January 2, 2010
SoKor Day 23: Hwagaesa Buddhist TempleStay
Today: an overnight experience at a Buddhist Temple, hiking, learning about their culture and waking up the next morning at 5am to bang gongs and meditate with monks!
We got up early and Liz made us a bunch of tasty great stuff for breakfast: strawberry shake, coffee, toast. That was great and we then packed up quickly and headed out right after breakfast cause the TempleStay folks were very definite on their website about the start time of the overnight TempleStay program and I thought it would be not cool to be late. Lisa and I zoomed out after breakfast and found the bus stop pretty quickly. It turns out there was a bus almost directly from Sillim to Hwagaesa Temple! Liz was super helpful telling us the directions and it was really easy to find. She cleaned up her place after we left and planned to meet us later on during the day.
It was a 1 hr direct bus, and the last stop on Bus #152, so it was really straightforward to get there. We arrived just after 11, dropped off our stuff and went right to the orientation room just as things were getting started. We met the other participants, from many different countries including Germany, Russia, USA, Canada, and South Korea. After chatting for a little bit and getting our stuff settled, we all donned our TempleStay Buddhist clothes on top of our regular clothes and headed downstairs for lunch. Fun!
The food was all vegetarian: soup, rice, kimchi and lots of different plates of vegetables. I chatted lots with everyone and it was really cool to hear everyone's reason for wanting to visit and learn about the Monk's culture. A Korean girl working there was a high school student and was volunteering as a translator for TempleStay. She said, "I really like your hair!" - ha ha. That's hilarious. Lisa told me that it's very uncommon for Korean people to see big curly hair like mine so they would be pretty surprised at how different it is from what they see all the time. Haha?!?!! Hilarious. Anyhow, I certainly appreciated the compliment :) The kind Buddhist-y comments continued, as I was getting lunch. The Zen Master for the International Zen Center, (we called him "Sunim") noticed me in line and laughed and then smiled at me, looking insightful. Almost instantly he said, "Are you a Comedian? In the Movies?" I laughed and said, "Well, sort of!"
After lunch we met outside and started our hike up the mountain. Our guide, Sunim, was SUPER FUNNY. He started with some jokes and encouraged us to all take group photos together. We then headed on a 1 hour hike up a snowy mountain, reaching the top and seeing a beautiful view of Seoul. We were having a serious discussion and then Sunim drew a line in the snow with his walking stick, and said we should make teams. Then he started a snowball fight!!!!!!!!!!! I couldn't BELIEVE it. It was SO awesome. This was literally the last thing I ever expected to be doing on a Buddhist TempleStay - having a full-on snow battle with a Zen Master. This is one for the storybooks!
After the, uh, snowball fight, we met some more of the monks. There was another monk who runs a temple near Fairfax, Virginia. These visiting monks were on a winter retreat to this temple. Sunim then asked us to gather around and drew a circle in the snow. He told us a story about student and master, good and evil, opposites, and asked us "if the student wanted to avoid evil (to avoid a beating from the master), should he be in the circle, or not?", and he pointed to the snowy circle that he'd just created with his walking stick. I'm not sure if there was supposed to be an exact answer, but it was definitely meant to be something to ponder. He asked us for our opinions, and I think mine was "the student should stand along the edge of the circle" (i.e., balancing between good and evil) and he laughed and said, "10 beatings!" (meaning the student would have gotten 10 beatings from the master). Other people answered things like, "the student should float above the circle", and he said that wasn't possible, and "50 beatings!" and he laughed. So I don't think we got the "right" answer, but it also seemed like it was a question meant to get us to think of lots of divergent possibilities.
We then walked down the mountain and back to the temple. We had a discussion about the meditation and chanting schedule. The schedule was very detailed and had very well-defined times on it! Liz had arrived when we were hiking and was dressed up in the same TempleStay clothes as us once we got back! Good times to share with a few old friends and lots of new ones.
We started with meditation. First, our Sunim discussed that the "bows" were not praying to idols (for the Jews and Christians in the crowd who would be nervous of this kind of issue) He said that Buddha is a teacher, and the "bows" are actually showing respect to our "inner Buddha" - very interesting! We sat on soft mats in the meditation room and focused on a poem that he had given to us on a piece of paper. He called it a "Koan" (from Wikipedia: "A Koan is a fundamental part of the history and lore of Zen Buddhism. It consists of a story, dialogue, question, or statement; the meaning of which cannot be understood by rational thinking, yet it may be accessible by intuition.")
After the meditation, we walked to the room at the back of the meditation hall and Sunim opened a bag of chocolate cookies!!!! He was SO excited for cookies. "Mmm... So good!" he said. After I ate one, he motioned towards the cookies and said, "Please, please, have some more!" They were really good! This was really interesting. Liz and Lisa explained that the monks don't earn a salary or anything, so they live off food donated by the community, donations, and so on. The cookies were probably donated by someone in the community. It was interesting and awesome how excited they were about the cookies and how eager they were to share them with us, strangers they had just met only a few hours before. Very awesome!
We then vacuumed the area, and helped maintain their operation. The TempleStay is a bit like an old-style hostel - you also help maintain the place as well as having your place to sleep and food. After the clean-up, we went downstairs for dinner (right after the cookies!) Dinner was roughly the same as lunch, pretty much ("very healthy!"). Probably a good idea after all those cookies. We all chatted a bunch more. One of the German girls said to me: "You really are crazy!" since I was joking around a lot. One of the German girls was named "Maike", which she pronounced like "Mike-a", so we had a good laugh about the fact that our names sounded so similar with the Korean accent. She said when they were divving up the rooms by gender, they asked one of the other guys and "Mike-uh" to go move their stuff to the room for the guys. Of course, by "Mike-uh", they meant me, "Mike" and not the German girl "Maike" :) She was really nervous at first they were asking her to move her stuff to the room with the only other man there, until she realized my name was Mike. Haha.
After dinner we helped wash dishes and fold pamphlets. There was a public lecture there that evening and there was some leftover chocolate cake (very exciting!!) and we got into that pretty fierce. The TempleStay lady and the Korean student laughed when I took off my hat. "You look like Johnny Depp!" they said. Whaaaaaa!!! So awesome :) haha, it must have been my backpacker/lazy-traveler goatee and moustache and long curly hair. Hilarious!!
We then went up to a temple room and did some chanting and bows and listening to a bell and monks chanting. After that, and following the schedule closely, we headed back up to the meditation room for a longer meditation. We continued focusing on the small thing, the small "Koan" idea. Sunim said that the small "mustard seed" becomes and "entire tree, forest." The idea was to think intuitively and creatively about the small idea, and try to keep looking at the same idea from more and more perspectives.
After meditating, it was getting colder outside so I went downstairs and got a cup of tea and yapped with the German girls for a bit. After that I took off for bed time, and was asleep by 9:30pm! It turns out the early morning wake-up was not 5:30am as I had heard... it was 3:00am!!!!! So the early bedtime suggestion was a very good one! I was off to dream Zen-y thoughts and relax after some uncomfortable attempted lotus positions today, aiming to improve more the next day.
Welcome sign in the parking lot
Another beautiful roof
Vegetarian lunch, here we come!
Tasty, healthy stuff
Lisa and Me in our TempleStay clothing
Lisa chowing on some seaweed and/or other random vegetarian goodness
Off we go for a "Mountain Walk!"
Our TempleStay group with our Sunim guide, who is the Zen Master for the International Zen Center at Hwagaesa Temple
Lisa on the hike
Me on the hike
A walk in the woods
At the top of the mountain!
Yes, and here comes the snowball fight! Out of nowhere, the Zen Master collected up some snow and started throwing it at people, encouraging us to form teams and have a snowball fight! It was *hilarious*. Just about the exact last thing I would have expected.
Cool frozen water
View of Seoul
The Zen Master, and one of the visiting Monks
Another photo of our big group
More snowball fights
Walking back down towards the Temple
All of our wet shoes, lined up
Amazing artwork underneath the Temple roof
More vegetarian sustenance
Making new friends
...and then we found some chocolate cake and went to town on it.