Monday, March 19, 2012

Geumsansa Temple, Korea: The Monastic Mindset

I believe it's a relatively safe argument to suggest that, at least on some level, every person on this planet wants to be more in tune with themselves. There is an astounding variation in the way that people around the world attempt to do just this. Perhaps the first thing that comes to mind when considering such a prospect is religion. I've always been deeply fascinated, although not necessarily invested, in religious doctrine from around the world. I never felt I had enough perspective or experience when I was younger to appreciate religious text, but now I'm just happy to learn as much as I can about world religions in general. The history of the world is deeply saturated in religion, thus it seems almost naive to ignore religion that isn't necessarily native to your country or heritage. That being said, I have an immense amount to learn about religion in general. Religion is indeed something that people devote their entire lives to, and claim to only begin to understand it. I can't foresee myself ever truly declaring utter devotion to any one religion, but I am certainly open-minded when it comes to ideology. Some of the most interesting experiences I've had have been in places of intense spirituality. A monastery I visited in Tibet comes to mind, as well as the mosques of Istanbul, and a particular palace in Xian, China. Religion can often be used for perverse, hidden agendas, but it can also evoke moments of supreme sublimity. Buddhism specifically has been something that has fascinated me over the past few years. I've read several novels on Buddhism, but feel as if I have only scratched the surface of it. Last weekend, I was able to spend a few days at Geumsansa (Golden Mountain Temple) and escape the chaos of the Greater Seoul Area. It was a chance to expand my horizons a little further, and get a more in depth view of Buddhist monastic life. Jason, Jen, Bri and I embarked on a three hour bus ride to a destination that felt like it was in a different world altogether.
Geumsansa was considered to be founded at the beginning of the 7th century. I'm still astounded with the notion that some of the relics I've come across in Korea out-date Canada by roughly a thousand years. It's a thought I try to keep in the forefront of my mind when I'm travelling in Asia, because it's simply mind boggling when you think about it. It's humorous for me to recall a time during high school when I would have considered Shakespeare an ancient historical figure. Geumsansa started off from relatively modest beginnings, but slowly its cultural influence spread. Interestingly, it actually served as a headquarters during the first Japanese invasion for about one thousand training monks. As with so many Korean temples, Geumsansa suffered immense damage due to fire during the invasions. The buildings that stand today were rebuilt somewhere around the middle of the 17 century, and have evidently held up well over the years. Currently, Geumsansa is a head temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. Plenty of ancient relics can be spotted around the grounds, but you can also spot signs of present day worship. The most obvious sign of this worship would be the Buddhist monks who wander around pondering.

We arrived on the temple grounds around the early afternoon and had some time to get acquainted with our surroundings. Eventually, we were all herded together and our prescribed clothing for the weekend was handed out. The monastic wear was surprisingly comfortable, and afforded mobility that I had forgot existed since giving up the unnecessarily baggy clothes of my youth. I could show you a bland picture of myself adorning the monastic clothing, or show you a picture in which I am flying through the air embracing my inner Buddhist warrior. The ceremonies hadn't yet begun, thus it was only natural to release some of my pent up energy.
Arts and crafts were never really my forte. My parents may insinuate that's an incredible understatement, as would several art teachers. To be fair, I was excellent at drawing and arts and crafts in kindergarten, but the problem is that I never truly progressed beyond that. Of course, our first group activity of the temple stay was to create our own lotus flower. It looked to be a task that required nimble fingers and dexterity, which initially instilled in me a covert panic. However, I'd have to say that my lotus flower turned out very well. I've decided that it was the first virtuous lesson of the day. It forced me to test my limits of patience, as well as a little bit of determination. Interestingly, a reporter from KBS picked Bri and I out for an interview. In broken English, she asked whether I thought Bri or my lotus flower was more beautiful. Well, I'm not that good at arts and crafts, so the decision unquestionably went to my loving girlfriend. Apparently the show aired last Friday, so perhaps Bri and I are unwittingly a Korean internet sensation by now.
My lotus lies left, Bri's rests on the right

Bri, Jason, Jen, and I hung our lanterns outside to dry while we went for a monastic dinner. The four lanterns fluttered in the wind like old friends, and looked surprisingly similar in design. The most consequential part of the monastic diet for me was the lack of meat. However, based on Buddhist principles it would seem a little contradictory if they were munching on Korean BBQ. The dinner consisted primarily of the fixings that would appear in bibimbap. I was perfectly content with this, and happily devoured a large portion of rice, assorted banchan, chili sauce and soup. It's not bad to be a vegetarian for a day or two, but anything more than that would begin to effect my general sanity. I'm not afraid to admit that I love meat, and neither is the rest of the Korean population.

Darkness fell at Geumsansa and set a more intimate tone for the evening's events. It also effectively lowered the temperatures by a significant margin. We each got a chance to to warm ourselves up by ringing the traditional bell at Geumsansa's "Bell Pavilion" before retrieving our lonely lotus lanterns. First, we warmed ourselves even further as we practiced our bowing techniques in an intimate Buddhist night service.
We lit a candle in our respective lanterns to "spark" the wishes we had made. The previous picture of the lanterns above shows the slips of paper upon which we made our wish. In the interest of my wish coming true, I'll refrain from posting what I wished for. It's in your interest as well because my wish was quite selfless in the interest of adhering by some of the Buddhist principles I'd previously read about, and found to withhold a definite logic. We walked in a straight line and followed the slow, methodical voice of the monk who was leading the procession. It was beautiful to see the lanterns beaming with light and warmth in stark contrast to the cold, dark night. One unlucky girl apparently had too much warmth in her lantern, which was evident when it burst into flames. The leader of the procession was quick to shrug it off and inform her that it merely meant that she was, "letting go of her internal worries." Nonetheless, I'm still quite pleased to have mine currently hanging up in my apartment. We finished by circling "Seogyeondae", a beautiful lotus-shaped stone pedestal that is believed to date back to the 10th century. We returned our lotus lanterns to our quarters, then went to warm up with some mild Korean tea.

It's a tad bizarre to suggest, but I believe the defining characteristic of Korean tea is its overall mildness. It makes for a very soothing and refreshing cup of tea, but might not go over well with tea enthusiasts in the United Kingdom. We were treated to green rice cakes and tea and encouraged to ask the monk questions. He was really one of the jollier people I've ever encountered in my life, despite looking somewhat contemplative in the photo below. His smile was as consistent in his appearance as his clothes were.
Some interesting questions were asked in the duration of a few cups of tea. Jennifer asked about the symbolism behind the lotus flower, and through a translator we received an interesting answer. The lotus flower blooms in all its glory in generally muddy rivers or unappealing bodies of water. Thus, it symbolizes the ability to maintain purity and beauty in an environment that may not condone or foster it. Conversely, Jason laid out a joke that the monk seemed to get a laugh out of once it was translated properly. The monk, after all, did request funny stories. It was as follows:

Q: What did the Buddhist monk order at the pizza shop?
A: One...with everything. *cue laughter*

Alas, the array of events from the day had tired us out, which was fortunate because it was lights out before 10 o'clock. The early risers, myself included, were planning on attending the 3:30am service. We arrived back at our cabins around 9 and began winding down for the night's rest. I went to sleep before midnight for the first time since I was eight years old, then woke up before 3am for the first time ever. Evidently, it was a weekend of firsts.
My feet felt cold on the interior of the stunning temple, but it was the last thing on my mind. Others entered from the depths of the night into the dimly lit recesses of this remarkable building. The candles were lit and the prayer mats were even separated symmetrically around the temple. Four monks lead the procession and we followed their lead. It's really an experience that is internalized, and thus it's quite difficult to elaborate with the written word. I'll say that although I was tired, it was an awakening of sorts.

It was around 4am and we had an hour of free time, so everybody headed back to the warmth of their beds. However, I decided to wander around the temple grounds by myself, and spend a rare moment to myself in contrast to the chaos of Korean city life. I strolled around with a pensive grin and listened to the divine chanting of the monks still inside the main temple.
We had a meditation session at 5am which was aching to test my leg crossing abilities. I've certainly never been the most flexible of people, and I'm confident that all the lack of stretching during my ice hockey career didn't help in the slightest. As I envisioned, I had no problem getting comfortable mentally but had minor problems getting comfortable physically. It was still an enjoyable use of time, but I don't feel like I actually got to the heart of what meditation is all about. Without question, meditation is something I'd like to investigate further. Although, I'm a tad worried that my lack of flexibility, overly active imagination, and general dislike of coaching and instruction may impede future attempts.

I'll aim to master meditation in the time ahead, but breakfast is something I already have absolutely mastered. However, it was a monastic breakfast with a focus on community, appreciation, and of course, rice. You essentially get a wrapped package that includes four bowls, chopsticks, a spoon, and a towel. You proceed to unload them in the manner of Russian Babushka Dolls and proceed to put food in their assigned bowls (the rice bowl, soup bowl, wash bowl, and side dish bowl).
I feel as if I would have struggled more with this traditional Korean food if it had been just after I had arrived. After six months, it was fairly enjoyable to dine upon this cuisine even just after the break of dawn. Once our bowls were empty, warm "fried rice water" was put into the rice bowl for cleaning. You were meant to clean all the bowls with a yellow pickled radish and the rice water, then drink the water. At the end, the water had a few chunks in it, but realistically it was only left over from the food I had just eaten. It was all about conservation and understanding the notion that this food didn't just appear out of thin air. The water didn't get down as smooth as iced tea, but it was pleasant enough, and ultimately all part of the experience.

After this, the men took part in some friendly wood chopping while the women took to sweeping. It was all part of our hour of communal contribution to the temple before we left. Arguably, my favourite moments of the temple stay occurred slightly after. We made our prayer beads before departing back to society. We were each given 108 prayer beads and a string and told to go and find a temple to pray in. The number 108 is important to Buddhism for many reasons. Specifically in Korean Buddhism, I understand that there is a belief in "108 defilements" or earthly temptations that we must overcome. Therefore, one must bow 108 times for strength in this pursuit. Bri and I headed into the grandest temple there and made our prayer beads over the course of 108 bows, carefully placing one bead on after each bow. It must have taken an hour or so, but we didn't say a word and were blown away by the enormous golden Buddhas before us. Silence isn't hard to sustain when there's simply no reason to speak.

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