Jul 11, 2013

Learning to Be Slow, Part 2

This is part 2 of my account of life in a Buddhist temple. To read part 1, please go here.

One thing about Buddhist monastic life is that it's not for the lazy. Following an early bedtime, we were awoken at the ungodly hour of 4:30am, for the pre-dawn bell ringing ceremony. I'm not sure if we had to get up so early because it's high summer and the sun rises early, or if that's just the norm. I'd like to think the monks get to sleep in a bit in the wintertime, but for some reason, I doubt it.

 Even though I'm not a morning person (understatment of the century for those who know me), I found the early start to be strangely pleasant. I think it was because I wasn't expected to speak or interact with anybody else.

Pre-dawn at the temple is almost otherworldly. There are no sounds save the soft shuffle of rubber slippers on stone as the monks and nuns sweep the temple and make morning offerings.

We were lead up to the bell tower, legs increasingly complaining from yesterday's prostrations. There, we stood patiently for our chance to ring the giant metal bell.  I would imagine local residents don't love hearing it every morning at zero dark thirty.

After that, it was time for morning meditation. The previous day's 15-minute session was just a warm up. This was the real deal. We had to sit absolutely still for half an hour under the watchful eye of the Zen Master. Intimidating? Absolutely. However, maybe it was the early morning, or maybe it was the temple atmosphere starting to affect my brain, but I found it much easier to sink into a semi-conscious state that morning. I didn't count, as I had the previous session. It sort of felt like my brain was floating in warm, dark water. I don't remember much of what I thought about, but when the Zen Master clapped the bamboo sticks to signal the end of meditation, I had the sensation of surfacing from a deep pool.

To awaken our stiff, sleepy limbs (which were increasingly sore from the aforementioned prostrations), we were then led in a brisk walking session around the temple courtyard.

As the sun came up, we got a better view of the neighborhood surrounding our temple. It's truly an oasis in the middle of chaotic city life.

After that was breakfast, then we headed back to the main hall to have a traditional Buddhist tea ceremony. Our leader detailed health properties of green tea, and said that with their rigourous daily routines, even monks and nuns need caffeine! I took this to mean that I shouldn't let anybody shame me for my crippling coffee addiction. Even Buddhist monks think caffeine is ok.

The tea was delicious, refreshing, and a much-needed source of energy. While we were drinking our tea, our leader offered to analyze our characters. She is a student of Buddhist philosophy, and says she can tell a lot about a person just by observing them and knowing their name.

This was a laugh. As she went around the circle, telling us things about ourselves with varying degrees of accuracy, it was entertaining to watch people get uncomfortable. Some of the things she said were eerily accurate. Each of us were a different sort of object in nature. For example, she said I am a big tree. I (apparently) cast a large shadow, and people seek shelter in my shade. One of my friends was a torch who sheds light and guides the people around her, and my other friend was a river who accepts everything that comes to her, good and bad, and is good at navigating a variety of situations.

Here's a picture of our wise leader:

On that fun and enlightening note, we wrapped up our little program. Even though I'd only been in the temple for 24 hours, it felt strange to put on my regular clothes, turn on my cell phone, and go back out into the world. I found the serenity of temple life to be a much-needed break from the hectic, often stressful life of a teacher. If they offered a week-long program, I would gladly sign up.

So to anybody in Korea thinking about doing a temple stay, I absolutely suggest you do. It's a wonderfully refreshing way to take a time out from the 'balli balli' of Korean life, so you can learn to be slow.

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