"Yeah, I totally have a Buddha on the dash of my car. Girls think it's hot"--Guy Siting Behind Me in AP Geography class, circa junior year of high school
Quotes like this one have always made me a little skeptical of Westerners who "practice" Eastern religion. I am, somewhat shamefully, in the same league as Geography Dude in that I own a Buddha statue back at home, solely because I think it's aesthetically pleasing (and, of course, it makes hot dudes want to do me once they see it). I guess I can understand why images of Buddha/Shiva et al are so intriguing to Westerners...they are so strangely beautiful to us, and I do realize that it is possible for people to buy/have images of Eastern religions as art, without actually having any devotion/commitment to Buddhism/Hinduism. Just as many people collect Christian art, without actually practicing Christianity. It's just another symptom of people always being fascinated with things that are completely unique to where they come from. With things that they don't completely know or understand.
Anyways, to get this thing back on topic, this past weekend was a three-day affair for me. You peeps back at home had Labor Day off...well, I had Chuseok off. Chuseok is the Korean lunar harvest festival, which is kind of like Thanksgiving in that you are supposed to return to your ancestral home and celebrate your origins. Families across the country gather and give each other ridiculous boxed gift sets of Spam and expensive olive oils (among other things). Traffic is a debacle, and traveling is a pain in the ass, but everyone girds their loins and bears it. Much like Thanksgiving in the U.S.
So since I have no family/ancestral graves to visit here in Korea (WAH), my own fascination with the "other-ness" of Eastern religion prompted me to book a temple stay(two days, one night) at a Buddhist temple called Hwageysa in Seoul for my Chuseok holiday. My partner teacher, Jenny, decided to come with me to spend some time pretending to be a Buddhist (she's Catholic in real life).In true Western fashion, I know little about Buddhism myself...I booked this temple stay knowing only general things, like that Buddhism is focused around finding tranquility within yourself/introspection...ironically, for all of the beautiful Buddhas in the world, Buddhism actually discourages idolatry of any kind. But really, I was looking to learn this past weekend, seeing as 23% of Korea's population is Buddhist.
So we arrived at the temple to check in at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday. The place was packed with Korean families participating in morning services. I saw lots of adorable Korean girls like this one in hanboks, traditional Korean dresses worn on holidays.
We were given really silly brown pajama-like "temple stay clothes," which we wore the entire time.
And we were also given this schedule:
4:00 pm--Work period
9:20 pm--Lights out
3:00 am--Wake up
4:00 am--108 Bows
6:20 am--Work period
7:30 am-9:30 am--Outdoor meditation
As you can see, this was not a weekend for wimps. Each meditation session lasted 40 minutes. That's forty minutes of sitting in the lotus position, not moving at all for fear of disturbing the monk sitting right next to you (in a room that is so quiet you can hear the other people around you swallowing) and not saying a single word. Not to mention the 9 pm bedtime/3 am wake up...just a tad bit different from my normal midnight/7 am routine. The meals that we were served were simple vegetarian fare (rice + vegetables, deelish, and I mean that with no sarcasm), with a "no waste" rule (you had to eat everything you doled out to yourself). Intense.
Before we dove into our first meditation session, the head monk (who spoke pretty terrible English, but was adorable) taught us how to sit in the lotus position (legs crossed, hands held limply in your lap). He also taught us how to bow at the chanting ceremonies: bending at the knees, dropping down onto your elbows without using your hands to support you on the way down. Whilest on the ground, you're supposed to raise your palms to the sky, signifying that "your body is nothing," before rising up to a standing position again. Apparently, doing 108 daily prostrations to Buddha is practice unique to Korean Zen.
So after my weekend, am I on the road to enlightenment? Will my little Buddha statue back at home now be cherished for more than just its prettiness? I don't know. Mediation is one of the most difficult things I've ever done. Though Space Cadet I might be, I'm not a docile lounger by nature, either. I have a hard time sitting though a movie longer than two hours, I can't stand to be alone in this apartment for more than a morning or so...I can't sit in front of this computer and type for more than 30 minutes at a time (all of these blog posts begin as drafts which I edit at intervals). Historically, I find that I think best when I have the opportunity to drift from one activity to the next...or when I'm running, or hiking, or doing something active. So by the time the last session of mediation rolled around, I was screaming on the inside. My muscles were aching from sitting on my ass. I was antsy, so antsy that I was bothering the people around me. I couldn't think about anything important or enlightening. I honestly thought at one point "I am going to die. This is going to kill me." Which is ridiculous and immature, but so am I, so whatever.
For as much as I hated the indoor meditation, however, I loved loved loved the outdoor meditation. In the morning (after the three am meditation session, YEOWZAH), we hiked to the top of a nearby hill, which the the head monk referred to as "the mountain." Hilarious. The hike wasn't killer...just thirty minutes, enough to get my blood pumping. The views at the top were absolutely sublime.
It was completely natural for me to sit and think about things other than my aching butt muscles (or my laundry waiting for me back at my apartment, or my job, or my family back at home) while looking over the cityscape, surrounded by massive granite rocks and trees. I sat and watched Seoul below us...a metropolis just waking up at 7 am. I wondered what people might be doing down there...if they had any idea I was lurking over them in my brown pjs. I felt removed, sitting up there in the trees, but simultaneously a part of something big...if only all mediation could happen outdoors...then maybe I would consider becoming a monk :)
So though I might not be converting anytime soon, I am glad I put myself through a temple stay. Not only did I confirm that I am, without a doubt, attention deficit, I also learned a lot about a beautiful religion that is frequently misunderstood. It is always inspiring to me to spend time with people whose faith never wavers...I admire and envy such folk.
To conclude, here is a really dorky picture of me and Jenny, in which I look like a total tool/tourist in a loaner sunhat from the temple:
May Buddha bless your household; Happy Late Chuseok ;)