a day in the lifeMarch 19, 2007
The temple trip was only 24 hours, but it was just what I needed. I feel refreshed, refocused and re… uh… re… uh… really hoping my better half gets here soon
A warning: A LONG post follows… with pictures, and videos, and mp3s, and long religious digressions. Beware. You might be bored, you might not make it to the end. But, the post is as much for me and my scrapbook as it is for you, so certainly, don’t feel obliged.
If you have dialup, you might reconsider clicking on this. If you want to know the details, email me.. I’ll tell you all about it (and why you should invest in broadband).
Friday – 4.20 a.m. wake up without alarm. I’m obviously raring to get outta Seoul. I packed th night before, so, that’s all set. I eat an apple, set the cats up with huge bowls of food and water, and head off.
4.45 Walk 30 seconds from my house to the nearest street. Wait for a cab to arrive.
4.45.30 Get in cab and head off to Yongsan Station.
5.10 Arrive to an almost empty and very quiet Yongsan Station. Of course, there may only be 30 people in the whole station, and the next train won’t be leaving for 20 minutes. But that doesn’t mean that someone won’t try to skip in front of you in line. I wasn’t having it. “Ajeossi – I’m standing in line right here. There is no need to skip. Are you in a hurry?” “No, well why don’t you move forward.” “And kiss the people who are buying tickets right now? Just wait patiently sir.” So, he skulked behind me, forced to wait a total of 37 more seconds than he would have, dagnabbit.
5.15 hodeeho… waiting for the 5.30 train… stroll about the station. What’s this? A long-term live-in protest in the station. Woah… they’ve been sleeping there for months. Unfair termination, I gather.
5.20 A bad bit of advertising for KORAIL, I’m suddenly nervous about the train trip. Are we heading off a cliff?
5.30 And we’re off! An empty train… quiet, clean, and made for snoozing. But first, a portrait of the pilgrim as a young(ish) man.
5.30 – 7.56 My last sight before losing consciousness was the Train Bound for Hell. Sleep interrupted only by intermittent shock of cold drool that had pooled up enough to cause dampness on clothes and face.
7.57 am. Arrival to Hongseong. What a city! Not really… they didn’t even have an open restaurant outside the train station. In Korea? That’s sheer madness.
8.00 walk to the central bus station, finally find open restaurant. Order doenjangjjigae. Walk to ticket office to inquire about busses that go to Sudeok-sa. Surly ticket agent answers in grunts and stares. Whatever, I have doenjang waiting for me when I get back.
8.05 Breakfast… and a soap opera on TV. Father-in-law yelling at son-in-law, wife crying to husband, stir, repeat. Try to stifle laughter fail, meriting the ajumma’s scorn. Good thing she made my breakfast before the TV came on.
8.20 Drink three cups of cold water to numb scalded mouth. Must try, try, try to wait before eating stews that come to the table still boiling. Couldn’t help it… hungry. Go back to ticket window, find friendlier looking agent. Success… next bus leaves in 20 minutes and the cost is 2200W (about $2.50).
8.40 Hop on city bus bound for Sudeok-sa. Bid farewell to mildly art-deco-ish-tic Hongseong Bus Terminal.
I have no idea what that Cola sign says… “Anybody – Adult – Cola – Tech!” I’m dumb, or the sign is dumb, or both. Pro’lly both.
A dashing halabeoji sits in front of me. I have the same hat. I realize then and there, to the very core of my being, how little fashion I have.
9.00 The sun is up higher now, and the bus rolls on.
9.20 I’m getting eager to arrive to the destination. Where is it? Which way are we going?
Oh, THAT WAY.
9.30 Woot! We arrive to Doksung Provincial Park. Only two people remain on the bus. The driver and I. One of us must leave. It had to be me.
Most every mountain temple has at it’s base area a street full of tourist shops and restaurants. The restaurants always have “mountain vegetable bibimbap” which is truly divine (check the pic on the link… all that for $5!!!) and lots of alcohol, which is less so. Mountain climbers love the juice when they are done climbing. For the monks and pilgrims on their way to the temple, it makes for an interesting gauntlet of iniquity. Hmm… maybe just a nip on the way home? After I’ve done my penance…
9.40 Ok, through the tourist gauntlet and on my way to the temple. How do I know the temple is near? Good question with a simple answer. Little stone pagodas start popping up everywhere.
I don’t know how best to explain these things. Pagodas are originally structures meant to house the remains of the Buddha, but have evolved into being more symbolic structures, of the Buddha specifically, and of enlightenment more generally. There is also a long shamanic tradition in Korea of making piles of stones, especially on mountains, to gather energy or calm spirits. Mix these together and you have the common practice of little stone pagodas, called dol tap in Korean, cropping up here and there all over Korea… (and in Ann Arbor, too!)
9.50 I’ve arrived. Laid out before me, the many gates of Sudeok-sa.
The first two gates have statues inside. The first gate has two dharma protectors, and the second gate has the Four Heavenly Kings. They are all meant to scare the bejesus (or, uh, bebuddha) out of the badness that resides within you, to purify you before you enter the special inner sanctum of the temple. Would these faces scare the bad out of you?
Being raised a Catholic, I know by frightening religious iconography. I know the effect that has on an impressionable youth. These kings are equally frightening to Korean kids. I know many Korean people my age who to this day are scared of temples because of the fright these guys put on them when they were dragged along for temple visits as we little ones. Sometimes religious art works too well.
10.00 I hate getting sweaty when I haven’t packed many clothes for a short trip. So, I’m taking my sweet time walking the many stairs that ascend this multi-staged mountain temple. My leisurely stroll includes a nice break at the spring. All temples have springs. And all springs have little drinking cups waiting for you.
Thank you. Don’t mind if I do.
10.05 The final stage.
What waits above? The main temple yard, with a few pagodas, the monks’ quarters, and the main Buddha hall.
I know the manager is expecting me, as a good friend had called ahead and made sure they had space for me. But, before I got on with the officialties I thought I’d linger just a little while in this space of our fresh first meeting happiness. Another drink of water? Why, sure!
And how about this, a happy and friendly Jindo-gae (Jindo dog) who seems mighty comfortable, welcoming/guarding the main Buddha hall. She was very sweet and we shared quite a few happy moments. Like many of the other folks I’d see at the temple over the next 24 hours, she’d pop up here and there, doing whatever it was she was doing, content with her own stories and just happy to be sharing in this quiet and peaceful space.
10.15 Okay, even vagabonds need manners. It’s about time I make my presence known and bid greetings to my host. I found the general office and before I could introduce myself, the general manager rose, smiled, and said, “We-ge-ha-u-puh-tuh?” “That’s me!” And that was that. He rushed me out and took me to my room. He apologized that it wasn’t “special” and I just laughed. “Special? I’ll just take warm! No problem.”
After showing me where the latrine was (always a separate affair at temples… such a problem for someone like me with a small bladder and frequent nighttime “trips.” Reminds me of life at the cabin where nighttime trips mean going outside in the freezing, dark woods) and then took me to the temple’s tea house. Tea houses at temples are now all the rage. They are meant to bring in a little extra cash, and thus, could be criticized as a form of “commercializing” the temple. Yeah, there is a little of that. But, it doesn’t bother me like it seems to bother some folks who have these extremely pristine notions of what Buddhism and temples should be. It takes money to live, to be able to have guests come and stay, and to support a huge temple. What better way than to take advantage of the calm and pleasant mood there? Anyways, I liked it. Had a yummy green tea and some cherry tomatoes.
We chat for a while over tea. I tell him my story, he tells me his. Then he has to get back to work and leaves me with the “cultural expert” who works as a volunteer at the temple. The expert is a retired elementary school teacher who knows everything about the temple. He gives me a short tour and all the explanations he has mastered in his many years of guiding. I learn that… the main hall is really old (almost 700 years old), there is a common myth that Sudeok-sa only has nuns, and that they have a huge painting of the Buddha that they unveil once every 10 years. I’ll have to come back in 2008 to catch a glimpse. After the tour, we go to eat lunch at the temple cafeteria. The meal is fabulous, totally vegetarian. The kimchee is delicious, lacking the icky shrimp sauce that spoils an otherwise perfect condiment. With the meal over, the guide bids me leave, and my wandering is allowed to commence. Time to hit the mountain trails to find the other jewels around Sudeok-sa.
1.00 pm After a medium-length hike up the mountain trail, I come upon a charming little meditation hut. More like a cabin.
Hmm… what’s inside? Let’s see… Oh wait. Let’s not. The path is blocked by a roof tile with a message for interlopers such as myself:
Praying – Do not enter. Alrighty then, you pray then. I’ll take it further up the mountain.
1.45 Nearing the peak, I find a cool statue of Maitreya Buddha. Maitreya is the Buddha of the future, the one who comes after Gautama, the guy we know as “The Buddha.” If Christians have millenarian hopes of Christ’s second coming, Buddhists are waiting for Maitreya. In time’s past, there were thoughts that his arrival was impending. We’re still waiting. ‘Til then, his statues will have to do.
Next to the Maitreya statue, I find another little hermitage. Looks charming. I can’t imagine how lovely this must be during the winter. What’s inside? I don’t know. There’s another sign telling me “No entry!” Hmmph. Monks are like that sometimes.
2.00 After some more climbing, I come across a larger hermitage with two large buildings. They aren’t special looking, so, no pictures. There is nobody outside and it is really quiet. Here is where the hardcore training of the monastery takes place. The monks up here do communal meditation training, sitting for hours on end, living of meager rations, and keeping all talking to a minimum. An interesting lifestyle, to say the least. I feel one million miles from the hustle of Seoul.
2.30 A bit further past the monastery, I find my first signs of life up the mountain. Some of the monks take time off from meditation to deal with more quotidian affairs, like making sure they have food to eat.
You’ll notice the use of modern conveniences… plastic to ward off weeds and a gas powered roto-tiller. Again, I could hear more cynical visitors to be scoffing, but, then again, I ain’t the one halfway up a mountain doing the labor trying to eke out a living, so, I don’t feel any need to judge.
3.00 I make it to the peak and chat with some other climbers who’ve made the ascent from the other side. They note that “America doesn’t have mountains like this, cute, small mountains. They’re all so big over there.” I don’t feel like talking much, or correcting their misconceptions, so I just nod and smile. People think lots of things about the U.S. Some of them are opinions, and, well, they’re entitled. Others are facts, and a lot of them are wrong. This is just another example.
3.30 After beginning my descent, I realize that I’m really sleepy. I find this immense boulder that has a natural indentation that looks like a spoon. Smooth indentation, almost body sized… looks like a perfect spot for a nap. Here I am, moments before drifting off…
4.00 Yawn! Time to get up and get down. I come across a really cool “natural “gate…
and a little further down, a beautiful bird’s eye view of the main temple grounds:
4.30 On the way down, I come across a few more little hermitages. In front of one of them, I find the most interesting “dharma protector” I’ve ever seen. This one is really, really frightening.
The hermitage itself is really cool though.
No “no entry” signs here, but, I didn’t want to just invite myself in. So, I kept on towards the temple grounds.
5.30 Dinner! Another fresh temple meal. I could really, really get used to these meals. Mushroom and radish soup, potatoes, spinach, and cabbage side dishes, and rice. Sigh.
5.50 The evening services don’t begin until 6.30, so I have a little while to enjoy the peace and quiet. I’m sleepy, but resist the urge to retreat to my warm room, wishing instead to drink this all in, knowing that 24 hours later I’ll have plenty of time to be inside. A few monks pass through the yard. Some come to say “Hi.” One monk offers a cup of coffee from the vending machine. Coffee vending machines are everywhere, even temple yards. I accept and we share some pleasantries. He asks what my hwadu is. I tell him that I’ve never received one officially, “life, I guess.” “That’s a pretty good one,” he says. “What’s yours?” “Who am I? Who is the one who controls my mind? What is it?” “That’s a good one too,” I say. I ask him how his life is up here on the mountain. He’s been here his entire monastic career, he says, but now his health is failing and his time here might be dwindling. I’m sad to hear his news, as his is a very kind and gentle spirit. His eyes seem to share my concern. He obviously likes his life here and doesn’t wish to see it end. Monks, contrary to common opinion, are not all “world deniers.” They enjoy life, too, and hate to see it pass. They practice in order to get the most out of it, not to deny it.
The late winter winds start up and the warmish day starts to turn rather bitter. With a sigh, he apologizes and says that he’d love to chat, but with the cold and his health, “well, you know.” As he leaves, I can’t help but feel sad… and thoughts turn to somber things. A year has passed since my grandmother died. I’m glad that I’m here to honor that memorial.
Another monk comes by, and then another. The first seems somewhat senile. He looks very old and he cackles a lot, for seemingly no reason. Could be one of those crazy mystical monks, or, could just be senile. Anyways, the second monk comes over to lure the first one away from me. He says I should get inside, that it’s getting too cold. I bow and smile and choose to stick it out. The moment is too precious to waste. I caught it on video. You can hear the cackling monk in the background… behind the wind and the tinkling chimes.
6:30 The evening services begin with the playing of the “four instruments,” the dharma drum, the wooden fish, the cloud gong, and the dharma bell. These four instruments are meant to send sounds of liberating enlightenment to all corners of the universe and to all the creatures that reside within. The drum is for land animals, the fish – creatures of the sea, the cloud gong – creatures in the air, and the dharma bell – to all beings in the netherworlds. While the more devout would be in the main Buddha hall by now, I can’t help but stick around the yard to catch the vibrations first-hand. A quick peak of this video of the drumming may give you an idea why I wouldn’t want to miss it.
After the drum is done, I hightail it up into the Buddha hall to get some prostrations done and to sit a little meditation to calm down a bit before the evening service gets started. As the only foreigner in the whole place, I’d rather not come in late. After a little while, the big bell starts to toll and you need to get ready for the service to begin.
The procedures for entering the main Buddha hall follow a certain ritual – you enter the side door, first taking off your shoes, you bow to the main Buddha statue, get a cushion, find your spot on the wooden floor (not in the middle, that’s where the monks will be), do three prostrations to the Buddha statues, and to both side walls of the hall (the right side has a “guardian platform” with a painting of various protectors of the teaching and the left side has a “memorial platform” for deceased members of the temple community), and then finally sit down on your shins.
Prostrations are done a’like so:
The evening service goes quickly. It consists of numerous prostrations and bows that go along with a chant called the “Three Homages”
and another chant called the “Heart Sutra”
It’s a very interesting experience in which to take part. My first few times many years ago were a bit daunting, as most younger people are relegated to the front positions, such that if they trip over words (there are no missals or the like used, everything is by memory) or if they mess up doing prostrations or whatever. You can feel the eyes on you when you trip trying to get up from a prostration. Oh well, humility is the best medicine, right? Now that I’ve done it a bunch of times though, it’s not a big deal.
I hadn’t been a part of an evening service in a while, so, it was a very powerful experience. In the darkness of the high-ceilinged, ancient Buddha hall, with candles flickering in front of various multi-colored paintings and the three glistening golden Buddha statues, it is hard not to get goosebumps when the entire assembly starts chanting together. Some of the monks have incredibly strong and vibrant voices, yet it’s the mix of strong and weak, vibrant and wobbly that gives the whole thing its special flavor. I particularly like the climax of the Heart Sutra, which I think lies in this line, 3/4 of the way through this short chant:
The Bodhisattva depends on the perfection of wisdom
and the mind is no hindrance;
without any hindrance there is no fear.
Feeling no fear as the ceremony came to a close and the various monks and lay folk beat it out of the main hall to get back to whatever it was they were busying themselves with on this chilly late winter night, I decided to stick around with the one monk leading the chant and two new trainee monks. They actually go through a couple more longer chants, but these aren’t considered mandatory. It’s feels to this old Catholic like how some people bolt from Mass after communion. It always makes me giggle a bit. I didn’t join in the chanting, but I did want to get myself up and down on the meditation cushion a few times, to take part in the common practice of doing 108 prostrations.
This practice derives from the Buddhist notion that there are 108 “doors” through which ignorance can penetrate and delude the mind – 6 senses ((taste, touch, smell, sound, sight, thought)) X 3 times ((past present future)) X 2 states of mind ((pure or impure)) X 3 types of responses ((like, dislike, neutral)) – or, there is another interpretation specific to Korean Buddhism you can read about here… something I learned just now!
ANNNNNNNYhew… so, I get myself to prostrating. Not an easy proposition, let me tell you, not after a long time having not done it, nor after a long day climbing up and down the mountain, nor after being tired from a long run the day before and a long day of travel. But, nevertheless, I had big things in mind, lots of reasons to bow, and nothing better to do… so. And it was good. At first, the pain and bowing gets old. Then, it gets new. Then it gets neither old nor new. Then it just gets, and i think that’s part of the point. Theologically, it’s said to be ideal practice for a) burning off bad karma from stupid things you’ve done, and hence, shedding the regret that haunts your life; and b) instilling humility to make sure you don’t create more bad karma. I’m not sure what it does, but, it doesn’t hurt… uh… well, yeah, actually it does kinda hurt the next morning, but I mean in a spiritual sense. With the 108 prostrations done, it’s time for me to leave the rest of the chanting to those for whom the stay is mandatory, and I bid farewell to the main Buddha hall.
7:30 Now it is pitch dark and really chilly out. I’m ready to wander around the yard a little bit and see if maybe I can find a friendly monk who will give me tea (cruisin’ the temple yard? that’s sad, no?). But instead, just as I’m about to head off, I hear from an adjacent hall, devoted to the Bodhisattva Kwanseum, the familiar pealing of the moktak and the kwanseum chant.
Here’s a short video of the hall and the moktak (wooden gong) from earlier that day:
Kwanseum has a long history in East Asian Buddhism. She is considered the embodiment of the perfection of compassion, and her name means, “perceives the cries of the world.” It would take books and books to fully explain her story, indeed, she used to be portrayed as a man… Let’s just say, she’s a very nice role model for those of us who want to be a little more compassionate each day.So, I hear the kwanseum chant coming out of the dark and head on over to the shrine to partake a bit before I head off to bed. A nice way to relax and fill my heart with good vibes before I drift off to sleep…. or so I thought.
So, when I enter, I realize that they hadn’t started quite yet but were doing the preliminary introduction. The constant “kwanseum bosal, kwanseum bosal…” was yet to come. So, I got a cushion plopped down and tried to rest my mind a bit. A few minutes later, the introduction wound down and it was time to get started for a long bit of chant induced compassion trance… sounds weird, i know, but after a mad few weeks of work and research in a city of 200,000,000,000 people, weird is just fine as long as it keeps me calm and happy.
Oh but wait… what’s this? They’re getting up to stand? I was liking the sitting myself. Well, okay, fine. I need to stretch my leg… uh, oh god, no, what’s this? Prostrations!? No… NO….. NOOOOOOO>>>>
And so it began. With only four of us in the shrine, two of us being old women, I was not about to be the only one just camping out on my ass. No, my pride and sense of community was just not up to the shame I would feel if I didn’t now join in. So, back to the cushion. Again… and again… and again… and again. Oh lordy… that lasted a long time. Way more than the 108 I could barely do just 10 minutes previous. At least the monk had a great voice and I didn’t have any problems forgetting the words. Kwanseum bosal~ Kwanseum bosal~ My legs will fall off~ My legs will fall off~
In the end, I couldn’t make it to the end. I had to beg off after about 45 minutes. It was just too much to take. But by that time, my sense of shame has been burnt away by the lactic acid pooling in my quads. I had done my duty to the community. And really, nobody cares at the temple what you do, as long as you don’t bother other people. Still, I just felt I couldn’t be a lazy buns. All in all, I’m glad it happened and gave the day a goofy climax.
Oh, here’s a version of the kwanseum chant…
8:25 Finally, my room. I was so insanely cashed by this point. I could barely take my clothes off before I passed out. In fact, I didn’t take my clothes off before I passed out.
8:45 A knock on the door… The lady in the room next to me wants to turn down the heat. I recognize her from the teahouse upstairs. She looks a lot like my old nextdoor neighbor from Ann Arbor, but a Buddhist version (little less makeup, little less perm). I find out that the main heating controls are in my closet. How convenient. She wants to know if the room is too hot. Yes, indeed it is. She turns it off and laughs at me. “You’re really tired, huh?” She’s got a very nice smile. It’s a smile that makes me think that living here for a while wouldn’t be too bad. The heat is off, a little crack in the window provides a great chilling draft to counter the boiling hot floor, and i get everything ready for the early morning wakeup.
8.50pm – 2.59am sat. ? the void ?
Sat – 3.00am – A huge moktak and the vibrating tremors of a monk’s chanting fill my slowing waking conciousness. A-yup, it’s 3.00am alright. Rise and shine… er… no wait, there is no shine. Rise. I throw my clothes on (same one’s from yesterday, I didn’t pack any more) and run to the toilet. I throw some cold water on my face to wash up a bit and shock myself a bit more awake. I go back to my room to put away the bedding and clean up my things before heading off to the temple yard.
3.30 am. The instruments ring out again, same as last night, only this time, they come thundering out of the pitch dark. My cold induced goosebumps get goosebumps. I want everyone I love to be with me right at this moment, to see/hear/feel something that is just out of this world. This is why I fell in love with Korea, in all honesty. 3.30 am in the temple yard…
3.45 Morning services. Same as the night before, but a tad bit longer with one or two other chants thrown in. I forgo the 108, considering the extra two,tree 108s I did last night. That karma will have to burn another day.
4.15 What to do, what to do? Go back to bed before breakfast at 6? Yes, no, yes, no, yes…. no.
4.45 I’m back near the top of the mountain, sitting next to the Maitreya statue and wondering how stupid I was to not remember that, no, in fact, there would be no sun till well past 6.00am because just yesterday when you left the train station at 5.30am it was still pitch dark. Hmm. 4.15 am will do that to a fella. The traversing around the mountain was not a loss. I wanted to see the sun rise and the temple emerge from the mists, but, it wasn’t to be. Instead, I got a good dose of “overcoming fear” as I traipsed slowly through the pitch black stone trails. It wasn’t the safest thing to do, but I was on a well-tread path and had seen everything the day before. Had I not, it would have been dangerous and very stupid. But I remembered the trail perfectly and had no problems. I couldn’t help but think about how frightening this must have been back in the day, when tigers were still prevalent on the Korean peninsula. Damn. Just… damn.
5.15 I’m back in my room. I leave all my clothes on and just plop down on the heated floor, rolling against the wall. Ahh, I earned this bit of laziness.
5.55 The morning meal bell rings. Breakfast ensues. It is St. Patty’s Day and luckily for me, though I’m not in green, they are serving cabbage soup!
6.15 One last trip to the main Buddha hall. I say some prayers for the recently departed, and the ones still here with us. I’m full of love and hope for both. I sit for a good halfhour, counting my breath, quieting my mind, and reminding myself to remember this calm when the craziness of Seoul gets me down.
7.45 I clean my room and look around the yard to say goodbye to the manager. It’s too early for him to be at work, but I have to get going. I sit in the yard just a bit longer, not wanting to linger, because I really hate lingering, but not wanting to miss every last opportunity to drink this all in.
8.00 Depart the temple grounds
8.40 Catch a bus to Yesan
9.30 Buy a ticket to the next train to Seoul, leaving at 10.10
10.00 Get accosted by weird dude who wants to know my name. I tell him my Buddhist name (Bon-yeo/本如) and fake like I don’t speak English. He laughs and continues speaking English.
10.10 Board train, have weird guy grab me and take me to sit in his seat while he stands. The train is sold out, so, I’d be the one standing otherwise. Decide I should speak a little English now to pay him back.
10.10 – 11.10 Proceed to be tested on my Chinese reading skills for the next hour. “What’s the weather like today?” Yes… charming.
11.15 – drift into serious weirdo territory as he visciously scratches out a sentence fragment and demands to know “What do YOU think? What do YOU think?” The fragment? – I swear, I think I got my hwadu or something:
Very Nasty people
even Korean people
hate the very sight of
What do I think? I think I’m gonna start telling you directly in Korean that you don’t make sense and that I have no idea what you’re talking about and that I can’t answer questions I don’t understand.
11.20 “You know… you CAN’T forgive bad people. You CAN’T forgive evil people. They will take advantage and kill you and hurt you again and again.” Sir… you are looney too too tunes. “Hmmm… really? Yes your are right indeed. I won’t forgive them, I’ll HATE THE VERY SIGHT OF THEM.” He smiles, content that I’ve learned his lesson. I pray his stop comes soon.
11.30 His stop came soon!
12.20 Arrive in a bustling, noisy Yongsan station. Hail a cab to get home (the 15 minute cab ride cost more than the two hour train ride! bad, lazy, matty), in the shower, and catch a nap before my appointment at 3. Back to the grind…