Jul 2, 2013

Learning to Be Slow, Part 1

Life in Seoul is hectic. The unofficial motto of modern Korean society is "balli, balli", or "hurry, hurry." Everything is just fast.

 The need to be fast is always something I've struggled with. I always have to be the first one. I like to joke that I'm not competitive, I just always win.

So when I signed up to do a temple stay at a local Buddhist temple, I was interested to see how I would react to such forced "slowness."

I arrived at the temple midafternoon on Saturday. There were seven people in the temple stay program that weekend, two of them being my friends "P" and "R." We were shown to our room and given our temple uniforms, then told to wait for the rest of the program participants to arrive. We were told we could either wait in our room or enjoy the small library across the hall. Obviously, I made a beeline for the library.

I could already feel the serene atmosphere of the temple affecting me. I love nothing more than curling up with a book and vanishing from the world, so I happily found a comfy patch of floor and delved into a Peet family favorite.

After about half an hour, we were summoned to the main hall where our program would take place. In true Korean fashion, we were given cushions to sit on. Our program leader was this tiny woman who was the embodiment of a happy boddhisatva.  Her kind, smiling face and relaxed demeanor immediately put me at ease.

 She gave us a quick overview of Buddhist philosophy. She said, "Buddhism believes that we have 3 "poison minds": Greedy Mind, Angry Mind, and Foolish Mind. We can sink into Greedy Mind from five things: greed for money, greed for love, greed for food, greed for sleep, and greed for power. All of our angry or foolish feelings stem from our greedy feelings, and all of our greedy feelings come from wanting one of those five things. The three poison minds keep us from accessing our Buddha Mind, which is calm and serene." She said, "Buddhists believe we have poison thoughts 108 times a day, and to make up for it, we must do 108 prostrations."

A prostration is also known as a full bow. You start in a standing position with your hands pressed together in front of you, sink to your kneeds, put your hands and head on the ground, turn your hands palm-up to the ceiling, put them back on the ground, and stand back up. 

Our leader explained that we would do 108 prostrations, and to keep track we would string Buddhist prayer beads as we did it. One prostration=one bead. But, she said, "Prostrations can be hard for beginners. Many foreigners opt to add 2 or 3 beads for one prostration, and that's ok."


As we started the prostrations, we were told to focus on clearing our minds of poison thoughts. As you might imagine, this is easier said than done. My biggest challenge when I try to clear my mind is turning off the narration in my head. Whenever I'm doing something remotely story-worthy, I have a voice in my head instantly taking what's happening and putting it into past tense for future storytelling.
 I tried a few different things to achieve a clear mind. Like every good cradle Catholic with a string of beads in front of her, my first reaction was to start cranking out some Hail Marys. It's like the Catholic version of a mantra.  That worked for a little while, but I couldn't get the cadence of the prayer to match the cadence of my prostrations. Instead, I tried to focus all my mind power on what I was doing. Stand, kneel, head, hands, take a bead, string it, stand up. Repeat. I kept glancing around me to see the progress others had made on their bead strings. Some were ahead of me, some were not. I decided that I wouldn't try to win. I would just finish at my own pace and not worry about who was first. I ended up finishing last, but I didn't care. I had done every single of the 108 prostrations, and felt good. I was making progress.

We were all a bit wiped after the prostrations.

After the prostrations came 15 minutes of meditation. We had to sit perfectly still with our legs crossed, back straight, eyes half closed, hands forming a circle in our lap. No movement allowed. This was a different kind of challenge. Stillness is surprisingly difficult for me to achieve, considering how lazy I am. I kept thinking about my legs, which were slowly falling asleep. I decided to start counting my breaths. I could hear the ticking of our instructors little clock, so I focused on breathing in for 2 ticks, then out for 2 ticks. I ended up counting to 300. It wasn't exactly achieving nirvana, but, again, I was making progress.

We were pretty wiped after the meditation.

 Evening bell ringing followed that. We each got to ring the giant bell one time with the resident nun. Standing next to that gargantuan thing when it was reverberating felt like what I imagine standing next to an alien spaceship would feel like.

After bell ringing, it was dinner time! The temple food was amazing, and completely meat-free. As a former vegetarian, it was wonderfully refreshing to eat such a delicious vegetable-based meal. 

After dinner,we got a little tour of the temple, followed by bedtime. We had about an hour and a half of downtime before bed, which we used to unwind and read our books. We had to have an early lights-out to prepare for our 4:30am wakeup call!


 This post is getting long, so I'll talk about the next day in part 2. In the meantime, please enjoy these pictures of the temple in the evening.

No comments:

Post a Comment