Thursday, September 30, 2010

I can't believe it's not Buddha

After our monstrous rain on the first day of autumn, the weather miraculously stayed beautiful for the rest of our Chuseok vacation week. It was sunny and crisp, just the kind of gorgeousness we've learned to relish but not expect. Fall truly is beautiful here (although the leaves don't get spectacular), and all the more so because it's all too brief.

On Thursday, I discovered the correct bus number to go from our neighborhood to the COEX Mall. (The city government has a website that allegedly tells you how to get from anywhere to anywhere by bus, but it works about as frequently as Kim Jong Il hosts a pie-eating contest.) My destination was Bandi and Luni's Bookstore, my purpose to get the third book in Steig Larsson's oddly compelling The Girl Who... mystery series.

I still had the excellent Seoul map we used on our school photo scavenger hunt and I was amazed to see that Bongeunsa, a Buddhist temple, was right across the street from the COEX Mall/Seoul World Trade Center, which I had visited often. It had been so long since my happy trips to Donghwasa, on the outskirts of Daegu, that I just had to visit Bongeunsa.

The first amazing thing about Bongeunsa is simply that there is a serene, bucolic temple compound right in the middle of one of the most upscale shopping areas in this huge, materialism-mad city. Down the street, you find Jaguar and Porsche dealers, ritzy department stores, the city's poshest hotels, and off in the distance, the huge Olympic Stadium. It's hard to imagine a less likely place for renouncing material goods.

The second amazing thing is that, as I entered the temple, the middle-aged Korean woman at the information desk noticed my "Ithaca is Gorges" t-shirt and asked if I was from Ithaca. I was startled, but (suave devil that I am) recovered and cleverly said, "Yes, I am." She said, "My son is at Cornell!" It's a small weird, after all.

She also told me about the temple's outreach program, in which foreign visitors take part in a tea ceremony, talk with a monk, and meditate. It sounds interesting and it only takes two hours... unfortunately, they hold it every Wednesday and I was there on Thursday; my next Wednesday off isn't until after Christmas. As usual, my timing was peccable.

Although Bongeunsa can't match Donghwasa's grandeur (as the latter is set among the birdsong and little waterfalls of the mountains), the Seoul temple grounds have their own charms. There's a tremendous sense of serenity on the property, with only the traffic noise outside the walls disturbing the crunch of gravel underfoot and the aura of peace that comes from so many hundreds of years of meditation.

I've written in passing before of my affinity for the philosophy of Buddhism: detachment, a peaceful mind, acceptance, living in the moment, and (above all) compassion. I fail at these goals often, but at least I know what I would like to be.

The trappings of the actual religion (the inevitable golden statues and incense, the bowing to a man who instructed his disciples not to worship him, the often-grotesque art, the extremely unlikely cosmology) repel me as much as the philosophy appeals to me. I think that ritual-- of any kind-- just turns me off.

...Tug likes this painting, though.

So I guess I'll never be a capital-B Buddhist, but the Dalai Lama and, especially, the wonderful Thich Nhat Hanh speak to me in a way that probably no other spiritual leaders do. And I love that Buddhism instructs us to renounce our egos and accept our place in the universe, rather than to place ourselves at its center.

Hey, look at me! Look at me! I'm renouncing my ego!

After my visit, I crossed the street to the dazzling neon-LED-jewelry-fashion-go-go-go underground world that is the COEX Mall and got my Larsson book (as well as a book called Buddha or Bust). I went placidly among the noise and haste and remembered what peace there may be in silence.

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