February & March 2013. South Korea
Korean Seon Buddhism. Temple Stay. Sudeoksa. Don’t know mind. Zen Koans. Who are you? 180 vows and Seating Meditation. “The Truth is realized in an instant; the Act is practiced step by step.”
― Seung Sahn
WINTER HAD LEFT a carpet of brown leaves that cracked under my feet as I walked up the mountain slopes of Deoksungsan mountain. I was heading to Sudeoksa temple, considered by Koreans as a national treasure, which has been preserved in its original condition since 1308. I had a paper written with some phrases in Korean characters so I would not get lost. There was no “templestay” program for foreigners in winter and I was not expected in the temple.
I had been interested in Zen Buddhism for a big part of my youth, and the chance to practing and living with Zen monks for a few days was something that was more appealing yo me than the grey skyscrapers and the cars of a huge metropolis. Seoul is a great place to be but I wanted to leave behind the weeks at the ceramic factory. Moreover those days a cloud of pollution coming from industrial areas of China, had condensed over the city, which made the South Korean capital not so attractive to me.
On one side of the temple was little wooden building, a kind of office. An old monk was walking by, on his grey robes and grey hat. He looked surprised when he saw me. By some clumsy gestures I asked him if I could get into the office, he understood and led me in with a smile. Inside the office there were two women that stared at me as if I had got lost. One of them spoke english. I told her that I wanted to stay at the temple for a few days. She was taken aback and said that there was no templestay program for foreigners those days. I asked her if I could stay, that I would not bother. She ponder for a moment, ‘but we should tech you the rules and the procedures of our Joyge order’. I explained that I had already made a retreat in a temple in Seoul, that I’ve had instruction on how to behave in a Joyge order Temple. She agreed. After paying a symbolic fee for the food and the room, she gave me some orange robes and guided me to the my cell. Her name was Hyun, and she was a young volunteer that helped the monks and nuns with administrative matters. She didn’t spoke much, but she told me that she was wanted to go to germany to study philosophy, she was interested in Heidegger I recall.
The cell was a small and cubical, with only a thick blanket on the ground for sleeping that was more comfortable than I expected.
Outside the cells was a room with books on Buddhism and a low table for tea ceremony. When I was in my twenties I used to devour books on Zen Buddhism by DT Suzuki and Alan Watts. But having the chance to learn with real monks in a real temple was something way beyond my expectations.
I sat down on the wooden ground and begun reading a book about the order. After a while a nun appeared in grey robes following Hyun, she offered me a tea, and answers to my questions about Korean “Seon” Buddhism.
“Beginners always ask about seating meditation, but that is only a part of our practice” the nun said as she poured tea in my cup. I was the only foreigner in the temple those days, and they made me feel more like a guest than an apprentice.
“Did you do the 108 prostrations?” – Yes I did, a few days ago in a temple in Seoul- how you felt? – My legs still in pain… – She smiled. – Bows are to lower your ego. Ego, like big bottle with narrow neck, needs to bend down many times, until gets empty.”
The 108 prostrations were my first practice of Korean Buddhism, in previous retreat. For each full bow I had to pass one tiny bead through a thread, till I got a “Mala” or prayer rosary of 108 beads. It was a mental challenge, more than a physical one. After 40 or so genuflections my legs were in pain but my mind was bombarded with negative judgments about the whole thing, such “what am I doing here?”, This is ridiculous!” “Bowing to a statue!?” The prostrations have a meaning though, and one should focus in, for example “I bow in repentance of having taken my family/friends/teachers/ for granted… etc. Some temples require you to do 1080 bows… Monks say that, for lay people, enlightenment is achieved by this way, better than by seating meditation.
‘Once you’ve made many bows you can start with seating meditations. It takes much practice to still the mind’. – She said – ‘And once you’ve learned to clear your thoughts, you are given a Koan’. – ‘What is it? – I asked, – ‘A question to meditate upon’. – Could you give some example?
‘I’ will give you a Koan to meditate upon now’ – ‘You, one year ago, and you now… same thing?’
I pondered for a moment… I could not help thinking like a westerner, and the words of Heraclitus came to my mind. everything is in flux, we step and do not step in the same river twice. ‘No, I am not.’ I thought. She nodded with a smile.
‘Birth, growing up, aging, dying, impermanence and non attachment, those are subjects of our meditation. You can meditate on those things, but not now, not before you go to sleep- she said smiling. ‘Remember at 3:30 a.m is the ceremony.’
I went to my room and left the thoughts about impermanence for another moment. I was not used to sleep on the ground, but the thick blanked was more comfortable than I expected.
At 3:30 in the morning the sound of a huge bell woke me up, the ceremony had already begun! I could hear the beating of the drums under the heavy rain. I got into my orange clothes, put on a raincoat and run up the stone steps that led to the upper part of the temple complex.
I paused under the rain in Chasu (when walking around the temple one must put the right hand across the top of the left placing them near the lower abdomen). I was the only lay person assisting the ceremony. They were playing the drums by turns, praying for all sentient beings. A big round drum, was beaten with two wooden sticks; for the land-bound animals, a cloud-shaped gong; for the winged animals, a wooden fish; for the water born creatures, and at the end of the ceremony a trunk hit a huge bronze bell that made a tremendous vibrating sound that I felt in my bones and it reverberated for almost two minutes. It was meant to be heard by the souls that dwell in the hell realm, for all of us, I suppose.
Then the monks went to the main building of the Sudeoksa Temple, the Daeunjeon, which has been preserved in its original condition. since year 1308 and has been designated a national treasure. I took off my shoes and entered inside the temple. The place was lit with candles and
Monks begun the ritual deep and repetitive chanting and bows. I tried to follow as I could. The hall was full of ancient painting on the walls, of buddhas and devils, lit only with candle lights, it made an enduring impression on me. When the ceremony was over everyone went outside, there were some old ladies, and the monks, it was raining heavily and a monk offered me his umbrella, I bowed thankfully but I went down back to my room.
On the next weekend I made my third retread in a Koran temple.
On the top of the Temple was a large Hall for meditation and Darhmma talk. We sat down facing the wall, cross-legged, with our sight on the ground, the hands on our laps and our thumbs touching without tension. Meditation begun when the monk clapped two pieces of wood joined together, it will take 30 minutes without moving, looking at the ground in front of us. Then the monk would clap again and we would stand up, and walk around the room In a circle for ten minutes, in silence, with our hands on the belly. We did that for around three times.
It was difficult for me holding that position for such a long time, my mind was wandering in all directions, out of focus thoughts, about conversations, images or just past situations, situations of many sorts. For the first twenty minutes it was almost unbearable, then it got better. I realized how busy and messy my mind was, how hard was for me to be just there, looking to the ground. For a moment, maybe half a second, I think something happened. It is difficult to describe. I had the impression that I was seen things differently, more directly, without interfering ideas.. The veins of the wood became sharper and closer. There was no distance between the thing I was looking and me. We were not the same thing, but nevertheless we were not different. I felt some kind of oneness, or at least less separation between me and the experience of seeing.
Hye Tong Sunim entered the room. He was wearing brown robes over a grey dress. He was the Zen master, we sat down around him and bowed to him, three times. It felt more like a protocol, showing respect to the teaching, but not something submissive. He had a twisted wooden staff in his hands, that give him more authority.
He begun telling Zen stories. “A monk went to a mountain to find a sage”… “There was a monster that everyone feared…” Some of them I knew from books I had read before. Then he said if anyone had a question. Nobody moved a finger, so since I had some questions I rose my arm. I asked about the Zen Koans, a kind of paradoxical question or story that the master gives to a novice to meditate upon, I asked if he could explain what consists in. He stared at me earnestly, as if I had asked something out-of-place. A few seconds that felt long. “Who are you?” My name is Alex… I come from Spain..”… “That is a name and a country, you are not that, I asked who are you?” Before he answered I knew I had said a silly thing. I assented, He said “That is your Koan, you have ten years of work with that one”. I bowed.
Another guy, from Finland asked “I have meditating for years but I have pain in my knees when I do it, I cannot concentrate, can I modify my position?” “You can”. “But your knee is not going to break, if the pain is bearable, use it as a tool for meditation, You will notice how it becomes smaller and smaller” The guy bowed. “I will give you a Koan”
“Your body and your mind… two things or one thing?”
We where about to finish when I dared to make another question. He looked at me again with the same stern look.
“I was in Seoul two weeks ago, but I was told to remain indoors, because there was unhealthy pollution coming from industrial areas of China. I thought it all comes back to us, due to our over-consumption. Here you teach meditation, that everything is in our minds, breathing exercises, vegetarian food, but that will affect you as well, are you doing something to tackle that problem?
He looked at me gravely “And what are you doing!” – “I am here, seating” For a few seconds he was silent, “Good…, that is exactly what you must do. People cannot be just seating. They think they need so many things. We teach them to just seat.” I bowed.
“Imagine a huge waterfall, that is ever flowing. Some drops of water get separated from the rest, for a moment, they have individuality, they think they are different. But then they return, back to the waterfall.” With that he concluded and left to his chambers. We prepared some tea and relax, chatting about mundane things. There where a couple of americans, they were very talkative, one was a monk, living in japan. He said Zen was dying there, but in Korea it was still alive. Hye Tong Sunim came back without his staff, now more open to trivial conversation. At some moment he got closer to me and asked, have you read something about Zen before? Then he gave me his master’s book. The Compass of Zen.