Monday, November 8, 2010

Musangsa Temple Stay

I hear the faint sound of a wooden stick striking a hollow wooden gourd. I roll over. It's 3am. That would be the moktok. Time to bow...108 times to be exact. It's a temple stay, and man, I wouldn't have it any other way.

My friend Eric sent me a message on Facebook about doing this weeks ago. Staying overnight at a temple and getting a sense for the lifestyle of Buddhist monks sounded like a cool contemplative experience. I've long held a curiosity for Buddhism and began to learn about it from Mr. Lee, but never got around to going through with a stay. With less than a month left, the now-or-never syndrome is in full effect.

Early on a Saturday morning, we hopped the KTX to Daejeon. I found myself having flashbacks to Christmas 2009. We took a city bus from the train and ended up in small suburb where we took a taxi and made it to Musangsa.

If you're wondering how a group of wae-gook-eens can fall in with Korean monks, I should mention that Musangsa is a actually a special international temple, and most of the monks are either European or American, not Korean. They have a real nifty website that you can view here.

The first order of business after arrival: dress to look the part. Traditional Buddhists robes are definitely meant for comfort, given that meditation sessions can last for hours on end, but I found them to be loose to a point of clumsiness. More on that later.

We soon had an orientation with the rest of our group, close to 15 other foreigners in total. Sitting on floor mat cushions crossed legged, we listened to a monk give an introduction and overview of meditation. It was funny to listen to him speak, because he had that cheeky zen master way of slipping jokes in around deep spiritual questions and I struggled to place his accent. He demonstrated the correct form for sitting zen: either crossed-legged or knees bent with your legs underneath you. For those that couldn't handle either position for extended periods of time he shouted:


But as you can well imagine, the way he spoke about the chair kind of discouraged further inquiry.

After a short break, we reconvened in the meditation hall (above). The temple complex was relatively small, composed of three buildings: the sleeping quarters/dining building, meditation hall/monks quarters, and the main Buddha hall.

By mid-afternoon and I was starting to drag. I hadn't slept well the night before and got up early. As I made my way to the hall, I tried to tune into the zen going on around me.

When I walked into our first meditation session, I sat on the wrong end (with the women, it was separated by sex). I was then made to sit between the two pros that scrutinized my form. Turned out I was able to sit right in neither of the postures, but before we could correct this (no way was I asking about the chair), three stiff strikes of a stick to the floor meant the start of twenty silent motionless minutes of sitting zen meditation.

Around five minutes in, I started to sweat from discomfort. I could feel my legs were already completely asleep. I closed my eyes had to will my way to the end of the session. Sitting there in my baggy robes, I did my best to focus. The power of meditation begins only once you push all thoughts out of your mind and channel your energies toward intense concentration upon nothing. That's right, nothing. Not a thing. If you're thinking about something, you're doing it wrong. I happened to be thinking about how poor my form was, and I had my tingling legs to remind me. Deep breaths.

When we stood up, I almost toppled completely back to the ground. We did walking meditation weaving loops around the hall, and it felt like I was swinging a couple of dense Sunday hams that were attached just below the knee. I couldn't feel my feet all at.

We had a coffee and tea break afterward and by the time I felt blood returning to my toes, it was time for our Dharma talk. A Dharma talk is an open lecture and discussion with a zen master. It raised more questions than answers, but I was particularly interested to hear the visiting master, because he made frequent references to Master Seung Sahn. You may remember Seung Sunim from the book Mr. Lee gave me. The temple followed his "know-nothing" school of Korean Buddhism and there was an elaborate shrine to his memory in their Buddha Hall.

We ate dinner in complete silence, seated cross-legged on the floor (I dealt better), again separated by sex. I made sure not to take a scrap more than I could eat. Monks rinse their bowls with warm water and drink it to get every last bit of sauce or food left. Welcome to the clean plate club.

Later that evening we wandered up to the main Buddha hall for chanting - a disorienting, beautiful, and mesmerizing experience. Buddhist chanting follows a complicated routine of specifically numbered and timed bows, sing-chanting, and in general, just following the flow. If you care to have a listen, this is one of the chant performed that we were encouraged to join: Kwan Seum Bosal

For me, the most confusing aspect of the whole weekend was that we weren't supposed to talk, so we couldn't really ask questions; it was monkey-see, monkey-do for tips on the finer points of practice. I felt like I was doing everything wrong, and I was half giving myself pep talks and apologizing to Buddha as I tripped over my baggy robes trying to keep up. It became increasingly obvious I wasn't alone, and the monks really didn't seem to mind as long as we at least tried. I really admired their openness and positive encouragement.

Before we knew it, it was bedtime, around 8:45PM. Why so early? I guess I already gave it away.

Every day at t
he temple starts at 3:00AM. Awoken by the sound of the moktok, the monks make their way up to the meditation hall for 108 bows to Buddha. Why 108? I wondered myself, and then did the research:

We have 6 doors of perception: sight, sound, smell, touch, taste and thought.
There are 3 aspects of time: past, present, and future.
There are 2 conditions of the heart/mind: pure or impure.
There are 3 possible attitudes: like, dislike, and indifference.

Korean Buddhists use this formula 6 x 3 x 2 x 3 = 108. Thus, 108 bows to "cut through our Karma."

These aren't little bows we're talking about. It starts from full standing position, dropping to your knees, lowering your hands down in front of you to the ground and then your forehead to the ground, then returning back to a standing position with a reverse of those movements. At the pace we did them, it took some fitness and I admit I was sweating by the end. It was made no easier by the fact we began at 3:25AM.

After the bows, it was morning chanting, more meditation and then breakfast. My legs fell asleep again, but I think I dealt with it better this time. After breakfast, the day was very relaxed. We took a hike around the misty mountain and pretty much had the rest of the morning to ourselves.
We had time to reflect, take some pictures, and take a much needed nap.
Flat Adam on a lantern in front of the meditation hall and again in front of the Buddha hall. My cousin sent me his Flat Stanley recently, for those not familiar with the project, check it out here:
The Buddha Hall in full perspective. Note the dragons coming out of the hall - they were actually not just heads - their torso and tails extended inside. I haven't seen this in a temple before.
May the zen peace be with you.