanting service. We basically did about 10 prostrations listening to the monks chanting and I appreciated the cool sort of harmonies that they make. It's a lovely sort of music. Then, we went downstairs for dinner which was surprisingly delicious as I heard horror stories. Buddhism absolutely forbids killing any animals so it was strictly vegetarian but nice- tofu soup, zucchini, onion, radish, mushrooms, noodles. Not bad. During the meal, we were not allowed to talk and strictly requested to finish absolutely everything on our plate as any unconsumed food would come back to us in a future life.
After dinner, we were introduced to meditation. First, Yeo-Yeo, our nun guide to the temple stay with the requisite shaved head and flowing grey robes, explained some more about Buddhist principles. Drawing heavily from both Kungfu Panda and Avatar (which cracked me up to no end---this woman was hilarious and awesome), she explained how our minds needed to embrace the idea of nothing. All of our problems, all of our possessions, our bodies, ultimately came to nothing as they were just lent us for the short space of our lifetime. It is dangerous to attach or fixate on anything outside of yourself because our only real mission is to do the best we can with what's given to us with no mind to result or consequence, that's it. Beyond that, all we can do is trust that things circle back at some unknowable time and that the universe enforces accountability in a way infinitely bigger than ourselves. Interesting thoughts. Then, meditation. Well this was certainly not what I thought....some luxurious, relaxing, languid time set aside for us to lie down with soothing music and think about ourselves. Nope. First, we had to sit in lotus position which is Indian style but with both feet pulled upwards on top of our thighs. I'm 23 and I'm proud to have even managed half lotus. Then, we put our palms down one on top of the other and made a circle with our thumbs, channeling the energy of the universe to the hottest part of our body by our belly button. Then, when the actual meditation started with three clangs of her wooden bamboo switch stick, we could not move a muscle or even look above the spot of floor directly in front of us. And were we supposed to spend the time contemplating ourselves and the universe? Uh-uh. We counted our breaths. I kid you not. The first time, we only did it for 8 minutes and I got to 28. After that, we talked some more and then went to bed on the floor. By Korean standards, it was luxurious though, very cushy bedding and a rice stuffed pillow. However, they didn't turn off the Buddha in the room for the night so it was like sleeping with an overwhelming, golden, blinding night light. Weird to wake up to at 2, let me tell you.
What little sleep I did get (that insomnia thing has not gone away and I've accepted it probably won't until I'm home) ended at the reasonable hour of 4:30 with the sound of the same wooden bamboo switch. We shuffled awake, and shuffled back to the top of the temple for the predawn bell striking ceremony, unable to speak. It was kind of cool to hear chanting coming from the main room and then hearing the bell tolling out over the sleeping city. Then, back down to the program room for more meditation. This time, the temple's zen master came down which was cool. He was this old-ish but well preserved monk and it was cool to see how everyone deferred to him. Apparently, he's the head of Buddhism in Korea and is regularly consulted by Korea's president, Lee Myung Bak. Translated by Yeo-Yeo, he told us that you can't climb the Himalayas without preparation and without the right mind, but with the right mind, you can do anything. Very kung-fu movie sensei. Then, we were plunged into 20 minutes of meditation, a 1 minute break, and 20 more minutes. I am proud to say that despite two really intense ear itches and a tired back, I did not move. I did not look up. I breathed 74 times the first session and 72 the second. So boo-yah. As for profound self realizations, they were pretty much nowhere to be found but that wasn't the point. They told us very sternly that it is a form of greed to attempt too much with meditation and no one finds their Buddha mind without lots of practice, but I do suppose it was peaceful in its own right. Little stupid thoughts kept intervening, like how much there is actually to look at in the pattern of wood grains, but I kept counting, I did not look up and I did not move. Interesting. I especially didn't want to move or be the one to cough or anything because they told us they bang the bamboo switch on anyone who fell asleep or was too restless and it doesn't necessarily hurt but it's loud so it disturbs everyone else and informs the room you're thoughts have strayed. They didn't end up using it but the zen master stayed for our meditation so no way was I going to be that person who couldn't sit still.
After the meditation, we went for a walk on a little hill behind the temple. It's one of three surrounding Chongwadae (presidential house, remember?) and so part of the feng shui of ancient Korea. By then, it was about 7 and it was already sticky and slightly uncomfortable towards the end. There was a nice portion where we were supposed to slowly walk and identify and pour out our flaws, relaxing. Then, breakfast. This one was more of a struggle because even though I've been here for a year, I'm still not used to eating the exact same food for breakfast as the other meals, despite my long relationship with day old pizza. We had a very similar menu to the night before and it was far from gross, just weird at that time of day. After a break, we had a traditional tea ceremony. THIS was cool. The ritual is really precise. First, you pour hot water in the tea pot, swish it out, and dump it in the waste bowl to cleanse it. Turn over the tea cups. Then, you pour hot water in the preparation bowl and do the same thing, followed by the tea cups. Pour more hot water into the bowl. Then, you put two and a half scoops of tea in the tea pot, swish and quickly dump it into the waste bowl to wash the dust from the tea. Then, fill the bowl with hot water and pour that hot water into the tea pot from a decent height to produce the bubbly, aerated sound. While it brews, grab the three tea cups with tongs and stack them inside the bowl. Fill it with hot water until it spills over the lip of the third cup over the second and first to the bottom of the bowl. Then, turn the third cup over on its axis and spin the rim through the water now collected in the second cup, shake it off, and put it on its saucer. Repeat for the second and first cups and dump the water. Then, pour the tea into the bowl so it mixes properly. Fill the first cup a third of the way, the second cup a third of the way, and the third cup a third of the way, then fill the third cup the rest of the way, the second cup the rest of the way, and the first cup the rest of the way, to ensure everyone gets tea of comparable quality. The "tea master" (which was me) hands a cup to the most honored guest first, usually the adult male, who takes it with both hands and raises it up and then down to thank the tea master. The rest of the cups are handed out, the tea master is thanked, then the tea master tells everyone to enjoy it. Then the guests have to say how wonderful it is. Although it's still not my first choice to curl up on a rainy afternoon, green tea is growing on me and I enjoyed the ceremony. It is one of the few things monks and nuns will splurge on, this was expensive stuff.
After that, we were done and I changed back and headed out to Insadong to pick up some last stuff- a bracelet of mini Bhuddist prayer beads with the year of the rabbit for when I was born, and metal chopsticks in anticipation of the delicious stir-fries and ramen I'll make when I get home.
All in all, despite my absolutely aching thigh muscles (even two days out), this was well worth doing. If I came to any personal conclusions, it was that I could do with thinking about nothing more and letting go. I think too much. I need to analyze less and trust. Anyways, it was also a nice feeling to realize how at home I felt in Seoul. There was no anxiety whatsoever navigating myself to the temple, being on my own, or hopping a bus back and I remember how far from that I felt when I first came months ago. How could I have described the subway system as a heap of worms? It's the easiest thing to navigate in the world. As predicted, just in time to leave, I've found my bit of peace here.
This also applies to food. Realizing I now have less than two wees left I've tried to not eat foreign food as much. Good choice. I've had a lot of bibimpop and mandu and tried some new stuff. Donkatsu is a fried pork cutlet filled with cheese and tastes like a Korean mozeralla stick. YUM, so glad I didn't discover that until now because that would not have been good for my health. Tonight I also picked up a tofu soup that was mild and nice and I also tried oma (mommy) rice, which is fried rice with veggies wrapped in an omelet with a sauce on top. Heavy but also not bad. I plan on having more and again, I find it tragic and ironic that I finally lose my fear of Korean food just in time to go back go burgers and fries. Ah well.
So, 2 weeks to go. Can't wait to come home. My big sister Caitlin just got engaged this week so I should be arriving in the thick of quite the bustle. Feelings are getting more mixed, Hannah (one of my 7 years) has now started quietly hugging my arm and hopping in my lap almost every class when she's done and despite me teaching her for 6 months, she only started this after I announced my departure so every time it breaks my heart. She's a perceptive one and I think she understands and feels more than she lets on....this will be quite the transition and I'll be sure to let you all in on every sappy stage of it.