Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Empty stomach, full day

Many of my friends have, one time or another, gone on a "Templestay". This is the program that immerses its visitors in a day and a half of life in a Buddhist temple. Never having been that hot on sleeping on the floor and being awakened 'way before dawn to squat cross-legged and gimpy-kneed (and caffeine-free) on a different floor to meditate, instead I tried the "Templelife" program, a 2-1/2-hour sojourn at Bonguensa. (I posted about my first visit to Bongeunsa on 9/30/10, in case you inexplicably haven't memorized the contents of my 386 previous blog posts.)

Most Korean temple complexes are expansive and set in the quiet of rural mountains, where they were driven by the government's anti-Buddhist campaigns centuries ago. Bongeunsa, despite the fact that it's the locus of Korean Seon (Zen) Buddhism, is a pocket-sized complex right in the midst of the richest neighborhood in Korea: down the street, past the Jaguar and BMW dealers, you can see the Olympic Stadium; right across the street from the temple is the biggest underground mall in Asia and Seoul's World Trade Center, where the G-20 meetings were held last year.
21st-century Korea, in one photo.

The lady at the ticket booth was very friendly and spoke excellent English, other than telling me that a ticket cost 14,000 dollars. (I didn't want to go in that badly.) It's actually 14,000 Won, or about 13 bucks. There were enough foreign visitors that we were split into two groups of a dozen people each.

Our guide, a very pleasant ajumma (middle-aged lady) with good English skills, took us on a 15-minute tour and explained the temple's history and Buddhist traditions.
(White is for mourning.)

(Red is for funsies.)

After being taught the correct way to bow (knees, forearms, and forehead touch the ground), we laid down mats in the main temple building and sat before the three gold-toned Buddha statues. Then it was on to a tea ceremony, then (paper) lotus flower construction, followed by a brief meditation, led by a young monk...

... which would have been better if, among the two dozen Westerners and the-oh-so-earnest monk, all meditating together in an absolutely silent room, somebody hadn't chosen that time to make his 59-year-old, empty gut sing all kinds of gurgly, twangy melodies (and, believe it or not, harmonies). Echoes, too. It would have been funny in a movie; in real life, I tried to become one with the floor.

Well, Buddha would have laughed; Buddha's my homeboy.
Say hello to my little friends.

Then, finally, each of us was given a surprise present: a Buddhist prayer bracelet. It matches the one I bought at Donghwasa, outside Daegu, and have worn for four years as a reminder to be peaceful.
I could wear one on each wrist, but then how would I take the photo?

So, down to it: I enjoyed my brief stay, though I was glad I hadn't done the overnight. My opinions of Buddhism were reinforced: first, the worship end of things is goofy. I don't believe that hideous, snarling guardians painted on the wall scare evil spirits away; I don't believe that your karma determines whether you will return as a ghost, an animal, a human, or a demon; I don't believe in touching my forehead to the ground in front of a golden statue of a guy who said not to worship him. (I did it--I don't like to be rude--but I don't believe in it.)

But, also, there was a great feeling of serenity at Bongeunsa, as I always get at the temples in Korea. I still hold with the things I've learned from Buddhist philosophy: compassion for all, detachment, living in the now. Holding them in my mind and heart has made me more peaceful and less troubled. 

For me, Buddhism as a way of thinking is priceless because it sees the world as it is, including all the pain and loss that we can't avoid, and teaches us how to look at it a different way and to be happy, not in some promised postmortem future, but every day. 

So I was glad I went.


I cut through the aforementioned COEX Mall to the subway, and here's a surreal and ironic juxtaposition for you, after the aura of gentleness at the temple: in the courtyard stood the star of the new American TV show Hannibal (as in Lecter), which hadn't even shown in the US yet. He was signing autographs and having pictures taken with the shoppers and his assistants, who were wearing butchers' aprons stained with--I hope--fake blood.

Buddha and the world's most famous fictional serial killer? I call that a full day.

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